A chronology of change: our space program, our future
by Donald C. Barker
|Given the current opportunities, and our technological capabilities, a commercial-only movement will be an unsustainable, grievous, and dead-end error.|
Many within the current human space community, including myself, would and will wholeheartedly support all commercial crew programs, but if and only if they truly can find sustainability and actually begin to transfer more people and materials into space and back safely and more often then previous efforts. As for now, given that their only real customer seems to be the fickle US government, their sustainability seems highly unlikely. In order for commercial space ventures to be proven viable, space itself has to be made into a destination, unlike almost all previous transportation endeavors in human history. The emboldening of the commercial space sector, in and of itself, is important and holds the glimmer of similarity to the opening of the American West by the Iron Horse; yet, again, the West held reins on the imagination and provided American Easterners and immigrants alike a real location for people to settle with hopes of making something better for themselves and generations to come.
Yet, science is not enough of a selling point for commercial entities unless big paychecks are foreseen as an expected result of efforts. E-ticket rides for the super wealthy are also not sustainable over even the short run. And no options yet espoused seem to open the space frontier enough to expand human presence permanently off the Earth. Given the current opportunities, and our technological capabilities, a commercial-only movement will be an unsustainable, grievous, and dead-end error if we continue to kill ourselves off or find a large space rock hurtling towards the planet. The dedicated migration off-world is the only goal that has a chance of preserving our species and hopefully anything good that we have accomplished. Ultimately, bolder, long-term goals, architectures, and plans must be initiated or we will never settle space and we will go the way of the dinosaurs! The clock is ticking.
Our collective memories are very short, as we have been here before and will probably be so again if history is any guide. Following the golden age of American space flight, roughly between 1961 and 1974, and notwithstanding the associated geopolitical motivations and races, primary drivers and goals have been lacking. In a very short time, the Apollo program and its predecessors had accomplished what had never been done before. That was truly inspirational. By the time this author first looked to enter the space industry in the late ’80s, after years of childhood dreaming, I had interviewed with folks working on Space Station Freedom, another grand and ambitious space construction project willed into being by President Ronald Regan in 1984, the year I graduated from high school. My goals, due to many childhood influences, including the lunar landings and breakthrough television science fiction, had set my eyes on the next expected destination in space, Mars; a place, according to Wernher von Braun and others, that we were to have already reached by the end of the 20th century. Yet, even years after its inception, the space station program had not even gotten off the ground.
NASA, it seems, was adrift with uncertainty and perpetual budget woes and in 1987 a commission examined the state of the program and its goals. The “Ride Report” was the product, a report that had as its focus a permanent Moon base by 2010 and a Mars landing soon thereafter. Not long after, on July 20, 1989, the 20th anniversary of first Apollo Moon landing, President George H. W. Bush advocated a similar plan of placing of humans back on the Moon and then Mars by 2019, a thirty-year-out goal, by bringing to life the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) and giving the human space flight and planetary science communities an adrenalin rush of hope. Though the Moon was passé and had been so for over ten years by that time, Mars now had the real possibility of being the next destination. A competition between those two communities of advocates was entrenched and remains so to this day, itself interfering with our ability to firmly set sights on a single viable goal.
The result of this initiative was yet another study, “the 90-Day Study,” which was published in November 1989, with a cost estimate too great for politicians to stomach. So another analysis was to be done in August 1990, the “Augustine Commission” and their “go-as-you-pay” strategy which outlined a redirected focus on Earth and space sciences. Outside the space community, the country was at the beginning of a decade-long emotional, technological, and economic upswing. This began with the fall of the Berlin Wall, followed by the Gulf War, then the fall or our decades-old nemesis the USSR by the end of 1991, and finally by a steady dissemination of new technologies and access to finances across all sectors of the public. We were infallible, and yet federal jobs were on hold, and the space program still under revision.
