10 September 2009
Panel Urges NASA to Reset Priorities
Wall Street Journal

A blue-ribbon panel is recommending that NASA shelve its goal of rapidly returning to the moon and instead focus on nurturing a robust commercial space industry that can handle short-term objectives of the nation's space program, such as ferrying cargo and crew to the international space station.

The panel, called the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, headed by former Lockheed Martin Corp. Chairman Norman Augustine, was convened by the Obama administration earlier this year to provide an independent assessment of the priorities of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. It presented its findings to the White House Tuesday.

The report has already caused debate among lawmakers, the administration and aerospace contractors because it casts doubt on the budgetary and technical support underpinning many of NASA's human space programs. For example, the report concluded that now is the "appropriate time to consider" relying on private enterprise to reduce costs and accelerate access to low-earth orbit. It compares today's budding entrepreneurial space efforts to the 1920s, when government air-mail contracts sparked a boom in U.S. commercial aviation.

It calls for sweeping changes in the way NASA does business and envisions a dramatically expanded role for private enterprise in human space flight in the coming decades beyond anything proposed previously.

Some of the details of the study were reported in The Wall Street Journal last month. However, a summary and excerpt of the report became available Tuesday. The panel urged NASA to shift its goal from returning to the moon and to focus instead on the more long-term objective of reaching Mars, though it didn't set any specific time frame.

While a rapid expansion of the role of private industry in the nation's space program carries risks of technical failures or lengthy delays, the report acknowledges, it could accelerate access to space for both crews and cargo over the next decade. At the same time, it could allow NASA to devote its expertise and funds to longer-term, more cutting-edge technology aimed at deep space exploration. By following what it dubs a "flexible" exploration path building on manned and unmanned probes likely to sidestep extended stays by astronauts on the lunar surface, the report concludes NASA could build broader public and congressional support for more ambitious space endeavors.

The report stops short of explicitly rejecting the goal of launching a mission back to the moon. But the 10-member study group expressed serious misgivings about the effort.

The final report concludes that NASA's current programs are behind schedule, significantly under-financed and wouldn't necessarily provide substantial safety improvements versus alternative proposed systems, including converted military rockets.

According to the report, NASA's plans to build a new generation of rockets and space capsules to go to the space station and then the moon require $3 billion annually above current budget projections. White House and NASA press officials have declined to comment on the report, as has NASA chief Charles Bolden. Mr. Bolden is scheduled to meet Wednesday with several representatives of commercial space companies.

White House officials are expected to spend a number of weeks digesting the report before President Barack Obama makes decisions about how to proceed.

The findings have drawn criticism from various NASA officials and a number of agency suppliers seeking to protect existing contracts. These critics contend, among other things, that the study overestimates the extent of the problems confronting current programs while significantly underestimating the cost and difficulty of making alternate rockets safe to carry astronauts. Critics also argue that many of the commercial options favored by the study don't have a track record and haven't been fully tested.

Starting in 2011, when the U.S. space shuttle fleet is slated to be retired, NASA will have to start relying on the Russian government to ferry astronauts to the space station. The current price is set at about $51 million per crew member, but many U.S. government and industry officials expect it to climb.

After the report summary was released, Elon Musk, the founder of Space Exploration Technologies Corp., one of the companies vying for commercial contracts to start ferrying cargo and astronauts to the station, said sticking with NASA's current priorities "flies in the face of reason and common sense." In a teleconference with reporters, Mr. Musk also said development of his company's Falcon 9 heavy-lift launcher which could start ferrying astronauts to the space station before the middle of the next decade for less than half of Russia's prices -- is about a year late. But "in the space business," he added, "that's early."

In addition to the emphasis on commercial solutions, the report hits heavily on the need to reorient NASA's leadership and the mindset of many of its engineers and scientists. The committee, according to the summary, "strongly believes it is time for NASA to reassume its critical role of developing new technologies" aligned with a revamped "exploration mission that will last for decades." If properly funded and executed, the report concludes, such a technical roadmap would "re-engage the minds at American universities, in industry and within NASA" for manned space efforts.

The report's opening paragraph sets the tone. America's human space flight program "appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory, " the committee found, because it is "perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources." Even before release of the summary, NASA officials were studying possible changes to existing plans, including downsizing a proposed space capsule and revising rocket programs in order to lower costs by reusing some space shuttle-derived technologies and facilities. Other NASA officials, according to a Reuters story Tuesday, have devised a 30-year stepping-stone strategy still in its early stages -- to develop technology and generate public support with the goal of eventually reaching Mars.

The committee's recommendations assume that the U.S. will continue to funds its share of space station operations through at least 2020. The panel concluded that the international partnerships forged around station issues could lead to joint, long-term space discovery efforts with other countries. Noting that "space exploration has become a global enterprise," the summary emphasizes that international cooperation "could strengthen relationships, leverage global resources and enhance" chances of success. If foreign cooperation and commercial solutions still leave the U.S. with inadequate resources, according to the summary, "it should accept the disappointment of setting lesser goals."

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