Hearing: Defining NASA's Mission and America's Vision for the Future of Space Exploration

Hearings held by the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, Subcommittee on International Affairs and Criminal Justice at the National Air and Space Museum on 9 May 1997

This is the nth congressional hearing I have attended since the early 1970s. Little distinguishes one hearing from another - and they all become one immense blur after a while.

Today's hearing was a departure from the norm. This hearing was held in the main gallery of the National Air and Space Museum, justifiably the most popular museum in the world. This was the first hearing ever held here.

Your typical congressional hearing on NASA usually occurs in a room with larger than life paintings of former committee chairmen looking down at you with little spacecraft swirling around their heads. Here, the real stuff is overhead - and the only exploits on display are those of real space explorers.

In his opening statement, the committee chairman pointed to spacecraft as he introduced his esteemed panel of astronauts. Throughout the entire hearing there was an unusual amount of "looking at the sights" by all involved. Being in the direct proximity of such an overwhelming preponderance of history - especially when Congress is deliberating the future of NASA - has an automatic effect upon you.

This was a hearing about the past as much as it was about the future - and the very disappointing present with which the two overlap. It seemed a common consensus that we should be a lot further along with the exploration of space than we currently are. Without exception, each participant was eloquent- either in expressing their personal passion for the human exploration of space and the importance of a frontier or a challenge in shaping and propelling America.

Buzz Aldrin began his testimony by noting the special location of the hearing, the three decades that have passed since he walked on the moon, and the vividness with which he still recalls the event - stating that " having walked on the Moon myself, I am still awed by that miracle". In referring to this awe he said " hat awe - in me and in each of us - for what this nation and people can bring forth when we try, should be - must be - the engine of future achievement, not a slow-dimming light from a time once bright". He noted that his mission - and the missions that followed built upon the know-how of thousands of people as well as the faith and commitment shown by the nation as a whole.

He cast his testimony as a call for action - " a call to all Americans - especially young Americans - to reach out for the stars, reach for greater knowledge, have faith in the future, and help re-inspire a renewed national commitment to human space exploration."

Aldrin called for a renewed program of exploring the solar system - of going back to the Moon - permanently, on to Mars, and then beyond. He also expressed he need for cheaper access to space and that consideration be given to space-based power sources.

Aldrin said that he hoped that this hearing would serve to reawaken the dream that inspired us to go to the moon - and that this awakening could start with Congress and other leaders. He said "I beckon you to let yourselves dream again, and you may yet hear what I hear what I hear ricocheting about the American public: Excitement and a willingness to take risks again - behind that excitement and willingness, a slow-growing call for renewed action".

In closing, Aldrin said that "space IS our final frontier, and that frontiers are essential for the advance of humanity, and for advance of individuals within the community of man..... let us join together and shoot for the stars, ad astra."

Walter Cunningham

Cunningham, in reading from his [prepared statement] made reference to the golden age of manned space flight noting that back then we took risks and accepted no limits on what we could accomplish. Today, he lamented, this approach to exploring space - and other endeavors - was "paralyzed by the desire for a risk free society".

Cunningham noted that America was founded by risk takers and suggested that it was people like Columbus and Armstrong that move us forward - not the Ralph Naders - indeed he felt that "with a Ralph Nader at the head of a wagon train, we would never have made it across the plains and over the Rockies".

Putting our past accomplishments in space - and our lack thereof in the past several decades, Cunningham said that " in the next century, no one will care how carefully and cautiously we survived the last third of the twentieth century. But they will celebrate our willingness to accept risk, to make a commitment, to expand our universe and to change forever the way we looked at our world when we decided to land a man on the moon."

A common theme already expressed by Buzz Aldrin, and to be repeated again and again through out the hearing appeared again - The only real limits are the ones we place on ourselves". Cunningham made reference to the Ming Navy, and how the Chinese emperor destroyed the fleet after it had made a triumphant voyage to India noting that since that since that time "China has not returned to a significant position of world power". The suggestion was clearly that after Apollo, America had done the same to its ability to send people to other worlds.

