The Augustine Committee and the Future of Space Exploration

Written by James Heiser on October 27 2009.

Top among them is that NASA does not have enough money to fund a human spaceflight program. The agency needs at least $3 billion more each year to accomplish the goals of exploring beyond low-earth orbit, while maintaining the International Space Station and other scientific programs.

While the entire human spaceflight program costs each citizen a mere seven cents per day, according to the report, getting more money for NASA has been a struggle. There are signs, though, that the Obama administration could provide a little more cash for human space exploration. ...

Three key bones of contention remain between the Augustine panel and members of the House like [Gabrielle] Giffords [D-AZ]. The first is the role of commercial space companies like Bigelow and SpaceX in taking astronauts to low-earth Orbit. The Augustine panel had a rather bullish view on their capabilities. ...

A second disagreement exists over the role of the Ares I rocket. Most of the Augustine members felt that it was an unwise investment. Instead, they recommended that a modified version of a heavier rocket, the Ares V Lite, should be used for trips to the moon. That would effectively kill the Ares I program, begun under Scott “Doc” Horowitz, who left the agency in 2007.

“The Committee finds the Ares V Lite used in the dual mode for lunar missions to be the preferred reference case,” they wrote. ...

The last major difference between the Augustine commission and what Congress voted for in Constellation is the way NASA would get back to Mars. The Bush vision was to land on the moon first, learn from that experience, and head to Mars. The report gives a tepid endorsement of the viability of the plan.

“A long-duration exploration of the Moon is a step towards Mars, but not a giant step, and not the only possible step,” they wrote.

The Augustine report clearly favors a different option they term the “Flexible Path,” which would prioritize getting to near-earth objects first, then allow for landing-less trips to the Moon or Mars.

A move in the direction of more involvement for private enterprise would be a step in the right direction, and it appears that this committee recommendation is already being echoed within the leadership of the space agency. As NASA Administrator Charles Bolden declared in an October 20 speech to the National Association of Investment Companies:

The law that created NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, as amended, gives NASA an often overlooked mission. NASA’s founding legislation states that we will “seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space.” ...

Whatever the President’s decision [regarding the Augustine Committee report], America needs NASA and private industry to work to achieve our national goals in space. This means that NASA must determine efficient and effective ways to leverage the power, and innovation of American industry and the American entrepreneur.

NASA has many tools for this. We can buy more needed products and services in a commercial manner. In the 1920s, the U.S. Post Office became a major customer for airmail, which created the demand that justified the private investment in many airlines. NASA is doing something similar right now. We are engaged in a new program — the Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research program — that will buy space transportation services from the emerging reusable spaceflight companies to conduct science research, technology development, with a keen focus on education.

Administrator Bolden’s reference to the Post Office may not be as ill-considered as Mr. Obama’s recent analogy was, but it still provides an opportunity to build on the analogy: What space exploration needs are the equivalent of FedEx and UPS. Several companies such as SpaceX are pointing the way to expanding the role of private companies in space exploration.

Space exploration is arguably still in its earliest stages, and yet “Space Age” technologies such as satellite radio, satellite television, and GPS are now all simply taken for granted. If the “government option” begins to actually get more free market competition, the sky is no longer the limit. Government regulation has been a substantial impediment. As David M. Livingston wrote for the Cato Institute (“Barriers to Space Enterprise”):

It is important for government regulators and interested parties to realize the economic potential as well as the benefits that can result when space commerce is not damaged by barriers. This is an important first step in furthering space enterprise. For space commerce to prosper, the barriers must be minimized, simplified, or eliminated. As much as possible, barriers to space enterprise must not become part of new laws and regulations affecting space commerce. By understanding the consequences of these barriers and the way they handicap business opportunities in space, we can effectively work to ensure that such barriers become a thing of the past.

Space is usually viewed by governments and militaries as their domain. As such, these public organizations don't want to relinquish their control over who and what goes into space. Applying constructive pressure to government officials and elected representatives is helpful. Vigilance, however, will be required at every step along the way as the regulatory forces are strong and many nations with diverse interests and priorities want to be part of the space economy.

Successful commercial space ventures make powerful statements and strongly support the case for eliminating or reducing the space commerce barriers. As we move forward into a new era of space expansion and commercialization, eliminating bureaucratic, legal, and financial barriers should be a priority. In addition, the commercial space industry must understand that its actions and behavior need to reflect an acceptable ethical business standard. Otherwise, the industry runs the risk of bringing on an era of unprecedented regulation regarding its commercial space development activities.

Rt. Rev. James Heiser has served as Pastor of Salem Lutheran Church in Malone, Texas, while maintaining his responsibilities as publisher of Repristination Press, which he established in 1993 to publish academic and popular theological books to serve the Lutheran Church.  Heiser has also served since 2005 as the Dean of Missions for The Augustana Ministerium and in 2006 was called to serve as Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Diocese of North America (ELDoNA). An advocate of manned space exploration, Heiser serves on the Steering Committee of the Mars Society. His publications include two books; The Office of the Ministry in N. Hunnius' Epitome Credendorum (1996) and A Shining City on a Higher Hill: Christianity and the Next New World (2006), as well as dozens of journal articles and book reviews.

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