NASA gets Real

ORLANDO, Fla. — Future NASA space programs must be affordable, sustainable and realistic to survive political and funding dangers that have killed previous initiatives, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden says.

Speaking at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ aerospace sciences meeting here, Bolden says that trying to attain affordability, sustainability and realism has become his “mantra” while negotiating with officials in the White House and the Office of Management and Budget, as well as Congress.

Affordability “is dominant,” while sustainability is needed to survive multiple sessions of Congress and presidential administrations. “One of the best ways to help ensure that is through greater international cooperation,” he adds. The element of realism is also vital, he says. “We can’t continue to promise something that is unobtainable.”

Commenting on the forthcoming completion of the space shuttle program and the emergence of commercial human spaceflight services, Bolden emphasizes that NASA is “not walking away from human spaceflight.” Commercial companies such as SpaceX and Orbital Sciences will “provide access to space, while NASA does exploration, which is expensive and risky and dangerous. We want to be able to continue human exploration of the universe far beyond low Earth orbit [LEO], and that is NASA’s role.”

Bolden drives home the point that NASA’s initiatives to support commercial resupply of the space station and its longer-term focus on exploration are essentially symbiotic. “We have got to get commercial entities to get stuff to the station. That’s critical, because we won’t go anywhere if we don’t get beyond LEO. My job is to facilitate success of commercial entities while NASA does the job of exploring — it’s a partnership. It just takes incremental steps, but have faith — we’ll get there.”

Major challenges now facing NASA include questions over first-stage liquid propulsion choices for the future heavy-lift launch family, as well as technology directions for human exploration of deep space. “We’re in the midst of trying to decide what the next heavy-lift system should be,” Bolden says, referring to the “critical decision” facing the agency over whether to adopt a liquid oxygen/hydrogen or liquid oxygen/kerosene/RP (rocket propellent) solution. “That’s a critical decision because from that you determine the rest of the architecture.”

For the longer-term human exploration goals, Bolden says a priority is to study alternative nuclear, electric and solar propulsion technology options for faster transit times than are currently possible with chemical-based systems. “The game-changing opportunities lie in in-space propulsion. We have to be able to go from one point to another much faster than we do today. There has to be changes in in-space propulsion if we intend to do the things we want to do.”

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