The Augustine Commission – Bad Day at Black Rock – And a Reprieve

The House Committee on Science and Technology

Norm Augustine, Michael Griffin and Vice Admiral Joe Dyer USN (Ret.) testified before the House Committee on Science and Technology. And walked into a hornets nest of unenlightened criticism. Typical was the whining from Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of AZ, who released a statement. She wanted the Commission to do a detailed evaluation of the Constellation program, but added “We have a glancing attention to Constellation, even mentioning it in past tense.”

The chairman, Rep. Bart Gordon from Tennessee, as reported by the New York Times, employed the fallacious “sunk costs” argument to defend Ares I:

“I think that good public policy argues for setting the bar pretty high against making significant changes in direction at this point,” said Representative Bart Gordon, Democrat of Tennessee, who is chairman of the Committee on Science and Technology. “There would need to be a compelling reason to scrap what we’ve invested our time and money in over these past four years.”

Former Administrator Michael Griffin defended the Ares program, deflecting Commission concerns about the rocket’s problems with the request for more money. Pay no attention to the rocket behind the curtain. Pay no attention to the thrust oscillation problems that would shake the walls and bring down the curtain. Pay no attention to the underpowered rocket that cannot lift the curtain.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation

This was a friendlier and much better informed session. Sen. Nelson from Florida and Sen. Hutchison from Texas started with praise for Augustine.

Augustine then noted that the Commission was tasked with options, not recommendations. This had been repeatedly noted by those that have followed the three month deliberations, but needs repeating. He said the next obvious destination is Mars, but that is not possible for safety and financial reason. Then he observed that the Goals and Funding are out of whack. Keeping them as they are would mean:

“If we continued on the path of the existing program, we would have to launch six shuttles in the next 12 months. One could question if that is a safe thing to do.

“No funds for Space Station and Technology. We’d have to deorbit ISS in five years from now after spending 20 years building it. We’d complete Ares I two years after the Space Station was deorbited.

“The Heavy Lift launch capability would be delayed to the mid to late 2020s – and when we got it there would be no upper stage to put on it or Lunar hardware to launch on it. That would be delayed to the 2030s. That is the path we are on.”

That is the dismal state of affairs of the current program.

The remainder of the session explored the various options, returning again and again to the “Flexible Path” or deep space option, with several variations. The emphasis was on commercial crew transportation to low Earth orbit and a return by NASA to exploration. Near Earth Objects (NEO), the Lagrange points and space observatories, building and deploying propellant depots and Phobos as a destination were all explored, as well as the necessity of avoiding deep gravity wells like the Moon and Mars until experience, technology and funding allow.

Political Reality

Behind the scenes and away from the public reassurances to local constituencies by the Senators on the Committee contained in the “questions” to Mr. Augustine, the political realities that shape the space exploration business are working on the new directions.

The Florida workforce and the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), represented by Senator Nelson, will benefit if the Shuttle is extended to 2014 or 2015, as will the Michoud Assembly Facility where the Shuttle External Tank is manufactured. This is the territory of Senator Vitter. And the Johnson Space Center (JSC) will benefit Senator Hutchison.

Senator Shelby from Alabama will ensure continued work for the Marshal Space Flight Center.

ATK (Thiokol) will ensure that solid rocket boosters are used, either with Ares I / V or with the Shuttle Derived Launch Vehicle (SDLV), such as Jupiter.

Boeing and Lockheed Martin (UAL – United Launch Alliance) will press forward with their commercial proposals, and ensuring that the Delta and Atlas rockets are well used.

PWR Rocketdyne will appreciate additional business for its Space Shuttle Main Engine if an SDLV is built. The SDLV is almost a foregone conclusion if the Space Shuttle Program is extended beyond 2011.

While the proponents of Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems (COTS) such as Space-X and Orbital Sciences make their case to the politicians, other groups are also working on the future NASA direction. One of these groups is the Direct team, which has proposed a complete exploration architecture (also here) that knits together the political considerations discussed above.

Possible Outcomes

Given the political background to the conundrum of the NASA mission and budget, one might foresee one of three possible outcomes:

  • Abandonment of Human Space Flight beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The Space Shuttle would be extended to complete its manifest in 2011. The International Space Station (ISS) would be extended to 2020 (or beyond). Purchase of American astronaut rides to the ISS would be on Russian Soyuz rockets.
  • Endorsement of the Commercialization of Space Flight with a reduction in NASA’s role to a procurer of services on bid and contract, and a modest increase in the budget. This would correspond to the UAL proposal discussed here on NSS Phoenix, where many competitors in addition to UAL would compete for the business NASA has up for bids.
  • A full blown commitment on the part of the United States to maintaining its historical preeminence in space exploration. LEO operations would be contracted from commercial entities. A Shuttle Derived Launch Vehicle would be contracted out to UAL / ATK / PWR (who already operate the facilities where the Space Shuttle components are built and assembled), and would close the gap to ISS resupply until commercial vehicles came on line. These SDLVs with a Centaur derived upper stage would be capable of NEO missions, Lagrange point (EML-2 and SEL-1 and SEL-2) space observatory missions, and Phobos and Deimos missions. Certainly enough to gather the requisite space faring skills to begin contemplating permanent stations within the deep gravity wells of the Moon and Mars. This third outcome satisfies practically all of the political forces in play.

Post your thoughts on the outcomes in the comments section.

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2 thoughts on “The Augustine Commission – Bad Day at Black Rock – And a Reprieve

  1. Concerning Gifford’s desire for a Commission evaluation of the Constellation program, the General Accounting Office had released an audit on 26 August, which had been requested by the House.

    On the 27 September NSS Phoenix “Space News” page we ran the following:

    An article in the Orlando Sentinal discusses a new GAO (Government Accounting Office) report that the Constellation Program is poorly managed, suffering from unsolved technical problems, and over budget with no way to estimate total costs.</blockquote

  2. Pingback: Human Space Flight – Funding Restoration « The National Space Society of Phoenix

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