These are critical days for the future of Manned Space Flight. Conflicting views and advice come to the President and Congress from every quarter in the aerospace and science communities. There is good reason for the concern.
The U.S. for the first time since the beginning of the Space Age will have no way to launch anyone into space – starting next January.
Our astronauts will have to be launched in Russian spacecraft, from a Russian base in Kazakhstan, to go to our International Space Station.
Starting at the end of this year, and probably for the next five to ten years, the launches of U.S. astronauts into space will be viewed in classrooms and homes in America only through the courtesy of Russian TV.
For the “world’s greatest spacefaring nation,” that is hard to accept.
I do not believe it has to be this way.
Why is this important to our country and how shall we correct it? This situation was, and is, avoidable, but requires an immediate correction if we are to avoid the January 2011 cutoff now in place.
First, the big picture. From Founding Days, our nation grew, prospered, and took over a leadership position in the world because of our preeminence in education and research. The best educated citizenry in the world responded to macro-exploration and laboratory micro-research findings by creating new products, industries, and high level employment.
Geographic exploration did not have the sole purpose of just remaining alive during travel to new and distant places. Travel was followed by a period of learning about, and how to use, the newly found destination to our advantage. Space travel should be no exception.
Post Space Race – Research
Cold war competition between the United States and Soviet Union was the initial driving force behind the manned “race” to space. But following the Space Race, we turned to learning more about this new medium in which we now could travel. Research was the objective.
It was a fruitful beginning. Over 300 scientific and technical experiments were conducted on Skylab (early 1970’s) on medicine, solar, and earth resources.
The Shuttle first flew in late 1981 with its greatly expanded research and heavy lift capability (e.g., Hubble), but with a flight duration limit of 14 days. On Shuttle Discovery in 1998, we had 83 research projects on board. Before Shuttle Columbia’s tragic accident, they had 90 projects, which was typical of most Shuttle flights.
Space Station Freedom with an eventual six person crew was authorized in 1984 as a semi-permanent high-capacity orbiting laboratory capable of years-long research projects including long-term experiments and training for human flights into deeper space.
Freedom was soon renamed the International Space Station (ISS) as we invited 15 nations to join us as partners for these new space travel and research activities. That has proven to be a highly successful cooperative international project, probably the most successful ever.
The ISS has been a long and expensive project. After several years in the planning, the first of many elements of the ISS were taken into space, starting in 1998. Russia put their “node” in place on the first two missions, but the heavy-lift Shuttle has done all the construction since that time. The ISS has just now reached completion and ready for full service in the early summer of 2010.
ISS is a major national investment of $100 Billion, and has been officially designated a National Laboratory. Our 15 space colleagues have invested $12-15 Billion.
It is the most unique laboratory ever conceived and can now start research never before possible.
And it comes at just the right time as we are encouraging innovation and research to help spur our economic future. I believe major benefits for all right here on earth will come from this investment.
NASA’s planned manned space activities at the turn of the century were generally accepted to be:
Pivotal Year 2004
In 1989 on the 20th anniversary of the lunar landing, President George H.W. Bush proposed that we establish a program to return to the moon and go to MARS. In retrospect, it appears that there had been insufficient advance preparation with the Congress, science and space communities. There was little support, so the proposal was not pushed.
In January of 2004, however, President George W. Bush, reacting at least in part to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s (CAIB) criticism that NASA had no long term plan and support, didn’t just propose for discussion, he gave a new directive to NASA:
But there was one extremely important recommendation of the CAIB that was not followed in the President’s directive: adequate funding. There would be only a small token budget increase to start this very large, complex, and expensive program. With that very small dollar addition, NASA would basically have to do the best they could on their existing budget. To provide funding, the International Space Station (ISS) was to be closed down by 2015 and the Shuttles would cease operation by the end of 2010 (both by OMB direction). The ISS was still building at that time – just completed now in 2010 – but ISS research money was cut starting in 2005.
A completely new heavy launch system (Constellation) – both cargo and later man-rated – was to be developed to go to the moon and perhaps to other space destinations. Work has proceeded on Constellation through the years, with some $9 billion expended to date.
With these changes, NASA Administrators set about carrying out the new orders. Congress, – first Republican controlled, then Democratic – while to some degree questioning the magnitude of change in this new directive, never mustered sufficient opposition to alter that course, and voted support. But neither did they provide the appropriations to fund beyond what OMB had recommended to the President in his budget request. That is, the Congress did not provide money for both the new direction and the longstanding ISS program.
