Norm Augustine: Space Adviser

The IEEE Life Fellow was chosen to chair the Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans Committee

6 November 2009

When IEEE Life Fellow Norm Augustine was chosen to chair the Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans Committee in April, he did not take the role lightly. The committee, which includes nine other space experts, was charged by the White House with making recommendations on the future of U.S. human spaceflight.

“At the beginning of our meetings, I always reminded my colleagues of the seriousness of our responsibility,” says Augustine, who is a retired chairman and CEO of aerospace giant Lockheed Martin and a former undersecretary and acting secretary of the U.S. Army. This wasn’t the first time he’d been asked to lead an advisory committee on the future of the U.S. space program; he chaired a similar committee that reviewed NASA’s space programs following the Challenger failure.

“The risks are particularly high because not only is a large sum of money at stake, but so too are human lives and our nation’s image around the world,” he says.

Augustine and his colleagues delivered their report to President Barack Obama in September. Augustine hopes that the recommendations will lead to an exciting human spaceflight program that includes docking with asteroids, landing on Mars or on one of its moons, and establishing a permanent base on the moon. “I believe a human landing on Mars will be the principal focus over the next few decades of the world’s spaceflight programs,” he says. “But it all takes time and money—with money being the driving issue even more than technology.”

“Our committee unanimously concluded that the human spaceflight program currently being pursued is not executable due to a mismatch of goals and resources,” Augustine says. In short, there’s simply not enough money in NASA’s budget for what it wants to do over the next few years. The committee recommends more funding for the agency and that it partner on some missions with other countries and private industry.

For example, the Constellation program, launched in 2004, was to return astronauts to the moon by 2020 and establish a lunar launchpad for the first human trip to Mars. The program will not reach its goals in time, according to the report, because of insufficient funding and technical problems that have been encountered. Some US $3 billion a year more would be needed.

The committee also considered whether the space shuttle should continue or be phased out and whether U.S. involvement in the International Space Station should be phased out. (The shuttle is set to be phased out in 2010 and the ISS in 2015.) The Augustine committee recommended that the last six shuttle launches be continued into 2011 and that the country remain involved with the ISS until at least 2020.

The committee also found that the shuttle’s immediate successor will likely not be up and running before 2017. And it confirms NASA will need to rely on Russia's Soyuz to send astronauts to the ISS in the meantime and the private sector should be encouraged to ferry cargo and eventually crews into orbit.

“For the next seven years or so, the only way for a U.S. astronaut to reach the space station is to purchase a ticket on a Russian launch vehicle,” Augustine says. “That’s because there’s a problem in the NASA funding policy whereby to start new programs it must discontinue existing ones.” Check out a summary of the report.

Augustine may never have become an engineer had it not been for the fact that Princeton University didn’t offer a major in forestry. When he was considering college, a high school teacher asked him what he’d like to do with his life.

“Although I was interested in math and science, my principal interest having grown up in Colorado was the outdoors, so I thought I wanted to become a forest ranger,” Augustine says. His teacher was not pleased. “He said that was the ‘wrong answer’ and handed me an application to Princeton and told me to fill it out. The next thing I knew, I was on the train to that university.”

As a freshman, Augustine studied geological engineering, the closest field to forestry the university offered. The subject interested him, but he soon turned his attention elsewhere: to aeronautical engineering. He received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the subject in 1957 and 1959, both from Princeton.

In 1958, Augustine joined the Douglas Aircraft Co., in Santa Monica, Calif., where he spent the next few years working in its missiles and space division as a research engineer, program manager, and, eventually, chief engineer. “I was fascinated with the job. We truly were doing pioneering work in those days.”

After nearly a decade at Douglas, Augustine left to serve as assistant director of defense research and engineering in the Office of the Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon. “I worked there during the Vietnam War—a particularly trying time—and I traveled to Vietnam to check on our combat vehicles,” Augustine says. He returned to industry in 1970 and became vice president of advanced programs and marketing at LTV Missiles and Space Co., in Dallas. “I always viewed my career principally as being in industry because I like to help build and fly things,” he says.

After a few years, the U.S. government came knocking again. In 1973 he was appointed assistant secretary of the Army and, later, undersecretary and then acting secretary.

In 1977, Augustine joined the aerospace company Martin Marietta Corp., in Bethesda, Md., as vice president; he became the company’s CEO and chairman of the board in the late 1980s. In 1990 he was appointed to chair the White House’s Advisory Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program. The goal was similar to that of his present committee: to evaluate the long-term future of NASA and the U.S. space program. The group recommended the space program focus on five areas—space science, earth science, human spaceflight, space technology, and space transportation—with space science given the highest priority for funding. It also proposed an unmanned vehicle to replace some space Shuttle launches and warned of the likelihood of additional Shuttle losses.

Following Martin Marietta’s merger with Lockheed to create Lockheed Martin, Augustine became the new company’s president and six months later became CEO. He retired in 1997 to teach at his alma mater’s engineering school. “Teaching was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life,” says Augustine, who is now technically retired again but says he is working about as hard as ever.

Augustine sees a bright future for U.S. space exploration. “My hope for the space program is that ordinary citizens will travel to space safely—for a reasonable cost—to spend a few days in an orbiting 'hotel' and experience weightlessness, view the Earth, and observe space through telescopes,” he says.

Despite his success in industry, government, and academia, Augustine still feels he has much to accomplish.

“A reporter once asked what my definition of success was, and I responded that it was to be happy in life and to leave the world a little bit better than I found it,” he says. “Certainly the former is true in my case—and I hope I have enough runway left to make the latter true as well.”

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