The Future Of The U.S. Space Program And What It Could Become
No pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened heaven to the human spirit - Helen Keller
In April of 2010 the President of the United States came to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center to announce a bold new direction for America’s space program – the commercialization of manned spaceflight. Under this program NASA would no longer own its own manned spacecraft. Instead it would buy rides on vehicles owned, developed, and operated, by several competing corporations. According to the President this approach would “create jobs and spur innovation” while allowing NASA to devote its resources towards flights to the asteroids and one day even the planet Mars.
Almost before the words had left his lips the new plan came under intense criticism with everyone from Apollo astronauts to politicians bemoaning the “gutting of NASA”. I have to admit - I have been reporting on the space program for over 20 years now and I have never seen the program in greater disarray. To quote a letter jointly signed by Neil Armstrong, James Lovell, and Eugene Cernan :
"For the United States, the leading space faring nation for nearly half a century, to be without carriage to low Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future, destines our nation to become one of second or even third rate stature."
And you know what? I can’t disagree. The situation that NASA’s manned spaceflight program finds itself in today is shameful. But we can’t blame the President for the whole thing – the stew that we find ourselves in has been cooking for over 40 years.
The Road To Nowhere
Arguably, America’s space program was born on October 4, 1957 in response to the Soviet Union’s launch of the world’s first artificial satellite - Sputnik 1. Humankind had taken their first tentative steps away from Mother Earth and this represented a profound change in the course of human evolution. Wild rumors about what the Soviets would do next began running rampant within the United States. America needed a response and that response came on January 28, 1958 when the U.S. launched its first satellite Explorer 1.
But the United States did not stop there. A second response to Sputnik came seven months later when Congress passed the National Aeronautics & Space Act on July 29, 1958. This act called for the creation of a new civilian agency that would “oversee, consolidate and coordinate” American efforts to explore space. On October 1, 1958 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration opened for business. The American public quickly came to know the new organization by its acronym – N.A.S.A.
What followed was a tit for tat escalation in which both the Soviet Union and the United States sought to out-do each other and prove the superiority of their socio-economic systems. Following a string of humiliating Soviet triumphs, U.S. President John F Kennedy sought to level the playing field by setting a goal that was so technologically ahead of even the greatest Soviet space triumph that it would be as if both sides were starting from zero. On May 25, 1961, before a joint session of Congress, Kennedy threw down the political gauntlet and announced that the United States would land a man on the moon and that it would do so by the end of the decade – the great space race was on.
NASA grabbed the bull by the horns and came up with a three step program to land men on the Moon. Project Mercury would develop basic manned spaceflight capabilities, Project Gemini would develop and rehearse the capabilities needed to send men to the Moon, and Project Apollo would actually land men on the Moon. All three of America’s first space projects were in fact components of a single, all-encompassing, space “program”: beat the Russians to the Moon and prove America’s technical superiority in the process.
This “program” was driven by very tangible geo-political considerations, including national security, and as a result it held bipartisan support for nearly ten years. Each project built upon the accomplishments of the other in a high risk gamble that eventually paid off with Americans walking on the Moon. This was the NASA our fathers bragged about: The NASA that fired the imagination and captured the respect and admiration of the world!
But once all was said and done the United States was left with a bit of a quagmire – we had developed all of this incredible technology but now what do we do with it?
I believe President Johnson summed it up best. He was touring the Kennedy Space Center with astronaut Wally Scirra in the late 1960s. As they were walking the President tuned to Scirra and said “We have this great capability, but instead of taking advantage of it, we’ll probably just piss it away.” Incredibly enough, that’s exactly what happened.
Aside from three Skylab missions and Apollo Soyuz, all of which were accomplished with hardware left over from the moon program, once we went to the moon everything we had spent the last ten years developing at the coast of billions of dollars and five human lives was scrapped and this is where NASA’s problems began.
For all that Apollo was, and it was a lot, one thing that it wasn’t was logical. Once the political goal was achieved the entire reason for the program’s existence was removed. This in turn lead to the public misconception that the space program had become a purely “academic” undertaking – something that was nice but there were more important matters that had to be addressed first. The result was an erosion of public support that bled over into congress. By 1973, just four years following the first Moon landing, the Moon program was over and NASA was left fighting for its political life. There was simply no compelling reason for us to continue to explore the Moon. That’s why we stopped going and that is what has kept us from going back.
Logically, once we gained access to space, we should have first explored the new environment and then embarked on a series of missions that would demonstrate what could be done in this new environment. Once enough interest had been generated, and with NASA “overseeing, consolidating and coordinating” the effort, we needed to turn that technology over to industry who could begin utilizing the new frontier.
Exploration must be followed by utilization or it is just academic and as a result not a high national priority.
