From the mouths of astronauts

Last week the Baker Institute in Houston issued a report on space policy recommendations for the Obama Administration. Since two of the lead authors were George Abbey and Neal Lane, the conclusions they suggested should not be surprising for those who have followed their previous work: extend the shuttle to continue support of the ISS, and refocus the agency to more in energy and environment research. They would cancel the Ares 1 and some other elements of Constellation, but preserve the Ares 5 for eventual missions to asteroids and comets, and if necessary, the Moon.

in today’s Houston Chronicle, the paper sought feedback on the proposal from a number of former astronauts. Their feedback is mixed. John Glenn agrees with the plan’s renewed emphasis on the ISS, and Sally Ride supports the focus on energy and the environment. However, Franklin Chang-Diaz thinks the problem is that NASA “was given a bad deal” but not being properly funded. Walt Cunningham also thinks that the agency has been “ridiculously short of money for years now” and, while supporting bypassing the Moon, doesn’t like the emphasis on the environment (apparently because of his skepticism about climate change.) Kathryn Thornton worries that a focus on energy and the environment would be “a permanent re-direction” given the scope of the problem, and Gene Cernan thinks other organizations—or billionaires—would be better suited to tackle the problem: “We have other agencies, environmental groups and oil companies, auto companies and T. Boone Pickens to figure out how we can survive and save the world.”

17 comments to From the mouths of astronauts

  • Vladislaw

    I thought the same thing about redirecting to energy. That is what DOE is for.

  • I agree with the above comment, let those other federal agencies do the jobs they were meant to do. Let the DOE deal with energy issues and let NOAA and the EPA deal with climate change issues. Sure NASA can work with these agencies to help them achieve their missions but it shouldn’t be NASA’s main mission.

  • Commenter

    NASA has a highly skilled technical workforce that is funded by the federal government. If one wants to make an issue over department turf and responsibilities, then why not consider moving a portion of the NASA workforce to DOE? After reading this blog for over two years now, I have not seen any solid argument for space being anything more than a low to mid-level priority for the Nation. If anything, its importance has diminished in light of the economic turn of events over the last year.

    I realize that the technical work for DOE programs is conducted by national labs/contractors. Thus, this would really mean shifting resources from NASA to DOE, and letting the jobs follow. However, this would be messy and create more hardship on an already burdened workforce.

    It is far easier and better for NASA to carve out resources to support energy work, and get in line with national priorities.

  • Doug Lassiter

    NASA indeed isn’t chartered to address energy independence issues or environmental preservation issues, at least not directly. Those are widely acknowledged national needs, but by no means NASA-specific. But the problem here isn’t what national needs NASA shouldn’t be addressing, but what needs it should be addressing. Returning to the Moon unfortunately isn’t a national need for which the value has been expressed with any real clarity. The importance of such a return is somewhat elusive, and what a previous poster terms the “main mission” for NASA may just not be as compelling anymore. (No, the idea that China might be able put footprints inside of ours isn’t a national threat.) Energy and environment are therein just being proposed as survival issues for the agency. Not pretty, and mainly excuses for continued support that stretch the charter.

  • Ross C. Taylor

    Based on budget, I would say NASA is treated as a low level priority. The NASA budget request for 2009 was $17.6 billion or ~1.8% of the US discretionary budget. This money funds science (including climate change research), aeronautics (included aviation safety research), space exploration, and space operations. In fact, I am impressed by how much NASA can do with its budget. The EPA requested $7.1 billion and the DOE requested $25 billion for their missions.

    I will concede that NASA’s space exploration and space operations work does not address a specific national need. However, NASA solves hard problems as required for space travel and this work reaps huge rewards in our lives. NASA has made tremendous contributions to communication technology, weather monitoring, health system technology, food safety, and MEMS technology, just to name a few. Who knows what technology will come from NASA’s development of a Lunar outpost and a human Mars visit?

  • Keen Observer

    The Department of Energy is WORTHLESS when it comes to energy science. The DOE has always been about nuclear weapons stewardship from its inception, and if you folks are going to be waiting around for the DOE to do some actual useful energy science, you’ll be waiting a long long time.

    Since the DOE refuses to do this kind of work, and indeed is incapable of doing anything remotely similar to it, then this falls on both NOAA and NASA, fortunately so, in that it happens to be their specialty, along with the NSF.

  • Kevin Parkin

    Again, the conclusion here is that science belongs in the universities. They have been advancing it for a thousand years, whereas today’s government structures are ill-suited to support it.

  • Doug Lassiter

    Who knows what technology will come from NASA’s development of a Lunar outpost and a human Mars visit?

    Unfortunately it’s just those “who knows’es” that strike budget planners as fairly lame. If we based our federal budget on “who knows’es”, they would say with some justification that we’d be in deep doo doo. I believe our nation should have some healthy respect for serendipity, but that’s a tough call.