|For much of recent history the Moon and Mars, it seemed, had become “four letter words” in the space program—never to be enunciated aloud.|
When I finally finished my undergraduate studies in 1991, with our small and successful war heroically completed and national spirits on high, I moved to Houston where I knew I wanted to be a part of the new space frontier—job in hand or not. I soon entered the space industry as a part-time biomedical engineer supporting the Space Shuttle program, with six flights that year and a new shuttle almost ready to roll off the assembly line. Spirits were good, the path seemed clearer. The program was in the midst of a rebirth from the US’s second space related tragedy, Challenger, and the resulting space flight hiatus. The following year saw the second busiest flight rate in a single year with an amazing eight shuttle flights. The Space Shuttle had become the workhorse of the US space program. Yet, still no space station, and another seven years would soon pass by. But not without pain, as the Freedom program was all but scrapped in 1993, its remnants slowly morphing into a new, internationally collaborative effort beginning with our former Cold War opponent, Russia. At the same time, the Clinton Administration and Congress killed additional funding for the space program and SEI with it; engendering the community with yet another letdown in enthusiasm and hope of exploring other worlds. It was around this time that I moved into the International Space Station (ISS) program, pressed by seeing imminent cuts and changes in the shuttle space science communities, and also believing and hoping that the station was next, though long overdue, step in our future.
Mean while, an old competition from 1986 was finally getting off the drawing boards when on July 2, 1996, NASA selected Lockheed Martin to design, build, and test the X-33 – the new single stage to orbit (SSTO) replacement and upgrade for the Space Shuttle and our 21st century access to space. Gradually, with an actual space station component launch on the horizon, the feelings and energy in the space community began to ramp up as the program started building hardware. Finally, 14 years after Reagan’s first proclamation, the first part of the overly-reinvented ISS had been built and was being launched by the Russians, and paid for by the United States. Soon after, the Shuttle entered the construction business, followed by a long slow ramp up to a working orbital platform. The space program and NASA had their work cut out for them, but did they have the support and funding? By that time, we were well into the decade of “Faster, Better and Cheaper” and with the shuttle program holding constant and the growth of the space station program, there grew a wider gap between the human and planetary robotic communities as funding competitions intensified, a state that really has never seemed to have been rectified. The Moon and Mars, it seemed, had become “four letter words” in the space program—never to be enunciated aloud.
Continuing our cycle of bureaucratic failures and shortsighted decision-making, the X-33 program was cancelled as a federal program in 2001, after years of progress and the spending of another billion dollars, when it ran into difficulties and delays in developing its new propulsion technologies. At the time, the Shuttle was known to be getting obsolete and the cancelation of the X-33 program became a death knell for future American access to space. Then, arguably the greatest shakeup of American society since the bombing of Pearl Harbor some 60 years ago, came the attacks on September 11, 2001. Through this unprovoked travesty, and the events that have followed, including wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, have for all practical purposes drained the government of all the resources necessary to carry on a successful space exploration program. Add this to the four-year federal cycles of change and egocentrism, and it seems amazing that we fly in space at all. The first to fall in the space program this time was that of the X-38 (Crew Return Vehicle) program, which occurred in April 2002 after seven years of work and progress, and much money spent. And, as if our space program could not get any lower, in February 2003 we lost another gallant crew during the reentry of Space Shuttle Columbia. No shuttle would be launched again until July of 2005, all the while the Russians sent our crews to the ISS. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) report was published in August of 2003 and to a large part reiterated what the past two decades of doubts and misgivings had already enunciated by the space community.
|If we do not wish to relive this past over and over, we—America and NASA—need to get past our built-up aversions to taking risk and pushing the envelopes.|
And then there was the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), George W. Bush’s attempt to ratify his father’s proposition of the late ’80s, but within a 15-year time table. The motto this time, embedded in the accompanying Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS), was “Moon, Mars, and Beyond,” which initiated a frenzy of program developments and expenditures. Finally some redirection and focus on destinations that had been four-letter words during the past decade, but yet an ineffable waft of vagueness and unsustainability pervaded the program’s stated objectives. It is important to understand how pervasive, influential, and emotionally bonding phrases and goals such as this are within NASA, the space industry, end even the public. The following quote is from one of the ISS interface control documents: “The primary goals of the ISS are to exploit the environment of space to advance science in biology, chemistry, physics, as well as human space flight engineering and operations. Recently, the ISS has been designated as a unique orbital test bed for technologies that will enable future exploration missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.” The Moon for most represented a “been-there, done-that” ideology with no clear connections to Mars except for a hint of analogue studies and hardware development; all of which was rapidly deleted from the program’s concept and which could more readily be accomplished in environments such as Antarctica. “Beyond”, was never really understandable since no one could clearly point to it. Only the sub-goal of Mars held any real merit as a goal worthy of accomplishing in our career and lifetime. And yet, almost as quickly as this program took root and found impetus was the Mars component relegated to the far back seat with every passing design review. As a goal, of the three, Mars offered substantially more efficacy to our needs and desires of motivating and inspiring future generations, for reestablishing our nation’s image of accomplishing great things, and for the eventual survival of our species. Mars again faded, always just 30 years away. And decisions made too late might rather never been made at all.
