Panel to evaluate NASA's manned spaceflight program

June 17, 2009 By Mark K. Matthews and Robert Block, The Orlando Sentinel

A 10-member committee of former astronauts, aerospace executives and academics kicks off an 11-week evaluation of America's manned spaceflight program Wednesday - and the stakes couldn't be higher.

Chaired by retired Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine, the committee must deal with an incredibly tight schedule, pressure from contractors and their backers on Capitol Hill, and a reliance on NASA officials to provide technical analyses of rival projects.

The White House charged the panel to take a hard look at NASA's manned-space strategy for the next decade, paying special attention to the agency's efforts to develop a new rocket system to replace the space shuttle when it retires next year.

NASA's critics have said there's no way its Constellation program of new rockets, capsules and lunar landers can meet its 2015 launch schedule _ let alone return astronauts to the moon by 2020 - given its technical problems and multibillion-dollar cost overruns.

On the other hand, NASA executives insist it would take years, and more billions, just to make existing commercial rockets capable of transporting humans to the international space station, let alone the moon. And meanwhile, the clock is ticking for thousands of workers at Kennedy Space Center, whose jobs will vanish when the shuttle is retired. And depending on the committee's findings, KSC's future could be bleak.

Augustine, an aerospace veteran considered independent and smart, acknowledged last month that the group will have to determine what sort of manned-space program the U.S. can afford.

"We're being told there's no sense in being unrealistic and putting together a program that can't possibly be afforded," he said in an interview. "(But) as we go through this evaluation, if we were to find there were reasons the budget didn't make sense in any way, I can assure you we would not be bashful about pointing that out, and I suspect the administration would want to know that anyway."

But one former NASA official doubted whether the panel could fairly evaluate all the options for human spaceflight in the time that it was given. "I don't see how it's possible to make a technical judgment in that period of time," said Scott Pace, now the director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.

The committee will hear Wednesday from several groups promoting Constellation alternatives, including United Launch Alliance (ULA), the maker of the Atlas and Delta rockets used by the Department of Defense to lift spy satellites into orbit and by NASA to carry robotic missions to the moon, Mars and beyond.

Also testifying is a group of freelance engineers and rocket enthusiasts behind the Direct Jupiter project, which proposes to use the shuttle's main engines, fuel tank and solid-rocket boosters to create a family of rockets that can carry crews and cargo to the moon.

Both ULA and Direct have claimed that their systems would be safer, cheaper - and ready sooner - than Constellation's Ares I rocket. NASA's shuttle program manager John Shannon also will promote a variation of the shuttle that would substitute another spacecraft for the orbiter.

But former NASA administrator Mike Griffin dismissed these and other alternatives as unworkable, unaffordable or both. Many were rejected by a closed-door NASA review in 2005 that critics say was rigged in favor of a design backed by Griffin. That design, using a stack of the shuttle's solid-rocket boosters as a first stage, became the Ares I, now plagued by technical and cost problems.

Constellation has also gotten scathing reviews by congressional investigators, leading many experts to think a fair-minded review could doom the program.

Indeed, the scrutiny is causing anxiety in NASA. Constellation officials told contractors recently that they are not happy that Wednesday's hearing is stacked with rival projects.

But backers of alternatives are equally worried that they might not get a fair hearing.

Constellation rivals are particularly concerned that the three teams in charge of analyzing data for the commission are headed by senior NASA officials, including Ralph Roe, who last year worked on a study to speed up the Constellation project.

Stephen Metschan, the head of the Direct project, has complained loudly about the potential for bias. "I don't think they'd want me reviewing their stuff," Metschan told the Orlando Sentinel.

But according to Phil McAlister, a NASA official assigned to the committee, the panel has "set in motion" efforts to bring in non-NASA experts to help with some of the analysis.

"The NASA review team is perfectly capable of performing all the analysis we need, but this is an independent committee and on specific tasks or specific topics" it would be preferable to have non-NASA analysis, he said.

The committee has also had to fend off political pressure _ especially from lobbyists and lawmakers unhappy with a White House directive that the commission's recommendations must fit into NASA's projected budget, which the Obama administration has just reduced by $3.1 billion through 2013.

Among those who told Augustine to ignore the budget was U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who confirmed that he told Augustine not to feel bound by the budget.

"What I said is what I always said: that these initial numbers out of the Obama administration in 2012, 2013 and 2014 are too lean," Nelson explained. "We have to plus that up if we are going to have a space program and do the things that Obama has said. The goal is on the moon by 2020."

Whatever the outcome, there is a sense in the space community _ and in NASA _ that the committee must be seen as completely unbiased to maintain its credibility.


(c) 2009, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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3 / 5 (2) Jun 18, 2009
The Augustine Commission appears to already be a "done deal". Loaded with members that are beholden to NASA dictates and money, NASA will rule. Did you know, no one can submit any ideas directly to any member of the Augustine? Everything must be submitted ( read filtered) through the NASA website. The CONSTELLATION PROGRAM is falling apart, thank the gods, because it was a really atupid idea in the first place. NASA wants it so it will probably get the "green light" anyway. The real tragedy here is, the SPACE SHUTTLE is being crushed by NASA. We could have built an entirely new space system around the SPACE SHUTTLE, capable of reaching Mars. We need somebody with real vision to take the reins of NASA. Count me out, I'm 67 and falling apart. Please visit my website that was 5 years in the making: and see ONE way, just ONE way of many, that the SPACE SHUTTLE could evolve into something grand. Thanks, Daniel Sterling Sample Space Designs in L A. P.S. Anybody who doesn't see how stacked the deck is for NASA needs to go to the eye clinic ASAP
1 / 5 (1) Jun 18, 2009
Just a little add-on regarding submitting ideas to the NASA website that supposed to be passed on to the Augustine Commission (it has been called the Committee,but it was commissioned by the President of the United States so it should properly be called COMMISSION) Anyway, I sent NASA the patent pending of my space design "SPACECRAFT LAUNCH AND EXPLORATION SYSTEM" which consisted of 13 pages of description and four pages of detailed drawings USPTO No. 61/199,422 which represents 5 years of my life and never heard a word from NASA or the Augustine Commission. General Bolden,where ever you are, it is time to step up to the plate. Good Luck, DAniel Sterling Sample Space Designs
1 / 5 (1) Jun 18, 2009
not rated yet Jun 19, 2009
There once were an ice cream vendor. One day, a few of the cooks made a new ice cream called the Pogo Pop, with wonderful taste and allure. The commoners were summoned to introduce them to the imminent release. Other hard nosed cooks started to take the wrapper off and licked at it at every angle, commenting on how long and top heavy it was, how too much cream and sugar were expended to make it sweet and creamy, how flimsy was the wooden stick that was used to hold the whole thing proud and high. By the time the commoners were in attendance, the Pogo Pop was a sorry sight, only a thin veneer of ice cream was left on the long wooden stick. The vendor owner were nonplussed, and said to the commoners:"this is the finest ice cream we have come up in years. If you suck at the wooden stick really hard, you can get the taste of the Pogo Pop we are about to introduce."

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