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Turning the International Space Station into a key laboratory over the next several years may be critical to both NASA's future human spaceflight plans as well as supporting the development of commercial space industries. (credit: NASA)

Asking the big questions for the next ten years

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When The Space Review started ten years ago, we sought to ask—and hopefully answer—the big questions facing spaceflight (see “Time to ask the big questions”, The Space Review, February 11, 2003). At that time, of course, there were plenty of big questions about the future of space exploration, triggered by the loss of the space shuttle Columbia at put the future of that program, and of NASA, into question.

A decade later, many big questions remain. Some of these are new questions, developed over the last decade through the rise and fall of the Vision for Space Exploration, its replacement by the compromise struck between Obama Administration and Congress, and the growing, but in many respects yet unproven, capabilities of commercial providers. Some, though, are more fundamental questions, still unanswered, about why we pursue spaceflight—questions that, more than ever, will demand answers over the next ten years as the political and societal landscape evolves.

Whither the ISS?

Just prior to the loss of Columbia ten years ago, the central focus of NASA’s human spaceflight program was to complete the assembly of the International Space Station. In fact, the schedule pressure NASA created to get the station done by a specific date was a contributing factor in the loss of the Columbia and its crew, delaying completion of the station by several years.

“We need to use station as a way to show that space-based research is really an important tool for industry,” said Gerstenmaier.

The final flights of the Space Shuttle program two years ago completed the ISS at long last, although some minor tweaks remain: Russia plans to replace the Pirs module with a multipurpose lab module next year, while NASA announced an agreement last month with Bigelow Aerospace to temporarily add an experimental inflatable module to the station in 2015 (see “The benefits (and limitations) of space partnerships”, The Space Review, January 21, 2013). Today, unlike a decade ago, the question is not how to finish building the ISS, but what to do with it, and for how long.

NASA and space station research advocates see the ISS as the lynchpin for future human exploration plans and scientific studies. “The International Space Station, of course, is the cornerstone of operations in space and key to our future in exploration,” said Greg Williams, deputy associate administrator for policy and plans within NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD), in a briefing last week to the Human Spaceflight Technical Feasibility Panel, part of the ongoing study of human spaceflight by the National Research Council. “The space station provides the foundation, framework, and the experience base from which we can begin to expand our international endeavors in space.”

William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator in charge of HEOMD, sees the ISS as a facility capable of demonstrating the potential for research in microgravity, serving as a pathfinder for later commercial research activities. “The real benefit of station is that is can do much, much more than what it’s doing today with just the government research,” he said in a speech at the 16th Annual FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington last week. “We need to use station as a way to show that space-based research is really an important tool for industry.”

That potential is still something yet to be fully demonstrated, though, as space station research ramps up with the support of NASA and a non-profit organization, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), established to manage research on the US elements of the station designated by Congress as a national laboratory. ISS supporters see plenty of potential for attracting commercial users of the station. “The thing we need to do now is to expose the commercial market, companies that are doing research today in labs and research facilities, to space, and show them what they can gain from this unique environment,” Gerstenmaier said.

The challenge will be to demonstrate that the gains from performing research in space are worth the expense and hassles involved with flying experiments to the ISS. That’s a challenge history suggests will be a steep one, given the past promises of the benefits of microgravity research dating back several decades that have fallen short.

A lot may be riding on the ability of NASA, its ISS partners, and other users to demonstrate the scientific utility of research there. The ISS partners have agreed to operate the station to 2020, but have taken a wait-and-see approach to extending the life of the station beyond that although analyses indicate that, from a technical standpoint, the ISS could operate to 2028. If the benefits from operating the station aren’t worth the considerable expense, one could see some or all partners hesitant to continue investing in the station past 2020.

An end to the ISS in 2020 could bring to an end an anchor tenant for commercial cargo and crew transportation systems, the latter expected to enter service just a few years before that date. Moreover, a perceived failure of ISS research could affect the business plans of companies like Bigelow Aerospace to develop private space stations to support commercial and government research efforts, if the outcome of the ISS efforts leads potential customers to conclude there’s little utility in human-tended research in orbit.

“If we just stay with the government-funded research from now on, I don’t think that’s sustainable,” Gerstenmaier said. “We’ve got a finite window with the space station over these next several years to prove that research in space provides real, tangible benefits.”

How viable is commercial orbital human spaceflight?

As noted above, one of the key aspects of the ISS is that is provides an existing market for transporting humans to and from low Earth orbit. And NASA’s need to have the ability to get astronauts to and from the ISS—something provided solely by the Russians with the shuttle’s retirement in 2011—has stimulated a sometimes controversial effort to support the development of commercial systems to do that.

Limited budgets and, perhaps, a degree of skepticism on Capitol Hill, have made it difficult for NASA to secure the funding it has sought for the commercial crew program.