Cunningham said that America had lost its vision of space and read the highlights of a space policy plan he had developed - one submitted in greater detail for the record. Among the highlights: America's pre-eminence in space exploration is something we 'decide to do'; that long range goals are required; that the Space Station is a 'good start" but that "partnerships should be based on substance not appearance and politics - and we shouldn't have to subsidize our partners"; that funding for space exploration should be adequate and predictable, that space R&D is truly an investment; that launch costs must come down; and that strong leadership in space exploration needs to start at the top - with the President setting the tone.

He closed his opening statement by saying that "it is time for another leap forward for mankind! Commitment to any policy costs money and we are all aware of the current budget constraints. Congress, in meeting their obligation to the present should not forget their obligation to take a responsible approach to the future as well."

Ron Howard

Howard, in reading from a [prepared statement] started his testimony with a joke - he reminded the committee of a common story wherein someone in the midwest opens their door to discover someone who says " Hi, I'm from the government and I'm here to help you". Howard smirked and said, well here I am in Washington saying 'Hi I'm from Hollywood and I have something to say to you"

Clearly thinking he was the lightweight on the panel, I feel Howard distinguished himself by a genuine admission that "I am humbled by the people on this panel with whom I serve". In the testimony that followed, as a child watching wondrous things happen in the 1960's, I feel that he probably made some of the most poignant remarks of the entire hearing.

"Space has always fascinated me - it moved me as a boy, and now as a man". Howard began. He reminisced about his childhood stating that he grew up in an America that was "ambitious, courageous, and unafraid to take risks". He noted that our exploits in space "took a believing, unafraid nation". In acknowledging Apollo 13 - the movie and the mission - he noted that the event was one of "heroism ... of a tireless and ingenious NASA" and that it brought forth "the best of America as a nation".

Howard said that today he felt that America was faced with another crisis - a "slow- motion Apollo 13" and that we must "take stock of where we need to go in space". Noting that what we do in space depends on "the courage of our convictions he said that "without dreams we wither" and that "the future belongs to those who dare to succeed." He mused that it seemed that without the political threat of the cold war, "the national perspective for exploring space was curbed".

Howard closed by saying that he came from an industry that dreamed for a living, that he felt that this hearing could be the start of something big, and that it could stimulate a rethinking of where America wanted to go in space. He closed by saying that "as a patriot' he felt that "America should take a lead in space exploration and never look back".

Story Musgrave

Musgrave was the perfect follow on to Ron Howard. He opened his testimony by loosely reading from a [prepared statement] noting that he had been an astronaut for 30 years and that "Space is my calling. It is what I am, what I do". He noted that "every time the door opened I put my foot in it and took the fullest advantage" He suggested that he was well known as being "politically naive" and that it might well be an advantage in a place such as this hearing.

Musgrave immediately waxed philosophical and noted that he felt that he had a calling to "instill a stewardship of the earth" and that he felt we were "all becoming global creatures because of what we do in space." He went on to suggest that as we expand outward throughout the solar system, that our value system will improve - and that as we move even further out that adopt a "universal culture".

Musgrave was clearly in a mode to make suggestions as he departed the astronaut corps. He had 5 actions he suggested needed to be taken to further the exploration of space. The first was low cost access to space. None of what we need to do in space can happen if the cost is not cut significantly. Once again noting that he had been in the trenches for 30 years, he suggested that he would establish a mandate to lower costs - one which would force NASA, DoD, and commercial interests to make it cheaper to get things into space. - and that he would do so such that the best minds could figure out just how to do this. Musgrave looked back to Apollo and noted that "we had a mandate - to go to the moon and back within the decade" - one which allowed NASA and the nation to focus all activities - and that this spawned 4 programs in the course of 8 years.

The second item was to examine the way we do business in space. By this he meant that we need to take a "hard-nosed realistic look at what we are good at and what we are bad at". An example of where this might have been helpful is the space station which he noted "should not take 20 years" to complete.

In a bit of frustration, Musgrave said that we should just "get on with it - just do it!"

The third item was to start work on the human space exploration program that goes beyond that which is in place for the Space Shuttle program. He felt that technologies for human space flight should be closely re-examined. Specifically, he felt that time-proven, robust, safe, simple and elegant technologies - such as capsules should be revisited.

