Have we lost space?

Earlier this year, President Obama convened a panel of experts to review the near-term goals of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and report to him what the panel considers should be done within the existing annual budgets.  Included in this review is the Constellation program, which President George W. Bush initiated after the loss of the space shuttle Columbia.

Dr. Sally Ride, former astronaut, has been the spokesperson for the Agustine Comission, the panel convened by President Obama.  She has been very candid in describing the comission’s findings and conclusions, even to the extent of declaring that the comission failed to find a mission that NASA could carry out within the budgets proposed for the agency over the next 15 to 20 years.  There simply is not enough money to do more than one thing with manned space exploration.

Currently, the primary mission NASA is pursuing is the International Space Station, which is finally nearing completion.  In order to free up money to do any other mission, NASA has proposed de-orbiting the space station in 2016, barely 5 years after it is due to be completed.  All of NASA’s partners in the ISS venture object to this destruction of something that they have invested in, very heavily, in some cases.

NASA has been criticized over the last decade for not sending humans beyond Low Earth Orbit, either to the Moon or to Mars.  There also has been discontent with the reluctance of NASA to allow private involvement in space exploration, through the construction and operation of launch vehicles to support NASA operations.  Many space advocates believe that we have advanced enough to return to the Moon, and there is a large faction which claims that we are capable of sending a manned mission to Mars at this time.

Central to all of these issues is the planned retirement of the only spacecraft that NASA has in operation at this time, the Space Shuttle.  Under the budgets proposed by the Bush administration, the shuttle is to be retired in 2010, even though there is no vehicle to take its place.  Astronauts from the United States will have to ride Russian rockets to reach the ISS, at least until 2015, when the proposed Orion capsule could be be launched by the Areas-1 rocket, which is currently in development.  The space shuttle is capable of continuing operations for many more years, especially after upgrades to the vehicles, but flying the shuttle consumes nearly all of the budget for manned space exploration.  In order to develop a new launch vehicle, we will have to stop launching people into space.

NASA is working hard to build this new launch vehicle, but many people have serious reservations about it.  Called the Ares-1, it is adapted from the Solid Rocket Boosters used by the space shuttle.  The spacecraft that it would launch would be a capsule, called the Orion, which is similar in size and shape to the capsules used in the Apollo program.  They would basically duplicate the Russian Soyuz spacecraft capabilites, although the Orion could carry at least 5 people instead of the 3 that the Soyuz carries.

At the same time, private companies are building their own launch vehicles, hoping to be able to land the contracts for sending supplies to the ISS.  At least one of these private rockets appears to be large enough to carry humans into space, using a different kind of spacecraft than the Orion.  Supposedly, the Orion spacecraft is to be used primarily for sending people to the Moon, and as part of a spacecraft that could travel to Mars and back.  However, due to the extremely small budgets that NASA is supposed to receive over the next decade, there is no money to develop any equipment for landing on the Moon and doing any kind of work there.

How small are the budgets?  Only about 8 billion dollars a year is slated for investment into manned space exploration through 2020, an unrealistically small sum.  The Bush administration apparently did not believe that space exploration was worthy of any increase in funding, in spite of the need to build new spacecraft, operate the space station, and prepare to return to the Moon.  Even maintaining the level of activity we have become accustomed to was considered too expensive, apparently.

What little money the Bush administration wanted to spend on space exploration was primarily to be spent with a major defense contractor, for the development of the Ares-1 rocket.  No new technology is involved in either the Ares-1 or the Orion capsule, they are only the cheapest possible replacement for the space shuttle.  But this does not mean that the science of sending people into space and bringing them back has been perfected.  The space shuttle is the closest we have come to a real system to reach space and return, and it is far from the ideal design.  But it can land on a runway, which the Orion capsule will not be able to do.  As a matter of fact, the Orion appears to need the oceans to land safely, splashing down like the capsules of the 1960’s.

Therefore, it appears that NASA is going to spend billions of dollars developing a launch vehicle which is already obselete, just so that America can continue to claim to be a ‘space-faring nation.’  This vehicle is too small to be able to launch the payloads needed to return to the Moon or to go to Mars, so a larger rocket, the Ares-V, is supposed to be developed in the late -teens. At this time, there is no money in the proposed budgets for this development, which insures that the ISS would have to be de-orbited if the US space program is to have any future.  But destroying the ISS would mean that the Ares-1 would have no where to go for at least 4 or 5 years, which probably would result in space exploration being abandoned entirely by the US.

The government is supposed to pave the way for the development of industry in the future, but it seems that ours has given up on the future.  What we have spent forcing democracy on Iraq would have paid for a proper return to the Moon, with long term exploration and development of resources.  We may be able to recover from the financial melt-down of the past few years, but without investment in key technologies, the future will not be as good as our past.

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