Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Augustine Commission

The Augustine Commission on US human space flight completed their last public hearing on August 12th. I was impressed by the quality and diligence of the panel and their willingness to take a fresh look at NASA’s plans. Sally Ride put an admirable emphasis on coming up with an approach that was operationally affordable. Which, unfortunately, the current plan is not.

In 2004, the previous administration decided that it would be an excellent idea for the United States to return humans to the moon by the arbitrary date of 2020. NASA came up with a plan to do so, if given sufficient funds. The plan was to build a big new launcher, using heavily modified hardware from the Space Shuttle and other launchers that would ultimately be called the Ares V. The crew would ride to earth orbit on another, smaller, simpler and hopefully safer launcher based on the same technology called the Ares I, rendezvous in low Earth orbit, and then ride off to the moon. It would be a lot like Apollo, but with a larger crew, more efficient engines and electronics, and lower development costs because a lot of the hardware was taken from existing systems instead of developed from scratch.

NASA figured this would cost a lot less than Apollo, but substantially more than NASA was getting for human space flight at the time. If the president wanted a bold new initiative and would provide the funding, they would find a way to go to the moon.

The plan arrived, but the money didn’t. After the US won the Cold War race to the moon, the country has been unwilling to abandon human space flight entirely, but equally unwilling to spend anything remotely like the level when the space race was a key contest of pride and prestige between dueling ideologies.

The good news is that the current administration isn’t bound by an arbitrary goal of returning a human to the moon by 2020. The bad news is that even less ambitious goals will be difficult to fund and achieve.

The committee does seem to respect the enormous potential for orbital propellant depots to make the goal more achievable, as well as the advantages of using commercial launch services as much as possible. And the have agreed that the current NASA plan to build Ares I and Ares V is not going to be affordable.

There's a lot of information on their site, particularly in the related documents. The affordability analysis presented at the August 12th meeting is particularly illuminating (if depressing reading for a human space flight supporter).

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