Using this approach we would have eventually developed a commercial infrastructure that would integrate this “new frontier” with the rest of the economy. As the footprint of this new industry grew it would create both economic and political pressures that would not only drive us ever deeper into the Solar System, but secure the program as a practical and sustainable undertaking worthy of investing billions of dollars in.
It is capitalism pure a simple. This is the force that drives everything in the United States and the space program is no exception. No buck - no Buck Rogers.
And you know what – it works.
Building an Economic Footprint
From the very beginning NASA wanted its satellites to be more than simple curiosities. They wanted real functioning spacecraft, practical spacecraft that could be used to better the lives of us all. Towards that end, they began developing a series of what I call “proof of concept” missions. They launched the world’s first communications satellite, the first Earth observation satellite, the first geostationary satellite, and more. Over and over again NASA was showing the world the practical applications that spaceflight had to offer and it did not go unnoticed.
Almost immediately private industry saw the potential that satellites had to offer and began moving on plans to develop spacecraft of their own. At first these were launched using NASA’s two most reliable expendable boosters – the Delta and the Atlas. With the advent of the Space Shuttle all of NASA’s expendable rockets were scrapped. The Shuttle would now carry all of the nation’s payloads into space. Following the Challenger disaster this decision was reversed and it was decided that a mixed fleet of boosters would best guarantee the nations access to space. So Lockheed Martin (the manufacturer of Atlas) and Boeing (the manufacturer of Delta) were told to dust off their assembly lines and begin producing rockets again – only this time the boosters and launch facilities would be totally owned and operated by the companies themselves. The satellite launch market had been privatized.
If NASA needed a rocket to launch a spacecraft they could select the booster best suited to the job and then buy it from the manufacturer who would control all aspects of the launch. When the boosters were not being used to launch government payloads they could be used to launch private payloads thereby integrating the new industry with the national economy. The availability of these new services spurred the creation of entirely new industries including satellite television, GPS, global internet, and more. As these industries matured the entire world became linked and their economies intertwined to form a single global economy the likes of which the world had never seen before.
Private satellites had changed the world!
As demand soared more and more corporations began tossing their hats into the launch services ring. Orbital Sciences Corporation developed the Pegasus, Minotaur, and Taurus boosters, Lockheed Martin created Athena and the Atlas V family, SpaceX developed its Falcon family of boosters, Boeing the Delta IV family, and so on. Today NASA no longer has access to just two boosters - it has access to over 14! NASA’s planetary exploration program, which is totally dependent on commercial launch services, is stronger than ever with spacecraft currently at or on their way to Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Mars, Saturn, Pluto, two comets and two asteroids. Few people care and even fewer notice that the most aggressive planetary exploration program on Earth buys its ride off the shelf.
As a result of this privatization the commercial space sector, as a whole, now represents a $276.52 billion dollar global industry. This is a 7.7% increase above 2009 – during a recession! This is part of a trend of commercial growth that has been in play since 2005 and has contributed to cumulative global growth of a staggering 48 percent, with no year showing less than a 5 percent gain.
Following the Challenger disaster, NASA’s manned spaceflight program began a series of “proof of concept” missions of its own. They showed how spacecraft can be reused, how they can be recovered or repaired on orbit, how large structures can be built and maintained, how the presence of people can quadruple a mission’s productivity, and in my opinion, the most important lesson of them all - how 16 nations could work together not to fight a war, but to accomplish something no single nation could have accomplished on their own, the International Space Station.
This too did not go unnoticed.
Today no fewer than six companies are developing their own manned spacecraft. SpaceX is developing the Dragon, Boeing is developing its CST100, Sierra Nevada is developing the Dream Chaser, Orbital Sciences Corporation is developing a yet to be named blended lifting body, XCOR is developing Lynx, and Virgin Galactic is developing Space Ship 2. Furthermore two additional companies, Bigelow Aerospace and Excalibur Almez, are developing manned space stations and Space Adventures wants to offer tourist flights to the Moon using a modified Soyuz.
When history looks back at the Space Shuttle program this is what will be remembered as its greatest accomplishment. It opened the door to private manned spaceflight.
Finally, Section 203 (a) point (4) and (5) of the National Aeronautics and Space Act, under Functions Of The Administration, calls on NASA to “(4) seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space; and
(5) encourage and provide for the Federal Governments use of commercially provided space services and hardware, consistent with the requirements of the Federal Government”.
So why does NASA need to re-invent the wheel when they are already mandated to make use of this equipment? It’s a waste of money that could be better spent in other ways.
It’s Time To Move On
The President’s plan to commercialize access to low Earth orbit, as bitter as it is for many people to swallow, is an idea whose time has come. However, that does not mean that NASA no longer needs a rocket and spacecraft, it means it needs different rockets and spacecraft.
