With all the media’s attention being focused on health care legislation, strategies for Afghanistan and rampaging shooters in Texas, it is not surprising that virtually no one noticed the publication of yet another report by a government-sponsored commission. But this report by the Review of Human Spaceflight Plans Commission chaired by Norm Augustine is so important to this country’s economic health and national security it cannot be ignored. The future of the U.S. civil space program, our national security and our industrial and commercial interests in spaceflight are all at risk. In the 20th Century you could not be a great power without a navy and an air force. In the 21st Century a great power is one that can readily operate in space.
The Augustine Report warns that due to the retirement of the Space Shuttle and delays in developing a suitable alternative launch capability, the United States faces a protracted period in which it will be dependent on foreign and commercial launchers to send astronauts into space, primarily to the International Space Station (ISS). However, the ISS is scheduled to be deorbited in 2016, before the new launch system is likely to be available. Unless NASA gets additional resources to keep the Space Station in orbit longer, the rationale for the current shuttle replacement system goes out the window. But, I guess if you are not a road project in California, you cannot expect a government handout.
NASA simply does not have the money to take this country’s men and women into space in the years ahead. The Obama Administration has continued the last administration’s practice of starving the organization of needed resources. But the truth is also that NASA operates according to rules and patterns of behavior that make it particularly ill-equipped to operate in the 21st Century. According to the report, NASA has a sclerotic workforce system, inadequate program planning capabilities and an inability to harness the energy of the burgeoning private space sector.
There is an important national security issue arising from the Augustine Report. The current domestic industrial base for large solid-rocket motors consists of a single company. That entity has been surviving of late on a trickle of orders from the military and a similarly small infusion of funds from NASA. If one of these streams should dry up, the other will be insufficient to sustain that company’s current capability to build solid-rocket motors. Simply put, the United States could lose its ability to make large rockets whether they are space vehicles, ICBMs or submarine-launched missiles. This would amount to unilateral disarmament via the budget process.
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