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SLS illustration
The long timelines needed for the development of the SLS could make it susceptible to future budget cuts. (credit: NASA)

American human spaceflight and future options, short- and long-term

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One has to decide whether to consider the question of the future of human spaceflight from either a global or national perspective. Taking the question in reverse order, the United States is not out of the human spaceflight business quite yet, but the future configuration of the country’s efforts will clearly be different unless there arises a threat from the proverbial little green men. The Apollo 11 landing was an American exploit but the mission went as the representative of all humans as the plaque left behind on the Lunar Module said: “Here men from the planet earth first set foot on the moon July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind”. That moment of global citizenship quickly faded as normal Earth politics permeated the space arena. One must always be conscious that nationalism in different forms has driven human spaceflight to this point, although we may be crossing over an important milestone to where national origin of the spacecraft may not be as critical as previously. This represents the hope rather than the reality, however; national pride still drives the human spaceflight arena, including in the United States.

However, the lengthy nature of the projected flight date for SLS suggests that political patience may be exhausted long before NASA is ready to fly again on a regular basis.

As widely noted, the US is now purchasing tickets to ride in Russian Soyuz vehicles to the space station while NASA pursues the development of what is called the Space Launch System (SLS). Despite the details provided in the announcement, the SLS is still a work in progress with significant changes likely to occur. The description basically concludes with this description-caveat: “Additionally, this architecture provides a modular launch vehicle that can be configured for specific mission needs using a variation of common elements. NASA may not need to lift 130 metric tons for each mission and the flexibility of this modular architecture allows the agency to use different core stage, upper stage, and first-stage booster combinations to achieve the most efficient launch vehicle for the desired mission.” The point is that the final vehicle may be very different from what is suggested initially. This flexibility of architecture is good and sound in principle but potentially adds more complexity to what is being built. In that sense, there exists a fear that the SLS will be another shuttle in terms of execution: too many different needs have to be accommodated with the result being a vehicle more expensive than envisioned. Moreover, while the first flight has been projected to 2017, it may be until 2032 before the fully evolved SLS will actually fly.

The question then becomes how much time is politically available for NASA to get its next flight vehicle on line. If jobs appear in critical locations such as the Johnson Space Center and the Marshall Space Flight Center, the political pressure will decline, allowing the program to proceed. Also, by recycling Space Shuttle and Ares program infrastructure, the costs may be somewhat lower and the developmental process accelerated. However, the lengthy nature of the projected flight date suggests that political patience may be exhausted long before NASA is ready to fly again on a regular basis.

That is where the commercial space launch industry comes into play. If the four contenders identified earlier and now funded by NASA—Blue Origin, Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corporation, and SpaceX—get to orbit in a reasonable timeframe, allowing NASA to purchase flights to the ISS on US-flagged spacecraft, the political pressures may be eased since that will further the revival of KSC after the shuttle shut down. Boeing has already announced KSC as the location for its CST-100 spacecraft assembly facility, assuming is its chosen as a contractor. The four commercial competitors provide, in principle, a political and policy answer for how the United States remains engaged in the ISS in the short term. The earlier Bush Administration decision to abandon the ISS by 2016 in pursuit of the Constellation Program was politically difficult to sustain: after spending at least $100 billion to build the ISS and just to walk away in a few years was going to be difficult in any case, but unsustainable once the Ares 1 fell behind schedule and the shuttle program shut down. The proposed commercial option restores US access to what it considers its space station until the ISS closes down, no earlier than 2020 and possibly as late as 2028 or beyond, depending on the ISS’s physical condition and whether a replacement exists that various international partners can access.

Globally speaking

Globally, human spaceflight is presently being conducted through use of Soyuz and Shenzhou spacecraft, the first flown by the Russians, and the latter by the Chinese. The Russians have discovered that their central location as sole human spacecraft owner for ISS missions puts them in the driver’s seat, as it were, for at least the current time. The Americans, as described above, are sorting out their options so the Russians presently hold the only tickets to the ISS for the foreseeable future. Prices as a result have gone up, reflecting Russia’s appreciation of capitalism, from $20–25 million per seat to $63 million in the last iteration; a cost increase from 2005 of 175%. This is still likely a discount from the cost per shuttle flight but politically difficult to sustain indefinitely.

In the long term the US may be isolating itself from international cooperation activities since the Chinese clearly are now among the few major national space programs in human spaceflight.

