Looking Ahead: Senate Hearing on Moving Beyond Low Earth Orbit

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Publication date: 
19 October 2012

“I  cannot escape the conclusion that the agency is being asked to do too much with  too little” said Steven Squyres at a September 12 hearing of the Senate Commerce,  Science and Transportation Committee.   Squyres is the Chairman of the NASA Advisory Council, and was joined at  the witness table by National Research Council Space Studies Board Chair  Charles Kennel and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne President Jim Maser to  discuss the space agency’s future programs. 

It  has been two years since the National Aeronautics and Space Administration  Authorization Act of 2010 was signed into law.   It authorized (but did not fund) NASA’s programs for fiscal years 2011,  2012, and 2013.  This hearing, held by Senator Bill Nelson  (D-FL) and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) was called to set the groundwork  for the next reauthorization bill.   Hutchison, much praised by Nelson for her work  on previous NASA bills, retires at the end of this Congress.

This  hearing highlighted differences in how NASA’s future programs are viewed.  Maser was critical of the Obama  Administration:

“I  think it’s important as a foundation for this discussion to touch on the issue  of NASA’s strategic direction. For some time now and especially since the end  of the Space Shuttle program, NASA has seemingly suffered from a lack of an  overarching, enduring vision for leadership in space science, technology  exploration. The Administration cancelled Constellation and the moon mission and  established new priorities and directions such as landing on an asteroid and  funding a commercial space capability.”

He  continued:

“Without  clear direction from the Administration, NASA has been left to juggle a  multitude of tasks. NASA is very busy trying to reestablish U.S. access to the  International Space Station and maximize its scientific returns and develop a  Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) launch system with no clear set of missions. NASA is  working all of those efforts in conjunction with trying to develop human and  robotic roadmaps with its international partners, fund a commercial space  enterprise to sustain multiple competitors without clearly identifying a  supporting market or demand, and accomplish meaningful results in a timely  manner. Finally, they are attempting to do the many other things that keep ten  NASA Centers healthy. NASA is being asked to do all of this with a flat,  essentially declining budget.”

Kennel  expressed a different view:

“Some  people have said that NASA relinquished leadership of the human spaceflight  enterprise when it retired the space shuttle. In my personal opinion, nothing  could be further from the truth. The International Space Station, if nothing  else, guarantees U.S. leadership for the rest of the decade, and there are at  least three things NASA can do now to ensure leadership after that. The first  is to realize the full promise of ISS utilization, building on the foundations  of its status as a National Laboratory and by rebuilding the Nation’s research  program in life and microgravity science, as outlined in the decadal survey  report mentioned earlier. Next is to encourage America’s new entrepreneurial  launch industry, not only to support human spaceflight and to bring down the  cost to launch scientific spacecraft, but also to give a boost to an entirely  new space economy. Finally, by the end of this decade, NASA has to make a firm  start on a long-term program of human exploration beyond low Earth orbit.”

Squyres  commented on the degree to which NASA has implemented the reauthorization act:

“In  a speech at Kennedy Space Center on April 15, 2010, President Obama outlined  his       Administration’s  goals for human exploration of space. He called for sending humans to an  asteroid by 2025, to Mars orbit by the mid 2030s, and to the surface of Mars subsequently.  These are grand goals, and they are broadly consistent with the goals expressed  by the 2010 Authorization Act.

“Asteroids  are important targets for exploration. Scientifically, asteroids contain clues       regarding  the formation and earliest evolution of the solar system. Practically, they present  both an opportunity and a threat. Mining of asteroids could yield raw materials  of enormous value for use in space, simply because they need not be lifted from  the Earth’s gravity well. And we know that asteroids have impacted the Earth in  the past with devastating effects, and will do so again in the future unless we  develop an understanding of these bodies sufficient to prevent such an event.

“As  for Mars, I feel that sending humans to that planet to with the objective of  learning whether life ever took hold there is a goal worthy of a great national  space agency. I agree with the 2010 Authorization Act that ‘A long term  objective for human exploration of space should be the eventual international  exploration of Mars.’ In fact, in my view, it should be the long term objective  for human exploration of space, whether carried out internationally or by NASA  alone.