In the early days everything was new - everything needed to be developed from scratch and nobody could have done this better than NASA. But today things are different. NASA has spent the last 50 years teaching the world how to operate spacecraft on orbit, how to build and operate advanced launch systems, and how humans can live and work in space – once again it did not go unnoticed.
India, Iran, Japan and ESA all have serious plans to develop manned spacecraft in the near future. Add to this the 6 potential commercial spacecraft along with Russian and Chinese spacecraft and it is entirely possible that there could be a fleet of 14 manned spacecraft soaring through space within the next 10 years servicing no fewer than 4 manned space stations (Bigelow’s, Almez, ISS, and China’s)!
There is simply no longer a need for NASA to develop an entire new class of launcher and spacecraft for each project it undertakes. These items can now be bought off the shelf or evolved out of existing equipment based on NASA’s needs. Just like in the un-manned market.
Human spaceflight is poised to become an industry unto itself and NASA needs to support this emerging industry. Simply put - NASA needs to get out of the conventional launch service business and get into the deep space exploration business. It is time to move on!
NASA should be working on the hard stuff – revolutionary technologies like rail launchers, scram jet technology, ion and nuclear propulsion systems, solar sails etc. These are technologies that will dramatically change the way we do business in space in the near future. NASA should also be pushing the frontier back with the development of advanced, highly flexible, and evolvable, manned spacecraft and super heavy lift launchers capable of supporting the next logical step in manned space exploration - deep space missions that will eventually lay the riches of the solar system at our feet.
These are projects that no individual, or company for that matter, could risk developing on their own. The price of failure is just too high, but a government is another matter. The government’s job is to take the risks that nobody else can and develop the technologies that will be needed to open the new frontier. Then it needs to move on and let the people, with support from the government, do the rest. The key word here is move on – not stop.
So Where’s The Beef!?
Just as Apollo dramatically underscored the deficiencies within the communist system, the position America’s manned spaceflight program finds itself in today underscores a few of the deficiencies within our own system. By the end of 2011 only two nations on Earth will have the capability to put humans into orbit - Russia and China. Think about that for a minute……. It’s appalling! The United States has completely dropped the ball.
The American space program has become paralyzed due to a lack of direction and intense partisan politicking. The fact is we have not had a space “program” since 1969. Sure, NASA has been given a lot of destinations: go to the Moon, go to Mars, build a space station, visit an asteroid, but all of these were just destinations - none of them were part of an overriding “program” intended to accomplish a specific and sustainable goal. In fact, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) cited this very problem as one of the contributing causes to that accident:
“The Board is not convinced that NASA has completely lived up to the bargain, or that Congress and the Administration have provided the funding and support necessary for NASA to do so. This situation needs to be addressed – if the nation intends to keep conducting human space flight, it needs to live up to its part of the bargain.”
This logic only seems to be lost on the United States. The worlds other two space fairing nations both have “programs” that clearly define their goals in space. For example: On February 14, 2006 the Russian government was handed a document called the “Concept of Russian Manned Space Navigation Development” (CRMSND). This document was a blueprint for Russia’s next 25 years in space. It called for:
- Upgrade the existing Soyuz and Progress spacecraft
- Expanding the life and functionality of the ISS
- Developing an economically efficient reusable space transportation system
- The industrialization of near Earth space
- Implementation of a manned lunar program leading to the eventual industrialization of the Moon
- Manned exploratory missions to the planet Mars
When the document was first drafted, many within the United States dismissed it as sheer fantasy. Most doubted that Russia was still capable of a space program of that magnitude - they were wrong. The 1990s are over and the Russian economy is much stronger now. The 2011 space budget is the largest since the collapse of the Soviet Union and as a result both their Moon and Mars projects have been accelerated by ten years!
As of the time of this writing, the Soyuz and Progress upgrade has been completed. SP Korolev Rocket and Space Corporation are in the process of designing the Soyuz replacement which is set for launch around 2016. The new Soyuz ST booster, that will be used to launch the Soyuz replacement, is set to begin operational service later this year. Construction of a new launch facility (Vostochny) that will function as Russia’s Moon and Mars port is about to get underway, and the rockets they will be using to go to the Moon and Mars (Angara) will begin flight tests around 2013.
In addition to all of this, the Russian government has approved four new modules for their segment of the International Space Station, effectively doubling that side of the complex. They have also floated plans to add manufacturing facilities and to use it as a port for missions to both the Moon and Mars. .
Preparations for the manned Mars mission are also underway with the proposed development of a Mega Watt Class Nuclear Propulsion System that will cut travel time to Mars down to about a month. Once approved, they expect to have the system operational in 6-9 years. They are also (at the time of this writing) in the middle of a 500 day simulated Mars mission with European, Chinese, and Russian crew members. Anybody notice who’s missing in that crew? Is Russia making a new bid for leadership in space?
