Apollo 17 Commander Eugene Cernan recently voiced his doubts and concerns over the future of the human spaceflight program, while former Lockheed-Martin CEO Norman Augustine
Many in the New Space media have disparaged Cernan’s comments about this administration’s direction in space. Following each article, most comments attribute various nefarious or personal reasons for the position he holds. In contrast, Augustine’s remarks are praised, mostly on the grounds that he has embraced the “new direction” of using “commercial” space entities to transport people and cargo to low Earth orbit. I note in this dichotomy a recurring theme in the national debate we are having on the direction and tactical implementation of our national civil space program. That theme has many dimensions, but can be summed up as follows: if you agree with the new path, you are a wise, thrifty visionary, but if you have doubts or reservations about this path, you are a short-sighted reactionary, stuck in the past, a lover of political pork and incapable of understanding the true brilliance of the new policy.
What did Cernan actually say? He has doubts about many of the claims made regarding “New Space,” specifically claims in the press about costs, schedule and capabilities. Cernan’s point is that it’s easy to design paper rockets and make hyperbolic claims about “new approaches” but in the business of space, things don’t always work as expected. Cernan also questions what markets will support commercial space (much of the focus is on NASA contracting with New Space companies to service the ISS with cargo and crew) and even questions the designation “commercial,” both on the grounds of the aforementioned non-existing markets and the reliance of some commercial space companies on NASA funding to develop their product.
What does Augustine have to say about this? He is much more sanguine about the possibilities of commercial space, saying that they are coming along “ better than I expected,” an assessment that is somewhat vague on metrics. Augustine’s principal message is that NASA is not getting enough money. He claims that another $3 billion per year would make all the difference between a good program and an “unexecutable” one. He also took the time to take a couple of shots at one of his long-standing targets, the Moon as a destination, commenting that spending billions and 25 years to “go back to the Moon doesn’t inspire anybody.” He did note that a brief stop at the Moon might be allowable, if it were really necessary on our way to Mars.
New Space companies claim that they are commercial enterprises developing new space vehicles. If they are truly commercial, what markets do they serve? NASA is a government agency and has contracted for products and services from its beginning. A commercial company takes money from investors and sells a product or provides a service for profit. Commercial companies have access to NASA technology, so why do they also require and receive government subsidies?
I don’t see anything in Gene Cernan’s remarks that I would characterize as “short-sighted.” He is asking legitimate questions and expressing concerns about significant changes (and of the use of the term “commercial”) to an effort that he both deeply understands and to which he’s dedicated his life. New Space advocates tell us that vast new markets await the advent of new commercial launch services and that they’ll be launching multiple payloads frequently, at a fraction of current launch costs. If questioned further they dismissively wave off debate by saying NASA is simply a bloated federal agency and that the ticket to lower launch costs lies in putting those federal dollars into New Space hands.
In contrast, Augustine is pleased with the progress of commercial space companies. And despite being dubbed “ the mission to nowhere,” NASA and the administration appear undeterred about keeping Flexible Path as their guiding direction. It is clear from this interview and some previous remarks that Augustine’s primary objective during the work of his committee was to eliminate the return to the Moon as an agency objective. He clearly views lunar return (as many in NASA’s leadership also choose to characterize it) as a re-boot of Apollo, with the same objectives and (more or less) the same architecture, a gap-filler on the way to Mars.
For the last two years, I have discussed and documented the purpose of the Moon in the Vision for Space Exploration and how the Constellation/Augustine perspective is wrong. The objective of going to the Moon is to learn how to live and work on another world using local resources to create new capabilities. What perplexes many is that the Augustine committee report states that the ultimate rationale for human spaceflight is understanding how people might someday live and work in space and then it went on to eliminate the one goal (living and working on the Moon) relevant to that objective.
Some honestly oppose this new direction because they see it as fundamentally flawed – a shell-game attempt to divert attention away from the ongoing, systematic dismantling of our national space faring capability. The exchange of a definitive goal (the Moon) for a “flexible” series of quasi-goals (an asteroid, martian moons) is a recipe for Brownian motion and nonproductive agency chaos. “Investment” in studies of “new and revolutionary technologies” is a euphemism for widget-making, mostly of devices with limited or questionable relevance to future spaceflight. And the transfer of responsibility for space launch and transportation to the “commercial” sector is simply government contracting by another name, only without the same product assurance. Statements (marketing?) suggesting that SpaceX will send a human mission to “Mars in 10-20 years” does not engender confidence in the Chief Designer’s understanding of the realities of space travel.
Many educated, thoughtful people, with years of experience in space business, are concerned about this new direction. They are speaking out not because they are old fuddy-duddies mired in past glories, but because they have serious issues about the claims being made and the irreparable harm being done to our national space capability. They also see the removal of a clear strategic direction as a serious problem, one that will leave the agency burning significant amounts of money to little benefit.
As for my “rose colored” glasses, suffice it to say that I think Gene Cernan is right to be concerned about the future of space and that Norm Augustine is wrong about the Moon. Some of us may have our heads in the sand, but that’s better than where the heads of some others are.