What's In The Stars For NASA?

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Howard McCurdy, professor, School of Public Affairs, American University, Washington, D.C., visiting professor, Evans School of Public Affairs, University of Washington, Seattle, Wash.

Bill Adkins, president, Adkins Strategies, LLC, former staff director, House Space and Aeronautics Sub-Committee, Washington, D.C.

Elon Musk, CEO and CTO, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), Hawthorne, Calif.

Addressing the Kennedy Space Center Thursday, President Obama laid out his plan for the space program. He expects NASA to put astronauts in Mars orbit by the mid-2030s, but is counting on private companies to run trips closer to home. Ira Flatow and guests discuss NASA's future.


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

President BARACK OBAMA: I am 100 percent committed to the mission of NASA and its future.

FLATOW: That was President Obama, speaking yesterday at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, but we're not sure exactly what is the future of NASA.

That's what we're going to be talking about today. President Obama laid out his plans for the agency yesterday, and in a nutshell I guess you could say he's counting on private companies for short trips into low Earth orbit and is charging NASA with developing the technologies to go into deeper space, like Mars and beyond.

The president also questioned why anybody would want to go back to the moon.

President OBAMA: I understand that some believe that we should attempt a return to the surface of the moon first, as previously planned, but I just have to say pretty bluntly here, we've been there before.

FLATOW: Been there, done that, the president seems to be saying. So his vision calls for the cancellation of the Aries Rockets and the Constellation Program. Say goodbye to that return trip to the moon. And while the president said he's 100 percent committed to the agency and calls it a transformative agency for NASA, not everyone has characterized the president's plan that way.

Neil Armstrong, the first person on the moon, and some other astronauts have decried the plan as devastating. Buzz Aldren, who followed Neil, was not among them. He backed the president's plan.

So what's your take? What's in the stars for NASA? Is it the end of the glory days, or is it a much needed rebirth? Give us a call. Our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. You can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Go to our website at and start follow the discussion that's going on there.

Let me introduce my guests, if I may. Howard McCurdy is professor at American University, Washington, D.C., currently a visiting professor at the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington in Seattle, and he joins us from KUOW there. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Professor HOWARD McCURDY (American University): Good day.

FLATOW: Thank you, Professor.

FLATOW: Bill Adkins is the president of the think-tank Adkins Strategies in Washington and former staff director of the House Space and Aeronautics Sub-Committee. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. BILL ADKINS (President, Adkins Strategies, LLC): Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Elon Musk is the CEO of Space Exploration Technologies Corp., that's SpaceX, a private commercial rocket company in Hawthorne, California. And the president toured SpaceX's launch complex and viewed the Falcon 9 Rocket, scheduled for its maiden voyage next month. Elon, welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. ELON MUSK (Space Exploration Technologies Corp.): Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: Were you surprised the president came out for a visit?

Mr. MUSK: Yeah, it actually was surprising. We only learned about it the day before. So it was certainly a great honor, and yeah.

FLATOW: Was that his way of saying this is the direction I want to go in, do you think?

Mr. MUSK: You know, I can't speak for the president. I don't know the underlying reasoning, but I think certainly it's some level of support and endorsement, I think.

FLATOW: Howard McCurdy, is the president basically just saying that in near-Earth orbit we're going to go to private companies; anything out, we'll design our own rockets?

Prof. McCURDY: Well, it was quite a transformational speech when you think back to a couple of years ago, to when he was running for the presidency and there was a proposal leaked in which he suggested cutting $5 billion out of the NASA budget and spending it on education, which is why I think a lot of people, including Neil Armstrong, are fearful that this is a wolf in sheep's clothing, that it's really the end of the human spaceflight program.

So the people who wrote his speech yesterday tried very hard to say no, no, he's fully committed to the space program and has adopted as radical a strategy as President Kennedy adopted in 1961 when he decided to go to the moon. And I'd be glad to explain that if you want me to.

FLATOW: Well, let me play a cut of that, because when he talked about Mars, he had almost an identical language to President Kennedy's speech.

