Sunday, September 13, 2009

Dr. Griffin on the Augustine Committee - Part 1 of 11

As should come as no surprise, former NASA Administrator Griffin has some issues with the preliminary report issued by the Human Space Flight Plans Committee (the new Augustine Committee). In the spirit of Spinal Tap, he has decided to "take it over the cliff" to 11. He has sent out 11 comments on the Augustine Committee's work. I think Dr. Griffin did some good work as NASA Administrator (for example, getting the Shuttle safely back to work, COTS cargo, etc), so I don't want to make it seem like I disagree with everything he did or does. However, I do have some things to say about his 11 comments, so here's part 1 of an 11-part series. Dr. Griffin's comments are the numbered ones in itallics.

1) It is clarifying to see a formal recognition by the Commission that, based upon budgetary considerations, "the human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory". Given that the Constellation program was designed in accordance with the budget profile specified in 2005, yet has since suffered some $30 billion of reductions to the amount allocated to human lunar return (including almost $12 billion in just the last five fiscal years) this is an unsurprising conclusion, but one which provides the necessary grounding for all subsequent discussions.

When the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) was formulated, it was known that there would be budgetary ups and downs (with an emphasis on the downs, for anyone trying to be realistic and prudent) during the many years of development for this vision. That's why the VSE was intended to be a "pay-as-you-go" effort. That's why the words "sustainable" and "affordable" appear so many times in the VSE document. The current NASA effort based on the Ares rockets is not sustainable, as the Augustine Committee makes clear.

Dr. Griffin should wonder why Constellation isn't getting such a lofty budget. Could it be that the "Apollo on Steroids" approach isn't attractive to the public or to the space industry? Could it be that the cost and schedule overruns made the Bush and Obama administrations wary of Constellation promises? Could it be that numerous other parts of NASA had their budgets cut during the Griffin years, and now priorities have changed and they are getting back some of the money that went to Constellation? Could it be that Constellation doesn't address the purpose of the VSE? The purpose is not "human lunar return", but rather "to advance U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program" in the context of "international and commercial participation". Constellation isn't doing any of that, so why give it a lot of funding?

Also, be careful when adding up the Constellation budget cuts. The human spaceflight budget is just a place marker while the direction of this effort is evaluated. In addition, look at changes in what is considered "Cross-Agency Support" compared to the original VSE budget.

Finally, if Griffin agrees that Constellation is on an unsustainable trajectory, why didn't he do anything about it? This didn't just start in the last few months. Why didn't he set up a program that could adjust to budget realities, or change the program when budget realities could not longer be fantasized away? If he couldn't fix the problem, why didn't he raise an alarm?

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