The Triumph of the Flexible Path

These days I frequently travel to the Denver area for personal and work reasons.  Driving in from the south, just at the edge of town, I always think when I pass the big Marriott at the I-25 Lincoln street exit:  “That’s where the space program changed.”  Let me explain.

Just as my year of ‘education’ was ending in 2009; poof! – a new administration came in.  Everything changed, subtly at first but nevertheless significantly.  While we were waiting for a new Administrator to be nominated, the OMB and OSTP commissioned a blue ribbon study group: “The Review of Human Spaceflight Plans Committee” more popularly known by its chairman’s name as The Augustine Commission.

Several of us NASA HQ types were assigned to provide assistance to the commission:  Phil McAlister was chosen to be the ‘Secretary’, Tricia Mack was his assistant.  Tom Cremins and I were assigned to provide support along with a few others.  We soon found out that the committee members did not want the opinions of this support staff, we were responsible to ensure only that the experts they wanted to hear were provided to them.

Many of the meetings were public, but the pivotal meeting that I recall most clearly was not.  The west coast members started complaining that all the meetings were held on the east coast causing the westerners to bear the biggest travel burden.  An arrangement was made for a meeting in late July in Denver, near the Lockheed-Martin facility building the Orion spacecraft.

As the meeting evolved, no side trip to visit to the LM plant happened. Various experts were called to the Marriott to be interrogated by the committee.  It was at this closed meeting in late July that I recall hearing Dr. Ed Crawly first mention ‘the flexible path’ as a possible plan for human space flight.

It was clear that there was just not enough money in the out-year budget plan to fly the shuttle, fly the space station, build the big rocket that everybody felt was required for deep space missions, and develop the landing vehicles as well.  Even with the shuttle retired, the committee felt that at least $3B a year would be required to continue the existing plan.  As Norm Augustine put it in one of the public sessions later on ‘It appears you can’t have a very interesting space program without an additional $3B per year.”

Since OMB was implacably opposed to additional money for NASA’s budget, ‘The Flexible Path\ plan evolved as a way to allow development of the early parts of any human deep space plan until more money would be available under a future administration.

After the report was published, the ‘Flexible Path’ option quickly became nicknamed ‘The Path to Nowhere’.  Not really accurate, but right up there with the assertion that NASA had spent the last 30 years ‘going around in circles.’  Various factions have always been ready to apply disparaging labels to any plan they oppose.

The new administration liked a hodgepodge of the ideas in the Augustine commission.  Particularly they seemed to like a policy which would return NASA to its predecessor agency NACA’s status as a research and development organization while providing financial encouragement to private industry to develop new, more affordable space vehicles.  This would be a complete break with the previous goals and policies that NASA had been instructed to accomplish.

After the administration announced the cancellation of Constellation on February 1, 2010, there was a huge disconnect between the administration and the congress.  After months of contentious wrangling, a compromise (there is that magic word!) or more accurately a tense détente resulted.  The money which was proposed to go to R&D was largely moved to build a big rocket – no longer called Ares V but SLS.  There was continuation of development of a deep space capsule – Orion – and increased support to commercial space development for transportation to LEO.  And there we stand to this day.

Bill Gerstenmaier has masterfully orchestrated the political and financial resources available for human space flight.  He has sought to maximize progress toward both commercial crew and cargo to LEO but also develop the big rocket and deep space capsule.  But in the near future, the wherewithal to build a landing vehicle (think of it like the descendant of the Apollo LM) must come.  Lander design depends on where we would land:  a design that would work on the Moon would not work at Mars and vice versa.

And where is the money to come from?  When the shuttle retired, one might have expected NASA to keep all that money to apply to future projects; sadly that was not the case, funds have eroded.

So everybody is anxious to see what the incoming administration will direct.  The crystal ball is cloudy.  Will it be the Moon?  Will it be Mars?  Probably not the Asteroid Retrieval Mission.  Or will it be stasis:  giving NASA just enough budget to continue development of the vehicles and systems in work today and waiting for some future time when the money will become more readily available?   The clock starts ticking at noon on January 20.

