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Ares 5 illustration
A change in direction for the space agency at the wrong time could leave NASA without the tools needed to move beyond low Earth orbit, like the Ares 5. (credit: NASA)

The new “Space Nexus”: another Apollo debacle?

Late last week, George Whitesides, executive director of the National Space Society, sent out an email to NSS members announcing that he would be giving testimony before the US Senate this Wednesday. He also asked NSS members to provide their own comments by the end of today for potential input.

In pretty short order, I dashed out the following:

America is facing a new “Space Nexus”, a critical transition similar to the situation after Apollo.

We must make sure the US makes wise choices so that, on the other side of the Nexus, we will have a robust, flexible space launch capability that will allow us to pursue a variety of goals.

We must avoid the mistakes we made at the end of Apollo, in which we carelessly discarded capabilities, infrastructure, and most importantly human talent.

Today’s space program should be viewed as a unique American resource that must be carefully managed, especially at this Nexus.

It is a program that continues to keep America at its technological best, gives Americans justifiable pride in its noble pursuits, and continues to inspire students to develop science, math and engineering skills America sorely needs.

Human exploration of the Moon and Mars are inevitably the goals of spacefaring—not just for our nation, but also for the world. Not to pursue these goals will be to inevitably surrender our leadership in space.

We now have a plan in place to pursue these inevitable goals, and we should get on with it.

In the current scheme, it is important that we expedite Ares 1 so that we minimize the gap in our ability to launch humans to LEO, and the impact to the space workforce.

However, the follow-on Ares 5 is critical to pursuing exploration beyond LEO. If we do not continue to commit to this development, we will continue going in circles barely above the Earth’s atmosphere, as we have since 1972.

The 20,000 members of NSS, citizens who hail from all walks of life, are representative of a country that understands the future entails exploring, working, and eventually living further and further out from the Earth.

Without a continued commitment to the Vision for Space Exploration, we will be turning our back on that future, and all that pursuing it has brought us to date.

After I sent these comments in, I began to mull over what I’d written. I think it’s consistent with the kind of testimony that the NSS would provide, and in large part how I do feel. Still, I started to think about how we got to this point, what in an ideal world I’d really like to see, and what other important points I’d try to make in the not-so-ideal world.

The new Space Nexus

In a previous three-part article, I talked about my bewilderment that space groups aren’t saying a lot more at this critical moment in the US space program. (See “Obama’s modest proposal: no hue, no cry?” part 1, part 2, part 3, The Space Review, April 7, 14, and 21, 2008)

As I described in that article and in my comments to George Whitesides, we are certainly at a juncture in US space policy and programs, arguably the greatest since the end of Apollo. We’re retiring the Space Shuttle, completing the International Space Station, and trying to transition to a return to human exploration of the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

We are certainly at a juncture in US space policy and programs, arguably the greatest since the end of Apollo.

This juncture, already fraught-filled, has a huge political overlay to it. We’re in an election year, and all three major presidential candidates have weighed in on space with views that seem to run the gamut. (One, Barack Obama, has an education policy that would raid human space exploration coffers, a viewpoint that in and of itself one would expect to draw outcry from space advocates.)

It’s déjà vu all over again, of course. Shortly after Apollo 11, NASA triumphantly presented its funding list of “next logical steps”. These included human Mars exploration, Moon bases, and a large space station in Earth orbit serviced by a reusable “space shuttle”. At the time, the US was engaged in the costly, divisive Vietnam War, while the economy was beginning a big slide that would result in double-digit inflation in the early ’70s.

With the race against the Russians having been won, and a decidedly anti-technology attitude settling in, Congress and President Nixon readily pulled the plug on everything but the shuttle, which nevertheless struggled for funding and support. The vehicle that emerged was a highly compromised version of what had been envisioned, and sure enough did not bring the vastly cheaper and more routine space access promised.

The Apollo infrastructure, meanwhile, was almost entirely discarded. We lost the Saturn launch vehicles, their engines, most of their directly associated manufacturing and launch capability. This, despite the huge cost and effort it took to create them.

Worse, we threw a huge number of aerospace workers into limbo, thereby losing many of our best and brightest, and ensuring that there would be a huge discontinuity in and disincentive for the space workforce. There would have been some impact in the transition from Apollo’s “war footing” to a steadier program at lower funding levels, but as it was we simply hung most of our engineers and scientists out to dry, practically as soon as Neil Armstrong made his “giant leap for mankind.”

Eventually, the compromised Space Shuttle began flying, primarily as an orbital laboratory for doing science and technology experiments in LEO. Whatever one might say about the specific value of that experimentation, I think it is fair to say that the shuttle made spaceflight a more normal and routine—if esoteric—part of everyday life and culture.

The International Space Station, another hard-won space project, gave the shuttle program a new tenor. The shuttle itself finally became what it was meant to be: a transport vehicle with a destination.

