For over a year and a half the space community has debated what the future of NASA’s human spaceflight program should be, after the Obama Administration announced plans to cancel Constellation and focus more on technology development and commercial crew and cargo development. The outcome has turned out to be something of a hybrid: some funding for technology development and commercial crew, but also development of a new heavy-lift rocket and a crewed spacecraft (the latter, the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, effectively an uninterrupted continuation of Constellation’s Orion). But for the differences between the approaches of the current and previous administrations, one person suggests that they share a fundamental similarity—which may also be a weakness.
“I think there is, underpinning the debate, a fairly fundamental disagreement about how to carry out a long-term program of human spaceflight,” John Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, said in a presentation at the National Air and Space Museum last Tuesday. Some people, he argues, advocate for “re-creating the Apollo-era NASA, modified for the 21st century”, while others call for “a new NASA, one based on technological innovation,” as he described the two camps. “If you want to, you can call them the Griffin paradigm and the Garver paradigm,” he said, referring to former NASA administrator Mike Griffin and current NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver.
On the first approach, Logsdon said later he didn’t want to make it sound like attempting to “recapture past glory” couldn’t work, but past efforts to do so have failed. However, the alternative approach, he said, required “a radical paradigm shift, probably too radical for the political system to accommodate.”
Despite these sharp differences in how to do human spaceflight, Logsdon sees something in common between the two paradigms. “The basic Bush vision is the basic Obama vision: that human exploration beyond Earth orbit is the purpose of government-sponsored human spaceflight,” he said. “If one believes that human spaceflight is an important part of the US government portfolio, I believe there is a consensus that spaceflight has to include travel beyond Earth orbit.”
That condition in his statement, though, may be critical: does the nation really believe that human spaceflight is something the US government should be doing? “If you say you have to go beyond Earth orbit, the next question is ‘why?’, and we continue to search for one or several justifications,” he said. He worries that the space community may have concluded that human spaceflight is “inevitable and good and right and obvious”, but that the broader public is unconvinced. “So if you say that the only reason to send people into space is to go places, but there are inadequate reasons to spend the billions of dollars required to do that, where does that leave you?”