Meanwhile, of all the options that the Augustine commission offered, the Flexible Path is the one we have chosen, whether we wanted it or not.

And when I see that Marriott in Denver again, I will still think:  that is where America’s space program changed.

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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18 Responses to The Triumph of the Flexible Path

  1. Wayne, thanks for a clear and personal explanation of where we are, how we got there, and what it will take to move in any direction from here. As a space life scientist, I share your unhappiness with any description of the last 30 years as “going around in circles”–instead, it is “doing our homework” in biomedical research, life support systems, and other areas in preparation for challenging new missions.

  2. Rene says:

    Wayne I hope you send this to the next Administration

  3. Dan Adamo says:

    Thanks for your insight into the Flexible Path’s origins, Wayne. I agree Gerst has done a masterful job wringing the most out of that Path amidst budget constraints and sometimes conflicting requirements from OSTP and Congress. However, let me posit that funds for a Moon or Mars human lander/launcher should come not from taxpayers but rather from the private sector.

    I for one am convinced we can explore these worlds with human telepresence from a proximal orbit (low latency) or even from Earth (higher latency, if we’re not in a hurry). Putting explorers’ boots on the ground is simply an expensive, hazardous, and time-consuming stunt: not a necessity or prerequisite at all. Only after a lot more exploring on a global scale can we hope to know the Moon and Mars well enough to wisely exploit what resources they have to offer. And when it comes to exploitation, an activity not currently in NASA’s charter, private enterprise should be footing the bill.

    Assuming there are exploitable resources on the Moon and Mars, together with sustained demand for them, landing humans on those destinations isn’t a done deal. There’s likely far less overhead to off-Earth resource exploitation if humans don’t have to be transported to the source as part of the business model. The only cost-effective (think “sustained”) motivation for such transport I can discern is tourism. And just think, soon we’ll have a tourism promoter running the White House. Other than tourism, can you or any of your readers suggest sustained motivations for humans on (“under” is probably more appropriate than “on”) the Moon or Mars from what we know about these worlds?

  4. Gordo says:

    Wayne
    A small typo, I believe it is Crawley, not Crawly.

    Also regarding the comment that private sector funding should be used for Moon and Mars?
    That is simply ridiculous. That is the quickest way for human Exploration to never leave the surface of the Earth. How is that working out for Virgin Galactic? How long has private money taken to even get suborbital?

    There obviously needs to be a mix between human exploration and robotic exploration for any successful Exploration for the future. It is short-sighted to advocate only private money and only robotic exploration.

    • Dan Adamo says:

      Gordo, you misinterpret my argument in multiple respects. First, I’m advocating private sector space transportation only in the context of human-occupied landers/launchers providing roundtrip access between proximal orbits and planetary surfaces like those of the Moon and Mars. The part I think NASA should handle with civil sector funding is the interplanetary human transport task. Absent the $3 billion/year in this funding, that’s exactly what the Flexible Path advocates. If we put planetary landers/launchers on NASA’s HSF plate with flat funding at current levels, we’ll break the bank. When NASA is made to force-fit a human spaceflight (HSF) task to an insufficient budget, as in the Constellation Program, astronaut lives are subject to irresponsible risks. “Faster, better cheaper: you can’t have all three.”

      And I think we’re in complete agreement there has to be a mix between human and robotic space exploration. That’s exactly what exploration telepresence requires, a symbiotic mix between the two modes. If more people would open their minds about “robotic” space exploration performed since Sputnik, they’d see we’ve been using telepresence all along. With missions like “Curiosity” and “Cassini”, our robotic proxies suffer some pretty challenging data latencies running from hours to days. But where are the explorers in all these missions? Right here on Earth.

