New space commission hit by déjà vu

By KEITH L. COWING, United Press International

WASHINGTON, Feb. 13 (UPI) -- The new presidential space commission used its first meeting this week to establish goals to guide its activities over the first two months of its existence.

President George W. Bush created the commission to oversee his new space exploration plan, which he outlined last month, through its initial birth pangs.


Chaired by Pete Aldridge, a former deputy defense secretary and astronaut trainee, the nine member "Commission on Implementation of U.S. Space Policy" has been given 120 days to produce its first report to the president.

In opening the meeting on Thursday, Aldridge made it very clear what the commission's task were -- and what they were not -- regarding the plan.

"Our purpose is implementation," he said. "We are not here to challenge the content of the policy. That decision has already been made."

Aldridge characterized the space plan as containing "sustainability and affordability" and he outlined four basic themes he said would drive the commission's efforts:


-- advancing the science and technology needed to implement the policy;

-- educating young people to implement a long-term space strategy;

-- developing new management skills to make things happen; and,

-- assuring prosperity for the United States and for all mankind.

The commission heard statements from a series of witnesses from the aerospace community.

Raymond Ernst, from the Aerospace Industries Association Space Council, called the commission "exactly what NASA and the government needed to maintain leadership in aerospace."

Ernst added, however, the overall vision for space exploration needs to "maintain a balance between human and robotic missions." Though he encouraged international participation in the effort, Ernst cautioned that the United States needs to be certain the international participants "bring adequate resources" to any collaboration.

"This is the right time for a national space vision," said Mark Bitterman, of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Space Enterprise Council. "Implementation will be done by industry and we heartily accept the challenge."

Bitterman suggested the commission consider recommending reconstituting the old National Space Council, noting since it has been disbanded space policy development has become more difficult.

Norman Augustine, chairman of the Advisory Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program, said his committee -- which operated in 1990 -- had linked problems in the nation's space program to the lack of a broad national consensus on America's goals in space.


In addition, the panel had found at the time that NASA was badly overcommitted, with a mismatch between goals and budgets and a lack of adequate funding reserves to cover schedule slippage and budget contingencies. The space

station was a prime focus of their concern, Augustine said.

While recommending a balance between human and robotic exploration, Augustine said his committee saw a clear difference between "Hillary and Norgay reaching the summit of Everest and throwing some instrument package up there."

Regarding the shuttle, Augustine said the committee had foreseen it never would become a truly operational system. "We should not ask astronauts to sere as truck drivers," he commented.

Augustine said the committee saw "a human trip to Mars as the correct long-term goal, using the moon as a stepping stone along the way."

He warned, however, the administration and NASA would make "a grave mistake to undertake a major new space objective on the cheap," and added there is "a tendency among NASA and its contractors to think that they can operate under any budget."

Former astronaut Thomas Stafford, also the chair of a space policy effort in the same time frame as Augustine, noted President Geroge H.W. Bush had made a public statement on July 20, 1989 -- the 20th anniversary of the first Apollo moon landing -- that America should return to the moon and then go on to Mars by 2019.


Stafford's group, called the Synthesis Group, had examined several thousand ideas for the U.S. space program between June 1990 and June 1991. One option the group found workable resembles the current plan. It assumed minimum resources and used a so-called spiral development approach similar to what was used to get to the moon in the 1960s.

The Synthesis Group also expressed an interest in nuclear propulsion and had recommended NASA restart its nuclear thermal rocket programs. Stafford commended NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe for emphasizing nuclear propulsion research at the agency.

As with Augustine's committee, Stafford's group had generated recommendations that presage those being made today:

-- long range strategic plans for exploration;

-- a new central office for exploration; and,

-- realistic program milestones.

Stafford also said he thought it was important that any space vision "starts from the president on down."

One theme that emerged from the discussions was the long-term nature of the new space plan and the need to find ways to sustain its momentum. Augustine noted even a 20-year time frame would require coordinating efforts through "20

budgets, 10 Congresses and five administrations -- that is no insignificant accomplishment."

Commission member Robert Walker cautioned that sustaining the new space plan would be a problem because "the budget process in Congress is broken (and) we rely on one-year budgets."


Another recurrent theme was education and maintaining a skilled workforce. Commission member Neil deGrasse Tyson observed that a half-million jobs had been lost in the U.S. aerospace sector in the past decade and therefore it would be "tough to tell students to come study aerospace."

Nevertheless, commission member Maria Zuber said, "If you look at the control room at (the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.) you will see a lot of young faces that kind of look like America. At (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) enrollment spikes each time there is a space mission. We need to sustain that."

Some people are not happy with the new space plan, however.

"Many space enthusiasts are grumbling," Tyson said, and added he found such expressions ironic because "President Kennedy gave us much less detail (as in) 'go to the moon.' President Bush has given us much more detail."

Much of the remaining discussion concerned cancellation of the space shuttle mission to upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope. Aldridge made it clear NASA made the decision due to safety concerns and it had nothing to do with the president's space policy. It reflected NASA's intention to follow Columbia Accident Investigation Board recommendations, he said.


Tyson said while the Hubble is "a marvelous accomplishment," there are new instruments coming that will seek to explore areas of astronomy that have not been addressed by Hubble -- or cannot be addressed by the Hubble. He cited the Spitzer Infrared Telescope and said it soon would be producing images of the same beauty and scientific significance of the Hubble.

The Hubble decision and the commission's discussions figure to be strongly related, however. Again and again, one member after another noted the importance of making the space program's value relevant to taxpayers -- something the

Hubble succeeded at doing over and over. Those successes should be embraced and repeated, the members agreed.


Keith Cowing is editor of E-mail [email protected]

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