I was at the Augustine committee meeting in DC yesterday, the first public meeting (of four currently planned) to solicit input on the future of NASA’s human spaceflight plans. Since the process is just now underway, it’s hard to draw too many conclusions about the meeting, but I did want to pass along some thoughts and observations from the meeting for those who weren’t there:
* The meeting was very much an information-gathering meeting, and at times seemed like drinking from a firehose: they went from 9 am to 5 pm with only a short break (originally 30 minutes, but stretched out in practice to more like 45) for lunch. The meeting was a series of presentations, ranging from the status of Constellation to proposals for alternatives, as well as perspectives from the White House (science advisor John Holdren), Congress (Rep. Pete Olson and Sen. Bill Nelson, with submissions read for the record from Rep. Ralph Hall and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison) and international partners (ESA’s Jean-Jacques Dordain and Roskosmos’s Anatoly Perminov).
* If the committee members had any initial opinions about the current status of NASA’s activities, they largely kept them to themselves, instead keeping to asking questions or making some basic concluding comments at the end of the day. Three of the ten committee members – Charles Kennel, Lester Lyles, and Sally Ride – had prior commitments and were not at the meeting.
* The afternoon session was largely devoted to either alternatives to the current Constellation system (EELV, DIRECT, and a shuttle-derived side-mount proposal) and COTS/ISS commercial resupply. A lot of attention in particular was devoted to the DIRECT concept, presented by Stephen Metschan. Depending on your point of view the committee seemed either interested in or skeptical about the idea (I heard both reactions afterwards) although the latter seemed evident in Leroy Chiao’s question to Metschan: “Who are you guys?”
* More interesting than the DIRECT presentation, though (since the merits and demerits of DIRECT have been widely discussed for some time now) was United Launch Alliance’s presentation on EELV alternatives to Ares, perhaps the most detailed public presentation to date by the company on this. Michael Gass, president and CEO of ULA, said that a modified Delta 4 Heavy could launch Orion as early as 2014 with a performance margin in excess of 20%. That would require $800 million for a new pad and $500 million in human-rating work, and then $300 million a launch. He also said Atlas 5 could start commercial crew missions to ISS in 2013 (with another company providing the spacecraft); that would require $400 million in non-recurring costs and then $130 million a launch. Gary Pulliam of the Aerospace Corporation then followed with a summary of their EELV-vs-Ares study previously reported.
* In brief comments early in the day, Holdren reiterated that President Obama is interested in space, noting his conversations with the crews of the last two shuttle missions, adding that Obama would continue the practice in the future. Obama, Holdren said, “is excited by human spaceflight… this is a president who gets it, he understands the importance of space, he understands the importance of human spaceflight.”
* Several people, including Sen. Nelson, said that they believed that the committee has particular power to shape the future of the country’s human spaceflight effort with their recommendations. “In essence, what you decide is going to be the significant influence for the White House, and therefore also for the Congress,” he said in brief remarks just before lunch. However, what the committee will provide is just that: recommendations. Augustine said in a press conference after the meeting that they would provide the White House with a number of options, graded against a set of criteria (risk, cost, capability) they are still developing. Like so many other panels in the past, it will be up to the White House and Congress to turn those recommendations into policies, plans, and legislation. And the historical track record is not necessarily promising.