There were no surprises - as anticipated - in the full 115-page Augustine committee report released on October 22. The committee’s major findings had been summarized in a twelve-page brief issued last month. The full report provided additional evidence for what has long been known: there is a fundamental, and persistent, disparity between NASA’s current and future programs and its annual appropriations.
While not every problem the agency is facing would be solved with additional dollars, the “Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee” found that projected NASA budgets fall short of what the agency needs to conduct a viable exploration program beyond low-Earth orbit. As outlined in the committee’s report “Seeking a Human Space Flight Program Worthy of a Great Nation”:
“This analysis led the Committee to its finding that human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit is not viable under the FY 2010 budget guideline. It would be possible to continue the ISS [International Space Station] and a program of human activity in low-Earth orbit within this budget guidance, and to develop the technology for future exploration, but the budget limitation would delay meaningful exploration well into the 2020s or beyond.”
Annual testimony before congressional authorizing and appropriating committees has long highlighted this disparity. The Augustine committee’s report provides an independent confirmation of the funding shortfall.
Augustine discussed the report at a briefing on October 22. He explained that OSTP Director John Holdren requested this study which would present alternatives but not make a specific recommendation. “Everything that is in the report has the unanimous support of the committee members” Augustine said. He reaffirmed the report’s finding, saying: “The premier conclusion or finding of the committee is that the Human Space Flight Program that the United States is currently pursuing is one that is on an unsustainable trajectory. We say that because of a mismatch between scope of the program and the funds to support the program.” Augustine expressed the committee’s doubts about the availability of NASA’s new rocket, the Ares I, to gainfully service the International Space Station, even if the station’s life is extended, as recommended, by five years to 2020. Augustine highlighted the committee’s belief that the space shuttle will need until mid FY 2011 to complete the flight roster, and its recommendation that additional funding be included in the FY 2011 budget request. He outlined the committee’s belief that an opportunity exists for commercial firms to develop a space craft to transport humans and cargo into low-Earth orbit. NASA should concentrate its future efforts in exploration hardware, “rather than running a trucking service to low-Earth orbit.” This exploration program should not go directly to Mars, but instead return to the moon, or other destinations first.
Augustine was asked if he thought that the committee’s recommendations would “stick.” To laughter, he replied, “I've worked on a number of these studies where I think we've had a major impact, and I worked on an awful lot of them where we had no impact, and I guess only time will tell.”
With this report in hand, Congress and the Administration have two tasks before them. The first is to complete the FY 2010 Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Bill for the new fiscal year that started on October 1. The House completed its version of this bill in June. Senate floor action on its bill has been delayed, and the leadership will try again in the very near future to complete this legislation, clearing the way for House and Senate appropriators to write a final bill. Several reports indicate that House appropriators will agree to the Administration’s budget request that was fully funded in the Senate Appropriations Committee bill. A much larger task is underway on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue: the initial drafting of the Obama Administration’s FY 2011 request for NASA. The Augustine committee found that an additional $3 billion in funding over the current budget, to be available by FY 2014, would permit a much more expansive human space flight program. How the Administration will respond to this finding will not be known until February when the FY 2011 request goes to Capitol Hill. A footnote in an OMB budget document from earlier this year might be an indication of the Administration’s intention. Following a figure for the projected FY 2011 request for Exploration is the notation: “Following the human spaceflight review, the Administration will provide an updated request for Exploration activities reflecting the review’s results.” (See page SUM-4 at this site.)