Whither America’s Human Space Program?

The 2012 Presidential campaign dominates the news but space policy rarely gets mentioned; and when it does the mention is often ill-informed or very abstract.  Perhaps that will change.

The old paradigms supporting America’s space program have faded; China has not replaced the Soviet Union as an opponent which requires a national demonstration of technical capabilities.  Spinoffs and jobs provided from space are overlooked in the larger economic mess.  Science is nice but hardly urgent when the debate centers on the national debt or the social safety net. 

Somehow, the ½ of 1 percent of the federal budget that gets spent purely on the future has gotten overlooked.

Almost three years ago, the Review of Human Plans Committee (aka “the Augustine Commission”) was announced.  I know we all had great hopes of that commission and its report.  Whatever you may think of their work – and I believe a lot of it was good – the political leadership in Washington has made hash of the nation’s space policy.  Not only did the current administration fail to adopt any of the major options which Augustine reported as “worthy of a great nation”, but the Congress has decided to fight the administration’s initiatives at every step.  Paul Spudis just named 2011 as America’s space “Annus Horribilis”.  It has really been a lousy three years.

Not that there haven’t been great accomplishments; Hubble still making discoveries every day, as is Kepler; the ISS is fully crewed with research going on every day; Curiosity is on its way to Mars; even the Shuttle made a graceful and successful dénouement.   But the future, the plans and policies for the future; there lies a sad state of affairs.

In the spring of 2009, Bill Gerstenmaier asked me to be one of the NASA support staff to help the Augustine Commission effort.  He also assigned one of the senior NASA HQ staff, Tom Cremins, to work with me.  So all summer, Tom and I played a tag team along with several other NASA folks helping to provide support to the Augustine Commission.  I got to know Tom really well during this period and have a great deal of respect for his judgment and knowledge.  That friendship was my best personal reward for supporting Augustine. 

Now, Bill and Tom are in the final stages of preparing a paper reviewing the value of human spaceflight to the nation.  In the midst of bickering and roadblocks, they remain positive and are looking for the way ahead.

Many of us, including my friend Tom, are gathering in Boulder, Colorado, in less than two weeks to review this situation and hopefully find meaningful ways to explain the importance of space exploration in these days.  You can join us for this discussion; see   http://sas.data-engineering.com/

I’ll give you a report on the outcome in about two weeks.

About waynehale

Wayne Hale is retired from NASA after 32 years. In his career he was the Space Shuttle Program Manager or Deputy for 5 years, a Space Shuttle Flight Director for 40 missions, and is currently a consultant and full time grandpa. He is available for speaking engagements through Special Aerospace Services.
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19 Responses to Whither America’s Human Space Program?

  1. Wayne wrote, “Not only did the current administration fail to adopt any of the major options which Augustine reported as “worthy of a great nation”, but the Congress has decided to fight the administration’s initiatives at every step.”

    Considering that the Administration’s proposed initiatives were the cancellation of Constellation, I’m not sure what the Administration, or anyone for that matter, expected from Congress, which had supported the program since 2005, other than a very rigorous fight. Congress chose instead to authorize through the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, which the President signed on Oct. 11, 2010 a program culled from the remnants of Constellation. Then Congress appropriated funds for the new program, which the President also signed. It was the Administration that resisted Congressional will, and the law as carried in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, to the point that Charlie was served a subpoena, and threatened along with others at NASA with indictment, by the full and Democratic chaired Senate Commerce Committee.

    I’m glad Congress played the role it did. And being an optimist, I hope that it accepts the responsibility it took upon itself and funds the Orion and SLS programs sufficient for them to succeed.

  2. Wayne,
    That conference in Boulder sounds interesting. If it wasn’t $800, I’d probably attend (I live just up the hill in Louisville). I wish you and Bill and Tom luck on trying to propose something that moves things in a good direction. I also tried to do what I could to help provide info for the Augustine Commission, but in the end, while I was pleasantly surprised by some of what got said during the hearings and written in the final report, I’m unfortunately not surprised that Congress and the WH managed to mangle things pretty badly from there. I like telling Jeff Greason that he better schedule some time a few years out for a Greason Commission…


    • waynehale says:

      Sorry the price is high. We try to just break even; these events do come with a hefty price tag.