The three companies that won the latest round of NASA awards last August—Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corporation, and SpaceX (see “Commercial crew’s winners and losers”, The Space Review, August 6, 2012)—say that, six months into the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) program, they’re making good progress. The companies have all achieved several milestones of their awards as they progress towards hardware tests. For example, glide tests of a test article of Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser are slated to begin within the next two months at Edwards Air Force Base in California, company officials recently stated.

But commercial crew transportation faces several challenges over the coming decade. There are, of course, technical challenges associated with developing a crewed spacecraft that can safely transport up to seven people to and from low Earth orbit. While companies have ambitious schedules—SpaceX currently plans to perform a test flight of the crewed version of its Dragon spacecraft, with non-NASA astronauts on board, by the end of 2015—the technical challenges inherent in almost any major aerospace program suggest those schedules will slip, by months or possibly years, as has already happened with Orbital Sciences and SpaceX on their commercial cargo development efforts.

A challenge potentially larger than technical issues is that of policy and funding. Limited budgets and, perhaps, a degree of skepticism on Capitol Hill that commercial providers are up to challenge of carrying people to orbit, have made it difficult for NASA to secure the funding it has sought for the program. NASA sought $830 million for commercial crew for fiscal year 2013, and while Congress has yet to complete spending bills for the fiscal year, the program is unlikely to get more than about $500 million.

There have also been calls for NASA to save money by supporting only a single company, something that NASA has rejected because it wants to preserve competition in the program. Last year, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), who has since retired, was one key member who pressed for a commercial crew downselect now, but not because she was philosophically opposed to the program. “What she wanted to do was to try and make it possible for NASA to do a good job with commercial crew development in light of the lack of available resources,” explained Senate staffer Jeff Bingham at the FAA conference last week.

Beyond the technical and fiscal challenges for commercial crew is the question of the business case: is there enough non-NASA business to sustain one or more of these companies, especially if the NASA business goes away with the ISS’s retirement as soon as 2020? Companies have cited a number of potential markets, from space tourists to commercial researchers to so-called “sovereign clients”, governments without indigenous human spaceflight programs who would be interested in flying their own astronauts. Bigelow Aerospace has shown an interest in being a customer of these systems, but will also be looking for customers from those same markets. Demonstrating there’s a viable market at a given price point and set of capabilities may turn out to be the biggest challenge for commercial crew companies.

When will suborbital spaceflight finally take off?

Ten years ago, as much of the space industry reflected on the loss of Columbia and its implications for the future of NASA’s space efforts, a commercial effort emerged from its veil of secrecy in the California desert. In April 2003, Scaled Composites publicly displayed for the first time SpaceShipOne, the suborbital vehicle it was developing to win the $10-million Ansari X PRIZE (see “Rutan aims for space: A look at SpaceShipOne”, The Space Review, April 21, 2003). A year and a half later, SpaceShipOne captured the prize.

There are signs that after eight years, and a few false alarms, suborbital human spaceflight is about to return to center stage.

At the time, there was unbridled enthusiasm for commercial suborbital spaceflight, and understandably so. SpaceShipOne demonstrated that companies could develop such vehicles relatively affordably (the entire program cost less than $30 million), attract financing (in Scaled’s case, from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen), and also stimulate new ventures, such as the deal Scaled reached with Sir Richard Branson to develop a vehicle for a venture called Virgin Galactic. And since Scaled was just one of about two dozen teams competing for the prize, it seemed the skies would soon be buzzing with suborbital spacecraft.

The future has turned out a little differently than what people expected in the heady days of October 2004. The final, prize-winning flight of SpaceShipOne on October 4, 2004, remains to this day the last human commercial suborbital spaceflight. SpaceShipOne was put into the Smithsonian while development of a lager successor vehicle, SpaceShipTwo, dragged on. The other X PRIZE competitors turned out to be far behind Scaled and either retooled their plans or, in most cases, simply faded away.

There are signs, though, that after eight years, and a few false alarms, suborbital human spaceflight is about to return to center stage. Virgin Galactic is inching towards its first powered test flights of SpaceShipTwo. In December, SpaceShipTwo performed its first glide flight in what the company called “powered flight” configuration, with its rocket motor installed but not ignited. The vehicle hasn’t flown since then, and Virgin said at the time that at least two more such glide flights are planned before the first powered flight.

Virgin’s closest competitor in the suborbital human spaceflight market, XCOR Aerospace, is also making progress with its Lynx spaceplane, under construction, like SpaceShipTwo, at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. It’s expected to begin test flights later this year. Blue Origin is working in secrecy on its suborbital (and, eventually, orbital) vehicles, while Armadillo Aerospace and Masten Space Systems focus, for the time being, on uncrewed suborbital vehicles.