The soon-to-be-terminated Shuttle has been and is our only means of transportation into space. It has been a work horse as construction of the ISS has been completed, with a few added missions such as the Hubble heavy launch, and later repair missions.
Space Launch Gap
With termination of the Shuttle at the end of 2010, and with its Constellation or other replacement still many years in the future, our “greatest spacefaring nation” will for the first time since the dawning of the manned space age in 1962 have no means of getting into space or to our own ISS.
The originally planned gap of two to three years of our having no U.S. manned launch capability will realistically be closer to eight to ten years – or more.
How is it planned for us to get into space during the interim? Hard to believe, perhaps, but to save the expense of U.S. Shuttle launches (approximately $400 million each) we are contracting with the Russians for crew and light equipment launch services to and from our ISS at $55.8 million per astronaut. Each total crew change of six, then, will cost nearly $335 million, with future charges expected to increase substantially.
In other words, U.S. astronauts will for the next five to ten years have to move to a Russian launch site in Kazakhstan to train for final launch preparation on Russian spacecraft, launch, and return to a grassland landing area at the end of the mission.
The Russians do not have a heavy lift capability, so launch service will be limited to personnel and light equipment. Heavy “upload” or “download” will be nonexistent.
All this occurs just at the time we want to encourage researchers, scientists, and private industry to initiate use of the recently completed ISS. That is not likely to be encouraged when they learn that their experiment packages (small and light only) will have to be taken to the Russian site in Kazakhstan along with check-out equipment and personnel, be prepared for launch there, and reclaimed after their time on the ISS is completed. Unmanned cargo delivery systems via commercial operators are planned, but will not be operational until sometime in the future.
The Obama administration, after a study by the Augustine Commission, made its own changes to the Bush directives of 2004:
The principal rationale for establishing a base on the moon, aside from international prestige, was to gain experience in extra-terrestrial living in preparation for future space destinations. Those deeper space travels are far enough in the future that I agree with postponing a lunar base.
To establish a lunar base is extremely expensive and can wait, at least for now. Other expenditures pale beside that one.
Another rationale for establishing a moon base is the proposal for development of Helium-3 sources on the moon which could factor into our future fusion based energy needs.
Once again, that need is far enough in the future that we can address it when we learn more about control of fusion energy. The world’s preeminent multi-billion dollar fusion energy project is well underway at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory but it will probably be decades before that research could lead to a national need for quantities of H-3 from the moon.
I wish we could have appropriations to do all these things on a broader space agenda, but that does not appear to be possible.
We must have a heavy-lift space launch vehicle – whether Constellation or other – if we are to keep our options open. Those options include future moon missions, building up a MARS vehicle in near earth orbit, going to an asteroid, direct launch to MARS, providing heavy download to bring hardware back to earth, or projects yet undreamed of since the vehicle we develop now will have a useful life of many decades. Ideally, it should be flexible for various assignments.
A heavy-lift space work horse to someday replace the Shuttles is a necessity for our space future. The flexibility that gives to our manned and unmanned programs will be key to continued world leadership as other nations develop their manned space capabilities.
International Space Station
The life-extension of the ISS from 2015 to 2020 – with further extensions possible – is the right direction. ISS research programs can now begin on a priority basis.
There are thousands of potential research projects – a few come immediately to mind just as examples:
If we could determine different responses between older and younger astronauts in actual spaceflight, it might give us clues as to what in the human body turns these systems on and off, the objective being to provide not only extending the time astronauts can remain on a space mission (necessity for MARS), but also learning how to control or reduce the frailties of old age here on earth.
That research was started on a Discovery mission in 1998.
Most people have no concept of the investment we have made in the ISS. To date, it is approximately $100 Billion -- $100 Billion. Our allies have invested an additional $12-15 billion. The ISS is finally completed and ready for use as the most unique laboratory ever conceived.
Long Duration Training
It will be the only vehicle in existence capable of providing training and research for longer term space flights, a requirement if we are serious about establishing a Mars mission. Importantly it will enable major research benefits to people right here on earth.
Under NASA’s very close direction, every manned U.S. spacecraft has been built by commercial companies. In fact, 83% of NASA’s budget goes to commercial entities. Depending on commercial companies is not new. That process has included strong NASA control, oversight and safety concerns. It is a procedure developed over many years and with great care. It has worked well. Change should be made with utmost caution and only if it brings some major advantage.
