The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Ares 5 illustration
The desire of Congress to have NASA start work immediately on a heavy-lift vehicle could jeopardize the agency’s future exploration plans. (credit: NASA)

An open letter to Senator Mikulski

Bookmark and Share

April 6, 2011

Sen. Barbara Mikulski
Chair, Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies
U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations
Washington D.C. 20510

Dear Senator Mikulski:

American space exploration has been a jewel in our nation’s crown. Making discoveries about our universe, exploring other worlds in the solar system, and advancing human and robotic accomplishments beyond Earth serve our geopolitical interests and our standing in the world as much at it advances the science and technology of the country.

Leadership within the political echelon is desperately needed to change the current course and to establish worthy and inspirational goals.

However, the plan set forth in the NASA authorization bill last year to focus on immediate development of an unsustainably large, expensive heavy-lift rocket threatens to bankrupt the space program, halt further advances in exploration, and diminish our nation’s standing as the leader in space exploration. It presages the end of a golden-era of space exploration—at least for America. The highly polarized debates of the past two years have served only parochial interests without regard for the national interest. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Leadership within the political echelon is desperately needed to change the current course and to establish worthy and inspirational goals that gather public support with plans are achievable, balanced, and sustainable. Otherwise, we will end up with broken programs and broken promises and loss of public support. In short, the space program needs a champion that will put the national interest first.

Madam Chairwoman, you are in a critical position to help lead us through these trying times—and as such, much rests on your willingness to promote and defend the national interest. You are a long-time and devoted champion of science in the United States Senate, but as you know the space program is not conducted only for science. Will you now champion the national interest to ensure that space exploration remains a crown jewel of this nation?

The US program of human space exploration is in a mess. After the Augustine Commission found the Constellation program to be unsustainable and as its exploration goals beyond the Moon moved beyond the year 2030, the Obama Administration proposed a new plan adopting the commission’s “flexible path” with space exploration goals to be accomplished within provided resources.

The US Congress rejected that proposal last year. They rejected the balanced and measured plan to stretch resources by engaging the commercial industry to supply low Earth orbit transportation and defer the deep-space rocket development until it was needed. Instead, Congress insisted on tying NASA’s hands by prescribing in legislation the design and schedule of a heavy-lift rocket to satisfy parochial political interests without a serious examination of the requirements, feasibility, sustainability, or affordability of the approach. NASA itself has indicated that the rocket cannot be developed within the budget it expects in the coming years. More disturbing is that the direction from Congress lacks concrete goals to conduct any mission beyond Earth orbit using this rocket—all plans are notional and, because of the cost of the rocket, there is no funding available to develop or conduct any missions with it. It is a rocket without a mission whose standing army costs will anchor exploration to the ground. I am convinced that this ill-conceived plan will result in the decimation of exploration for many years to come, perhaps decades, and even undermine the very jobs members are trying to save.

The last time the United States focused on a rocket without a mission was in the 1970s with the space shuttle. The result was a dark decade and a half without robotic missions to explore other worlds, and the anchoring of human space endeavors in Earth orbit. NASA became an agency in search of money instead of in search of missions and accomplishments. It was not until the mid-1990s that we began to resume exploration of the solar system and to finally build the International Space Station as a step in human space exploration. It is my view that we are headed for another long dark period. The mish-mashed human exploration program is consuming resources on a cancelled project and being ordered, by law, to build a rocket no one needs and NASA does not even want.

I am convinced that this ill-conceived plan will result in the decimation of exploration for many years to come, perhaps decades, and even undermine the very jobs members are trying to save.

Not just has the idea of humans going anywhere beyond low Earth orbit been shelved, but now we see our robots being similarly shackled. The scientists and engineers in the robotic space program have publicly indicated there will be insufficient funds for “flagship” missions. Planned Mars landers and rovers will be scaled back, Mars sample return will be indefinitely delayed, there will be no exploration of the underground ocean on Europa or anywhere else in the outer solar system where tantalizing hints of life indefinitely await discovery.

I commend and call to your attention the outstanding report of the National Research Council Planetary Decadal Survey Committee. It rings with hope and opportunity. However, on the very day it was made public, its relevance was diminished by budget “realists” who said that the long-awaited new start for a Europa orbiter would not happen and that Mars exploration would effectively wind down. This is evident in the administration’s proposed FY12 budget.

Congress created the mess, but now the administration is complicit in accepting it in their proposed FY12 budget. Benign neglect is how I would characterize how they handled the Congressional rocket plan. They kicked both the James Webb Space Telescope and Mars program cans down the road. Obviously, the Administration has much else on their mind and fighting with special interests in Congress over priorities that command little political interest is something they are not willing to do. There are precious few in either the Congress or the Administration who see the national interest in US space exploration.

Your leadership is needed to guide a critical examination of the current course and to work with NASA and the space community to develop realistic options that set space exploration on a sustainable path that strengthens our nation’s space program. I believe such a program is not only possible but imperative if we are to continue to make advancements in space exploration.

We in the United States and we in the space community urgently need your leadership and initiative to cut through today’s mess so that tomorrow we can have new goals and opportunities for a new generation.

Thank you very much for your consideration. With every good wish,


Dr. Louis Friedman
Executive Director Emeritus
The Planetary Society