President OBAMA: By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth, and a landing on Mars will follow, and I expect to be around to see it.

FLATOW: That return them safely to Earth is directly right out of the Kennedy speech, is it not?

Prof. McCURDY: That's right. In April of 1961, President Kennedy wrote a memo to Lyndon Johnson and asked Johnson to research the space program and said: How can we beat the Russians? Can we beat them in putting a human in space? Well, no, Yuri Gagarin had already done that. Can we beat them to put up a space station? Johnson said no after consulting with some people in the space community. Can we beat them by flying around the moon? Johnson said no, the only way we can beat them is by landing on the moon, by leapfrogging all these other things that can be done in space and going further.

And this is like a three-point shot in a basketball game for Barack Obama. He's leapfrogging the moon and other suggestions and going deeper into space, which is what a lot of people had suggested and what constitutes the flexible path option in the Augustine Report.

FLATOW: Bill Adkins, do you agree?

Mr. ADKINS: Well, I think the president had to address the concerns of his critics, that the new direction he proposed a couple months ago lacked overarching goals and destinations and a timeframe, and so I think a key point of his speech was to lay out those goals, the destinations and the timeframes, and I think he really did answer the critics well.

He needs to balance the near-term goals with a vision for the long term, and I think the program that he's proposed is a balance between investment and technology for the long haul and meeting the near-term goals by engaging the commercial sector.

FLATOW: All right, let's talk about some of those definite goals that he had made, and let's begin by talking about something that none I don't think anybody had expected, and that was going to an asteroid, landing an astronaut on an asteroid. This is something that he laid out, saying that by 2025 we expect new spacecraft designed for a long journey. Let's listen to him say it himself.

President OBAMA: By 2025 we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first ever crude missions beyond the moon into deep space.

(Soundbite of applause)

President OBAMA: So we'll start we'll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history.

FLATOW: How do you why would he do that, Bill?

Mr. ADKINS: Well, I think he's laying out a plan of increasingly complex goals, and landing on an asteroid is a lot easier than landing on the moon because of the deep well of the gravity of the moon.

And so it's an easier goal, and asteroids themselves are interesting objects and are in fact keys to the origin of the solar system, and I think laying out achievable goals is a critical part of this plan, and not to set goals so high that they're unachievable and raise expectations too high. So I think that was an appropriate balance.

FLATOW: Elon Musk, where do you fit in, your company and private companies like yours? Where do you fit into the president's plan?

Mr. MUSK: Well, we're actually pretty central - when I say we, I mean private and commercial space transport, not just SpaceX - are really central to the president's vision and strategy. I think what this new policy recognizes is that NASA isn't going to get some huge increase in its budget, as occurred with the - in the Apollo era.

So if we are to make great progress and sort of make the next giant leaps for mankind, then it has to be done in an affordable manner, and the only way to do that is by harnessing the power of free enterprise, as we use in all other modes of transport.

FLATOW: So you're going to be like a customer then. NASA will hire people like you to go up and do near-Earth orbital missions for them.

Mr. MUSK: Yeah, think of us like a space line. You know, I guess we operate the mission as well. So I guess we're kind of like an aircraft company and an airline.

FLATOW: What was left unsaid in the president's speech was: What about the military, gentlemen? I mean, the military, you know, are they going to fly their giant satellites on their own rockets, or are they going to use commercial vehicles?

Mr. MUSK: Well, you know, the funny thing is, they already do use commercial vehicles. There's a lot of confusion out there as to what's commercial and what's not commercial, but Boeing and Lockheed have brought(ph) two families of rockets, called the Atlas and Delta, and they merged their business, so it's one it operates as one company called United Launch Alliance. And they they are the ones that launch all of the Defense Department satellites, as well as the NASA spacecraft missions like, you know, going to the interplanetary mission, the space telescopes and that kind of thing.

So it's in one way it's perhaps less radical than people think because it's really taking the approach that NASA already uses for their satellite missions, which is to buy commercial launch services, and extending that to human space flight.

