Portions of U. S. space policy focused on the future of human space exploration are seriously adrift, according to two George Washington University experts in the field.
The declarations from Scott Pace, the director of GWU’s Space Policy Institute and a former NASA associate administrator for program analysis and evaluation, and John Logsdon, founder of GWU’s space policy institute, member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board and space historian, emerged late this week, as a divisive Congress prepares to return to Washington from a summer break. They echo recent concerns raised by the U. S. National Research Council and the Space Foundation, a Colorado non profit that backs global space exploration.
So far, the second term administration of President Obama and Congress have failed to agree on a long term justification for human space activities in the aftermath of the shuttle program’s 2011 retirement, the two experts contend. The International Space Station is authorized through 2020, though the six person orbiting science lab may be fit for service well beyond.
The White House has pointed to Mars as the long term destination for human exploration with a yet-to-be -designated asteroid as an interim stop. Congress looks more favorably on the moon as the next destination, a view shared by many in the international space community. The White House and Congress seem divided on how much to invest in a commercial U. S. capability to launch astronauts into Earth orbit, potentially relinquishing human access to Russia and China for the long term.
“The deeper question is: is there a future for humans in space?” noted Pace in a Thursday conference call sponsored by GWU, which is located in the heart of the nation’s capital. “The answer is either yes or no. Either answer is kind of interesting. It’s like the question of whether there is intelligent life in the universe.”
The question’s premise grew from the end of NASA’s Apollo moon program successes, according to the policy experts.
“What you are seeing is really the residual of 40 years of failure to reach consensus on what the U. S. should be doing in space, and in particular human space flight,” Logsdon told call participants.
President Nixon, who presided briefly over NASA’s post Apollo era and decision to develop the space shuttle, “basically punted,” concludes Logsdon, who is writing a new book on the historically significant deliberations.
“He (Nixon) said let’s develop means, rather than goals,” according to Logsdon. “The means was the shuttle. The shuttle and the related space station really defined what we have done for the past 40 years. So, I see the debate as pretty fundamental: what is the rationale for future human spaceflight destinations flowing from that? Is the U. S. going to continue a government funded human space flight program after the International Space Station? Do we stay in low Earth orbit, or do we go somewhere?”
CONGRESS FACES CONTENTIOUS FALL
Congress returns to Washington from a summer break on Sept. 9 with a daunting agenda topped by deliberations over a federal budget for the 2014 fiscal year starting Oct. 1 and an increase in the nation’s debt limit. Items well down the legislative agenda include a new NASA authorization act, one to replace the 2010 bill that struck a Nixon-like compromise over NASA’s future.
The compromise featured support for NASA’s new Orion crew capsule and the Space Launch System, a powerful rocket to start human explorers on deep space missions, as well as funding for competing commercial human orbital space transportation capabilities.
Neither has forged levels of support to ensure a White House and NASA proposed first piloted Orion test flight in 2021, nor the debut of competing commercial crew launch services by 2017, according to Pace and Logsdon.
SPACE STATION AN ESSENTIAL MARKET FOR U. S. COMMERCIAL SPACE COMPANIES
That in turn raises the stakes for both when it comes to the future of the space station. The station as a destination for U. S., Canadian, European and Japanese astronauts represents a crucial government market for early U. S. commercial crew transportation initiatives as well as a basis for further U. S. led global space exploration.
Even with a proposed extension to 2028, the end of station operations could spell the end of U. S. human space flight — if policy makers fail to converge on a better defined course and sufficient funding soon, said Pace and Logsdon.
“This is like a smoker’s cough. No one wants to pay attention to it,” said Logsdon. “There is clearly not enough money in the long-term outlook to do both a robust exploration program and continued operations of the International Space Station.”
U.S. SPACE LEADERSHIP AT STAKE
The deliberations, or the lack, may well reflect a U. S. willingness to remain a force in global space conduct in areas involving national security, the two men said.
“There are two sides of the coin,” said Pace. “What is the role of international leadership for the United States and to what extent are we willing to make plans beyond the ISS — 2020 is not that far off.”
A U. S. presence or absence in space could spell differences in cultural values, from language to governance, cooperation or conflict that prevail in the space realm.
“The larger question is whether we are going to use human spaceflight to advance U. S. national interests, or are we going to let it drift,” said Pace.
Had the White House and Congress dealt with space policy more aggressively, several events would likely have already transpired, according to the two men, including an initiative from President Obama proposing a better defined, long term objective for NASA and its global partners.
It appears, Obama attempted as much in 2010 when he cancelled the previous administration’s Constellation program, which would have returned U. S. explorers to the moon in 2020 to establish a lunar base. The cancellation was handled awkwardly and came as a surprise to many in Congress, who reacted divisively, according to Pace.
A course correction that featured the Administration’s proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission emerged with equal awkwardness earlier this year, he contends.
ARM, if included in NASA’s 2014 budget, would lead to a robotic mission to capture a small asteroid and maneuver it into a stable lunar orbit, where it could be reached by a NASA Orion crew, perhaps as soon as 2021. Human missions to Mars would follow in the 2030s.