China also has a program. Theirs calls for:
- Creation of basic manned spaceflight capabilities
- Creation of mini man tended space stations
- Creation of a major space station
- Manned Exploration of the Moon
- Industrialization of the Moon and Low Earth Orbit
This is also not a fantasy. China has already demonstrated that it possesses the ability to safely fly people in space and it will launch the first of the “mini space stations” this year. Their Moon rocket is already on the drawing board and they plan to launch the first components of the major space station around 2016.
Russia and China are the tortoises to the American hare. While the United States has been busy leap frogging past everybody and then resting on its laurels, these two nations have been sticking with their programs and building slowly yet steadily towards their goals.
Spaceflight is no longer just a battle ground for super powers. It is now a battle ground for business. Like it or not, the manned space program is integrating with the global economy and much more than prestige will soon be at stake.
If the United States hopes to compete in this new market, let alone remain the world’s leader in space, than we cannot afford to just sit back and do business as usual. Without a clear and consistent direction, NASA cannot be expected to produce clear and consistent results. America needs to stop blaming NASA for its own inability to make up its mind. The United States needs to determine exactly what it wants NASA to do in space, adequately fund it, and then stick with it consistently, throughout multiple administrations, until the job gets done. Because if we don’t do it, I guarantee you, somebody else will.
Rebuilding The Space “Program”
Although I believe wholeheartedly that commercialization of low Earth orbit is the next logical step for America’s space program, I do not believe that the President’s call for a flight to an asteroid would be the next logical step after that. I believe this to be an Apollo like program designed to impress people with America’s technology. It skips several major steps that need to be addressed before flights like these can be achieved and sustained. The second the goal has been achieved there will be no further reason for the project to exist.
The next logical step for NASA would be a return to the Moon. Ok I just heard everybody yawning “we’ve already been there”. The truth is we have unfinished business there. We never carried Apollo out to its logical conclusion – creation of an entire lunar infrastructure that can eventually be privatized and integrated with the national economy.
This would not be your fathers Moon program. I envision large ion powered cargo ships that cycle between a station in Earth orbit and a station in lunar orbit, landers that cycle between the lunar station and the lunar surface, and a lunar base that evolves into a lunar colony independent of the Earth. Once we have created a lunar architecture we can expand it outward. Using this approach, there is no reason why we could not be on Mars within 20 years while at the same time creating a commercial infrastructure that will not only ensure the long term survival of the program - but the long term survival of our species as well.
Utilization is the name of the game here. We cannot keep hopping about the solar system and call it space exploration. There has got to be a purpose to it or we will not be able to sustain it. We already know that the same resources that exist on Earth exist out in space. The difference is the Earth is a living planet. What right do we have to destroy a living world when there are billions of dead worlds out there for the asking?
What I am outlining here is the architecture behind a true “space program”: NASA should be instructed to “oversee, consolidate, and coordinate the expansion of the human presence into the cosmos”. This is the “program” that will give a focus to NASA’s “projects” – just like the Moon program only with a sustainable long term goal.
Finally, the exploration component of this program needs to be internationalized. Not only will this help keep the cost down but it will make the projects harder to cancel on a whim. Canceling a project that involves other nations would represent a foreign policy blunder and nobody wants that. To quote the President “American leadership is essential, but that does not mean acting alone. It means shaping the conditions for the international community to act together.”
When the eyes of history look back at the end of the Space Shuttle program, what they see will depend on what we do right now. The American manned space program is at a crossroads and once again we are faced with a choice: We can boldly lead the world out into the Solar System or we can simply “piss it all away” - again.
NASA is a national asset and it is about time we start treating it like one. The problem is that the majority of the American people still see little or no practical benefit from human exploration of the heavens. Although the vast majority of the American public will tell you they support the program, they will also tell you that there are more important matters that should be addressed first. Congress, for the most part, continues to view the program as it was during the Apollo years – a foreign policy tool intended to project America’s technical superiority across the globe. Again – something nice but not a priority. This is what has got to change in order for NASA to succeed.
The bottom line is this – the United States needs to decide whether or not it wants a manned space program. If it does then it needs to get behind it with a clear unwavering purpose, a stable budget that that will allow the agency to achieve that goal, and a strong commercial component that integrates it with the national economy.
If one does not anticipate what is going to happen than one ends up simply reacting to what has happened. A thousand years from now nobody is going to remember most of what we consider important however, they will certainly remember that we were the first generation to enter space. What we do today will be what they judge us on tomorrow.
And the eyes of the world will be watching.