This political difficulty arises out of the fact that the United States possessed its own independent access to orbit, unlike ESA or the Japanese, who decided the costs for an independent capability were too high. Europe is rethinking the question but the costs remain an obstacle. Unlike the Americans, the Europeans and Japanese lack the established political forces to overcome the cost question. The commercial options being pursued by NASA initially dealt with cargo for the ISS but now the stakes are higher with active pursuit of carrying humans as well. This has been accentuated by the recent failed Soyuz launch which, for a time, put access to the space station at risk. If the return to Soyuz flight had not come quickly, the ISS would have been abandoned and operated from ground stations until the Soyuz problem was resolved.

US commercial vendors, along with the European Autonomous Transfer Vehicle (ATV) and the Japanese H-2 Transfer Vehicle (HTV) should be to handle cargo delivery in the future if the Soyuz reliability issues return. The latter two have flown missions to the ISS with the ATV being a possible precursor to a return of an earlier program, the Crew Return Vehicle (CRV). The latter was canceled as part of the March 2001 Bush Administration restructuring of the human spaceflight and ISS programs to reduce costs through canceling the X-33, X-34, and assorted ISS components. The CRV got caught in the down tow and was swept away, but could return in a new incarnation now that the Space Shuttle is gone and the Soyuz is more fragile than previously thought. The path back is to start making the ATV at least partially recoverable for returning cargo from the station, and eventually upgraded to accommodate people.

The Chinese are riding a wave of positive vibes with the successful launch of their Tiangong-1 space station module followed by the Shenzhou 8 spacecraft, demonstrating successful docking maneuvers. This success—assuming it is followed by repeated successful human spaceflight missions—puts China clearly in the zone where the Shenzhou could serve as a flight vehicle to the ISS. The obstacles to the Chinese accessing the ISS remain more political than technical: recall that the US and the Russians (formerly the Soviets) have been docking since the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. The difficulty may arise in the fact that domestic politics within the United States makes cooperation difficult and unlikely until after the 2012 presidential election.

NASA’s domestic constituency remains a mile wide and an inch deep and unlikely to be able to effectively resist determined budget cutters.

In the long term the US may be isolating itself from international cooperation activities since the Chinese clearly are now among the few major national space programs in human spaceflight. A comparatively large number of countries participate in human spaceflight activities, but the bottleneck remains assured access to vehicles that will carry people to orbit. States without their own spacecraft are dependent on goodwill and their money to gain access to spaceflights. The Chinese in the short term speak of international cooperation. However, the logic of the Chinese program is such that they are not waiting for a US invitation but are proceeding forward on their own schedule with a laboratory by 2016 followed by a full-scale manned space station in orbit by 2020. All of this assumes the Chinese program will not encounter any performance lapses or accidents. Their caution in pursuing human spaceflight appears to reflect a clear understanding that a Chinese flight failure would be more damaging in terms of prestige and for the international presence China wishes to project to the world. Some have argued that the Chinese themselves are not convinced of the reliability of their flight technology and therefore move cautiously (see “The China gambit”, The Space Review, January 21, 2008).

In any case, the international space community is being reshaped to include the Chinese regardless of US domestic political feelings about that possibility. Attacks on the Obama Administration and restrictions by Congress make linkages with the Chinese difficult if not impossible, especially given the intensity with which the issue is pursued by some members. Whether their judgment is correct about how China got to space—stealing the technologies from the US space program—is unclear since the Chinese program has been in progress long before the current administration. A better case could be made for Chinese borrowing from Russian and former Soviet technologies.

At the present time, given the enormous economic stress the global economy is struggling to cope with, the opportunities for international cooperative space activities are going to be limited, especially for the United States. This reality is regardless of the progress (or not) of the Space Launch System, the budget-cutting efforts by the Congressional “supercommittee”, or just the normal give-and-take of American politics: NASA’s budget will be under extreme stress to the point that starting new international human spaceflight programs will be definitely on the slow track even if Congress does not gut NASA’s budget. NASA’s domestic constituency remains a mile wide and an inch deep and unlikely to be able to effectively resist determined budget cutters. For bystanders, the debate over the SLS is publicly perceived as one of retaining constituent jobs—an issue that does not grab the attention or sympathy of 90 percent of Congress, they have their own agendas and constituents to protect. Public employees or government contractors are not objects of great sympathy for the public. Once the economic crisis moderates (and it probably will not go away until much later than once expected), the US may find that the interesting projects are going to be international in scope and the Chinese will possibly be major players. What then? Welcome to the new space age.