In a plenary address Friday afternoon at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, presidential science advisor John Holdren devoted a few minutes towards the end of his speech about what the administration has done in the area of NASA policy. The speech certainly contained no surprises for anyone who has been following the topic the last couple of years, yet provided a good summary of the administration’s thinking on the topic to an audience that, by and large, hasn’t followed the subject as closely.
“This is kind of a complicated story,” Holdren said by way of introduction. “NASA has been a big challenge for this administration because we inherited a space program in disarray at NASA, in some degree of demoralization, after years of mismatch of resources and the vision.” He described the Bush Administration’s “grand vision” of returning humans to the Moon, but noted the required budget resources were never provided, even while science and aeronautics programs “had been gutted in NASA to feed Constellation.” He then discussed how the Augustine Committee examined that situation and had concluded that Constellation “was unexecutable for any plausible budget scenario.” His description of how Ares 1 and Orion would not be ready until 2017, while the ISS, the initial destination of that system, would be deorbited in 2016, generated some laughter in the audience.
“So we developed a plan, a comprehensive plan, to rebalance NASA’s programs,” he said, discussing the extension of the ISS to at least 2020, commercial crew and cargo development, more science and technology development work, and “looking at more diverse destinations for crewed missions that could be visited more expeditiously than going to Mars and landing astronauts on its surface, or even returning to the surface of the Moon.” He showed a picture from President Obama’s visit to Cape Canaveral in April, walking with Elon Musk at the SpaceX pad with the Falcon 9 in the background. Holdren noted that since that photo op the Falcon 9 has flown successfully twice, including December’s Dragon test flight.
“There were a lot of arguments about the president’s proposals,” he said, in perhaps a minor understatement, eventually leading to the NASA Authorization Act last fall. That bill was a “compromise” that he said “contained quite a lot that the president wanted and that the NASA leadership wanted, but also reflected a congressional preference for using existing technologies and contracts to develop a replacement for Constellation’s heavy-lift rocket by the end of 2016, rather than spending more time developing new technologies and getting that heavy-lift rocket somewhat later.” That bill “had a lot of what we wanted and it was the best we were going to do, so we took it.”
The FY12 budget proposal, he said, funds “every element” of the authorization act, although not at the levels in the law, something he acknowledged. “Some of those arguments are rooted in challenges arising from a lack of a 2011 budget,” he said. He added that “the omens of success for commercial crew… have been improving,” citing the Falcon 9 launches as well as “the entry of one of Constellation’s prime contractors into the commercial crew competition.” He didn’t mention that company, although earlier this month ATK, which had been building the Ares 1 first stage, announced its CCDev proposal for Liberty, a rocket derived from the Ares 1. (Boeing, another major Constellation contractor, received a CCDev award last year.)