    That NASA solves hard problems is true, as is the fact that it has made important contributions. But the same can be said for lots of investments. Many would argue that those contributions could have been developed more cheaply had the money been given to another agency. But what it comes down to is the Moon. Why do we need it?

    Yes, I know, we have to “move out”, and we need to “be inspired”. We have to “beat ‘dem Chinese”, practice for Mars, (oh, and I guess we need people to mine 3He), but just I don’t know how to convince the American taxpayer of all this. Those words don’t do it. They don’t light the fire.

    Since the DOE refuses to do this kind of work, and indeed is incapable of doing anything remotely similar to it, then this falls on both NOAA and NASA, fortunately so, in that it happens to be their specialty, along with the NSF.

    It’s certainly arguable that they “refuse to do it”. What’s more, the idea that if one agency with the scientific and technological talents to do energy research doesn’t do it, then the agencies without as many of the scientific or technological talents should be charted to do it is ludicrous. In fact, the fusion energy program at DOE is at the $0.5B level, about half of which is for participation in ITER. Sure, that’s a small fraction of the total DOE budget, but it’s hardly because DOE refuses to do it. The NRC was quite complementary of their efforts in a recent review of the DOE fusion energy programs.

  • Outraged American

    Again, the conclusion here is that science belongs in the universities.

    And that would be a WRONG conclusion. In fact, that has to rank high on the list of the all time DUMBEST statements ever made. For anyone still sitting around wondering why America is literally in the toilet, there you have it.

    Charles Darwin would disagree. Science belongs everywhere. In your homes, in your schools, in your hearts and in your minds. And get this, anyone can do it, anytime, applied to any problem, anywhere. Science.

    What a concept. Want to fail? Pray. Want to succeed? Scientific methods.

  • Drew

    Again, the conclusion here is that science belongs in the universities.

    … and, by that logic, human space flight belongs in the movies.

    Science is what works at NASA. Science is what you can argue really delivers at NASA. Science is what the the contemporary American public is fascinated by at NASA. Human space flight is noble, brave, and, with regard to the effect of space on the human organism, scientifically kinda interesting. But at least right now, it doesn’t deliver anything of conspicuous value.

  • Major Tom

    “Again, the conclusion here is that science belongs in the universities. They have been advancing it for a thousand years, whereas today’s government structures are ill-suited to support it.”

    Where do you think the money comes from to fund research at universities? The science fairy?

    Very ill-informed…


  • Kevin Parkin

    My point was that I’ve seen firsthand how government carries out scientific research, and I’ve seen firsthand how academia carries out scientific research. On balance, I think that same money is spent far more honestly and effectively in academia, and I would like to see the administration increasingly spend the science budget there.

    Sadly, the funding in some fields almost does come from the science fairy. This is especially the case where the risk of funding new ideas is involved. The government has a disappointingly low tolerance for risk, and it seems to me has been aligning its R&D portfolio with specific fields and goals. This misses out a lot of promising work, and consequently, some of the other more ‘saleable’ fields are returning to a time when science was advanced by philanthropy.

    Personally, I don’t think the philanthropic model for science cuts it, even in the last century, though it’s for the people to decide if it’s the government’s job to fund all fields or anyone with a new idea. I believe that the government has presided over a long term decline in the health of its R&D base over the past few decades, but it was society and its priorities that let that happen. Blogging on this was a lonely affair a few years ago, and it’s good to see it provokes some emotion now.

  • red

    Here’s a comment I made on NASA Watch on the “Abbey Lane” (as NASA Watch so musically put it) report:

    I agree with a lot of the items in the proposal, but I’m going to point out a couple things that don’t make sense to me.

    1. Keep the Shuttle flying until 2015 – Why would Obama risk a major political setback from having another Shuttle disaster in a Shuttle flight beyond those needed to finish the ISS? Everyone knows the Shuttle is dangerous, so if there’s an unnecessary disaster he’ll get the blame. Not only that, but it’s too expensive.

    2. Do the financial numbers add up? The only big savings I saw in the proposal was to cancel Ares 1. (Yes, it also suggested cancelling manned lunar surface items, but how much money is really going into that now or in the near future?) Now I know that Ares 1 is a huge black hole where money vanishes without a trace, but is it *that* big of a black hole? In exchange they’re proposing to have NASA:

    – do a big ramp-up of Earth observations and science
    – increase robotic space science
    – start a new effort in energy, including non-space work
    – shrink and redevelop Orion
    – replace Ares 1 with another vehicle to launch Orion (it would be an existing vehicle, but I assume it would not be totally free)
    – deal with Ares 1 shutdown costs
    – fly the Shuttle until 2015
    – presumably support Soyuz flights to ISS still (since Shuttle can’t serve as a crew rescue vehicle for long stays)
    – ramp up ISS use
    – develop Ares V or an Ares V equivalent
    – do manned missions to asteroids or comets
    – have a major increase in aeronautics work
    – do demos of Space Solar Power
    – new propulsion research program with DOD

    Ares 1 is really expensive, so I agree that you could do a good chunk of this in its place. Personally I think even the better chunks from the above items are worth the trade, since I don’t see value in Ares 1 – if anything Ares 1 is a minus because it competes with commercial space. But trade all of this for Ares 1?