What is new is placing 100% confidence in smaller, less experienced companies if the Shuttles are retired, with no backup, for extremely complex missions. I am glad to see multi-company interest in commercial space development, but at this early stage of their experience they should be phased in only after they demonstrate a high degree of competency and reliability, particularly with regard to safety concerns.
The world’s only heavy lift spacecraft and the U.S.’s only access to space should stay in operation until suitably replaced by a new and well tested heavy lift vehicle. The Shuttle system is working extremely well, has had systems upgrades through the years, and has had “the bugs” worked out of it through many years of use. The Shuttle is probably the most complex vehicle ever assembled and flies in the harshest of environments. Why terminate a perfectly good system that has been made more safe and reliable through many years of development? The Shuttles are the world’s most advanced spacecraft.
Meticulous checkout procedures have been developed over many years. The most skilled space technicians in the world put it back into flight readiness after each mission.
And the Shuttles are not worn out. Far from it. Design specifications were for a minimum of 100 missions per vehicle. We have used up only about one-third of that design life.
Cost savings with Shuttle cancellation are minimal, if any, when all factors of Russian launch are considered, and with the charge per astronaut undoubtedly going higher and higher in subsequent years.
Plus, think of the difficulties it will entail in getting advanced research up to maximum on the ISS, if possible at all.
As an important side benefit, the ISS stands as a symbol to the world not only of U.S. technical expertise and leadership but also a willingness to cooperate and share.
As a symbol, it can actually be seen from the ground as it passes over the major cities and nations of the world.
Educators tell us repeatedly that the space program has been an inspiration to our young people as we try to keep them interested in STEM (Science, Technology Engineering Math) education.
How inspiring will it be for them to see manned launches only from Russian TV and landings somewhere in Kazakhstan grasslands?
What kind of confidence and commitment is generated in our 15 ISS partners when we have no space launch capability of our own? I have talked to some representatives of our ISS partner nations. In 2004, they were mystified by the Shuttle decision, and remain so.
People around the world have admired our manned space program. It attests to our nation’s greatness. That image before the world is hardly enhanced when our whole program will be dependent on the Russians.
And what happens if there is a failure of the usually reliable Soyuz? Just a couple of years ago, they had two reentry mishaps that took them over normal G limits and some 400 miles from their intended landing point. A grounded Soyuz would leave us with no access to the ISS. I presume the crew on board would have to come down by the so-called “lifeboat” Soyuz currently docked at the ISS. With no access, could the station even be abandoned, eventually to reenter the atmosphere in uncontrolled pieces, landing wherever?
Another consideration involves the non-astronauts involved in our space program. Launch crews and support personnel are incredibly talented people whose expertise comes from long experience and dedication to these programs they not only work at, but believe in. These are the trained experts we will depend on whatever direction the space program takes in the future. To start over again years later with new unseasoned personnel when new equipment becomes available is doing it the hard way – and less safe. To keep the Shuttle going now will ensure experienced people for now and future programs.
$1.5+ Billion a year has been estimated as the cost to keep the Shuttles flying and to bring the ISS research programs back up to speed. That is a very small price to pay for maximizing the benefits from a $100 Billion national investment, and may even be cheaper than the final bill from the Russians.
If we assume for the moment that the above decisions are all final –
-no moon base, no Constellation, ISS termination in 2020,
commercial contracting-out, and December 2010 Shuttle end-
– we are hardly looking at a robust program that will provide the benefits of space leadership into the indefinite future.
There is another thing we’ve learned. Whatever direction we take, appropriations must be made to do it right. It cannot be done “on the cheap.” Space travel is a perilous business at best and will become even more so the further we go from earth.
We are not alone in manned space flight plans. The governments of China and India have declared their intention to develop robust and far-traveling manned spacecraft. China has already accomplished manned space flight in low earth orbit.
While they have a considerable way to go to equal our current manned space abilities, they are dedicated, and are putting major resources into their programs.
In a lighter vein – but appropriate – the late astronaut Gus Grissom put it very succinctly many years ago during a discussion of funding adequacy for our first manned entry into space on Project Mercury:“No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”
He was right.
More seriously, for many years NASA had appropriately-ordered Mission and Vision statements:
And we are privileged to be the nation that can do it.