To the Moon & Mars: NASA Administrator O'Keefe on Bush Space Initiative

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Publication date: 
30 January 2004

Earlier this month, President George Bush outlined a new space policy in a major address at NASA Headquarters. Under this plan, the space station will be completed by 2010. Station research will center on the effects of space travel on human biology. A new space craft, the crew exploration vehicle, will conduct its first manned mission no later than 2014, with "extended human missions to the moon as early as 2015." Bush also said that "our third goal is to return to the moon by 2020, as the launching point for missions beyond." "With the experience and knowledge gained on the moon, we will then be ready to take the next steps of space exploration: human missions to Mars and beyond," the President said.

Following this speech, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe responded to questions about the new space policy. O'Keefe's remarks provide greater detail about the Administration's intentions, and serve as a preview of coming congressional hearings. The following excerpts are from this briefing; paragraphs have been combined in the interest of space:


"This afternoon we got a mandate. And we got support for a set of specific objectives that very clearly identifies exploration and discovery as the central objective of what this agency is all about. It has always been so. In 45 years of this agency, certainly that has been what an awful lot of what that mandate's been about. But to have it emphasized specifically as a reason in and of itself for these purposes is the important dimension of what this policy is all about. It will be informed by the science, to be sure. And there are science objectives you'll see, as we walk through in the months ahead in the course of discussion with our oversight committees in Congress, in the appropriations committees and the public at large, exactly what the aspects of this program will be in order to carry out those science objectives . . . . But they're specifically driven by exploration goals."


"But the objective will be to continue, as you heard the president identify, the shuttle program, with the objective of completing the International Space Station by the end of the decade and, at the point at which that completion occurs, to retire the shuttle at that time. Consistent with that, the International Space Station will continue to operate throughout this period and into the next decade, which is the period beyond the scope of the president's budget."


"Based on the budget profile projections that will be submitted, with the horizon through fiscal year '09, thereafter, in order to sustain this effort, the working assumption is that it be a program that can be sustained at an annual rate that would increase by not more than the rate of inflation. That's projected throughout the course of the next decade. So as a consequence, the primary resources that are necessary are occurring in this period, from '05 to '09, and then expanding as a consequence of the transformative efforts that are involved." O'Keefe later elaborated: "Well, what the president defined and described was a consequence of this effort, of looking at the overall top line, the dollar amount. What you see in fiscal year '05 will be equating to about $16.3 billion and increasing at a rate of about 5 percent or a little more for the next couple of years thereafter. That equates to about a 5.5 percent increase in that first year, then progressing about 5 percent each year for the next couple of years and then leveling at about 3 percent thereafter. But most of the adjustment, as he described it and discussed it or alluded to it, is a reorientation of efforts within the existing program, that while that is an increase, it also is a more significant one on a net basis as a consequence of the reorientation of various programs."


"This will involve a range of not only the kinds of mission objectives, capabilities, development of robotic as well as human capabilities, to be very sure -- the crew exploration vehicle is one of the primary assets to accomplish that -- but also to emphasize the power generation propulsion capabilities necessary to achieve these goals. Development, again, is more in the direction of robotic as well as human capability requirements and a transition on the International Space Station during the course of our immediate period of the research agenda to really examine, specifically as he [President Bush] mentioned in his speech this afternoon, the means by which we can conquer the human effects that are encountered as a consequence of long-duration space flight. And that will become the primary, almost singular, focus of our research agenda in the time ahead. So we're re-ordering -- what you'll see in the program -- the very specific emphasis on the research on station to emphasize life sciences, human physiology, the human affects and consequence of long- duration space flight and develop the means by which to mitigate those consequences in order to facilitate the opportunity for broader exploration objectives of longer duration. So as a consequence, all the inter-relationship between these factors will be built into this program for the purpose, again, specifically of pursuing the exploration agenda with the science to inform that set of goals as we move ahead."


"So we will create an exploration systems enterprise within the NASA framework that will, again, be on par with space flight, space science, earth science, biological and physical research, education and safety and mission assurance and aeronautics."


"That said, the focus of the president's commission will be to examine implementation strategies of this vision. So the charge, the mandate, the terms of reference, if you will, of this commission is to take this policy objective, the presidential directive, the policy, the strategy, and the vision that's stated therein and provide it to this commission with the objective of them helping us to find what implementation strategies should we be examining to include a broader range of a variety of different commercial alternatives, looking at international participation, workforce challenges that we've talked about and will continue to be encountering as a consequence of the requirement to recruit and retain the kind of quality workforce that's necessary. It will be a whole range of specific objectives that we'll talk about and provide very specific detail on their terms of reference. But the question of what should the vision be, that which has dominated the public debate, certainly in the congressional arena as well as a consequence of responding to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board view that there be a national debate and a focus on the vision, and there be a provision of one. This resolves the question of: What is the vision?"


"Well, last night and this morning I had the opportunity to speak to my counterparts with the heads of agencies, if you will, of the International Space Station consortia, from the European Space Agency, from Rosaviakosmos, the Russian Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency. And the enthusiasm and interest in opening up the dialogue about what the degree of international participation could/might be in the very near future here as we discuss this is pretty high. And I think the enthusiasm they expressed to me was, they're anxious to have an opportunity to begin to see the detail of where we're going with this and where there may be opportunities to collaborate. If any of us had any doubt about the utility of the international cooperation and its depth of, I think, commitment, the fact that the partnership has hung together and continues to operate International Space Station today as a result of all of the partners stepping up in the wake of the shuttle fleet grounding as we have worked through the challenges and the tragedy of Columbia, that demonstrates that there is lots of interest there, and capability there, in order to perform in that manner. So in the time ahead, I think we'll see more and more of different ideas of what they'll be exploring and looking to, to look at cooperative arrangements and partnering arrangements. And we're looking forward to engaging in that discussion." O'Keefe later added: Well, I think it is very much going to be a U.S.-led endeavor. That's our intent. And, again, much of what we have been directed and what the president envisions we do is to achieve this set of American, U.S. exploration objectives. To the extent we can do this collaboratively, cooperatively and in partnering with international participation, we are encouraged to do so. And there is enthusiasm from our partners in examining the ways that they can do that productively. So I think we have always been and will continue to be open to varying alternatives that our partners and our collaborators of an international nature may suggest. And we'll continue that way." When later asked about the participation of India and China, O'Keefe replied: "Well, it poses some interesting questions. And it certainly opens up the opportunity. And I think the expectation that the president has, in all of the discussions we have had leading up to this set of decisions of what this direction is, is that we look at this differently. We think about these challenges in different ways. And so there is, I think, an opportunity to kind of open that debate. Who knows? I wouldn't want to speculate on this outcome at this time, but I sure know that there isn't a finite answer that would suggest one way or the other at this juncture. That's kind of exciting."

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