Today I attended the press conference at which the Augustine Human Space Flight Plans Committee released its report to the general public. It has already been delivered to NASA and the White House.
Augustine began by saying there were no surprises in the final report, but there was much substantiation of the summary. He also said that the committee did work with Bolden and NASA. He thanked both NASA and the Aerospace Corporation for their support.
The premier conclusion of the committee is that currently human spaceflight is on an unsustainable trajectory.
Augustine did report that his committee viewed the current Ares 1 and Orion programs as well managed . They could succeed. Conditions have changed since those programs were started, however. Ares 1 will, at the present pace, not be available until 2017. ISS is currently scheduled to be deorbited before then. There are, though, compelling reasons to keep ISS up longer. This will require more funding -- which may not be available. The shuttle is scheduled to be kept flying through 2010. A more realistic schedule would extend those flights through 2011. That, though, would also require more money.
Mars is a clear goal for human space flight. Other ways of reaching that goal, however, are needed. Alternative proposals for heavy lift are needed. Commercial spaceflight should take over Earth to LEO from NASA. NASA should focus on flight beyond LEO.
Augustine also recommended that the NASA Administrator should be allowed to run the agency the way a CEO manages a company. Currently Congress -- to use one example -- imposes conditions that prevent in some ways effective management.
At this point questions from the audience were permitted.
Seth Brownstein of AP asked if it was now time to kill the Ares 1 program. Dr. Crawley -- another member of the committee -- said there were no technical problems. Brownstein followed up the question should NASA build the Ares 1? Crawley replied that, in 2005, NASA made a correct decision. Today, however, budgetary decisions have impacted that work, leading to a need to reorient the program. Augustine said that today Ares 1 is not the right vehicle going to the right destination.
An Aviation Week reporter asked for alternatives. Crawley indicated that NASA and commercial space should form a partnership. NASA would be the anchor customer for commercial flight to LEO.
Keith Cowing of Nasawatch asked if this was offering NASA a second chance to get it right. Augustine replied that NASA got it right initially but that budget cuts were forcing changes. The question is what is the right approach today.
What has prevented the NASA Administrator from managing NASA? Augustine commented that NASA can't move funds around because Congress passed bills preventing this. There was also a need for flexibility in the workforce. Some times you would need more people in operations. Other times it would be in design and development.
An NPR reporter asked what the role of the committee would now be. Augustine answered that both NASA and the White House were familiar with the work the committee. The committee would be available for informal questioning, but that is all.
A grad student commented that people outside the space community do not favor space spending at all. Augustine answered that why to do this is a fundamental question. Justifying all this work in the name of science or some other activity is not really possible in his view. He expressed the idea that space is a tiny part of a 3.9 trillion Federal budget. It is being funded at an appropriate level.
Crawley raised the inspiration argument. He said that many young people think commercial space is pretty cool.
Crawley also raised the point that no commercial organization could raise the capital needed for development. But with government support, commercial operations could flourish.
Cowing of Nasawatch asked if public engagement was different this time. Augustine replied that it was extremely different. The committee did try for public engagement. Several meetings were open. He added that human space flight was almost like a religion for some people -- but different religions with some conflicts. A new standard of openness was set. Crawley added the additional input was really instructive. Both Augustine and Crawley commented briefly on all the new communication technologies that were used.
Crawley commented that, with the flexible plan, we can leave LEO in the early 2020s.