      • No worries, I totally understand how that goes. Just sounds like one of those conversations I wish I had the time/$ to be involved with. Plus, I’ve been meaning to actually meet the SAS guys down in Boulder for a long time, and haven’t had a good opportunity to yet.


  3. Beth Webber says:

    Wayne wrote “Now, Bill and Tom are in the final stages of preparing a paper reviewing the value of human spaceflight to the nation. In the midst of bickering and roadblocks, they remain positive and are looking for the way ahead.

    Many of us, including my friend Tom, are gathering in Boulder, Colorado, in less than two weeks to review this situation and hopefully find meaningful ways to explain the importance of space exploration in these days.”

    I surely hope that you and your collegues are successful in this endeavor. To me, it is as self evident as the need to breath, and I find the constant need to justify space exploration painfully frustrating. I had hoped the Chinese success’s would goad our government into greater support, but those that profess to respresent us in government are too self absorbed in making their opposite number(s) look bad.

    Those of us passionate about space exploration don’t need to have it explained, and those that do, will they ever understand?


  4. Coastal Ron says:

    I think it’s hilarious when someone uses Michael Griffin as the example of leading NASA Human Spaceflight, since under his guidance the U.S. would have been without a human in space for a decade or more. Our current HSF program (the ISS), which he fails to acknowledge publicly, would have ended in order for the Constellation program to survive.

    However the Constellation program, using the hardware choices Griffin imposed (i.e. Ares I/V and “Apollo on steroids”), would not have made it to the Moon until the mid-2030’s (per the Augustine report). No meaningful HSF would have taken place during that gap, and our work on the ISS would have been largely for naught (training, industry tempo, testing, etc.). The GAO said the Constellation program lacked a business case, and the Augustine Commission said it was too expensive. Congress agreed, cancelled it, and backed the continuation of our current (and successful) HSF program – the ISS. Griffin is even against commercial based HSF efforts, which if really weird when you think about it.

    I certainly look forward to expanding our presence in space beyond LEO, but let’s not forget that we haven’t developed a sustainable transportation infrastructure to get to/from LEO, and get from LEO to L1/L2 and lunar orbit. The SLS & MPCV don’t solve that problem, since neither is flexible enough and affordable enough to use for routine transportation needs (crew rotations, resupply, etc.).

    Money doesn’t grow on trees, and NASA’s budget is not getting any bigger, so we must focus on sustainable exploration if we are to leave LEO again. Griffin ignored fiscal realities, and he was punished by the cancellation of the Constellation program. I don’t see him as a role model for what we should be doing in the future.

    Regarding the Boulder gathering, I wish you success, and I look forward to your results.

  5. I was three years old when I decided I wanted to be an astronaut. That hasn’t changed in the 27 years since. What has changed is that I’ve stopped laboring under the assumption that the need for space exploration is self-evident. I’ve stopped thinking that everything will be fine if we can just get back to where Apollo left off.

    We need innovation in policy and strategy for space even more than we need technological innovation. Frankly, the science and technology is what we’re good at. Policy and strategy, not so much. Exploration and science simply don’t sell themselves to spend the kind of money it takes to send people into space. The survival of the species is the ultimate goal, in my opinion, but even that is too intangible to justify to Congress and the taxpayers.

    I think we need a strategy of space exploitation to get policymakers and the public on-board. Who would doubt the value of NASA if it was seen as playing a pivotal role in harnessing the resources of the Solar System for the direct economic benefit of the nation? What will it take to build space-based solar power economically? What will it take to profitably extract rare earth elements from Near Earth Objects? Unless we’re serious about answering those sorts of questions and figuring out ways to meet the strategic needs of our country, we’re going to continue to squabble over the fraction of a percent of discretionary spending NASA currently gets.

  6. Yusef Johnson says:

    I’m tired of all the talk. Let’s just get to work. More conferences and White Papers and everything else just burns more time. While the debate continues, more and more of the skills and people leave. I’m at the point where I’ve just about given up on ‘this thing of ours”, because of the lack of leadership in Washington, and I have no faith whatsoever that the vacuum of leadership is going to get any better.

