American Space Policy Five Years Later

President Obama at the Kennedy Space Center / April 15th 2010.  Image Credit : NASA

The following is Part I in a multi-part series looking back at changes in American space policy put forward by President fiove years ago.

Wednesday, April 15th was perhaps not the best of days for many Americans. While for those prone to procrastinate it was a time to hurriedly sum up the previous year, for those charged with implementing the space policy of the United States, and well as for those told to pay for it, it was also a day to look back five years and take of stock of what has worked, and what hasn’t, since President Barack Obama addressed employees at the Kennedy Space Center on tax day 2010.

It is a study in contrasts. Five years ago, the President officially declared a major, and controversial change in America’s space objective. The Moon, the immediate target of President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration was dismissed with an oddly breezy “We’ve been there before” as if there was nothing else to learn from a body last visited in humans in 1972.

Offered instead was a journey to an asteroid as a plausible destination on the “flexible path to Mars” identified by the Augustine committee. The committee’s report concluded there was no way to continue Project Constellation without a major, and essentially permanent increase in NASA’s budget. For a President who early in his campaign had suggested delaying implementation of Project Constellation to pay for a new program of childhood education, the KSC speech was hardly a surprise announcement, even if to some, it was a bitter disappointment.

Five years later, a series of reports; from the GAO, the NRC and from NASA’s on OIG, have all echoed the conclusions of the Augustine committee. At its current funding level, NASA has little realistic chance of sending humans into a meaningful gravity well, either that of the Moon or Mars, without a significant funding increase. The reason is inextricably tied to another hallmark of the Obama presidency, an inability to reach working accords with Congress on a wide variety of issues. Specifically, even though the President succeeded in canceling Constellation in 2010, Congress effectively re-instated two of its initial three key elements, a heavy lift booster and the Orion space capsule the following year. With Presidential attention seemingly shifting to other issues before Air Force One was wheels up, NASA was left in the lurch, burdened with an SLS/Orion program the Administration clearly didn’t want, but at the same time bearing the responsibility to craft a mission which reflected the President’s asteroid first policy.

And even though the destination has changed, the problem, as identified by every panel or body which has taken the trouble to study the matter, is still the same. Under the constraints levied by Congress, NASA does not, and will not, have the resources to venture into deep space in the 2020’s time frame outline by the President. At least not in the way he meant. The escape was resourceful if nothing else. Torturing the English language in a manner reminiscent of a previous occupant of the White House, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden suggested in 2013 that traveling to an asteroid did not necessarily mean sending astronauts all the way to where they could be found, lurking in deep space in difficult to access and highly time dependent Earth crossing  orbits. Instead NASA presented ARM, the Asteroid Redirect Mission as part of a broader overall Asteroid Initiative, an agency wide effort to better identify, categorize and understand this particular class of space objects which harbors the potential of causing widespread destruction here on Earth. Asteroid Redirect would see an automated, high power solar electric tug rendezvous with a smallish asteroid and “redirect” it a lunar retrograde orbit. For the grand payoff, astronauts would then visit the asteroid in an Orion capsule, take samples and return to Earth. Based on a proposal made by the Keck Institute, ARM’s initial reception was lukewarm at best.

Adding to the confusion, funding for ARM is spread out across four different NASA directorates and is never identified as a separate line item. While the Administration requested $133 and $220 million for the Asteroid Initiative in FY 2015 and FY 2016 respectively, it maintains that most of the money would be spend on related items in any event, and thus the actual increase is only $38 million in the current year. Although the whack a mole policy budget rollout seems calculated to make ARM a different project to kill, Congress has warned repeatedly that it is deeply skeptical of a program which at some point will have to begin requesting real money.

That support was not helped when NASA concluded that as originally presented, the ARM was a bridge too far, a decision reinforced by the paucity of accessible asteroids meeting a stringent list of criteria.

Artist's Conception of Option B. Image Credit NASA

Artist’s Conception of Option B.
Image Credit NASA

Instead, the agency announced last year that it was considering an “Option B” in which rather than redirecting a small asteroid, it would instead rendezvous with a larger one, “land” on it and snag a boulder from its surface. From that point on, the mission would be pretty much the same. After scheduling and then suddenly canceling a December press conference in which he was to announce its selection, NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot declared on March 25th that the space agency was officially selecting “Option B.”

Five years after the U.S. abandoned the Moon as an appropriate destination for its manned space program, and with Mars just as far away as ever, NASA’s official position is that it wants to visit a rock in lunar orbit. Straining credulity even further, the ARM concept, one for which the agency has yet to provide a budget. is essentially duplicative of the automated OSIRS-Rex asteroid sampling mission scheduled to launch next year.

In the latest, and what could possibly be a fatal blow to space agency’s plans, the NASA Advisory Council concluded on April 10th that NASA should drop the ARM, or if you will, redirect it, and focus instead on developing high power Solar Electrical Propulsion (SEP) for automated missions to Mars. Given that members of the Advisory Council are chosen by the Administrator himself, the finding is worth repeating.

“High-performance solar electric propulsion (SEP) will likely be an important part of an architecture to send humans to Mars.  NASA’s  current plan is to demonstrate a large SEP stage by using it to maneuver a boulder that has been lifted from the surface of a small  asteroid, and to move the boulder to cis-lunar space.

Maneuvering a large test mass is not necessary to provide a valid in-space test of a new SEP stage.  We therefore find that a SEP mission will contribute more directly to the goal of sending humans to Mars if the mission is focused entirely on development and validation of the  SEP stage.  We also find that other possible motivations for acquiring and maneuvering a boulder (e.g. asteroid science, planetary defense) do not have value commensurate with their probable cost.

Instead of relocating a boulder from an asteroid, we suggest that a more important and exciting first use of this new SEP stage would be a round trip mission to Mars, flying it to Mars orbit, and then back to the Earth-Moon system and into a distant retrograde lunar orbit.”

Overlooking the sudden and somewhat bizarre obsession with lunar retrograde orbits, the NAC findings would seem to be a clear indication of just how badly a key element of the Obama Administration’s space policy has fared since it was introduced five years ago. While Congress may not necessarily be  inclined to follow up on the NAC findings if they are perceived as detracting in any way from SLS/Orion, if nothing else they will likely provide a useful tool in further bludgeoning the ARM proposal.

With less than two years remaining in the Obama Administration, the “highlight” of the President’s KSC speech, a mission to an asteroid, would appear to be essentially dead. What comes next, a return to the Moon, a continued focus on Mars, or something else remains to be seen, but it seems unlikely that any substantive will emerge in the remaining months period alloted to the current Administration. Instead, absent a destination or a mission, look for Congress to continue to complain as it did last week, that SLS and Orion are still not receiving enough funding.

It is altogether way too easy for those writing about the American space program to fall back on trite phrases such as NASA is “adrift” or “lost in space.” If ARM were the only component of NASA’s human spaceflight program, relying on such tropes might be a forgivable sin, although other phrases are in fact more appropriate and more accurate.  Fortunately, that is not the case, and five years after President Obama terminated Project Constellation, the other major segment of the human spaceflight program is on a promising path to success, and one vital component is succeeding to a degree which was hardly imaginable on April 15, 2010.

Tomorrow: Part II

Posted in: Congress, NASA, SLS / Orion

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