The beginning of the 21st century has been punctuated with various, economically impinging natural disasters such Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Haiti earthquake, and others, all demonstrating how difficult it is for individual and even multiple nations to react and recover, all the while absorbing vast amounts of money. Add this to the ongoing bleed-out of finances from the events initiated on 9/11 and ongoing bureaucratic inefficiencies, and it is clear that the life expectancy of any government-sponsored program will be tenuous at best. These same several years have seen another example in the coming and going of yet another space program, Constellation. The end of this first decade has been punctuated by the ongoing wars, an epic economic upheaval, and a new presidential commission on space. This latest assessment was assembled in 2009, the “Augustine Committee,” and published a report providing a series of possibilities for the future of human space exploration, but in all, the results and suggestions seem to have no more guidance or insight than that given from all previous committees and commissions. Cycles like these in the space program and government and their interpretations as good or bad are left to those who have gained or lost jobs and history, but one thing for certain is that if not broken or at least understood, then little or no headway is ever made.
Today, it is said that changes are going from being driven by destinations to being driven by capabilities. To this author, this is yet another vagueness that shows an endemic lack of clarity, focus, and cooperation or camaraderie within the government and space communities. The public, in general, has always seemed to favor our space program, whether they truly understand its cost versus its benefits or not. We are now, for all practical purposes, back to the “four letter words” for the foreseeable future, without a true, identifiable, and sustainable goal. The closing of the incredibly versatile, though costly, Space Shuttle program may have unintended, expensive, or unforeseen consequences as we deprive our nation the ability to put humans in space for some period of time, notwithstanding the potential loss of a generation of specialists and a hard earned and knowledgeable workforce. And the lack of a similarly capable successor to the Space Shuttle is not unlike trading in your 2010 hybrid, with all the fanfare, for a 1957 Edsel. There is “a huge difference between a Soyuz and Space Shuttle arriving at the Station,” as a friend who had lived on ISS for over six months put it. In other words, if we don’t at least maintain or expand our ability to launch greater mass into space, we will never truly establish residence there and will therefore be forever relegating it to the status of a camp, something that not even the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station can be called anymore. The ongoing lack of clarity in our space program is just another symptom of a nation torn in multiple directions, subservient to its people’s addiction to the instant gratification that our technology and wealth has afforded us over the past 50 years. What has been and is now needed more than ever is a single unifying, enlightening, and motivationally inspiring goal, with the political and financial funding to back it up.
For the past twelve years we have been steadily assembling the ISS, working and learning about all aspects of space flight. This remarkable platform will continue to serve, assuming continued political support, our efforts in international cooperation, our expanding technological abilities in space, our study of the Earth, and our growing knowledge of how to safely extend our ability to living and working in space to longer and longer durations. As for myself, I have now worked in many different areas of the Space Station program and continue to do so with the upcoming COTS vehicles. My eye is still on that future I saw before I got here with cautious optimism, yet, before we move on to another set of goals and develop another program and spend more money, we must first thoroughly answer the question of why and then proceed to how and when. This is not easy and not everyone will be happy with the outcome.
I, and others, believe the key to be the exploration and settlement of the planet Mars. Yet too often we suffer from the “too many chefs in one kitchen” syndrome that historical hindsight deems clear. If we do not wish to relive this past over and over, we—America and NASA—need to get past our built-up aversions to taking risk and pushing the envelopes. There are plenty of highly motivated and intelligent people who understand and are ready to volunteer for the next great adventures, and only need a chance. Alas, the ball is already rolling again at each NASA center, where talk and anxiety abound over assessing core competencies and finding new direction and goals is on everyone’s mind and in the letter of the day from upper management. Let us not base our future in space on geopolitical interests and races or special interests, but on the desire to evolve and save our species and all the good that we can offer current and future generations.