The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Shuttle launch
The Columbia accident has called attention to not only problems with the shuttle, but the difficulties faced with giving NASA a new direction and appropriate funding. (credit: NASA/KSC)

(Space) history accelerates

Since the attack on 9/11, things have been speeding up all over the world. The War on Terrorism and the changes linked to this have ended all the wishful thinking that had become commonplace since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. America’s holiday from history is over.

The Columbia disaster has had a similar effect on the US space program. Before February 1, 2003, America was, for all intents and purposes, stuck in low Earth orbit (LEO). Sure, there was a thriving robotic exploration program, but the major part of NASA’s spaceflight budget was being spent on the ISS and the Shuttle that serviced it. While there were plenty of ideas to expand human presence in the solar system, there was no commitment by either the Congress or the Administration to do so.

Instead, NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe was engaged in a necessary and difficult effort to reform the way the agency operated. He was fixing the accounting and management systems and fighting to get Congress to commit to fixing NASA’s much-abused infrastructure. The progress he had made in his first year was modest but promising, and the people of NASA were beginning to respond to his common-sense approach to reforming the way they did business.

NASA’s long-term plans were embodied in its ‘03 Strategic Plan, a tightly reasoned document that left the agency little room for maneuver. For human space flight, they disguised the institutional drive to go back to the Moon and then to Mars with the term “accessible planetary surfaces.” That sort of euphemism, along with the mess the agency has made of its efforts to develop a new human-rated launch vehicle, exasperated even the most sympathetic ears on Capitol Hill.

For human space flight, NASA disguised the institutional drive to go back to the Moon and then to Mars with the term “accessible planetary surfaces.” That sort of euphemism exasperated even the most sympathetic ears on Capitol Hill.

Any new effort to go back to the Moon, or even to build a human-tended station at L-1, will be very closely scrutinized by the Congress and by outside experts. One important point that someone made at the December 18th Space Imperatives Conference in Washington was that there is now a space advocacy community in existence that did not exist when JFK committed America to go to the Moon. Parts of this group can be counted on to attack whatever is proposed. If the Moon is announced as the target, the Mars advocates will complain, and vice versa.

Getting into LEO safely and at a reasonable cost is the biggest obstacle. Since NASA seems to have given up not only on a single stage to orbit (SSTO) vehicle, but also on the two stage to orbit (TSTO) system it had been working towards until late 2002, it must come up with something new. The Orbital Space Plane (OSP) project may very nearly be dead. O’Keefe made a major mistake when he tried to shoehorn the OSP into the space that had been planned for both the 2nd Generation TSTO RLV and the ISS Crew Rescue Vehicle (CRV). Not only is there no simple justification for the OSP, but now that it has been labeled as being nothing more than an “American Soyuz,” its $13 to $18 billion dollar price tag is seen by people in Congress as a joke.

A proposal which uses the Shuttle’s external tank with Rocketdyne engines attached, Solid Rocket Boosters, and replaces the Shuttle orbiter with a pod that could carry either cargo or humans, was presented by Buzz Aldrin’s associate, Ted Talay, at the Space Imperatives conference. This makes a certain amount of sense, in that it would provide America with a versatile heavy-lift vehicle that would have a higher flight rate than either of the heavy versions of Delta 4 or Atlas 5. It would fly a minimum of six times a year to the ISS and would be able to take some of the heavy payloads that cannot be handled by the EELVs. It would be able to launch the vehicles and cargo needed either for a possible moonbase or for an L-1 station. The Shuttle hardware would still be NASA’s basic workhorse but the orbiters, with their complex requirements and vulnerabilities, could be phased out without having to invest in a whole new vehicle and support infrastructure.

The core problem is still that NASA is being asked to do too much with too little. It has proved impossible for NASA to shed even the most minor of its missions (helicopter technology development) while neither Congress nor the White House seems capable of giving the agency a significant increase in its budget. Democrats, such as Senators Milkulski and Nelson, have been asking the White House to budget more for NASA. There is a strong suspicion that if the Administration were to actually do what they say they want it to do, other Democrats would start the usual attacks and speak of the budget deficit the same way they did when, in 1989, George Herbert Walker Bush proposed the kind of ambitious goals that NASA had wanted. Indeed, it was Senator Milkulski’s staff that saw to it that every penny that could conceivably benefit any human exploration outside LEO was cut from NASA’s budgets.

The core problem is still that NASA is being asked to do too much with too little.

So we are back to the old dilemma: NASA needs a destination and it needs more money to get there. Yet, in purchasing power, NASA’s budget keeps shrinking while the demands of fixing the Shuttle and completing and operating the ISS are draining the space agency of any financial wiggle room. Efforts to cut back and save money around the edges have, in the past, produced more expensive failures. The savings that supposedly came back when NASA was “the poster child for reinventing government” have long since vanished.

Congress and the Administration have got to face the fact that NASA cannot perform any more missions than it already is working on—at least not without either forcing it to give up some of its missions or to close one or more of its major centers, or giving it more money. In the current budget climate, an increase of a half billion would be hard to get, and an increase of two or three billion would be almost impossible unless the President is willing to use some major political capital to either raise taxes or cut something else out of the budget.

During the Civil War, Lincoln ordered that work on the Capitol building continue as a symbol of hope. In the midst of our current war, Bush may decide to continue and expand the US human spaceflight program as a similar symbol. America is, at heart, an optimistic and ambitious country. It is only natural that it lead the rest of humanity out into the solar system.