FLATOW: But Howard, are they going to continue to do that model? Will the military still use these other rockets that were not mentioned?

Mr. MUSK: Yeah...

Prof. McCURDY: Well, I think that the model applies equally as well to the military and civil space. What's happening here is a globalization of the launch industry. It's sufficiently mature now that at least NASA can get out of the business of running an airline in a similar way that the U.S. Cavalry got out of the business of delivering the mail in 1925 and spurred the development of the aviation industry.

The big risk in all of this is whether or not private industry, with the incentives that competition provides, can do for, say, three to six billion dollars what NASA was planning on doing for about 30 to 35 billion dollars, developing the next generation of launch vehicles to get humans to and from low-Earth orbit. That's a big risk.

FLATOW: Bill, do you agree?

Mr. ADKINS: Well, I think there's a - part of the problem in having a debate about this policy is a lot of it's a debate about labels about what is commercial, and I like, whenever anybody asks that, to ask them: What does it mean to be government?

Because I'm not sure that that debate really serves a purpose. I think the real question is, is: How will NASA implement this policy? And the devil's in the details, and there are lots of nuances. So one area of concern is if NASA, as they proposed, is to put industry up to bid on fixed-price contracts. And this program is still in beginning stages, and no one truly understands the requirements and the technical complexity of it, and it's very difficult to put a fixed price on a complex development. And there's a long history of problems in the Defense Department with fixed-price, complex contracts.

And I think the debate about commercial versus government is really the way to look at it, and they really need to look beyond that at exactly how does NASA plan to implement that program, and does it balance the risks appropriately?

FLATOW: So you're waiting for the details to come out. The devil's in the details.

Mr. ADKINS: The devil's always in the details.

FLATOW: And we don't have those details yet. When we will start to see that?

Mr. ADKINS: Well, I think as I said, the president did a good job of addressing the critics' concerns about the overall goals of the program. Next week, Senator Mikulski is going to have a hearing with Administrator Bolden, who I think will follow up with additional details, and it will take some time for NASA to lay roll out those details and for members of the Congress to become comfortable with the plan.

But I think one of the problems, again, is it's a false dichotomy between programs that are driven by the government, and the government is the prime contractor role, versus we're just going to outsource everything. There's a lot of ground in the middle that can work for the program.

FLATOW: All right, we'll take a short break, come back and talk more with Howard McCurdy, Bill Adkins, Elon Musk, and your calls, 1-800-989-8255. Stay with us. We'll be right back.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about President Obama's speech to NASA down there in Florida, 1-800-989-8255. Let's get some calls in. Ron in Manchester, New Hampshire. Hi, Ron.

RON (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call. Something that's been bothering me about this whole thing: Obama retained the command module from the Constellation Program. He took the booster that was supposed to take it into low-Earth orbit.

I understand the whole thing using commercial vehicles to take into low-Earth orbit, but he also killed the program for getting heavy lift for getting us to Mars. Constellation was supposed to get us to Mars and everywhere else, including the moon.

I can understand taking the moon off of Constellation's itinerary, but to cancel the heavy-lift vehicle that's supposed to get us to Mars and at the same time talking about how it's his goal, that doesn't make any sense to me.

FLATOW: Let's see if I can get an answer, because the president did say in his speech that he's going to invest more than $3 billion to conduct research on an advanced heavy-lift rocket. Bill, what does that mean to you? Can you answer Ron's question?

Mr. ADKINS: Well, I think the president's speech I don't have it in front of me but it laid out to lock in a design, I think in the 2015, 2016 range, for a heavy-lift vehicle. In the near term, he intends to invest in R&D, and frankly, and one of the areas the United States needs to invest in technology is in propulsion and large propulsion. So I think there's a lot of benefit to that. And I don't think he walked away from heavy lift.

FLATOW: Did the president answer his critics who were worried about all the jobs that would be lost in the aerospace industry?