“So  I disagree with critics who contend that NASA does not have clear goals for  human exploration beyond low Earth orbit. In fact, the goals are quite clear,  and they have been       articulated  without ambiguity. Moreover, two of the key elements for achieving those goals  – SLS and Orion – are in development and proceeding well.”

The  witnesses outlined a multitude of important programs for NASA to pursue.    There  is a wide variety of missions that would offer outstanding scientific opportunities.  Important to achieving many of these missions  is the development of a heavy lift capability – the Space Launch System - to enable  incremental robotic and manned missions to the moon, and for further  exploration of Mars and its moons.

The  degree to which NASA can accomplish these missions, is, not surprisingly,  future funding of the agency.  Kennel  spoke of the importance of completing the James Webb Space Telescope, comparing  it to the Superconducting Supercollider:

“American  leadership in space astronomy and astrophysics is solid, but not unchallenged.  The Hubble Space Telescope, the Nobel-winning Cosmic Background Explorer, and  20 years of systematically planned missions to study the sky in every  accessible wavelength range, from microwaves to gamma rays, have kept research  in these fields on the forefront. This leadership is ours to lose. First and  foremost, we must stay the course and complete the James Webb Space Telescope  (JWST). I think neither the scientific community nor Congress knew how challenging  (and expensive) this mission would become, but stopping now would have serious  consequences for the whole field. Many of us recall that the U.S. lost  leadership in particle physics to Europe when the Superconducting Supercollider  was cancelled. We cannot let the same thing happen to JWST, which will do in  the 21st century what Hubble did in the 20th.”

Squyres  offered a similar caution when discussing the envisioned Mars sample return  program in partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA).  This mission was the highest priority of a  National Research Council (NRC) planetary science decadal review:

“Unfortunately,  NASA has been unable to follow this recommendation from the NRC.  The reason for this is simple: deep proposed  cuts to NASA’s F.Y. 2013 budget for Mars exploration prevent it. And in the  face of these cuts, the hoped-for partnership with ESA has not come to  fruition.

“If  no commitment to a Mars sample return mission is made in response to the  decadal survey recommendations, the result will be highly detrimental to the  future of U.S. planetary science. More pragmatically, I fear that an inability  to enter into a mutually beneficial partnership with a willing, eager, and  highly capable agency like ESA could jeopardize future international  partnerships as well. And most importantly, the scientific investigation of  Mars that should provide the underpinning for future human exploration will be  lost.”

Maser  spoke of the importance of funding:

“An  enduring, stable vision for NASA should be set by the President and supported  in Congress in a consistent manner that enables execution over timeframes that  extend beyond a single Administration or Congressional election cycle. Budgets  should be provided that are consistent with executing the direction and are stable  over the timeframes required to execute the direction. It is NASA’s job to  define the manner in which to achieve the vision and then execute on the vision  within the budget.  An enduring vision  for NASA should be more focused to better align with the current constrained  budget environment, and the vision should be mission-driven. A focused,  mission-driven vision that endures will allow NASA to maximize the returns to  the American people for the resources provided. Finally, the vision should push  to accomplish feats never before achieved by mankind.”

The  two senators asked many searching questions about the future direction of NASA’s  programs.  There was discussion about robotic  and manned missions to the moon, asteroids and Mars; future research on the  International Space Station; the significant benefit of international  partnerships; and the desirability of competition.  Questions were also asked about whether the  agency’s aeronautics program should be moved out of NASA, with Squyres  commenting that the program was one of NASA’s “shining jewels” that offered  some of the most direct benefits to taxpayers.

Toward  the end of the hearing, referencing the funding environment, Nelson said “we  are living in uncertain times.”  NASA “has  fared quite well” compared to other departments and agencies, Nelson said, and  he was optimistic about sequestration, which the Office of Management and  Budget has calculated could result in a reduction of $1,458 million to the  agency’s current budget in early January. “I think we will work ourselves through that,”  he said. 

Looking  ahead to the important role Congress will play in determining NASA’s future,  Kennel told the senators:

“Never  before has congressional leadership been more critical to America’s leadership  in space than now. Now is the time for you to shape enduring goals that can  guide America’s space program to its next stage of leadership in the complex  times you see ahead. The space science and technology community can deal with  budgetary turbulence, but only when there is a stable sense of direction.”