Despite the federal government shutdown, the US Naval Institute proceeded with a history symposium titled “Past, Present, and Future of Human Space Flight” at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, on Thursday. “The conference IS NOT AFFECTED by the government shut down,” the conference website stated, but that was only partially accurate. The shutdown in particular caused some changes to the lineup of speakers, as NASA personnel who had scheduled to participate were no longer able to.
This could be seen clearly in the midday panel about the International Space Station, which was to feature four NASA astronauts, including a video link to astronauts Mike Hopkins and Karen Nyberg on the station. That live link wasn’t possible, but the organizers were able to get a brief recorded video message from the two astronauts. Another scheduled participant, astronaut Chris Cassidy, was actually at the event but could not be on the panel because of the agency’s interpretation of the shutdown rules. However, it did not prevent Cassidy, a Naval Academy graduate and active duty Naval officer, from talking to a crowd of midshipmen during a break in the conference.
The shutdown also prevented NASA administrator Charles Bolden from participating in the last panel of the day, featuring representatives of companies developing commercial cargo and crew systems. Bolden, though, did provide a statement that the panel’s moderator, Commercial Spaceflight Federation president and former astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, read at the beginning of the session. In it, Bolden emphasized again the need for full funding of NASA’s commercial crew program. “Any reduction to the proposed level of funding for the commercial crew program will result in a delay” from the planned 2017 date for beginning those flights, according to the statement. “We are not helped by the current shutdown and will likely threaten our ability to make the already-delayed operational readiness date for commercial crew.”
One of the three commercial crew companies currently funded by NASA has already experienced some effects of the shutdown. Mark Sirangelo of Sierra Nevada Corporation said that the good news in the development of his company’s Dream Chaser vehicle is that they were able to anticipate many of the issues they faced in preparing the Dream Chaser engineering test article for its upcoming first glide flight at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center. “The bad news is that I didn’t anticipate everything I needed to anticipate. No one told me that, in the event of a US government shutdown, that the gates of Edwards Air Force Base would be locked and I can’t get to my space vehicle,” he said. “Assuming the government does get its act together and they un-padlock the gates, we will be flying the first test flight of our vehicle here very shortly.” Sirangelo said afterwards that the Dream Chaser was effectively ready for the test flight when the shutdown started, but that they need the NASA and Air Force personnel and resources currently unavailable during the shutdown to carry out the flight.
The agenda changes caused by the shutdown, though, offered some different, and no less interesting, insights from replacement speakers. The revised ISS panel replaced the active-duty NASA astronauts with some former astronauts, as well as former NASA administrator Michael Griffin. In his comments, Griffin said that the greatest long-term value of the station is its multinational partnership. He suggested, though, that this international partnership wasn’t alone sufficient to keep it operational. “The current administration hasn’t found any difficulty in canceling multinational programs,” he said, referring to the Constellation program. When pressed on this by the panel’s moderator, Miles O’Brien, Griffin confirmed that he considered Constellation, whose key elements—the Ares 1 and 5 rockets, Orion spacecraft, and Altair lander—were all planned to be developed by NASA, a multinational effort. “It was a multinational effort… It was fully intended to be.”
Later in the panel, Griffin endorsed continued operation of the ISS through at least 2020, if not beyond. “We spent all this effort, all this political capital, all this fiscal capital to built the space station, why would you think about anything other than trying to keep it functioning as long as you possibly could?” he said. “I don’t know of another large capital project on Earth that somebody puts a sunset on like that.” Of course, during Griffin’s tenure as administrator, NASA had committed to using the space station only through 2015.