Unfortunately, the ISS is an extension of the shuttle paradigm of human spaceflight into LEO to do pure science and technology in orbit. Other than life science work, the ISS will not support future exploration. For many reasons, its science capabilities are more much limited than have been planned. Lastly, sending humans to space to do pure science and technology work has proved to be less inspiring than Apollo’s reaching and exploring new places. For a publicly funded endeavor, this is death.

Learned our lessons?

I became a pro-space activist in the early ’90s out of a deep-seated frustration with everything that had gone on since 1969. It has always been clear to me that our inevitable goals lay at the Moon and beyond. When NASA blew the chance to return to these goals under the first President Bush, by suggesting exploration programs in the hundreds of billions of dollars, I worked to advocate the space station route as a way of ensuring we had some kind of US human space program.

The scenario always in my head, however, was that of Apollo. I was eight at the time of that first Space Nexus, and spent my formative years in its aftermath throughout the 70s. I came out of that convinced that I would personally work against another post-Apollo debacle.

So, here we are today in a very similar situation. Although we have been flying people into space for almost 50 years, and the idea of doing so has become fairly mainstream, we still have people in high (political) circles who see this juncture as the place to finally kill the program.

The real issues lie in a repeat of the brain drain we saw after Apollo, and this time being left with a real transportation system, capable of taking astronauts anywhere in the inner solar system we may choose.

Obama’s education policy is frankly the most egregious case in point, in it’s matter-of-fact assertion that human spaceflight is America’s least worthy budget item, and the first to be cut. It is hardly the only one, however. There is the current Congressional prohibition on NASA doing any kind of humans to Mars work, supported in part by Rep. Barney Franks of Massachusetts (who hails from my hometown of Bayonne, New Jersey—thanks for your vision, fellow Bayonnite) and Rep. David Obey, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

The point of all this is that, in an era of turmoil not unlike that of the late ’60s, we could easily be on track to repeat that earlier debacle.

The gap in US human space launch, while limiting, will not be the same as in the ’70s. This time, US astronauts will still have a ride, although it will involve the ignominy and uncertainties of flying in Russian Soyuzes. There is the possibility, too, of a commercial solution, especially if SpaceX gets its act together and learns how to reliably reach orbit, goes on to successfully field its Falcon 9, and proves out its Dragon capsule for crew transport. LEO and the ISS should remain more or less accessible.

No, the real issues lie in a repeat of the brain drain we saw after Apollo, and this time being left with a real transportation system, capable of taking astronauts anywhere in the inner solar system we may choose. Just from the standpoint of preserving America’s technology capabilities and workforce, the former issue should be high on our talking points.

On the latter issue, I will say that I wish NASA had settled on a better architecture. Its Ares 1/5 scheme is clearly flawed from the technical and political standpoints. The use of a single, significantly modified shuttle solid rocket booster to loft a crew atop an all-new liquid stage may have some arguable safety and recurring-cost merits. However, the non-recurring engineer costs and delays are very significant—hence the expected five-year gap and associated budget problems.

Worse, it puts us in the position that that is the only piloted vehicle we’ll get. The three presidential candidates seem more or less committed to Ares 1 to get us to the ISS, but nothing else is certain. It could well be that by 2015 we’ll have nothing but a big, single pogo stick to bounce astronauts into LEO. Worse, Ares 1 is pretty much a dead-end; it will not be readily adaptable into another vehicle, unless we made the major investment in a larger first stage.

A year or two from now, we could easily have a situation in which the larger Ares 5 is cancelled along with the Vision for Space Exploration, and all the George W. Bush baggage associated with it. We’d be on track to replace the Space Shuttle with a less-capable Ares 1 to service an ISS with an orbital life of perhaps a decade.

It seems to me this is not the time to be changing destinations, or perhaps even specifying destinations at all. Rather, it should be about individuals truly from all walks of life making the case that continued human spaceflight, and a return to exploration, is important to them.

In the meantime, we’d have scrapped the shuttle infrastructure, just as we did with Apollo. Although ideas for adapting the shuttle architecture into ever larger and more capable vehicles have been around since before its first flight, we are now preparing to plough it under all over again, and will have handily repeated our mistake with the Saturns.

The bare necessities

All this is rather moot now. For better or worse, Mike Griffin and his NASA team has set us on this direction. The best we can probably do now is to make a strong argument for staying on course for a breakout of LEO. From the standpoint of things like giving Congressional testimony, it seems to me this is not the time to be changing destinations, or perhaps even specifying destinations at all.

Rather, it should be about individuals truly from all walks of life making the case that continued human spaceflight, and a return to exploration, is important to them. It is about continuing what has become in my lifetime a time-honored endeavor, as valid as any other we are engaged in.

Above all, it is about not repeating the mistakes we made after Apollo, and finally creating a robust, flexible, and capable human space transportation system. It is about fully embracing human spaceflight as something America does well, will continue to do well, and can always point to with great pride.


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