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Bobby Braun
The decision by NASA chief technologist Bobby Braun to leave the agency raises concerns that NASA’s support for technology development may be wavering. (credit: NASA/B. Ingalls)

Dropped shoes

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The other shoe has dropped. The first shoe was Laurie Leshin’s announcement in July that she would be leaving NASA to return to academia. That represented the departure of science from human exploration. Now, the other shoe: last week Bobby Braun announced that he, too, was returning to academia. That represents the departure of technology (or at least its chief) in NASA’s exploration plans. Science and technology, the two feet that should support the future of space exploration, are now weakened.

But now science is not a part of NASA’s exploration plan and humans are not on a path into the solar system.

Never was I more optimistic when I heard (and even witnessed) President Obama say, “We will ramp up robotic exploration of the solar system, including a probe of the Sun’s atmosphere, new scouting missions to Mars and other destinations, and an advanced telescope to follow Hubble, allowing us to peer deeper into the universe than ever before.” Not since Kennedy’s “do the other things,” had I heard a President go on the road to support stepping out into the solar system and endorsing robotic precursors in harmony with human space exploration.

But, when Congress got the President’s proposal, they excised robotic precursors and are now busy attacking science. With that, they undid the attempt to bring together robotic and human exploration and simultaneously undid any purpose for human spaceflight other than creating rocket contracts for constituents. Dr. Leshin was to have made science an integral part of human space exploration and started us on the path to see humans go beyond Earth orbit. But now science is not a part of NASA’s exploration plan and humans are not on a path into the solar system.

I was also very optimistic when the administration’s FY 2011 budget proposed, “A vigorous new technology development and test program that aims to increase the capabilities and reduce the cost of future exploration activities. NASA, working with industry, will build, fly, and test in orbit key technologies such as automated, autonomous rendezvous and docking, closed-loop life support systems, in-orbit propellant transfer, and advanced in-space propulsion so that our future human and robotic exploration missions are both highly capable and affordable.” We were finally going to reverse the decade-long cutbacks to advanced technology, and, through innovation, we were going to commit to more affordable, yet more ambitious, exploration. Dr. Braun was hired as the Chief Technologist to make that happen. From the very beginning, the technology program was under attack from Congress (even, briefly, zeroed). Much of that attack was a defensive maneuver to save existing contracts for an unnecessary, overpriced launch vehicle. Congress did not want to use existing launch vehicles from the commercial sector while NASA developed an advanced technology approach to human exploration for the future.

Congress now has mandated another unnecessary, overpriced launch vehicle, the Space Launch System (SLS), and threatens to cut back the premier science efforts of the James Webb Space Telescope, Mars exploration, and flagship missions into the solar system in order to pay for it. Ironically, the sum of the telescope, the Mars program, a Europa Orbiter (as one example of a future planetary science flagship mission), and the technology program is still much less than the funds needed for SLS. And few expect the SLS to actually fly anywhere.

The unraveling of science and technology from exploration looks to me like the unraveling of a beautiful and tight-knit sweater that I had hoped to wear long into the future.

Decades ago, when I was an AIAA Congressional Science Fellow, a group of AIAA industry representatives met with my then-boss, Sen. Adlai Stevenson, III, and asked what real influence I had exercised while doing staff work in Congress. Sen. Stevenson smiled and replied, “This is Washington. Not even the President has any influence.” It was meant as a joke, but the experiences of three presidents who proposed human space initiatives prove that it was no joke. George H. W. Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative was killed by NASA coming up with an unaffordable plan. George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration was hijacked by ideologues who wanted to create US control of cislunar space with a permanent lunar base. And Barack Obama’s adoption of the Augustine Committee’s recommendation for a flexible path into the solar system was killed by a Congress and aerospace industry intent on preserving the status quo—when the status quo was last thing the country needed.

I have no personal knowledge that either Leshin’s or Braun’s departure resulted from policy or program decisions or unhappiness with how their programs were going. I accept that they are moving on because of other considerations in their personal and professional lives. But I can comment on what it symbolizes to me: the unraveling of science and technology from exploration looks to me like the unraveling of a beautiful and tight-knit sweater that I had hoped to wear long into the future.

I and others have commented many times on the mess Congress is creating in and with NASA. The future of American space exploration, robotic and human, looks bleak. The departures of Leshin and Braun make it look bleaker. I have always tried to take only positive stands and never be against anything in the space program, even when I had some personal misgivings. But with the specter of three more decades of seeing humans confined to low Earth orbit (if even there) it is now time to be more forthright. Congress should vote no on the Space Launch System. That might have a short-term bad effect on the budget, but that is better than having another program-wreck blocking the path of space exploration.