Op-Ed | A house divided, or in this case, a rocket

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For almost all of former U.S. President Barack Obama’s a eight years in office, America’s human spaceflight community was at war with itself.

The initial sallies occurred early in former President George W. Bush’s administration, but did not degenerate into outright civil war until the Obama administration politically botched its attempt to cancel the Constellation project as unaffordable. Constellation sought to develop a Saturn 5-class rocket and other vehicles in a complete, integrated architecture to return permanently to Earth’s moon. The then-new and inexperienced Obama team failed to work with Congress to create a new strategy and get political support for it — or apparently even to inform key senators in advance. Congress responded by going over Mr. Obama’s head and creating the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket, but failed to consider a realistic strategy for its use.

The ensuing civil war — between advocates of a government-run human space program in the Apollo mode and those who want a more diverse, semi-commercialized effort — has bogged down into a classic war of attrition. Resources are split. Both sides are falling far short of their near-term goals. Neither side has given up, and they relentlessly snipe at each other and fight for small scraps of political and financial ground. The space community has been a house divided for most of a decade.

Why is it so difficult to resolve this conflict?

Most likely, it is because it is tied to a wider conflict in our society. At first blush, there is no obvious connection to our nation’s ongoing cultural wars, or with “conservative” versus “liberal” economic principles. In fact, on human spaceflight, many liberals are on the side of commercialization, while many conservatives push for top-down government management of our human space program.

This war, however, does bear on a key national concern: jobs.

Both strategies will create jobs, but they stand to be different kinds of jobs in different parts of the country. If SLS were canceled, many of the civil service and contractor employees building it may have great trouble finding new jobs that pay what they are used to and that can support their families. Advocates of alternatives to the Apollo model must recognize that SLS indecision feeds directly into the national angst that led to the job-protecting presidential campaigns of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

The original ideas for a “constellation” of smaller, simpler, and cheaper spacecraft launched on Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) developed for the U.S. Air Force by Boeing and Lockheed Martin were first proposed early in the administration of George W. Bush. These ideas were distinct from the “Apollo on steroids” program Constellation morphed into under NASA Administrator Mike Griffin. Had the original concept been implemented, it would have left little for NASA’s largely Southern rocket development teams to do. Many of the “traditional” NASA jobs are located in economically distressed regions, where engineers and city fathers dream of the glory days of Apollo and pine after another crash program to plant “flags and footprints” on Mars to feed their struggling economies.

A smaller-scale program focused on industrializing low Earth orbit, and exploring and prospecting Earth’s moon, may be more attuned to the needs and finances of today. However, many of the “NewSpace” employers are in the already wealthy areas in and around Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, and the Washington, D.C. suburbs. By and large, they have not been in traditional NASA employment centers such as Alabama, Mississippi, and central Florida.

In the Apollo-like Constellation program, a lunar or Mars mission would be launched as separate elements on multiple Saturn 5-class rockets. Each crew vehicle, habitation module and lander would be launched fully fueled, supplied, tested, and ready to go. Key advantages of an Apollo-like architecture are its relative simplicity, especially at launch, which implies relative reliability and safety; the space community’s familiarity with this approach; and our national skill at executing that architecture. It appeared to address the long-held cultural dream of a visit to Mars.

Disadvantages include the lack of flexibility and the extraordinarily high costs of developing and maintaining a launch infrastructure that has no other commercial, civil, or military purpose, most of which must be paid for before the first deep space-bound payload can be launched.

The original EELV-launched “constellation” approach had two key advantages: flexibility and relatively low up-front costs. Small, non-specialized payloads such as generic reentry capsules, refueling tankers, orbit-changing tugs, etc., can be mixed and matched and modified to tackle different missions and destinations. Development money can be applied to payloads instead of rockets, and spent incrementally over time on actual flight hardware. The payloads can be launched as soon as they are ready, without waiting for a rocket to finish development.

Since the individual spacecraft are discrete, and relatively small and inexpensive, it is easier to bring in commercial or international partners to help pay for hardware in return for the right to market it to NASA and other customers. A successful example is the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contracts employed by NASA to foster development of the privately owned-and-operated rockets and cargo vessels currently delivering cargo to the International Space Station.

