Senate and House Subcommittees Examine NASA Spaceflight Opportunities and Challenges

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Publication date: 
7 June 2013

Space exploration has been the subject of many recent hearings in both the House and Senate in preparation for the upcoming reauthorization of bill for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).  The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation’s Subcommittee on Science and Space held a May 16 hearing examining partnerships between NASA and private industry in space.  The House Science, Space, and Technology’s Subcommittee on Space discussed possible options for space exploration that would enable the US to move closer to a human mission to Mars.  Each of these hearings demonstrated bi-partisan support for NASA and the space program. 

During the Senate subcommittee hearing, Members heard from four witnesses.  Wayne Hale, Director of Human Spaceflight at Special Aerospace Services and retired NASA Flight Director and Program Manager discussed getting humans to low-Earth orbit.  “Getting to that first step in the universe is very costly,” he noted as he described the role that businesses will eventually play in space-related industries.  “Asteroid mining, energy production, zero gravity manufacturing are all within our grasp technologically,” but businesses need reliable and affordable transportation systems prior to taking advantage of these possibilities.  Hale described the cost issue as it relates to the development of the US transportation system and expressed the goal that commercial industry will eventually also work on deep space exploration issues, particularly as they relate to commercial transportation to the International Space Station (ISS).

Patti Grace Smith, Aerospace Consultant and Advisor at Pattie Grace Smith Consulting LLC described the role of the Office of Commercial Space Transportation and recommended that it stay within the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rather than be moved to NASA or another agency such as the Department of Transportation.  She also provided senators with an overview of the role of the Office of Aviation within the FAA. 

Captain Michael Lopez-Algeria, President of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation spoke about ensuring democratization of access to space.  He provided senators with details depicting the difference between the capabilities of sub-orbital and orbital vehicles.  He strongly advocated for full funding for NASA programs and described the need for Congress to extend the usability of the ISS until 2028.  He also outlined the NASA commercial crew agreement and emphasized the high cost of using Russia’s Soyuz to ferry US astronauts to the ISS. 

Steven Collicott, Professor of the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Purdue University described scientific applications of suborbital flights including aeronomy and mesospheric science, human physiology, molecular biology, particle interaction, pharmaceutical and medical research.  He also discussed the opportunities for students to participate in experiments at Purdue relating to the space program as he described payload development and other NASA programs.

The Mau 21 House hearing focused on whether the proposed Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM), lunar landing, or another type of mission would be appropriate preparation for a human mission to Mars.  Members were also interested in what capabilities could be developed from a Moon landing that could not be learned from the proposed ARM.  Another question discussed was how different destinations affect a strategic approach to designing technical equipment and working with international partners.

The President’s National Space Policy, announced in June of 2010, outlines objectives for the extension of human spaceflight to destinations beyond the moon.  Members of Congress have since had many discussions about whether lunar missions still provide relevant information to NASA programs.  This hearing demonstrated that there remains some concerns associated with cancelling lunar missions. 

Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) emphasized the longstanding congressional support for lunar missions as he suggested that NASA use lunar missions as training options as NASA prepares for missions to Mars.  He cited the National Research Council’s recent report finding little support for the Administration’s proposed mission to an asteroid. 

Subcommittee Chairman Steven Palazzo (R-MS) also questioned the current plan for NASA missions, stating that the mission to an asteroid “may actually prove a detour to the Mars mission.”  He also described the “constantly changing requirements, budgets and missions” that have plagued NASA as he questioned the current plan for NASA missions. 

Subcommittee Ranking Member Donna Edwards (D-MD) showed support for NASA missions by highlighting the catalyst that NASA provides for advancing the innovation agenda and “for demanding the types of skills and educated workforce that contribute to our nation’s economic strength.”  She stated that “successive NASA Authorizations Acts have authorized a ‘stepping stone approach’ to human [space] exploration.  The Moon, near Earth asteroids, and Lagrangian points are among the destinations that can be considered to help prepare for eventual human exploration of Mars.”  She seemed especially interested in learning “what it takes to get to Mars” as Congress considers interim steps prior to an eventual human mission there. 

Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) emphasized her strong support for human space exploration while she cautioned that it is evident that despite clear policy direction in successive NASA Authorization Acts, NASA’s human exploration program still has an air of tentativeness about it.“  She expressed concern that “we still lack a clear picture of the ways [the ISS] will be used to advance the nation’s exploration goals” and also questioned the lack of funding for the Space Launch System and Orion crew vehicles.  She also stressed the need for a clear national roadmap for the space exploration program. 
Four witnesses testified.  Louis Friedman, Co-lead of the Keck Institute for Space Studies Asteroid Retrieval Mission Study and Executive Director Emeritus of The Planetary Society stressed many steps are needed before the US sends a human to Mars, stating that “the Asteroid Retrieval Mission creates a first step (beyond the Moon) – the only one we are now capable of performing and the only one which we can afford within the current space program budget.”  He also described why exploring an asteroid is an important step to understanding the history and origin of planets. 

Paul Spudis, Senior Staff Scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute spoke about what he felt were the goals of human spaceflight and provided examples of why missions to the Moon are a valuable platform for research about space objects, material and energy resources, and why it is an appropriate destination for human spaceflight. 

Steven Squyres, Professor of Astronomy at Cornell University offered four suggestions for consideration by the subcommittee.  These include the affirmation that “Mars is and will continue to be NASA’s long term goal for human exploration of space” and that the Agency “focus narrowly on activities that clearly serve the goal of landing humans on Mars, operating there, and returning them safely to Earth.”  He further suggested that a cis-lunar space be adopted as the next milestone “whether ongoing studies show that it is possible to redirect a small asteroid there or not” and lastly that “no milestones beyond cis-lunar space” be considered “without first assuring ample funding to achieve them.”  

Douglas Cooke, Owner of Cook Concepts and Solutions stated examples of exploration strategies for long-term space flight programs.  He outlined some of the objectives of the Apollo Program as he emphasized the need for adaptability in the development of strategies to get to Mars.  He offered suggestions for questions to be considered as the committee moves forward with plans for humans to explore Mars.

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