Norman Augustine: The Chairman

The former Lockheed CEO, science advisor extraordinaire, and 2014 National Air and Space Museum trophy winner reflects on his career.

Augustine listens to a question from the audience at a meeting of the Human Space Flight Plans Committee in 2009.

Norman Augustine retired as chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corporation in August 1997, after a 20-year career. An aeronautical engineer, he also served as Undersecretary of the Army, and at various times chaired the National Academy of Engineering, the Aerospace Industries Association, and the Defense Science Board. Augustine also is a world traveler who has stood on both the North and South Poles. He was awarded the 2014 National Air and Space Museum Trophy for outstanding achievement.  He spoke with Executive Editor Paul Hoversten in January.

Air & Space: The last commission on space you chaired, the Human Space Flight Plans Committee in 2009, had as its goal to assure the United States is on “a vigorous and sustainable path to achieving its boldest aspirations in space.” Yet, President Obama did not fully select any of the three paths your committee proposed.

Augustine: The president asked that we provide a set of options, not offer a specific recommendation. That was in part so we didn’t feel we needed to defend one particular proposal, and so we could take a more detached viewpoint. And it didn’t paint the president into a box. He did choose an option [with trips beyond the moon as precursor to a manned Mars mission] that was very close to one of our options. But the most important point our committee made was to be sure whatever option we choose as a nation, that we provide resources commensurate with carrying out that option. That’s been the biggest failing in the manned spaceflight program over the years—an inconsistency and incompatibility of resources and goals.

How much more money would it take?

By the estimates of our committee, about $3 billion a year for the human spaceflight program.

What would you cut in the NASA budget to get that?

I don’t think you could get that money out of NASA. One of the problems that NASA faces is it has enormous fixed costs. Just to maintain the NASA plant and send nothing into space absorbs a huge amount of money. Clearly there are efficiencies that could be gained that are substantial, but probably not $3 billion a year. So the choices are either to add funds, or scale back our goals. I would rather have a lesser program if that’s what it takes to match the funds to the work to be accomplished.

It’s clear from the report that your committee worked long and hard in assessing the state of the U.S. space program.

The committee was indeed a very hard working one. I’ve probably been involved in over 100 studies for our government in my lifetime, just a whole spectrum of different issues. And I’ve never worked with a committee that worked harder than this one. I think if there was any disappointment at all from the committee it would be that we haven’t found the funds to match the kind of space program that most of us would like to see.

Of all those committees, which do you feel was most influential?

I would have to pick three. One would be the National Academy of Sciences study [in 2005] of national competitiveness, which issued the report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm.” That had a very significant impact. The second would be the [National Science Foundation] study I chaired [in 2011] on the U.S. role in Antarctica that resulted in building a totally new South Pole station. The third would be the Hart-Rudman study of national security that when it was initially released [in January 2001] had zero impact, then right after 9/11 had substantial impact. It had recommended, for example, establishing a department of homeland security, which of course, was done right after 9/11. We had forecast not 9/11 per se, but an action of that type.

What do you think of NASA’s plans for an asteroid redirect mission, in which a robot would capture and push a near-Earth asteroid into lunar orbit for astronauts to study?

That was not a specific mission we considered, but we did strongly recommend landing on or orbiting an asteroid. From a purely scientific standpoint, it will undoubtedly be argued that it doesn’t merit the cost. But I think an extremely important point to be made that’s often forgotten by the science community is that the engineering community also needs the opportunity to learn. And this is the kind of thing that would be a great learning step for engineers. Too often we focus so much on the science, which of course is the end objective, that we just sort of assume the engineers somehow will get us to Mars and we’ll know how to build structures there and so on. I think this will have a huge engineering payoff.

If you had the power to authorize a NASA mission, what would it be?

For the long term, it would clearly be to put humans on Mars. The steps along the way as I see it are going to an asteroid, circumnavigating Mars, orbiting Mars, landing on one of its moons, and then landing on Mars. So that’s clearly the ultimate mission, but I think the steps along the way are very important as well.

What do you think of NASA extending the International Space Station’s mission from 2020 to 2024?

Our committee recommended going to 2020, and then at some point consider going beyond that. There are a lot of considerations that get into [ending the mission]. For example, other nations may say, ‘We’ll take it over if you don’t want it.’ And that would be an awkward position for the United States. To have spent that amount of money and only use it for a few years would seem to be unwise. On the other hand, in 2020 there will be some who will argue that it’s a sunk cost, and what happens in the future has to be justified based on the future. And that’s a reasonable argument to make. We don’t have the precision sitting here in 2014 to say whether it becomes non-cost effective in 2020 or 2024. But sometime in that time frame, we are going to have to face up to [the question], ‘Do we want to keep that operating?’ Just as we faced up to [ending] the shuttle operations, which was a very difficult decision.

Do you think Russia has been a reliable partner in the space station program?

I would say so, from what I know. I’m an outsider looking in. I know a little bit more about the commercial launch business with the Russians, and they’ve been very reliable partners in that area.

Every year, it seems, Russia is charging NASA more for Soyuz rides to the station.

Yeah, well, you sort of knew that was going to happen. I mean, when you have a unique position in the marketplace, it’s almost inevitable. That’s one of the prices we paid to be able to have money to spend on programs beyond the shuttle.

You must be encouraged to see U.S. companies competing to build spacecraft for those trips.

I am, and I think it’s very important for the government to be supportive of that. As you know, when there were a number of struggling airlines in this country, the government stepped in and gave them contracts to carry the mail and that really made the airline industry viable in this country.  One of the strong recommendations of our committee was to commercialize much more of the space program, and that’s been certainly far more successful than I would have imagined at that point.

Some people see China’s achievements in space as a threat to U.S. security. Do you feel that way?

There is obviously a competitive spirit. I travel in China a fair bit. I happened to be there when they did the first rendezvous [in November 2011], and it was a very big event there. But in the longer term, I would hope there could be a cooperative aspect, just as during cold war, we did some things with the Soviets that reduced the risk to each of us and also had some geopolitical benefits. What I see with China is the hope of opportunities. It does seem to be an important avenue to explore.

How many countries have you visited?

One hundred and twelve now. The ones I haven’t been to are ones that are difficult to enter. For example, I would very much like to go to Iran. I’ve tried three times, but never quite got in. I’d like to spend some time in Iraq. I’d like to go to Syria. I’ve not been to Pakistan. The countries on my list are a bridge too far at this point.

Do you see the United States as still the leader in aerospace?

Yes, but with a rapidly diminishing lead. Look at China. I first went to China in 1978 with a group from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The Chinese government had asked the U.S. to send over eight people to visit their facilities and industry and comment on them. At that time, China had virtually no capability. What they had was basically what the Russians had put there. I saw very few cars; people were either on bicycles or walked. I saw one adult, male or female, not in a Mao suit. I went into “clean rooms” that had concrete floors. It was a totally different world. When you visit today, they have a very impressive technological capability. What they’ve accomplished is truly a miracle. They’re attracting talent back from around the world, including the United States. They’re very committed. They have a plan and make decisions quickly and get on with it. Unfortunately, the direction Russia is headed in is just the opposite. Although Russia is still committed to building first rate-military aircraft, they’ve not maintained the capability that the Chinese are developing.

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