    • waynehale says:

      Unfortunately, all the talk has not motivated the decision makers to give the go ahead, or to provide the resources. We need to bring closure to the debate with a rationale that will carry the day. As much as I find JFK’s speech motivating, the fact is that it just doesn’t sell a half century later.

      Yusef, we are going to get the government we deserve. I don’t know if we can change it, but I know it will never change if we don’t work to make that change happen.

  7. Jim Hillhouse says:

    The problem with human space flight is that we are working from a new script is looking for a justification for its great cost.

    We went to the sea initially because there was food, something people actually needed. Columbus crossed the Atlantic in search of shortcut to the Indian subcontinent because of its spice market, which people in Europe at the time would pay a premium for. Magellan crossed into the Pacific because Spain’s King Charles I wanted a route to the spice lands that would not start war with Portugal, which at the time controlled the route via Africa. Governments built navies to help secure lines of commerce, not to explore.

    Explorers to North America went westward in search of new resources such as furs, minerals, and the king of them all, gold. The West filled more rapidly with the post Civil War Fort System that allowed settlers to move west without harm. People went west to seek fortunes because there were resources in the West that markets elsewhere demanded. The U.S. government was willing to support the move westward and to help secure the resources needed to help this nation grow.

    We took to the air to get to places faster. Instead of a trip to China involving a month at sea, the Pan Am Clipper could do it in less than a week. And Europe could be had in a couple of days. Either destination, as well as others, were places people needed or wanted to go for business. Governments built air forces and air bases to help secure

    In all cases where mankind has expanded, he did so in search of items that could be sold, for which there was already a demand, not solely to learn what was on the other side of the hill. But today, human space exploration only fulfills one part of that two-part drive, the need to know. There is a national security and scientific aspect as well. But human space flight misses the most powerful of all drives, market demand for goods.

    Historically, governments followed, rather than initiated, migrations of their people. But not in space.

    Unless and until there is a something, be it H3 or whatever, that people need, that forms the basis for a market and its requisite demand, human space flight is, for this and any other government, a hobby, pursued to advance its ability to access space and the resources there that people and markets demand. That space-based resource remains unknown; someday it will be discovered. And when that day comes, you won’t be able to hold people back.

    • waynehale says:

      This is exactly the problem; which comes first, the chicken or the egg. How to you build a business case to a place that nobody has even gone to (or only very briefly). You have stated the problem; we are looking for the answer.

    • nooneofconsequence says:

      This is also true in the understanding of national security “soft power” aspect of NASA’s HSF – I beleive this is at the heart of the contradictions in the politics that caused, cancelled Constellellation as well as the FY2011 battle and the establishment of SLS.

      In other words, the justification for the work and path forward. Please also remember, this also was a major issue in the Saturn to Shuttle transition, which we got right but for all the wrong reasons. With the current state of the world, I don’t think we can hope to luck out like this yet again.

      It may be the case that this is a multistep process, that you can’t get right in one blow – my grief over CxP was that it never seemed as sensible in execution as Stiedal’s maddening spiral development did (which had its issues of a different kind).

      Whiether you picked X-38, OSP, … or CCDEV for that matter, you needed an interregnum to restart HSF (and procurement, development policy, industry restructuring and the like). This isn’t the end but the beginning.

      Then you need something more than the BFR as the thing that captures the public imagination. My own contact with the public suggested that NAUTILUS-X was a lot closer to the mark. I even think we need to get serious about nuclear propulsion in a sane, carefully developed way. I think that government development is focussed on too narrow a vision, such that we don’t capture the imagination – a BFR is a cynical decision, and Shuttle as a space plane at least attempted to address a grander future as an RLV.
      Then you need successive steps to bootstrap a real economic space industry – more later.

      • waynehale says:

        This exemplifies the problem; everybody jumps immediately to their pet scheme for getting into space. The real discussion which is needed is not which rocket to build, but why go at all. What is the justification? What is the benefit? That is the subject which has lost focus. When we can agree as a nation, as we did in the 1960’s, what was the rationale for having a space program, then missions and vehicles can easily be sorted out.