Mr. ADKINS: Well, he identified a program to create 10,000 jobs across the country, and I don't think the stage where the space program is today, I don't think there's a painless way out of the current dilemma. There just simply aren't enough resources.

But I think having a program that is achievable and sustainable will create more jobs over the long run, and the space program, if there ever was a program that's long term, it's human space exploration.

FLATOW: Chuck Lauer(ph) in Lansing, Michigan. Hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

CHUCK (Caller): Yeah, hi. First of all, I'd like to point out that the commercial system, even as it was before Obama and General Bolden took over the reins, actually worked.

My company, Rocketplane Kistler, was the other COTS One winner, and in our case we had some pretty heavy-duty financial milestones that we had to meet, and unfortunately we were going out into the marketplace in the middle of 2007 to go raise $500 million, essentially when the global financial meltdown was just starting to hit Wall Street, and long before it was generally recognized how bad the firestorm of financial hemorrhaging was.

So in our case, we won a contract. We got through all of our initial technical milestones, and our first financial milestone, and then when we had to go show the $500 million private sector matching check and nobody from Wall Street was willing to complete the deal - we actually had 350 of the 500 million raised, but it was an all-or-nothing proposition - under the terms of agreement, NASA had the right to cancel the contract, and they did.

FLATOW: So what's your point?

CHUCK: Well, the point is that commercial does work, in the - when we had a good reception to Wall Street for raising money for private sector servicing the government needs, and that was on a much thinner market than is out there now.

You now have Bigelow Aerospace looking at 15 or 20 private launches per year for humans and cargo, for private commercial space stations. You have crew plus cargo, and you have NASA having demonstrated that they dished out $3 billion of commercial cargo-launch services to SpaceX and to Orbital Sciences.

If we had had one of those contracts, we wouldn't have had any trouble raising the rest of our money, but the way the COTS program was originally structured, they were not dishing out the phase-two routine launch services agreements until later, and Wall Street in 2007 was conservative, and they said, well, if you had an order book, you'd be okay. But we didn't, so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHUCK: So the system works, and...

FLATOW: Yeah, let me ask Elon Musk if he agrees. Is the system working, Elon?

Mr. MUSK: Yeah. Actually, even this is sort of an example of healthy government contracting, or I mean - or aspects of it at least, in that for the NASA COTS cargo missions, which is basically a competition that demonstrates the ability to take cargo to the space station and back -NASA put out a competition; there were two companies that won the initial bid, Rocketplane Kistler and SpaceX. And we both worked with NASA to come up with mutually agreed-upon milestones.

We were able to meet those milestones. It was very difficult, but we were able to meet them. Rocketplane Kistler was not, and NASA then said, okay, if Rocketplane Kistler can't make the milestones, then we need to cut them from the contract, re-compete the funds and award it to a second company, which is what they did and awarded the funds to Orbital Sciences.

I do agree that there should have been, you know, a change to the way the program was structured in that it should have been if you succeed in completing these milestones and get to the end, there should be essentially guaranteed business from the government.

So I think that is something that should be changed in the future for how these contracts are done. But overall, I think it was an example of a fairly healthy process where because usually what happens in these government procurements is that they really get they prolong a situation where success is not one of the possible outcomes for far too long.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We have just a few more minutes. I want to go through another few points of the president's speech. He talked about a post-Hubble Telescope telescope. Is the Webb Telescope what he's talking about or mentioning something else here? Anybody want to chime in on that?

Prof. McCURDY: I'm talking about the Webb.

Mr. ADKINS: I think he's talking about the Webb. I'm surprised he didn't name it.

FLATOW: Yeah, I mean, I'm trying to think - don't we have the Webb lined up?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Isn't that coming, or has he got something else?

Mr. ADKINS: Well, he could be referring to interferometry missions, which would give capability for gathering data from extra-solar planets, but I assumed he was talking about the Webb.

FLATOW: Yeah, so I mean, that would take a few years to design from scratch if he was talking about not something you can just put together overnight.

Anything else surprising to you gentleman that the president left out or included?