The key advantage is that the human spaceflight program does not need to pay for developing the rocket. Depending on how it is measured, one-third to one-half of NASA’s human spaceflight budget goes to the SLS rocket and the Orion crew capsule. The EELVs were developed by the Air Force and similar vehicles are being deployed by private companies, often with little NASA financial input. They are used by many customers — commercial, civil, and military — so costs can be spread over multiple projects. Beyond buying flight vehicles and any adaptations required for a specific mission, NASA does not have to pay for maintaining operational rockets.

A key potential disadvantage of the EELV “constellation” approach is that vehicles would need to be assembled, outfitted, and fueled in orbit. Arguably, most architectures for something as grand as a Mars expedition would require at least some of those skills, however big the components, and all have been successfully demonstrated building the International Space Station. After the ISS, spending more than a third of NASA’s human spaceflight budget every year on a massive, single-purpose rocket in order to avoid assembling and refueling multiple upper stages in orbit on the way to Mars, and to avoid long travel times and a few Earth and Venus flybys for the Europa Clipper, makes no sense.

The last year has not been kind to the SLS. Expensive and hard-to-replace equipment has been damaged in industrial accidents. NASA and the Trump administration have wisely dropped an administration proposal to fly astronauts on the first SLS flight in an attempt to prove that the rocket can do something useful before Mr. Trump is up for reelection in 2020. SLS and Orion are burning through approximately $3 billion annually and this year alone has seen a one year delay — meaning an additional $3 billion will likely be added to the tab before there is any possibility of a practical return on that investment.

To put this in perspective, a single year of SLS and Orion development is more than three times what it cost NASA under COTS to help Orbital ATK and SpaceX develop two medium-class launchers, an automated reusable capsule, and a disposable freighter.

Many opponents hope that, like the Constellation project, SLS and Orion will simply die under their own budgetary weight. This misunderstands the political purpose of the SLS, which, except incidentally, is not to achieve goals in space. Constellation’s Ares 5 heavy lifter, and its successor the SLS, have been in development for almost two decades, are nowhere near operational use, and will continue in development for the foreseeable future. The projects’ real purpose is to keep the space shuttle workforce employed in those states where NASA has a disproportionate economic impact. The program is successfully fulfilling its political and economic raison d’être and recent congressional actions suggests it continues to be on firm political ground, whatever its architectural and financial merits.

Even if the SLS ultimately flies, it is far too specialized and expensive to do much to expand the human economic sphere into the inner solar system. If that is our unstated goal, it is time to revisit the idea of constellations of smaller, general purpose modules, tugs, fuel depots, and landers, all launched on existing rockets with widespread markets that NASA does not need to pay for.

Presidents answer to the nation, not to local job concerns. Two presidents in a row — Bush and Obama — have tried in varying degrees to redirect NASA away from the Apollo model, only to be blocked by institutions and senators who are answerable to local NASA employees. This time, we cannot repeat Mr. Obama’s mistake of canceling the SLS without finding a future for the people who work on it.

The new “constellation” work needs to be planned and distributed in a way that will keep the traditional NASA workforce, and those who represent them, on board. Where is it written that engineers in Alabama cannot be employed building space-based tugs and modules for a lunar base? To have any chance of killing the SLS and replacing it with a useful space program, opponents need to come up with something that fulfills SLS’s political and economic purpose at least as well, while endeavoring to achieve something useful in space at the same time. That is beginning to occur, as NewSpace companies like SpaceX slowly expand beyond California and the Seattle area and increasingly employ people in Texas, Florida, and other traditional NASA states.

Encouraging this change will take a great deal of political capital and skill —the Bush administration did not deploy the former, and the Obama administration failed at the latter. So far, the Trump administration has shown little aptitude for any kind of positive relationship with Congress.

If someone does not come forward to invest the political and financial capital needed to end this conflict and move on to a more constructive vision, the United States will continue to drift in space. Resources will remain split between an increasingly successful but underfunded NewSpace industry unable to fulfill its potential, and the SLS and Orion, which the nation cannot afford to actually use. Our future in space will increasingly rely on largely self-funded efforts by people like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.

If that happens, the unavoidable conclusion is that NASA as it is currently structured — and many of the agency’s employees — will become increasingly irrelevant, and eventually redundant. To save their jobs, all concerned must find the will to redirect NASA toward a more affordable future in space, one that probably does not involve the SLS, but does utilize the skills and passion of the entire nation.

The advantages of such a strategy might extend beyond spaceflight. By providing jobs for all while creating potentially dramatic spaceflight successes that the whole nation can be proud of, it just might help tie our diverse nation back together.

Donald F. Robertson is a freelance space industry journalist based in San Francisco.