The title of Douglas Adams’ well-known book, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” evokes images of a lone, lean, grizzled 6-footer backpacking across the cosmos. Little did anyone realize that due to poor planning and waning dynamism concerning manned space activities in the United States, something close to hitchhiking has become reality. Absence of vitality is evident both in NASA and in the congressional space subcommittees, whose job it is to provide oversight and funding for the agency’s various projects.
Now the nation with the most muscle in space endeavors finds itself in the hitchhiker’s position, forced to rely on another country to lift its astronauts into orbit. Granted, the U.S. ponies up $70 million a seat, but that only heightens the embarrassment. Not only that, but it admits to a willingness to accept a transport method that has not advanced since the 1960s — sealing astronauts inside a vessel and hoping for the best, the same as inanimate cargo. Little can now be said in admiration of NASA regarding its current plans to adopt the same methods in the future.
Some of us recall that innovative engineering came apart at the seams in the post-Apollo period, during which the space shuttle was defined. The original goal was arguably a good one: a fully reusable system capable of hauling passengers and freight into Earth orbit. During the period when contractors studied and submitted various concepts, fully reusable systems were among the contenders.
For reasons known only to administrators, in particular at Johnson Space Center, timidity had its day. An ungainly configuration, consisting of an orbiter fueled by an external tank and a booster configured of solid rockets with a Titan 4 heritage, was defined at the Houston center and selected as the preferred approach. It held no promise of evolving eventually into a fully reusable launch vehicle. NASA’s dreams of it being a utility vehicle that would carry all manner of payloads into orbit evaporated when it became obvious that maintenance between flights was burdensome, launch costs were too high and spacecraft manufacturers didn’t like the additional tasks of designing to accommodate space shuttle interface and safety requirements as well as the added costs involved. They returned to launching on expendable launch vehicles and NASA was left with launching a scattering of agency and Department of Defense payloads, and eventually devoting the space shuttle almost entirely to construction and servicing of the international space station.
The shuttle’s success history is mixed — a total of 119 missions performed by five orbiters, two catastrophic losses with fatalities, and a foreseeable end to the remaining three orbiters with no replacements to follow. All parties knew the launch system was coming to an end, yet nothing surfaced in planning and engineering during the final years to move seamlessly into another system — a new fully reusable launcher that features advancements that are easily within the engineering capability of U.S. aerospace companies. Instead, NASA is reverting to the Gemini technology of the ’60s.
Astonishingly, the same laxness can be identified on the part of NASA and congressional space subcommittees regarding the international space station, which, if it hasn’t already, will soon enter a period of diminishing returns. What then? Will the United States lose interest in human presence in low Earth orbit when the space station is decommissioned and abandoned? Will we be buying astronaut time on Chinese work stations? Will China be the originator of turnkey work stations, leased or sold to other nations?
As for the new heavy-lift Space launch System, with the recent ban on an asteroid capture venture by the House Science space subcommittee, it does not even have a plausible mission, although a successor to the international space station indicates a possibility. The House panel wisely, in this instance, saw the asteroid capture mission as something that has unassessed risks and undefined benefits. For such ventures, NASA’s proper role is to visit, preferably robotically; examine; and measure. If by chance something of value were to be discovered, the proper venue for exploitation in this day and age is the commercial world.
The U.S. manned space program has lost both vitality and direction. It needs a new compass. The administrators of human activity in space deserve criticism, even a measure of excoriation for poor performance. We can do better.
Edward Hujsak is a career rocket engineer and author of the book “The Future of U.S. Rocketry.”