The so-called “Great Debate” at the National Space Society’s (NSS) International Space and Development Conference (ISDC) in Chicago on Saturday afternoon featuring Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin and former Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart was something of a dud, in part because it wasn’t that much of a debate: after ten-minute opening statements by Zubrin (who opposes the agency’s proposed plans) and Schweickart (who supports them), the floor was turned over to the audience, some of whom asked questions of the two, and others who simply expressed their opinions. Conference organizers explained that the event wasn’t intended to be a debate between the two at all; the “Great Debate” title referred to the ongoing broader debate about the White House’s proposal for NASA (even though the Mars Society, in their own publicity about the event, called it a debate between Zubrin and Schweickart).
However, more interesting—and more of a debate—was an impromptu exchange between NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver and Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and someone who has been critical of at least some elements of the NASA proposal. It came together after Garver’s luncheon ran long, overlapping with a presentation by Pace on the budget proposal that was to serve as the prelude to the Schweickart/Zubrin event. (Told about the clash of schedules, she joked, “I’m going to filibuster so that no one can go hear Scott Pace.” The luncheon did end a few minutes later because the hotel staff needed to set up the room for another event.) Conference organizers then arranged to have Garver take some audience questions with Pace during his session for a short time until Garver had to leave for the airport.
What emerged was a debate about one key aspect of the NASA plan, the development of commercial crew capabilities. Pace is skeptical that it’s a wise move. “The issue that I think is one of the main differences is what role do you think the government should play in human spaceflight in the transition now, at the end of shuttle,” he said. “Some think we’re ready to go towards human spaceflight on a commercial vehicle; and I’m not.” He said such a shift to commercial providers is not impossible, but that it would lengthen the post-shuttle gap.
He advocated that it made sense to “press to MECO” and continue building Ares 1, even if a commercial crew program goes forward. He said it would taken $7.5 billion to complete Ares 1 by 2015 or 2016, then noted that there’s $2.5 billion in the proposal already for Constellation termination costs. “If I do Ares 1 I get a $5-billion downpayment for a heavy-lift vehicle, the Ares 5.” He suggested that Ares 1 be the fallback option should commercial vehicles fall behind schedule. “I believe in the public option,” he quipped.
Garver countered that continuing to develop the Ares 1 was neither wise nor affordable. “Private sector will not have the incentive to invest and develop that capability if we have, as you call it, a backup plan,” she said, arguing that the government should not compete with the private sector in this arena. She argued that developing Ares 1 would cost far more than Pace indicated. “We have a situation where it is going to cost $18 billion overall” to develop Ares 1, she said. By comparison, she noted, “the very first case for Ares was, as I recall, from Scott Horowitz: $1 billion and by 2010.”
“I know people look at the $6 billion for commercial crew and think, ‘oh, if we just use that to complete the existing program,’” she continued. “There’s not nearly enough available to do that.”