    As far as I can tell this is all done using traditional in-house NASA development. I don’t see anything about commercial space in all of this, except as a possible development in 2015-2020 that NASA might take advantage of. Thus I’d expect a lot of this to be expensive (eg: Shuttle).

    Are they counting on more NASA funding? Major inputs from other space agencies? I’d like to see an unbiased professional look at the likely budget for it all.

    3. What happens to COTS cargo while we keep the Shuttle flying? Would we lose our developing, and from my point of view extremely important, commercial space launch capabilities? Would NASA have to pay to shut them down (since they did put skin in the game)? The proposal should address this point.

  • red

    InfiniteFrontier: “Let the DOE deal with energy issues and let NOAA and the EPA deal with climate change issues. Sure NASA can work with these agencies to help them achieve their missions but it shouldn’t be NASA’s main mission.”

    I find myself in the uncomfortable position of defending a part of the report, when I disagree strongly with key parts of it (such as extending Shuttle operations to 2015, and the report’s silence on the central issue of NASA policy: NASA use of available commercial services and NASA encouragement of new commercial services where an achievable market to complement the NASA market can be found).

    That being said, I agree with the report’s call to bring NASA’s strengths to the table in the efforts to solve the energy and environment problems. I don’t particularly care if it’s those problems that are chosen, but I do think more of NASA’s attention should be directed to solving widely recognized national problems.

    I think the report goes a bit too far in suggesting that NASA resources be used in some cases for non-space, non-aeronautics energy and environment efforts. There may be special cases where NASA has just the right skills and resources, and if so that’s fine, but I’d hope that such cases would come with appropriate funding from the real responsible organizations.

    I also don’t think these efforts should be “NASA’s main mission” as InfiniteFrontier puts it. NASA can do a lot of other things at the same time if it doesn’t squander its resources on money pits like the Shuttle and the Constellation approach to getting to the Moon.

    I do think NASA should make strong contributions towards solving energy and environment problems in its sphere of expertise compared to agencies like DOE and NOAA: space and aeronautics. This is clearly in NASA’s charter already. As the report notes, NASA has been building environment monitoring satellites for several decades.

    As is usually the case, the way NASA goes about making its contributions are the key issues that will decide whether such a move would be a disaster or would help open the space frontier. For example, NASA could, as the report sort of hints, pour tons of money into a “big iron” project like a big SPS demo using the Shuttle. I could picture such a project keeping the Shuttle busy for years and the benefits almost non-existent. We’ve seen that scenario play out already.

    On the other hand, NASA could make big strides in space while working on environment and energy space projects if it goes about it without the usual jobs program focus. Maybe, just maybe, that’s possible if NASA is addressing national concerns that maybe, maybe would overrule the traditional workforce maintenance priority.

    If NASA focused on small environment missions, it could be a crucial customer for reusable suborbital RLVs and smallsat vendors, helping to open up these new commercial space industries that would be beneficial to the economy, the environment, and the many other potential users of these new services.

    If NASA focused on traditional environment satellites including environment monitoring instruments hosted on commercial satellites, it could give a big boost to the traditional commercial launchers and satellite vendors. This could help those industries in the marketplace, and could also help other users of their services (like DOD, NOAA, etc).

    If NASA switched the next human spaceflight mission to helping monitor the environment, and did this in a commercially-friendly way, the resulting Hubble-style astronaut servicing of environment satellites and the Earth monitoring jobs done on space stations could be the rationale for developing space infrastructure like reusable tugs, refueling, commercial space stations, and commercial crew launch.

    There are many other environment missions NASA could do that would help space development at the same time. The same is true for energy. Of course, as I mentioned there are also many ways of doing it that would not be nearly so beneficial. That’s why the destination, or the national problem to address, is usually only part of the discussion.

  • “Red,” I’d like to cut’n’paste these ideas on my blog, but if you’d like to restructure them into an essay, I’d run that as a guest. Of course, Jeff might also want an article for The Space Review…

  • red

    Rand: Go ahead and cut and paste, critique, expand upon, or whatever seems appropriate. It would be good for me to get a refined version out there, but I don’t think I’ll be able to do that at the moment.

  • […] week I noted here the mixed reception from former astronauts to a the recent policy paper by George Abbey and Neal Lan…, one that proposed foregoing a return to the Moon in favor of more of an emphasis on energy and […]

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