Fourth, Musgrave felt that America needs to evaluate its priorities in terms of resources - that is, what resources are needed for an earth orbital program. He expressed a concern that he did not want to see human space flight programs to "devour the rest of NASA's programs" and that NASA should only fly people when we need to fly them.

Collaboration, according to Musgrave, is essential - but that NASA needs to do intelligent, creative partnering - and that a clear evaluation of the strengths and weakness of partners needed to be evaluated. In a subtle reference to the International Space Station program, he noted that trying to "weld cultures together" would not "serve us well in spaceflight".

The fifth and final suggestion had to do with grass roots support for the space program. Musgrave felt that children are an incredible resource and often do not see themselves as being part of the space program even though they want to be part of it.

Musgrave closed by reiterating his simple theme that if nothing else America has "got to get on with it."

Richard Berendzen

Berendzen was clearly aware of his surroundings, as he read portions of his [prepared remarks]. He made note of the "icons" which surrounded the audience. In noting the sheer diversity of the visitors one can see walking around, he suggested that there can be no doubt of the popularity of space - and the things which have made this 'the most popular museum in the history of the world". Berendzen then suggested that the audience think of what the museum would look like 100 years from now - and of all of the marvelous things that could be on display - if we had the "verve" to continue to explore.

He then went on to recount the night he first saw Ron Howard's film "Apollo 13" He noted that the audience had been composed of "jaded Washingtonians" who stood up and cheered wildly at the end of the movie. Funny thing, I too saw the film here in Washington - and the audience did exactly the same thing.

Bernendzen repeated a theme which I have heard him speak to on other occasions. By the way, he can make a most riveting presentation - if you ever have the chance to hear him speak, by all means do so. Berendzen's theme had to do with exploration - why it is we do what we do, the importance of exploration - and of frontiers in shaping and inspiring civilizations, and the pitfalls that beset a civilization which shrinks back from a frontier.

He put it this way " While our forbearers traveled past their parents' boundaries, they also looked at the night sky in awe. To them, the heavens brought wonder and mystery. Like the explorers and pioneers before them, multitudes of people today want to reach the next frontier -- this time to leave cradle Earth, our birthplace our home, and to voyage to other worlds ... and thereby to develop new technologies and discover new insights."

As did several speakers before him, Berendzen sought to put our achievements in space into a true historical context - one where a few pivotal achievements of an age are often the only thing historians thing worthy of mention. He said that "centuries from now, even voluminous history books will truncate much of what engrosses us today. Recessions; political races, even many wars -- in tune, all these will become brief entrees in the sweep of human achievement. But a few achievements, a few extraordinary accomplishments, will tower forever.....The Apollo 11 landing surely will be one of these. Human landing on Mars will be another. Indeed, it and other related space activities could he benchmarks of the next millennium."

Berendzen, like Ron Howard, also touched on the value of dreams - and of the innocent yearnings of children as powerful motivators in our quest to explore: "Adults ponder these matters, yet such futuristic issues actually belong to the children. They are the stuff of their dreams and will shape their world. Children gaze at the night sky in awe. Adults, caught up in day--to-day concerns, can forget the wonder and lose the mystery. What a loss for the Nation when that happens, for child-like curiosity has inspired American achievement."

Peter Glaser

Peter Glaser is often referred to as the father of the solar power satellite concept - a proposed method of power generation whereby large solar panels would orbit the earth and relay power to earth via focused microwave arrays. This concept enjoyed a brief period of popularity in the late 1970's and early 1980's. It is to this topic that Glaser focused his comments.

In reading from a [prepared statement], Glaser noted that America had done little if anything to advance the concept of solar power satellites and, as such, that he had spent much of his time in the past decade or so in Japan. He noted that the Japanese had taken a number of important steps to demonstrate the technologies required for solar power satellites such as wireless transmission of power to an airplane from the ground and between a rocket and a satellite. He also noted that Russians had done some significant technology demonstrations including power transfer between Mir and a Swedish satellite.

Glaser made certain to note the ever-growing need for power on Earth and the difficulties that will arise as developing nations seek to generate ever-increasing amounts of power. He also outlined the economic realities of such an undertaking and balanced them with the potential benefits that could be realized should such a program be implemented.

