Commentary | Why the Space Station Must Trump Exploration

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Trust SpaceNews, the space industry’s newspaper of record, to frame a key choice facing NASA and the United States in the starkest possible terms: Should we continue to support the international space station at $3 billion a year, consuming about half the budget for human spaceflight? Or should we abandon the space station and try to embark on serious space exploration farther from the home world [“Policy Experts: Choice Looming Between ISS, Deep-space Missions”]?

While spaceflight has fared remarkably well in the budget battles so far, in the future NASA almost certainly will not be able to afford both the space station and serious exploration. This is especially true if we continue to “explore” by building the expensive Space Launch System (SLS) on Earth, rather than using our limited money to launch smaller components on existing rockets, assembling spacecraft in orbit, and then sending them out into the inner solar system.

Few will like it, but the correct choice is as stark as SpaceNews’ headline. Operating the space station for as long as possible is critical to the future of human spaceflight, even if it means setting aside lunar bases, Mars missions or even asteroid retrievals for the immediate future.

This choice is part of, and should be informed by, a wider choice. What is the ultimate goal of our expensive investment in human spaceflight? Is it to create permanent infrastructure, industries, trade and commerce, and eventually colonies — to make the inner solar system part of the wider human economy? Or is it primarily for science and exploration?  

Incorporating space into the wider economy requires a key element that science and exploration do not, at least to the same degree. The SLS’s projected five to 10 flights per decade might be enough to support science and exploration; it is wholly inadequate, and far too expensive, to support serious commerce or industrial activities. 

To support commerce, access to space and operations there must be made routine and as inexpensive as possible. That means they must be commercialized, or at least commoditized. Commercial products need a market. Today, the only market large and secure enough to motivate and sustain a large commercial space transportation industry is the international space station.

NASA’s use of the space station logistics market to create a nascent space transportation industry is clearly working. Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) has completed two cargo runs, and Orbital Sciences is on the verge of its first operational mission. An unprecedented three human-rated spacecraft are in advanced development, by SpaceX, Sierra Nevada Corp. and Boeing. For the first time, there may soon be multiple providers of human spaceflight and logistics, all competing to lower costs and increase reliability.

For all the partisan controversy today, leveraging the space station logistics market started out as a bipartisan strategy: Then-NASA Administrator Michael Griffin started the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program in the George W. Bush administration. Subsequently, it was expanded and pushed hard by Lori Garver, NASA deputy administrator under President Barack Obama. However, on Feb. 1, 2010, Mr. Obama abruptly announced the cancellation of the Constellation project to return to the Moon. NASA would displace near-term deep-space exploration with subsidies intended to commercialize access to low Earth orbit, and conduct open-ended research and development without a near-term goal. Members of Congress with a vested interest in the Apollo-style command economy space program balked. They forced NASA to reinstate a modified version of the larger of Constellation’s launch vehicles, the SLS, and its deep-space capsule, Orion. The result is that we’re pursuing both exploration and commerce — without enough money to properly do either.

As SpaceNews’ headline implies, it is time to choose.

Following either path will benefit the other — e.g., an exploration-oriented asteroid mission would generate information applicable to both science and prospectors. Even while focused on demonstrating technologies needed to explore in the long term, the space station supports some science. But there is a crucial difference: The space station also creates a market for private investment in space transportation. Any near-term exploration mission that NASA can afford would not, and without continued investment, transportation will get neither cheaper nor more reliable.

Spaceflight is undergoing a true renaissance. A plethora of relatively small companies are developing new rockets and technologies. For example, Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser is a partial replacement for the space shuttle. In an effort to reduce long-term costs, SpaceX is investing enormous resources to try to make its currently expendable rockets reusable. Innovative vehicles are even being funded without NASA’s financial help, such as Stratolaunch and Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne.

With the possible exceptions of SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, it is far too early to judge any company’s prospects. However, before the Falcon 9 v1.1 that SpaceX is marketing has even left the launch pad, just the promise of more frequent access to space at lower prices has driven existing and developing space industries to fill SpaceX’s manifests for years. That promise is also driving countless startups to invest in new products and industries. These include satellite repair and debris removal, new types of communications satellites, asteroid mining and private investments in deep-space propulsion, scientific data collection for sale to scientists, development of crystal growth techniques with medical applications that are later transferred to terrestrial production, orbital testing of other microgravity enabled materials, and, yes, logistics delivery to the space station.  

Some of this might have occurred even if the Bush administration had not opened the space station logistics market to commercial companies and if the Obama administration had failed to back and expand the initiative. Without the NASA subsidies driven by the need to supply the space station, it would have been a lot harder, and probably taken a lot longer, for SpaceX and Orbital Sciences to get their rockets off the ground. It is unlikely that any of the crew vehicles would have been developed. To continue this “cislunar renaissance,” the space station logistics market must remain available for as long as possible.

Hard though it may be to wait, the nation’s spacefaring future is best assured if the space station gets priority over exploration and the most expensive science projects. However wasteful it appears on the surface, we must maintain that market for logistics until the “new space” companies have used it to secure our positions in cislunar space.  

In the long term, cheaper and more reliable transportation to orbit will benefit all — science, exploration and commerce alike.

 
Donald F. Robertson is a freelance space industry journalist based in San Francisco. He is a small shareholder in Orbital Sciences, a company discussed in this article. For further examples of his work, see www.DonaldFRobertson.com.