MIT Forum on Human Spaceflight Highlights Challenges and Potential Solutions

Updated Wednesday, December 16, 2009: Video of forum posted below.

NASA has a problem. The U.S. space agency is trying to build new rockets and new spaceships, but it’s not clear where they should go (see our Special Report on "Why Mars? Why Now?" for detailed coverage). This summer’s review of U.S. human spaceflight plans, a ten-person commission headed by former Lockheed Martin chairman and CEO Norman Augustine, came up with several options in a report released in October (failure was not one of them).

In Friday’s forum on the implications of that report, held at MIT, Augustine and fellow committee member Edward Crawley, an MIT professor of engineering and aeronautics and astronautics, shared the floor with space policy historians John Logsdon and Asif Siddiqi to discuss what was in the report, what it means, and the next steps toward a political decision.

Key points emphasized in the panel:

--Mars must be the goal, but it must not be the first destination. It’s too hard, too expensive, and we need to learn to live and work in space first.

--NASA has to get out of the crew and cargo business, and focus instead on what to do beyond low-earth orbit; let the commercial sector take over hauling folks and stuff to orbit.

--The NASA administrator must have authority to turn plans into action, i.e. to be “the CEO of NASA,” instead of having his hands tied by Congress. (Currently, Congress won’t allow the administrator to reduce NASA’s workforce or close any facilities, since they bring revenue and jobs to several states. But that makes it harder to run the agency efficiently.)

--It’s a multiplayer space game now, not just the U.S. and Russia. Future space exploration missions will have to take into account burgeoning space programs in China and India, in addition to already-active programs in Japan, Canada and Europe.

--The president needs to actually make a decision, and then commit to it. Let’s either have a viable human spaceflight program, with enough resources to make it valuable, or let’s have the courage to end it now, Augustine said, rather than letting the program struggle along half-heartedly.

The Augustine report makes clear that the current “Constellation” program, which was put in place to answer the Bush administration’s 2004 challenge to return to the moon and Mars following the space shuttle’s retirement in 2010—but which was not funded accordingly—is unsustainable at its current funding level.

So the three decisions the president will have to make, Crawley said, are the degree to which the U.S. should embrace the international community; the destination (i.e. the moon, Mars, a variety of near-Earth objects like asteroids, or moons of Mars and Mars fly-arounds); and the budget.

Though the committee members were careful not to endorse any particular options, given that their charter was merely to state choices, not to recommend any, it’s possible to read between the lines. A flexible path is the most logical, and Crawley’s explanation had me convinced. It provides for intermediate steps, multiple new accomplishments, and continued exploration while simultaneously building equipment for future landings on the moon and Mars. It also provides the chance to have many new “firsts” along the way, instead of waiting thirty years for the first person to land on Mars. (Here’s another good analysis of the flexible option by longtime space expert and former NASA engineer James Oberg.)

Unfortunately, the logical path is also the one that will result in benefits ten or so years down the road, Crawley suggested, which means it’s unlikely as a political decision.

Regardless, the decision is coming soon. Recommendations prepared by NASA, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the Office of Management and Budget are even now making their way to the president’s desk for a decision, according to John Logsdon. Though President Obama will have to make the choice by the end of December to influence the FY 2011 budget, Logsdon predicts that the announcement won’t come until later, as part of a state of the union address or in a separate speech. It is likely that any such announcement will include an invitation to international partners to join in crafting the future of spaceflight, Logsdon said in the MIT forum.

Logsdon also expects that the president himself will make the decision, rather than leaving it to his science advisor, national security council, or budget people. “And the president will want to take credit for it,” Logsdon added.

In the meantime, an agreement reached earlier this week between the House and Senate on a 2010 appropriations bill would ensure that the current Constellation program won’t be terminated without official approval while the agency awaits Obama’s verdict.

The bill would provide U.S. $3.8 billion to continue human spaceflight operations through 2010 in the absence of a decision from the administration. If voted in, the bill would also require any changes in the program’s direction to be approved by later acts of Congress.

The discussion at MIT was thoughtful and intelligent, and it showed that the Augustine committee really did get a lot of analysis done in a very short time. But no one can predict the president’s decision. As Logsdon concluded, “I guess the final word is: stay tuned.”

Watch a video of the forum below (about two hours - moderator David Mindell starts speaking 5 minutes in, panel introduced starting at 12:20, comments from the panel begin at 17:50) or catch it at MIT Aero-Astro news. 

Video: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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