Interview: White House Panel's Chief Discusses NASA's Future
Orion approaches the International Space Station. Photo
Credit: Lockheed Martin Corp.

WASHINGTON ? The blue-ribbon panel asked by the White House in May to come up with a set of options for NASA?s human spaceflight future is expected to brief senior administration officials Friday on as many as eight such scenarios, according to retired Lockheed Martin Chief Executive Norman Augustine, the man leading the 10-member committee.

?My guess is there will be between six and eight options,? he told Space News, SPACE.com?s sister publication, in an interview Tuesday. ?We?re still mulling. There are some other options we?d like to add, but to give the president 15 options would be to do a disservice.?

The Augustine panel has spent the past two months reviewing alternatives to the U.S. space agency?s Moon-focused Constellation program, which includes the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and the Ares I rocket designed to launch it into low-Earth orbit. Last week the panel debated the merits of a list of seven options that ranged from the conservative ? including a plan to stretch out Constellation beyond its planned operational capability of March 2015 ? to more costly scenarios that would have NASA bypass the Moon and send humans to Mars.

The panel meets today to finalize its options before Augustine presents them to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and White House science adviser John Holdren on Friday.

Augustine made clear that he will be presenting options, not recommendations.

?We were asked to provide options and I would undermine the president?s ability to make a sound recommendation if I were to voice my opinion,? he said. ?But one of the major facts being weighed is what we can afford. I just don?t have the ability to judge that. I?d love to see us have a very aggressive human spaceflight program that would not damage the robotic program, I should emphasize, but I just don?t know what we?re going to be spending on healthcare and the two wars and how that will evolve. Only the president and the Congress are in a position to do that.?

Among the panel?s seven or eight options, two are expected to fit within NASA?s planned funding 10-year profile, which includes about $80 billion for manned spaceflight programs. In addition, Augustine said, the panel will provide more than one option ?with a commercial crew characterization? for getting humans to low-Earth orbit.

?I?ve developed a great deal more confidence in commercial spaceflight than I would have had at the beginning,? he said. ?I?ve always believed there was a great commercial role in the unmanned arena, but the more I?ve thought about it, the more I think that applies to the human arena as well.?

Augustine also said he has not seen any showstoppers that would prevent NASA from fielding Ares and Orion.

?All aggressive technical programs have problems. I?ve never worked on one that didn?t,? he said. ?For example, Ares I has some problems. Some of those problems have not yet been solved. Most are of an engineering nature, as opposed to requiring new science.?

He said while some of these issues could prove difficult to resolve, they are not unlike challenges NASA faced in developing the Apollo lunar program that in 1969 sent humans to the surface of the Moon for the first time.

?I look back at the problem Apollo faced at this point in time, and the problems that Apollo faced in my mind were much more serious than what one sees with the existing program,? he said. ?But the fact is that this is a new era, with a new risk-taking mentality, so I?m not sure that?s relevant. But it?s interesting.?

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