Report Urges NASA To Shift Space Flight Priorities Enlist The Commercial Sector




Report Urges NASA To Shift Space Flight Priorities Enlist The Commercial Sector

By Mike Mitchell


September 9, 2009, The Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee recommended Tuesday that NASA shift space flight priorities and enlist the private sector in space flight. The committee believes the U.S. human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory. “It is perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources. Space operations are among the most complex and unforgiving pursuits ever undertaken by humans. It really is rocket science. Space operations become all the more difficult when means do not match aspirations. Such is the case today”. 

The Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans Committee (also known as the HSF Committee) is a committee reviewing the human spaceflight plans of the United States. Their goal is to ensure the nation is on "a vigorous and sustainable path to achieving its boldest aspirations in space." The review was announced by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) on May 7, 2009.  


The present plan for the Space Shuttle is to retire it at the end of FY 2010, with its final flight scheduled for the last month of that fiscal year. Although the current Administration has relaxed the requirement to complete the last mission before the end of FY 2010, there are no funds in the FY 2011 budget for continuing Shuttle operations. 

A summary report was provided to the OSTP Director John Holdren, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and NASA Administrator yesterday.  The committee is scheduled to be active for only 180 days.  

Members of the committee include Norman Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin and former chairman of the Advisory Committee on the Future of the United States Space Program, Wanda Austin, CEO of The Aerospace Corporation, Bohdan Bejmuk, former Boeing manager, Leroy Chiao, former NASA astronaut, Christopher Chyba, Princeton University professor, Edward Crawley, MIT professor, Jeffrey Greason, co-founder of XCOR Aerospace, Charles Kennel, former director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Lester Lyles, former Air Force general and Sally Ride, former NASA astronaut.  

The committee reported, “the nation is facing important decisions on the future of human spaceflight. Will we leave the close proximity of low-Earth orbit, where astronauts have circled since 1972, and explore the solar system, charting a path for the eventual expansion of human civilization into space? If so, how will we ensure that our exploration delivers the greatest benefit to the nation? Can we explore with reasonable assurances of human safety? And, can the nation marshal the resources to embark on the mission? Whatever space program is ultimately selected, it must be matched with the resources needed for its execution.”


The committee indicated that as a nation we should be utilizing the resources that are now available to further the goals of the space program. “There are actually more options available today than in 1961 when President Kennedy challenged NASA and the nation to “land a man on the Moon by the end of the decade.” First, space exploration has become a global enterprise. Many nations have aspirations in space, and the combined annual budgets of their space programs are comparable to NASA's."  

The committee believes if the United States is willing to lead a global program of exploration, sharing both the burden and benefit of space exploration in a meaningful way, significant benefits could follow. Actively engaging international partners in a manner adapted to today’s multi-polar world could strengthen geopolitical relationships, leverage global resources, and enhance the exploration enterprise. 

Furtherance the committee believes that there is now a burgeoning commercial space industry that with a well crafted space architecture would provide opportunities to this industry.  

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. 

The Committee’s task was to review the U.S. plans for human spaceflight. In doing so, it assessed the programs within the current human spaceflight portfolio; considered capabilities and technologies a future program might require; and considered the roles of commercial industry and our international partners in this enterprise.  

In considering the future of the Shuttle, the Committee assessed the realism of the current schedule; examined issues related to Shuttle workforce, reliability and cost; and weighed the risks and possible benefits of a Shuttle extension. The Committee noted that the projected flight rate is nearly twice that of the actual flight rate since return to flight after the Columbia accident. 

Recognizing that undue schedule and budget pressure can subtly impose a negative influence on safety, the Committee finds that a more realistic schedule is prudent. With the remaining flights likely to stretch into the second quarter of 2011, the Committee considers it important to budget for Shuttle operations through that time.

Although a thorough analysis of Shuttle safety was not part of its charter, the Committee did examine the Shuttle’s safety record and reliability.  

New human-rated launch vehicles will likely be more reliable once they reach maturity, but in the meantime, the Shuttle is in the enviable position of being through its infant mortality phase. Its flight experience and demonstrated reliability should not be discounted. 

Once the Shuttle is retired, there will be a gap in America’s capability to launch humans into space. That gap will extend until the next U.S. human-rated launch system becomes available. 

The Committee estimates that, under the current plan, this gap will be at least seven years long. There has not been this long a gap in U.S. human launch capability since the U.S. human space program began. 

Most of the integrated options presented would retire the Shuttle after a prudent flyout of the current manifest, indicating that the Committee found the interim reliance on international crew services acceptable. However, one option does provide for an extension of Shuttle at a minimum safe flight rate to preserve U.S. capability to launch astronauts into space.

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