David Criswell

In reading from a [prepared statement] Criswell continued along Glaser's theme adding more details to the means whereby solar power satellites - and generating facilities near the moon would operate. He noted that by 2050 the average power consumption on Earth would be 2 kw/person. He cited solar power satellites as a clean way to meet these energy demands - one which would "increase Earth's resources not deplete them".

Criswell noted that lunar resources are a throughly understood topic and that the technology exists now whereby these resources could be easily utilized for solar power satellite production as well as many other activities on the moon.

David Webb

Webb, a member of the National Commission on Space, which was in operation in the mid 1980's referred to the hearing as being a case of deja vu. He held up the first chapter of the commission's report "Pioneering the Space Frontier" and asked that it be inserted into the record. In referring to the report in his hand, Webb stated that America had "dropped the ball" in the intervening 11 years. He noted that "not one single element recommended in this report for implementation by the end of this century is even started yet - with the exception of the Space Station". Regarding the Space Station, he quickly added that it was "8 years late and $25 billion over budget."

Webb then asked what has happened so as to cause the US to be unable to produce a space station on time. He also noted that "the United States, supposedly the most advanced space power in the world, has now achieved the singular position of being the only spacefaring nation that has not designed and built a new rocket engine in the past 20 years. In that same period, Russia has designed and built seven, China three, Japan, Europe and India, two each. As result, all of our launch vehicles today are technologically outdated and overly costly to operate in comparison to those of others. Is it any wonder, then, that we have succeeded in losing more than seventy percent of the world space launch market in that same time-frame?"

Webb also concentrated on the need for Congress to pay closer scrutiny to the way programs were conducted noting that annual reviews can often cause budget priorities to be changed thus preventing the proper implementation of multi -year research and development activities. He cited the National Aerospace Plane as a perfect example of a program where real progress was being made only to see the project cancelled when funds were needed for other activities.

Closing thoughts

As the hearings progressed (at the beginning of tourist season) the day's onslaught of visitors entered the building. It soon became increasingly hard to hear the testimony. At this point I did a 180 and looked at those who were filtering in. Facial expressions and comments were a range of 'what's that over there' to 'who's THAT over there'. The guards seemed more interested in managing the body flow and hurried people along. Some stayed. Some listened. Every few minutes you'd hear "Oh, BUZZ ALDRIN" or "Oh RON HOWARD". The people who paid the bills got a glimmer of the significance of the day only to be hurried out of the way. Too bad this could not have been made into an event whereby this ever -plentiful, random cross section of America that flocks to this museum could have interacted - and provided input. These hearings often make rhetorical note of the 'interests of the American people'. How about input form ACTUAL American people?

Early this year, I watch the wonderfully uplifting "Star Trek: First Contact". I walked out of the theatre after my 3rd or 7th viewing and lamented that all of these wonders we could achieve might not happen, as they should, within my lifetime because of governmental cowardice.

Star Trek films often make use of time travel as a key plot element. As I sat waiting for the second panel to move into their chairs, I

I wondered what message I might impart upon policy makers of the 1960's such that we continued with a robust human exploration program. I also wondered what I could bring back from the past to stimulate today's policy makers to resume such a program.

For me it was rather poignant. Directly ahead of me, behind the committee's table, was a Nazi V-2 rocket. A number of years ago, my parents visited me in Washington and, of course, we came to the Air and Space Museum. I can recall my father's expression as he suddenly confronted the V-2. It was both smaller and bigger than he imagined. 1944: London: Marble Arch: His roommate went out to meet some friends down the street in a pub. My dad went to sleep. Suddenly, an explosion - and he was thrown through some french doors. Shattered glass and lots of blood but nothing serious. However, his roommate, having fun around the corner, never came back. There was my Dad, 50 years later, with a son who's career depended - and who's friends flew upon the direct descendants of the V-2. Today I find myself sitting a scant 20 feet from a member of the first lunar landing crew - and that very same V-2. Even in for a seasoned, cynical Washingtonian like me, the poignancy just doesn't get any better than this.

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on May 9, 1997 12:52 PM.

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