Augustine Commission Summary Report: Now What?

09/08/09 00:00:00    

By Michael Mealling

So the Augustine Commission published their Summary Report today. At this point the food fight is beginning. ATK and other contractors are starting to spew FUD faster and harder than Microsoft ever did. The question we have to address now is how to make sure the Obama Administration picks the Flexible Path option. Ideally it would pick the Flexible Path option with an EELV for the heavy lift component. But I suspect that either Ares V Lite or Not Shuttle C will be the bone thrown to Northern Alabama in order to buy Senator Shelby's silence. The important thing is to make sure commercial crew, suborbital science, and fuel depots stays in.

There are several key findings: bq. “Commercial crew launch to low-Earth orbit: Commercial services to deliver crew to low-Earth orbit are within reach. While this presents some risk, it could provide an earlier capability at lower initial and lifecycle costs than government could achieve1. A new competition with adequate incentives should be open to all U.S. aerospace companies. This would allow NASA to focus on more challenging roles, including human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit, based on the continued development of the current or modified Orion spacecraft.” [Page 16] Commercial crew is faster and cheaper: bq. “The United States needs a way to launch astronauts to low-Earth orbit, but it does not necessarily have to be provided by the government. As we move from the complex, reusable Shuttle back to a simpler, smaller capsule, it is an appropriate time to consider turning this transport service over to the commercial sector. This approach is not without technical and programmatic risks, but it creates the possibility of lower operating costs for the system and potentially accelerates the availability of U.S. access to low-Earth orbit by about a year. The Committee suggests establishing a new competition for this service, in which both large and small companies could participate.” [Page 9] Are there other ways commercial industry should participate? bq. “The cost of exploration is dominated by the costs of launch to low-Earth orbit and of the in-space systems. It seems improbable that significant reductions in launch costs will be realized in the short term until launch rates increase substantially—perhaps through expanded commercial activity in space. How can the nation stimulate such activity? In the 1920s, the federal government awarded a series of guaranteed contracts for carrying airmail, stimulating the growth of the airline industry. The Committee concludes that an architecture for exploration employing a similar policy of guaranteed contracts has the potential to stimulate a vigorous and competitive commercial space industry. Such commercial ventures could include supply of cargo to the ISS (already underway), transport of crew to orbit and transport of fuel to orbit. Establishing these commercial opportunities could increase launch volume and potentially lower costs to NASA and all other launch-services customers.

This would have the additional benefit of focusing NASA on a more challenging role, permitting it to concentrate its efforts where its inherent capability resides: for example, developing cutting-edge technologies and concepts, and defining program and overseeing the development and operation of exploration systems, particularly those beyond low-Earth orbit.” [Pages 9-10] One why to do this: bq. How will we explore to deliver the greatest benefit to the nation? *Planning for a human spaceflight program should begin with a choice about its goals—rather than a choice of possible destinations. *Destinations should derive from goals, and alternative architectures may be weighed against those goals. There is now a strong consensus in the United States that the next step in human spaceflight is to travel beyond low-Earth orbit. This should carry important benefits to society, including: driving technological innovation; developing commercial industries and important national capabilities; and contributing to our expertise in further exploration. Human exploration can contribute appropriately to the expansion of scientific knowledge, particularly in areas such as field geology, and it is in the interest of both science and human spaceflight that a credible and well-rationalized strategy of coordination between them be developed. Crucially, human spaceflight objectives should broadly align with key national objectives.

These more tangible benefits exist within a larger context. Exploration provides an opportunity to demonstrate space leadership while deeply engaging international partners; to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers; and to shape human perceptions of our place in the universe. The Committee concluded that the ultimate goal of human exploration is to chart a path  for human expansion into the solar system. This is an ambitious goal, but one worthy of U.S. leadership in concert with a broad range of international partners.

comments powered by Disqus