Congressional Hearings on Augustine Committee Report

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Publication date: 
25 September 2009

Hours of hearings before House and Senate committees last week demonstrated universal agreement with the central finding of the “Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee”:  NASA has not received the funding it needs to carry out its programs.

House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) expressed the common theme running through his September 15 hearing and that of the Senate Subcommittee on Science and Space the next day when he declared, “We either have to give NASA the resources that it needs or stop pretending that it can do all we’ve put on its plate.”   Both hearings featured Norman Augustine, the review committee’s chairman, who warned “we are on a path that will not lead to a useful, safe human exploration program . . . the primary reason is the mismatch between the tasks to be performed and the funds that are available to support those tasks.”

There was little discussion at either hearing about the merits of human space exploration, with questions centering on how best to continue the human space flight program.  Members asked about the reduction of the gap between the retirement of the shuttle and its replacement vehicle (flown by NASA or a commercial entity), extending the space station’s life, the respective merits of human exploration of the Moon, Mars, and other destinations, and when a heavy-lift vehicle will be available to take humans beyond a low Earth orbit. Mars is “clearly the goal” said Augustine, although the United States is not ready to go there directly.

Many questions centered on the viability of the four-year-old Constellation program to develop a new generation of  launch vehicles and an astronaut capsule.  Augustine said the current program is “fatally flawed” because of insufficient funding.  The delivery date for the Ares I rocket to replace the shuttle for access to the international space station, even with the life of the station extended for an additional five years, would be too late.  The “real need of this country is a heavy lift vehicle” Augustine stated, saying the Ares V, suitable for launches to the Moon and Mars, should be the first priority.  He said the Constellation program has been soundly managed, and that although significant technical problems remain, none of them are unsolvable.  Senate subcommittee chairman Bill Nelson (D-FL) expressed considerable interest in the Constellation program, and asked a series of detailed questions about exploration options, timing and funding.

At the House hearing, Ranking Member Ralph Hall (R-TX) asked what could be done to reduce the projected seven year gap for U.S. access to the space station.  Augustine responded that “absent huge influxes of funds and the willingness to accept more safety risk than we believe is appropriate there’s only one way to close that gap, and that is to continue to fly the space shuttle beyond the currently planned shutdown at the end of 2010.”  He estimated there would be an annual net cost of about $2.5 billion to fly the shuttle one or two times a year.  But there are significant safety issues, Augustine said, and even if the shuttle is re certified, the projected low launch rate is a real concern.  He compared doing rocket launches at a very low rate to doing heart surgery at a very low rate, calling it “a dangerous thing to do.”  Edward Crawley of MIT, a member of the review committee, joined Augustine at the witness table, and predicted that the pacing for the development of a new rocket will require at least another five to six years.  While it might be possible to reduce this schedule by six months, no other option exists he said, declaring “it physically cannot be done.”  At the Senate hearing, Augustine said “I think we are to considerable degree stuck with the gap,” and  warned “this may be just the first of three or four gaps.”

As expected, there was considerable discussion about the review committee’s finding that an additional $3 billion in funding by 2014, with an annual 2.4 percent increase for inflation, would enable NASA to move ahead with what Augustine called an exciting program.   He told senators that the review committee determined an additional $1.5 billion would make little difference, and that $4 billion more would not yield a significantly better outcome. Without that, Augustine said the human space program would quickly deteriorate.  NASA would continue to have strong robotic and technology programs, but human space exploration would remain in a low earth orbit.  Few young people would be inspired by such a program, and there would be a large impact on NASA’s workforce.  Without this money, Augustine said, “we’re on a [human space flight] path that is going no where.”

In his opening and closing remarks, Senator Nelson described what steps he feels need to be taken.  “The moment of truth . . . is here,” he said.  President Obama “sets the priorities,” and he will have to decide what direction the manner space program will take.   “He’s going to have to pony up,” said Nelson, if the President wants a human space program, and direct the Office of Management and Budget to include this in its budget formulation.  In addition, Nelson said, the President will have to “articulate the vision” to the American public why the human space flight program should extend beyond Earth orbit.  “We will advise him, but it is his decision,” declared Nelson.