Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX) kept his statement Thursday about the end of the final shuttle mission largely apolitical, thanking those who worked on the program and promising that it is “by no means the end of human space flight”. However, in an op-ed published Friday in POLITICO and co-authored by former astronaut Walt Cunningham, he is more pointed in his criticism of the administration’s space policy. “President Barack Obama shifted NASA policy away from human spaceflight,” they write of the administration’s move to cancel Constellation and support development of commercial crew capabilities, adding that “NASA’s plan for deep space exploration… leaves them without a specific destination and timetable. Really, without a mission.” (The administration has set some destinations and deadlines, including a human NEO mission by 2025 and Mars orbit by the mid-2030s, but these have been often criticized as vague or too far into the future.)
Cunningham and Olson devote some attention to NASA’s commercial crew initiative, saying it diverts “billions of dollars to a group of companies – most devoid of experience in manned space vehicles”. “We don’t believe that a private market capable of supporting a low-earth orbit system, independent of government, exists in the near-term. If it did, it wouldn’t need government support,” they write, concluding that “Space exploration is likely to continue to be a government-sponsored mission for the foreseeable future – if the U.S. is to retain its preeminence in space.”
While these criticisms of the agency’s plans are hardly original, they do add something new. “In coming weeks we, with others committed to the HSF [human spaceflight] program, will offer a more detailed plan to return to flight,” they state. They don’t disclose exactly when that plan will be released, but do offer some key elements of it:
•Spell out a coherent HSF mission, goal and timeline for the next 20 years. Manned missions to the Moon, and then Mars, should be part of this timeline.
•Return to the earlier NASA model of success: Adopt best practices to reform contracting, foster better communication between centers, eliminate activities not essential for space exploration and clear away bureaucracy.
•Assess the near-term potential and costs for commercial space companies to support both cargo and manned LEO missions to better understand the potential investment required by private investors, and the degree it may free NASA resources to focus on the deep-space mission.
•Make a quick decision on a heavy launch system and the necessary related technologies.
They don’t state what they will do with the plan once they release it other than a goal for “a long-term strategy, with specific policies, led and endorsed by Congress”.