By G. Michael Green and Roger D. Launius
In the 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, astronauts shuttled from the Earth to an orbiting Space Station as activities in low-Earth orbit have become routine. Commercial enterprises carried out many of the functions; the shuttle to the space station is flown by Pan American, a Hilton hotel is located on the station, and communications is provided by AT&T. Flash forward to 2018 and imagine NASA astronauts boarding a new space launch system developed by a commercial provider, sending crews and supplies from Earth to the space station.
This may become the new future for space exploration if Congress accepts the Obama Administration’s approach. If it does the false starts of the past will be replaced by what is envisioned as “A new era of Innovation and Discovery.” This new direction and change is more than just semantics. It proposes a major shift in the way NASA will accomplish human spaceflight. Simply put, it represents a paradigm shift in space exploration. To become a truly multi-planetary species we must embrace new far-reaching technologies, cutting-edge innovations, and advanced concepts relying on this nation’s entrepreneurial spirit. In this new approach NASA will return to its roots as a research and development organization to develop the transformational technologies while private industry will operate the systems built. Turning low-Earth orbit over to commercial entities, as in 2001: A Space Odyssey, will empower NASA to focus its attention on deep space exploration, eventually returning to the Moon and perhaps even Mars.
To make this possibility a reality, NASA must undergo significant shifts in programs and operational practices. The Constellation program, behind schedule and severely strapped for funding, has proven a chimera that sought only to relive the glories of Apollo. Even though it relied on the technologies of yesterday, the Augustine Committee found it too aggressive a program for its budget. Constellation’s demise, therefore, is an courageous admission of the need to hit the reset button for human spaceflight.
More important, for this new approach to have any chance of success, NASA must change itself. For fifty years it has dominated all aspects of human spaceflight, developing technologies for its own use. While it relied on contractors for assistance, there was never any doubt about who was in charge. This has to change, NASA must now develop more equal partnerships with outside entities, especially the commercial sector, to carry out is space exploration mandate. We acknowledge that this new shift will be difficult, but also that it is critical for future efforts. NASA stands on the cusp of re-inventing itself to thrive in this new ever-changing world. Will it successfully do so, or will it retrench and wait for the next administration and the next blue ribbon review? One leads to a hopeful future for human space exploration, the other leads to a cul de sac.
We believe the time has arrived for NASA to shift from building and operating space launch systems to purchasing these services from the private sector. The Augustine Committee, made up of some of the brightest minds in the aerospace arena, summed it up best, “There is little double that the U.S. aerospace industry, from historical builders…to the new entrants, has the technical capability to build and operate a crew taxi to low-Earth orbit.” Shedding the burden of building a new launch system to and from the ISS will free NASA to spend its dollars and energy toward deep space exploration beyond low-Earth orbit.
Further, utilizing more effectively America’s existing aerospace and emerging space transportation companies will ignite American ingenuity, innovation, and free market forces. It will provide the U.S. with the potential of multiple commercial firms offering space launch services, thus giving the nation redundancy in sending humans into space. Competition will help drive down the cost of accessing low Earth orbit and make spaceflight more routine than ever before.
This new approach could extend the lifespan of the greatest engineering asset the world’s nations have ever jointly developed: the International Space Station. The ISS is poised to accomplish much during the next ten years in the arenas of biomedical, Earth science, and materials research. It also offers the best platform ever to help understand how humans can function in space for months at a time. Under this new plan, the ISS’s life will be extended to at least 2020.
Finally, like all change and major paradigm shifts, there will much upheaval and some pain along the way. Simply shuttering the Space Shuttle program guaranteed some loss of jobs regardless of the future direction of NASAThe level of hyperbole, misplaced alarm, and misinformation being spread, however, is approaching the point of nonsense. One space observer stated in a fit of hyperbole that “left to their own devices they [the private sector] tend to produce unreliable hardware that explodes.” Amazingly untrue, for over two decades the Defense Department and commercial satellites industry have relied on the U.S. commercial launch industry to deliver the critical hardware–from weather to intelligence satellites–to LEO, all with amazing reliability. Even a former NASA Administrator incorrectly called the new plan “a stupid strategy” and an abandonment of human space flight. In our view, nothing could be farther from the truth.
This new path is not abandoning human exploration, but could provide the U.S. with a sustainable and executable space exploration plan for decades to come. It will return American astronauts to the ISS and beyond sooner than the previous path…and on American built rocketsWe feel this is a new beginning for NASA and space exploration; it represents a reasonable path toward a sustainable future in space. And after the fits and starts over many years that we have suffered in considering a replacement system for the Space Shuttle, it is a welcome new beginning.