Human Space Flight Review Summary Released

Those of us interested in spaceflight have been holding our collective breath this summer while we wait for the results from the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee (a.k.a. the Augustine Commission). Now they have released a 12 page summary of their findings, and it’s got some exciting stuff! As Ryan said, the summary is well-worth reading on your own, but, if you lack the time, here are some of the key points, seasoned with a little of my own commentary:

“The Committee concluded that the ultimate goal of human exploration is to chart a path
for human expansion into the solar system.”

“The Committee finds that no plan compatible with the FY 2010 budget profile permits human exploration to continue in any meaningful way.”

“The Committee further finds that it is possible to conduct a viable exploration program with a budget rising to about $3 billion annually above the FY 2010 budget profile. […] The Committee believes an exploration program that will be a source of pride for the nation requires resources at such a level.”

“Once the Shuttle is retired, there will be a gap in America’s capability to launch humans into space. That gap will extend until the next U.S. human-rated launch system becomes available. The Committee estimates that, under the current plan, this gap will be at least seven years long. There has not been this long a gap in U.S. human launch capability since the U.S. human space program began.”

Even more sobering: the Committee found no alternatives that will decrease the gap below six years unless we extend the Shuttle program, which, since the external fuel tank assembly lines have been shut down, only means delaying already scheduled launches.

“The return on investment to both the United States and our international partners would be significantly enhanced by an extension of ISS life. Not to extend its operation would significantly impair U.S. ability to develop and lead future international spaceflight partnerships.”

“The United States needs a way to launch astronauts to low-Earth orbit, but it does not
necessarily have to be provided by the government. As we move from the complex, reusable Shuttle back to a simpler, smaller capsule, it is an appropriate time to consider turning this transport service over to the commercial sector. […] The Committee suggests establishing a new competition for this service, in which both large and small companies could participate.”

Government-encouraged LEO launch capabilities could lead to lower launch costs; it could also mean new and exciting jobs for young aerospace engineers like myself.

“The Committee strongly believes it is time for NASA to reassume its crucial role of developing new technologies for space.”

That one can be read a couple of different ways, but it kind of sounds to me like a slap in the face over the use-as-much-existing-technology-as-possible philosophy of the current Constellation program. Some of NASA’s major returns-on-investment have been in terms of new technologies that can be applied to life on earth, and it’s important to continue that tradition–and to draw more attention to it–so that the average citizen knows what they’re getting from the space program.

“If humans are ever to live for long periods on another planetary surface, it is likely to be on Mars. But Mars is not an easy place to visit with existing technology and without a substantial investment of resources. The Committee finds that Mars is the ultimate destination for human exploration; but it is not the best first destination.”

“Significant space achievements require continuity of support over many years. […] NASA and its human spaceflight program are in need of stability in both resources and direction.”

In other words–politics need to lay off of NASA and let it do its job of exploring without the constant stress of its budget disappearing or mission changing as politicians do.

I’m sure there will be more to discuss as the Committee’s full findings are released and we hear what President Obama thinks of them. In the meantime, what are your thoughts?

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