    • red says:

      The search for resources is one reason why we need a strong Robotic Precursor line to find those resources. Bush’s VSE plan recognized that and called for a line of robotic precursors searching for resources, but that line was canceled after LRO/LCROSS. Obama’s FY11 budget proposal also recognized that, and called for a line of robotic precursors to the Moon, NEOs, Mars, and its moons to (among other things) search for resources, and (in the exploration technology budget) funds for technology development for ISRU to demonstrate use of those resources on the Moon. That robotic precursor line never got started because Congress … well, we all know what happened.

      Without the robotic precursors, our reasons to have astronauts go to space are limited to the sorts of things we do now in space (e.g.: on the ISS or possible future stations), satellite servicing, observatory assembly and similar work, and science-centered telerobotics from orbit around the subject body. In other words, without the robotic precursor line, our reasons for going into space are limited to the early steps on the “Flexible Path” that some are opposed to. Unfortunately our opportunities to take advantage of even these reasons are somewhat limited by the JWST (i.e. SMD doesn’t have funds to build serviceable satellites, big observatories to assemble in space, or new lunar/Mars rovers and sample returners for astronauts to operate from orbit).

    • Steve Pemberton says:

      I happened to be at KSC yesterday to go on the VAB tour (limited time only, anyone who has never been inside the VAB now is your chance). During the tour our guide reminded us about the spinoff flyers that can be downloaded from the NASA website. I hadn’t looked at the list for awhile so I visited the spinoff site today and was once again blown away by the scope of the contributions to our lives that has occurred as a byproduct of space exploration.

      It’s not that easy to put a price tag on spinoffs, especially since much of it is quality of life related. And of course there is almost no way to use spinoffs as justification for a particular project, since it’s another chicken and the egg situation as there is no way to know what the spinoffs will be until they have already occurred.

      But for the general discussion of “Why go?” I think the concept of spinoffs being part of the rationale for space exploration is something that the average person can understand, but only if they see the breadth of what has already taken place. I suspect that for many people the word spinoff is just a cliché and they have no idea just how important the space program has been. I wonder how many lawmakers for example have ever taken a look at a comprehensive list of spinoffs.

      • Jim Hillhouse says:

        Wayne and the guys meeting in Boulder face a a real conundrum; they are trying to articulate a reason to spend $5B-$10B annually for an endeavor that currently has no outwardly apparent market justification. Someday I hope there is one. Absent that market pull, then how do you convince successive Congresses and Administrations to continue to fund a robust human space flight program? How do you answer the simple question, “Why go?” in a manner that will not cause Appropriators and OMB staffers to guffaw.

        Spin-off’s, the environment, soft power, hard power, national prestige, manifest destiny, the final frontier, among others, have all been used variously as justifications for the human space program. None have worked for long. The era of simple answers is over–they’ve been used and discarded. Now it’s time for some real deep searching. I wish everyone in Boulder the best of luck.

  8. Steve Tripodi says:

    I am a great fan of the website Encyclopedia Astronautica, and I had just finished reading their “This Day in Space” section it when I read your latest entry. I was in awe of the vision of human space flight painted by these words so long ago and couldn’t help but think about it in light of your blog. On the page they have devoted to today’s date (Jan 11th) but in 1962, they noted the following: In his State of the Union message to the Congress, President John F . Kennedy said: “With the approval of this Congress, we have undertaken in the past year a great new effort in outer space. Our aim is not simply to be first on the moon, any more than Charles Lindbergh’s real aim was to be first to Paris. His aim was to develop the techniques and the authority of this country and other countries in the field of the air and the atmosphere, and our objective in making this effort, which we hope will place one of our citizens on the moon, is to develop in a new frontier of science, commerce and cooperation, the position of the United States and the free world. This nation belongs among the first to explore it. And among the first – if not the first – we shall be.” I long for the day when a similar vision for human space exploration will once again be a part of our national policy. Perhaps the conference in Boulder in two weeks will help to find the keys to this vision for this and future generations.


  9. Just saw this, and it looks fantastic (although a bit too late for me to attend). Definitely looking forward to your take on this.

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