Mr. ADKINS: Well, there was a rumor that he may try to extend the Space Shuttle program by a few flights. There's been legislation introduced to try to do that, but he was noticeably silent on that issue.

FLATOW: And how much of this do you think politically was to try to help him shore up voters in Florida, this speech?

Prof. McCURDY: I think a lot of it is a political transformation, that he's just seen the light and become interested in space exploration as part of the political process in Florida.

And this went back to the primary campaigns, when he was responsive, and people were finally getting to him and explaining what the issues were, people like Laurie Garber(ph), and I think he was very receptive to that.

FLATOW: And how much will Congress try to shape this policy now? Because they control the purse strings. Are they going to go along with this or slice and dice it?

Prof. McCURDY: We have a history of Congress following the president, ever since John F. Kennedy made his great pronouncement in 1961. The Congress tends to acquiesce in what the president says. And since the president's now moving in a forward direction instead of a cutting direction, they will probably shape the details but go along generally with the idea.

FLATOW: So none of you look at this as a really radical departure? It's a change but not a radical thing?

Prof. McCURDY: Oh, I think it's - I think it's a radical change.

Mr. ADKINS: I think it's a radical change from the Constellation Program, but frankly, I think it's returning to the core principles of the vision laid out in 2004. If you go back and read that document, I think it shares a lot of that. So it's a change from Constellation, but it's...

FLATOW: And while the president said he wanted to get to Mars orbit I love the language. I'm parsing the little words in the speech. He wanted to get to Mars orbit in his lifetime. He didn't talk about when he wanted to land and bring people back.

Mr. ADKINS: Landing on Mars is a very, very challenging technical problem to an entry, descent and landing. In fact, we've had several robotic probes that have not survived that for various reasons. So the level of difficulty of the problem of orbiting Mars as compared to landing on it is significant.

FLATOW: Well, I found that with the tremendous success and reputation of all those Mars rovers - that we didn't hear more of those kinds of robotic trips that might be in store, for sending back wonderful pictures from other worlds...

Prof. McCURDY: There were few notations about robotic missions, and there is money in the program for expansion of those capabilities. If you look at the Office of Science and Technology Policy Fact Sheet, which you can Google, it refers to the robotic missions.

FLATOW: But that was not the point of his speech yesterday. His speech was cheerleading?

Mr. ADKINS: I think it was more than cheerleading. I think he laid out substantive goals that were lacking in the original rollout of the budget.

Prof. McCURDY: You know what's amazing is that every president who was a senator or a congressman who has talked about cutting the space program when they get into office do not want to put their fingerprints on a decision to close down the human space flight program.

And I think that's the transformation you saw with President Obama, that once he's got the responsibility for the decision, he moves in a forward direction.

FLATOW: So he saw the light, as you say before.

Mr. MUSK: Yeah, I think what we really saw with the speech there was that Obama is sticking to his guns. I mean, he's sticking to the fairly radical changes that he initiated and the budget that was submitted to Congress in February, which was to, say, cancel the Constellation program to develop competitive commercial space transport and to develop the core technologies that are necessary to go to Mars and maybe even beyond one day. I think it's, by far, the best space policy that we've had since Apollo. I mean, that's my honest opinion, at least as far as, you know, human space flight is concerned. It's the only one that I've seen that has a possibility of significant success.

FLATOW: All right, gentlemen. That's a good place to leave it. I want to thank you all for taking time to be with us. Elon Musk is the CEO of Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, that's the SpaceX. Good luck on your launch next month, is it?

Mr. MUSK: Yep. It is. Thank you.

FLATOW: Good luck. Bill Adkins is the president of the global think tank Adkins Strategies in Washington, former staff director of the House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee. Thank you, Bill. Howard McCurdy, professor of American University at Washington and a visiting professor of the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington in Seattle. Thank you all for taking time to be with us.

Mr. ADKINS: Thank you, Ira.

Mr. MUSK: Thank you.

Prof. McCURDY: Thank you.

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