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.