  5. Glenn Smith says:

    Wayne,

    Your blog is quite interesting, especially to those who have not kept close watch on NASA activities. I especially liked your observations regarding Bill Gerstenmeier. Right on! I have great respect for Bill. He has handled a tough job very well.

    glenn

    • waynehale says:

      And of course, Bill did not do it all by himself, many folks helped: Robert Lightfoot, Dave Radzinowski, Bill Hill, Dan Dumbacher, and more. The list is long, but Bill G is in the point position and those of us who want Human Spaceflight to succeed owe him a debt of gratitude for keeping development of essential elements going forward while maintaining options for future administrations

  6. Steve Frey says:

    One thing’s for sure: if we continue to change directions every time a new “leader” gets into office, we’ll stay the course on this trajectory to nowhere. No program is going to take shape, much less take flight, in the tenure of a political office.

    I felt–and still feel–that the Augustine Commission was a snub to the previous administration and had little to nothing to do with the success or health of our human spaceflight. Folks blame it on costs being too great. I’d argue that the cost of doing nothing is far greater than the cost of achieving a successful direction for our exploration.

    • waynehale says:

      I don’t think the snub came from the Augustine commission but rather from following events. It’s a rich and complex story that needs a fuller explanation before we start listing villains and heroes – if there are any

      • Steve Frey says:

        You’re correct: I doubt the Commission set out to snub anyone. But their work was used as the stick that beat the scapegoat…or something along those lines.

  7. B. Ivy Stiles says:

    Wayne, I was saddened to see that in your capacity on the Augustine Committee you were apparently to be seen and not heard. Had you been able to advise the committee, how would you have addressed the various interests involved in the committee? Would your recommendations affected the final report, and would it have had a positive impact on the ‘flexible path? I would like to think that it would have.

    • waynehale says:

      What’s past is past and speculation on what might have been is pointless. However, I doubt that my advice would have had any significant impact on how events unfolded

  8. Vladislaw says:

    In “The Vision for Space Exploration”, that President Bush presented in Jan. 2004 (the report came out in Fed 2004) the word “flexible” was used three times for the exact same thing.. a flexible path forward. I am surprised to you didn’t mention that the VSE was pointing to the flexible path years before.

    • Vladislaw says:

      “Our aim is to explore in a sustainable, affordable, and flexible manner.”

      “It seeks to establish a sustainable and flexible approach to exploration ”

      “For Sustainable Exploration
      NASA will pursue breakthrough technologies, investigate lunar and other space resources, and align ongoing programs to develop sustainable, affordable, and flexible solar system exploration strategies.””

      All through the VSE it talks about multiple destinations and flexible strategies or “paths”

      “In the days of the Apollo program, human exploration
      systems employed expendable, single-use
      vehicles requiring large ground crews and careful
      monitoring. For future, sustainable exploration programs,
      NASA requires cost-effective vehicles that
      may be reused, have systems that could be applied
      to more than one destination, and are highly reliable
      and need only small ground crews. NASA plans
      to invest in a number of new approaches to exploration,
      such as robotic networks, modular systems,
      pre-positioned propellants, advanced power and
      propulsion, and in-space assembly, that could enable
      these kinds of vehicles. ”

      (all quotes from the VSE)
      https://www.nasa.gov/pdf/55583main_vision_space_exploration2.pdf

      To me it seemed VERY clear that President Bush was talking about a flexible path forward to open up MULTIPLE destinations.

      When I read the above statement I do not see an Orion capsule. I see fuel depots and the Nautilus X

    • waynehale says:

      Good point, sometimes lost in the discussion

  9. Steve Pemberton says:

    I have often heard people say that the Augustine Commission was against Constellation and so they shot it down by saying that it was unfeasible. However from what I remember of watching the hearings (the public ones) and reading the report I never interpreted it that way. The main message that I heard was that it can’t be done without more money. I was hoping that the commission’s report would be the proof needed to convince others in government that extra funding was needed. Obviously that didn’t happen, and the program was ultimately cancelled. But I never believed that was the intention of the Augustine Commission.

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