On the seventh anniversary of the 2003 Columbia disaster, the Obama administration unveiled a sweeping change of course for the nation’s civilian space program Monday, killing NASA’s post-Columbia moon program and shifting development and operation of new rockets and capsules from the government to private industry.
Requesting some $19 billion for NASA in fiscal 2011, the administration announced plans to pump an additional $6 billion into NASA’s budget over the next five years to kick start development of a new commercial manned spaceflight capability, including some $500 million in 2011.
Over that same five years, some $7.8 billion will be earmarked for new technology development, including autonomous rendezvous, orbital fuel transfer systems and closed-loop life support systems. Another $3.1 billion will support development of new propulsion technologies needed by future heavy-lift rockets. And another $3 billion will go to pay for a series of robotic missions to the moon and beyond to test systems needed for eventual manned flights.
“Imagine trips to Mars that take weeks instead of nearly a year, people fanning out across the inner solar system, exploring the Moon, asteroids and Mars nearly simultaneously in a steady stream of ‘firsts,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told reporters. “And imagine all of this being done collaboratively with nations around the world. That is what the president’s plan for NASA will enable, once we develop the new capabilities to make it a reality.”
No timetables were established for human flights beyond low-Earth orbit, with deputies saying the focus instead will be on enabling technology development and innovation.
As for commercial flights to and from the International Space Station, NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said she hoped a new private-sector launch system, possibly including modified versions of technology developed for the canceled moon program, could be available by around 2016 if not earlier.
“We will try to accelerate and use the great minds of industry to get a competition going and I’m sure they’ll want to beat that,” she said.
The Bush administration’s post-Columbia initiative to finish the International Space Station and retire the shuttle by the end of 2010 remains intact, with just five more missions planned for NASA’s iconic winged spaceships. Funding is available to support operations through the end of the year or early 2011 if necessary.
The new budget also extends operation of the space station through at least 2020 and increases funding for science and utilization.
But as expected, it halts development of the Ares family of rockets and the Orion crew capsules NASA was designing to carry astronauts to the station and back to the moon by the early 2020s as part of the Bush administration’s Constellation program.
The cancellation of Constellation and the near-term shift to commercial launch operations is a “more radical (plan) than I expected,” John Logsdon, a space policy analyst at George Washington University, told CBS News.
“It represents really a fundamental shift in the way NASA goes about doing business, from being the direct designer of our space capabilities and then having industry build NASA designs to being the customer of what industry builds,” he said. “Even NASA people use the analogy to the air mail contracts the government signed in the ’30s. It’s going to be a very different way of doing business.”
The Obama administration concluded the Constellation program, which has cost taxpayers more than $9 billion so far, “was over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation due to a failure to invest in critical new technologies,” according to a budget summary.
“Using a broad range of criteria, an independent review panel determined that even if fully funded, NASA’s program to repeat many of the achievements of the Apollo era, 50 years later, was the least attractive approach to space exploration as compared to potential alternatives.”
The independent review, chaired by aerospace executive Norman Augustine, concluded last fall that the Constellation program, hobbled by previous budget reductions under the Bush and Obama administrations, was not workable without an additional $3 billion a year in restored funding.
The panel outlined a variety of alternatives and favored a so-called “flexible path” approach that called for relying on private industry for manned flights to and from low-Earth orbit while NASA focused on development of a new heavy lift rocket and eventual flights to a variety of possible deep space targets, including the moon, asteroids and even the moons of Mars.
The budget unveiled Monday said the Constellation program took money away from other NASA programs, “including robotic space exploration, science, and Earth observations.”
“The President’s Budget cancels Constellation and replaces it with a bold new approach that invests in the building blocks of a more capable approach to space exploration that includes:
“Research and development to support future heavy-lift rocket systems that will increase the capability of future exploration architectures with significantly lower operations costs than current systems – potentially taking us farther and faster into space.
“A vigorous new technology development and test program that aims to increase the capabilities and reduce the cost of future exploration activities. NASA, working with industry, will build, fly, and test in orbit key technologies such as automated, autonomous rendezvous and docking, closed-loop life support systems, in-orbit propellant transfer, and advanced in-space propulsion so that our future human and robotic exploration missions are both highly capable and affordable.
“A steady stream of precursor robotic exploration missions to scout locations and demonstrate technologies to increase the safety and capability of future human missions and provide scientific dividends.”
In a statement, Augustine said “by allocating the technology resources highlighted in our report as being necessary, it will be possible to lay the foundation for travel beyond low-Earth-orbit. … NASA will be able to focus on this true frontier and to regain its position as a cutting-edge research and development organization.
“While many of us who believe strongly in human spaceflight might have hoped that still further funding would have been possible, this is obviously a demanding period from a budgetary standpoint. Importantly, the president’s proposed program seems to match means to ends, and should therefore be executable.”
In a startling break with the past, the Obama administration ordered NASA to focus on a new initiative that would effectively outsource manned flight, turning to private industry to design and develop the rockets and spacecraft needed to carry U.S. astronauts to and from the space station.
