Norman Augustine on Human Spaceflight--and What Comes Next

A conversation with the head of the U.S. human spaceflight review committee centers around time, money, money, and money

5 min read

U.S. human spaceflight hangs on a limb. The Augustine Commission, charged with presenting the Obama administration with several options for continuing to send people into space, has delivered its report. Congressional hearings are ongoing. The president is busy with war, health care, climate change, and the economy. So what about space?

Norman Augustine, the former Lockheed Martin chairman and CEO who headed the 10-person review commission this summer, spoke on 11 December alongside other experts on a panel at MIT that examined the implications of his committee’s report.

IEEE Spectrum reporter Anne-Marie Corley spoke with Augustine on 9 December to learn what he really thinks about space and where the administration is headed.

Please also see IEEE Spectrum’s special report on going to Mars

IEEE Spectrum: One of our editors, William Sweet, wrote in the L.A. Times in September that he hoped your commission’s report wouldn’t “fall into the oblivion that is so often the destiny of such exercises.” Is the report falling into oblivion?

Norman Augustine: That’s a good question [for] about three or four months from now. I think it’s too early to tell, but I do think that it’s being seriously considered at this point. This president appears to be very deliberative and gathers data and takes time to think about things before he makes decisions, and I think we’re in that mode. My understanding is that [the report] is being briefed to the president piece by piece by the folks from NASA and the OSTP [Office of Science and Technology Policy]. I think that the issue is that the president’s got so many things on his plate right now, that this probably isn’t number one in priority.

Spectrum: What if the president were to call you into his office in six months and say, “I’ve got time to think about space now. What do you think I should do?” What would you tell him?

NA: The most important is that the human spaceflight program today is really broken. The means don’t match the ends, and that’s a dangerous situation for any undertaking, but particularly for an unforgiving undertaking like spaceflight.

Spectrum: So how did we end up with a broken human spaceflight program?

NA: We’ve had a tendency to sell the human spaceflight program for some of the wrong reasons. Take the ISS [International Space Station], where we promised great scientific benefits from it. Well, it will have great scientific benefits, but no one on our committee thinks that they’re going to be sufficient, that they alone would have justified putting an ISS up.

We would be better served to tell it like it is…saying there are important scientific benefits, there are important engineering benefits, there’s important societal benefits, and so on, but you’ve got to justify these things [more] on intangibles, such as the fact that our global image is…significantly tied to our accomplishments in space, particularly human spaceflight, and that it has great inspirational value for young people, and that great nations do that kind of thing.

[Also], when the Constellation program was put together four years ago, the people who did that, primarily at NASA…had [in mind] what they thought would be a budget that would be likely for the next 15 years or so. And that budget has not occurred.

Then there have, of course, been technical problems in the program that have placed greater demands on the budget, and in order to fulfill those demands, [NASA] has had to draw money away from other parts of Constellation [the next-generation spaceflight program] and delay them. So you have a situation where all these pieces are supposed to come together, but they appear at the wrong time. One piece appears, and the next piece you need won’t be here for a decade, and so on. So [with] what started out as a pretty well-organized train, if you will, today we’ve got the caboose arriving three days before the engine, and the boxcar, we’re not sure where it is. We’ve kind of lost the continuity of the program.

Spectrum: Some people are saying that we’ve already invested so much in the current Constellation program that we should just keep going.

NA: There are people who obviously are doing that, which I think is a big mistake. I think more important is to decide what are the goals, what do we want to accomplish here, and then to see if we can afford to pursue those and to fund them properly. And if we can’t, then we’d better find some new goals.

Spectrum: So where will the money come from, and how much is needed?

NA: I would hope [the president would] find a way to add…phased in over time, an additional US $3 billion a year, which [our committee thinks] would give us a truly viable and exciting human spaceflight program.

If I were speaking for myself…I would point out that we have three-quarters of a trillion dollars in the stimulus package, and not all of it has been expended, and I can think of few more worthwhile ways to spend some of that money than to augment NASA’s funding a bit in the human spaceflight area. Furthermore, [NASA] doesn’t have to spend it all this year, because there’s a ramp-up between the current level of spending and the additional level that would be required.

I also realize that this is a very difficult time to find an additional $3 billion a year, [but] I think a country with a $3.6 trillion federal budget should be able to find another $3 billion a year if it really cares about human spaceflight.

Spectrum: You’ll be speaking at MIT this week on the objectives and policy implications of human spaceflight in light of your report. What key points would you like to see discussed in this forum?

NA: The question of how important human spaceflight is to our country. Does it deserve the investment it takes to do it right?

Secondly, what can we do to avoid just kicking the can down the road. We need to make a decision to either get in the business or get out of the business. Being halfway into the human spaceflight business is a poor place to be, and I hope we can have a good discussion of that subject.

Spectrum: You headed a commission looking at the future of U.S. spaceflight in 1990 as well. What has changed since then?

NA: Things have changed so much. Remember, at about that time, up until then anyway, we were being driven by the Russians, and the Russian space program was just beginning to take a different role at that time. Of course, today the Russians are our partners; in fact, without the Russians, we can’t even get to the ISS.

The other thing that’s happened is that in terms of technology and space technology, we had a dominant position in the world at that time. Today we have a very solid position in technology and science, but others are gaining faster than we are. So there’s a lot out there that we don’t control. It’s quite a different global situation…. I think one of the important things today is that somehow we’ve got to inspire young people a lot more than we’ve been doing in this country to be interested in science and engineering. And I think the space program does that.

Occasionally in speeches I’ve asked audiences [of scientists and engineers] how many [of them] went into science or engineering—maybe not having to do with space but with science or engineering—because of the space program and the excitement of it. Usually about half the hands will go up. It’s really quite remarkable.

Spectrum: So what’s the next step?

NA: The next step really resides at the White House. Our committee has said what we have to say, and I think we’re all very comfortable with what we’ve said. So I think now we just have to wait for the president to make a decision.

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