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Why fly humans into space?

WASHINGTON — When Norman Augustine presented the Review of Human Spaceflight Plans Committee’s 154-page report last week, the committee chairman left no doubt that the NASA program is in trouble.

“The U.S. human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory. It is perpetuating the perilous practice of pursing goals that do not match allocated resources,” the report’s opening sentences bluntly stated.

Augustine, the former CEO of Lockheed Martin who led a landmark study in 1990 about the future of the U.S. space program, was just as frank during Congressional testimony after the committee released a summary of the report in September. “The current program that is being pursued is not executable,” he told members of the House Committee on Science and Technology. “There is a mismatch between the task to be performed and the funds to support it.”

The report’s basic conclusion is that the current human spaceflight program — which is aimed at returning to the moon in the mid-2020s and then moving on to Mars — will not succeed without an additional $3 billion in annual funding. Augustine noted in testimony over the summer that if NASA continues on the current path that was initially set by the previous administration in 2004, it will eventually “fall off a cliff” due to lack of funding.

The report questions if the current Constellation program is properly focused, but also notes that no matter which option the government selects for moving beyond low-Earth orbit, NASA would need around $30 billion in additional funding over the next decade to for successful human spaceflight.

Little significant science

NASA’s human spaceflight program is at a crossroads. Almost four decades since the last astronauts lifted off from the surface of the moon, the U.S. program has been stuck in low Earth orbit. Much has been learned about building things in space, but little significant science or true exploration has been done by the astronauts.

The grim assessment of the current program was not well received by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Nevada, who heard Augustine testify in September. “I am angry,” Giffords told him at the time.  Giffords — the only member of Congress married to an astronaut — said the review not only failed to set a path “to ensure a robust and meaningful human spaceflight program,” but has also lost ground because of its negative portrayal of the current program.

The full report released Thursday did little appease Giffords.

“When Congress wrote and enacted last year’s NASA Authorization Act, it anticipated essentially all of the issues mulled by the Augustine panel this summer,” Giffords said. “Congress has already made its decisions on the issues considered by the panel. Everyone knows what needs to be done, let’s get on with it and cease contemplating our collective navels.”

But the 10 member Augustine panel notes that moving forward isn’t that simple. The Constellation program calls for humans to return to the moon and establish a base there before moving on to Mars. Under that plan, the space shuttle would be retired in 2010, and the international space station would be deorbited in 2016, dropping into the Pacific Ocean. The Ares I rocket is being developed to carry the new Orion spacecraft into low-Earth orbit to provide service to the ISS after the shuttle program is retired, but inadequate funding and development delays likely mean that Ares I won’t be ready for launch until well after the space station is decommissioned.

While the final report doesn’t make specific recommendations, Augustine noted that the Ares I isn’t needed and the efforts should shift to a heavy-lift rocket that more adequately fits NASA’s longer-range mission plans. That larger Ares V rocket will do what the old Saturn rockets did during the Apollo era — carry humans to the moon. If the funding problem is solved and humans do establish a presence on the lunar surface, then NASA would look toward moving on to Mars — which the report says is feasible.

During Thursday’s press conference, Augustine continued to push the panel’s flexible path option which calls for considering a host of missions using the larger Ares V. Humans could rendezvous with a near-Earth asteroid, orbit Mars, land on one of the two Martian moons or even visit the Lagrangian Points, stable regions in nearby space where the pull of gravity between the Earth, moon and sun is balanced.

Augustine agreed with most human spaceflight advocates that believe the ultimate goal is to put humans on Mars, but he made clear the panel doesn’t believe we are technologically prepared to go directly there.

A ‘higher calling’

What the report has made clear is that for humans to move out into the solar system, billions of dollars more are going to be needed. Underlying the panel’s report and the discussions of destinations and cost, is the basic question: Why fly humans into space?

Augustine conceded that human spaceflight can’t be justified by the science, technology or other direct developments that result from sending humans into the void. “You have to go to a higher calling,” to justify the program he said.

A recent study of human spaceflight by policy experts at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology deals with that exact issue.

“Science is never the primary reason for sending humans into space, so if you’re going to do it, you’re doing it for other reasons,” said David Mindell, the director of the Space, Policy and Society Research Group at MIT in Cambridge, Mass. Mindell chaired a MIT study that helped to define objectives that could only be accomplished through human spaceflight, including exploration, national pride and international prestige and leadership. Science, economic development, new technologies and education were all ranked as secondary objectives by the MIT study. “It’s a value judgment,” Mindell said.

Augustine has repeatedly said that whatever funding Congress decides upon for NASA’s human spaceflight program, it is important that a firewall be constructed between that program and the science programs. Scientists have complained repeatedly over the years that the space agency has shifted money away from unmanned scientific missions to help cover the shortfalls in the human spaceflight program.

As for the possibility that the Obama administration and Congress will stop sending humans into space, Mindell is skeptical. “I don’t think that is going to happen. No president is willing to end it. We have to assume there will be a human spaceflight program, so the question is, ‘What is the right program?'” he said.

Augustine said the White House has received the report, and that the committee would be available for discussion. “We won’t be lobbying for any of this,” he said.

The administration said that they would review the committee’s analysis, but ultimately, it falls to President Obama to decide which of the panel’s options — all of them expensive — to follow. 

Jim Dawson reports for Inside Science News Service.

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