The success of one or more of these companies, in particular those developing crewed vehicles, would be a major milestone for the commercial space industry, open up new markets for tourism, research, or other applications. But, after years of delays, the patience of some potential customers may be beginning to wear thin.

Can NASA match its programs to its budgets?

NASA has a lot more on its plate than just utilizing the ISS and supporting the development of commercial cargo and crew systems. It’s working on the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket and Orion crew vehicle for human missions beyond Earth orbit; the James Webb Space Telescope and a panoply of other science missions, including a 2020 Mars rover that will likely be the first step in a multi-mission effort to return samples from Mars; and aeronautics and space technology research.

One solution to the growing mismatch between missions and budgets is to give NASA more money. “NASA needs to have more than one half of one percent of the federal budget,” Bingham said.

And that’s perhaps NASA’s biggest problem: that impressive array of missions and programs doesn't match up with the budgets allocated to the space agency. The 2010 NASA authorization act, the latest such bill, authorized NASA to spend just under $20 billion in fiscal year 2013, which has been underway since October. NASA’s final budget for the year is likely to be considerably less: no more than the $17.7 billion it got in 2012, and possibly much less, depending on the outcome of the ongoing budget debate and the potential for automatic across-the-board spending cuts, known as “sequestration,” set to kick in on March 1 unless Congress and the White House act.

One solution to the growing mismatch between missions and budgets is to give NASA more money. “NASA needs to have more than one half of one percent of the federal budget,” Bingham said at the FAA conference last week, emphasizing he was speaking only for himself. That call has been echoed by others in recent years who have sought to at least double NASA’s share of the federal budget to one percent.

But the space advocacy community has had limited success in the best of times, and fiscally speaking, these are not the best of times. Asking for a sharp increase in NASA’s budget when there’s pressure to cut overall spending is a battle space advocates are unlikely to win. Simply keeping NASA’s budget flat would be a major success. Bingham suggested that it might be possible to raise NASA’s budget if there was “absolute unanimity” across industry to “make it politically indefensible to keep NASA underfunded.” But how often do you see absolute unanimity in the space community?

A flat or declining NASA budget will force NASA to make hard decisions in the coming years about just what it should be doing. Should it abandon plans for the SLS and/or Orion, or end its support for commercial crew efforts? What science missions will it be able to afford? Does it need to close one or more of its centers? The easy solution would be to simply stretch programs out to fit them within smaller budgets, but that approach is likely to only delay when those hard decisions will be made.

Is there a justification for human spaceflight?

If and when that time for hard decisions about NASA’s programs comes, one debate likely to erupt again is whether any kind of human spaceflight program makes sense. Supporters of human spaceflight have long had to justify the purpose for spending billions of dollars a year and risking lives to send people into space, and in an era of not only diminished budgets but also growing capabilities in robotic spaceflight, that argument will be all the harder.

If commercial efforts fall short, though, and government budgets remain flat, it may be that there is no future for human spaceflight, beyond perhaps suborbital hops and the occasional mission to Earth orbit, for the foreseeable future.

“The failure to articulate and mount a program of human piloted missions to deep space, rather than being a crisis, rather than being a bungle of leadership and political process, represents a triumph of rationality and success in the political process,” argued Rice University professor Eugene Levy during a space policy forum at the university’s Baker Institute for Public Policy last month. “No convincing case has been made for mounting a program of deep space piloted missions.” He noted he’s not opposed to human spaceflight, only that the reasons put forward for human missions beyond Earth orbit don’t justify the expenditure in an era where NASA “is getting about as much of the national resource as it is likely to get on any time horizon worth planning for.”

He and other panelists at the event didn’t hold out much hope for major changes in space policy that might support a more robust human spaceflight program in the near future. “The perception of the need is there, but it’s not a widely shared perception,” said another panelist, John Logsdon. “And it’s hard to change things in our system of government.”

There is, arguably, one ultimate rationale for human spaceflight: survival of the species, be it from threats natural or human-made. But that’s a tough sell when people are more concerned about near-term issues that may be more mundane but are far less nebulous.

It could be that the future of human spaceflight rests in the hands of the commercial efforts. If they can find a way to profitably fly humans in space, be it for tourism, research, or other purposes, they may be able to do something that governments have struggled to do for decades: create a sustainable, affordable human presence in space that could be the springboard for more ambitious efforts, including government exploration beyond Earth orbit.

If commercial efforts fall short, though, and government budgets remain flat, it may be that there is no future for human spaceflight, beyond perhaps suborbital hops and the occasional mission to Earth orbit, for the foreseeable future. (China does have plans for its own space station by the end of the decade and, eventually, human missions to the Moon, but appears in no rush to carry them out.) There might still be robust activities going on in Earth orbit and beyond, but these would be primarily robotic.

Those are some pretty big questions to try and answer—or, at least, to better articulate—here in the next ten years.