Between the shuttle’s retirement and the emergence of a new manned rocket system, U.S., European, Japanese and Canadian astronauts will be forced to hitch rides on Russian Soyuz rockets at more than $50 million a ticket.
“The budget funds NASA to contract with industry to provide astronaut transportation to the International Space Station as soon as possible, reducing the risk of relying solely on foreign crew transports for years to come,” the budget summary stated.
“A strengthened U.S. commercial space launch industry will bring needed competition, act as a catalyst for the development of other new businesses capitalizing on affordable access to space, help create thousands of new jobs, and help reduce the cost of human access to space.”
The only U.S. rockets currently flying that are powerful enough to step into the roll of crew transport in the near term are Boeing-built Delta 4 and Lockheed Martin Atlas 5 boosters used to launch military, scientific and commercial satellites. Neither family of rockets is certified to carry humans.
Other companies are in the process of developing new spacecraft to carry supplies to the space station after the shuttle’s retirement. But it remains to be seen how long it might take any of the commercial interests to develop, test and deploy a manned rocket system.
It also is not yet clear what sort of control and oversight NASA will have in the new commercial arena, whether astronauts will remain government employees or private contractors or how the agency’s decades of operational experience might be leveraged by commercial operators.
“I think the primary way it translates over is for the winners in this commercial competition to hire the people that have the institutional memory,” Logsdon said. “Second, we’re going to be operating station until at least 2020. So there’s a core of operational folks inside NASA that will still be very much involved.”
Contractors already occupy key positions in mission control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and at other NASA facilities, but it’s not yet known how commercial manned space flights will be managed, who will have responsibility for mission design, safety and execution or how government facilities might be utilized.
But Bolden insisted safety will remain a top priority.
“NASA will set standards and processes to ensure that these commercially built and operated crew vehicles are safe,” he said. “No one cares about safety more than I. I flew on the space shuttle four times. I lost friends in the two space shuttle tragedies. So I give you my word these vehicles will be safe.”
Against this backdrop of uncertainty, the shuttle program is on schedule to end with a final flight to the space station in September. Up to 7,000 jobs in the Kennedy Space Center are are expected to be lost, along with several thousand more at other NASA field centers.
An administration official told CBS News last week the new initiative “could lead to as many as 1,700 new jobs in Florida … and will catalyze the development of other new businesses that capitalize on affordable human access to space.”
“We will also make strategic new investments at Kennedy Space Center that will lead to hundreds of new jobs, upgrade facilities for the 21st century, and help ensure that KSC remains a world-class launch port for decades to come,” he said.
That apparently includes upgrades to launch complex 39 that would support flights by commercial rockets.
“A major focus of this effort will be to create the 21st Century launch facilities and infrastructure needed at Kennedy Space Center, transforming the facility to more effectively support future NASA, commercial, and other government launches,” the budget summary said.
Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, the second man on the moon, strongly endorsed the new program, saying “the truth is, that we have already been to the Moon – some 40 years ago. A near-term focus on lowering the cost of access to space and on developing key, cutting-edge technologies to take us further, faster, is just what our nation needs to maintain its position as the leader in space exploration for the rest of this century.”
But many NASA supporters sharply disagreed and Logsdon predicted a “vociferous” fight in Congress.
“The President’s proposed NASA budget begins the death march for the future of US human space flight,” said Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican. “Congress cannot and will not sit back and watch the reckless abandonment of sound principles, a proven track record, a steady path to success, and the destruction of our human space flight program.”
Shelby noted the anniversary of the Columbia disaster, saying “it is ironic that Constellation, a program borne out of the recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, would be eliminated in lieu of rockets repeatedly deemed unsafe for astronauts by NASA’s own Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel.”
Rep. Suzanne Kosmas, a Florida Democrat, welcomed increased spending at the Kennedy Space Center but added that “leaving NASA with no detailed plan or timeline for exploring beyond Earth’s orbit will cede our international leadership in space.”
“Though I welcome the investments in infrastructure at Kennedy Space Center, not knowing when, or even if, the next human spaceflight launches will occur makes it difficult to retain the Space Coast’s highly skilled workforce and maintain America’s international leadership in space.
“The President’s proposal is unacceptable, and I will work with my colleagues from both parties to develop a plan for space exploration that maintains a robust human spaceflight program, minimizes the gap (between the shuttle and its replacement), and protects jobs.”
Surprisingly, perhaps, astronaut Steve Robinson, scheduled for launch next Sunday aboard the shuttle Endeavour, said in an interview Friday that “we have an exciting future. It’s not well defined, but it’s exciting.”
“I kind of refuse to be disappointed in something that hasn’t shown itself to be actually disappointing yet,” he said. “We don’t really know how we should use the small amount of money that American citizens are willing to pay for a space program. But I do know that for at least 50 years, American citizens have wanted a space program with humans flying in space. And I really am confident that will continue in some way.”