Confusing Times

by

Recently, the new owners of Houston’s baseball team raised the question of whether the Astros’ moniker was still relevant to the community. For a brand that has called “Space City” its home for 47 years, this question highlights the confusion those of us supporting human spaceflight are experiencing today.

Contradictions abound from here to low Earth orbit. In the National Aeronautics and Space Act, “Congress declares that the general welfare of the United States requires that the Administration seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space.” Yet NASA’s commercial crew and cargo programs continue to come under attack in congressional hearings.

Several American companies, employing aerospace engineers who otherwise would be in unemployment lines after the retirement of the space shuttle, are vying for the resources to put 60 years of human spaceflight experience to good use and meet our obligations to the international partners for such services.

Instead of using the space program as the economic development engine it has served as in the past, Congress has shortfunded commercial development efforts for the past three years and then disingenuously expressed concern that the program is behind schedule. To make matters more confusing, every taxpayer dollar being spent on the program protects jobs and small businesses in several key congressional districts in Texas, Alabama, California, Florida and Virginia.

Alas, the real problem is that commercial crew and cargo is not the “government’s space program.” For many in Congress, commercial space is at most interesting, but irrelevant. The big campaign donations come not from the private entrepreneurs, but from the military-industrial complex focused on the next big thing.

Born out of the misguided and anachronistic ashes of the steroidally tainted Constellation program, the Space Launch System (SLS) is also an enigma. Congress abhors “bridges to nowhere,” yet appears perfectly at ease designing a rocket to nowhere. Once again, we are caught in a failure-prone spin cycle, partially designing a system before settling on a destination. This “build it and they will come” multiuse infrastructure ruse has been tried before. The space shuttle first flew in 1981, yet its mission was not truly defined until the 1990s. Even now, NASA finds itself struggling with the next level of this pyramid scheme, soliciting purpose for the International Space Station (ISS) National Lab.

How then do we find our way through this confusing haze and define a human spaceflight program worthy of its endowment?

First and foremost, NASA leadership must step up to the plate and provide the president and policymakers with a value statement tied to an affordable plan for achieving specific sustainable objectives. Congress, for its part, should avoid being duped this time by academic bravado and critically evaluate professionally prepared plans for achieving the nation’s goals.

A viable plan makes use of existing infrastructure to the maximum extent possible. One of the largest benefits derived from ISS has been the experience of logistically operating a large space complex. Employing ISS as an assembly hub for future international partner missions of consequence extends that experience. SLS can then be evaluated in light of its ability to sustainably support future mission objectives. In the interim, existing rockets are capable of launching significant pieces and parts to ISS. Immediate focus should be placed on developing the destination access vehicles and habitation modules that go on top of these rockets, as ISS finds purpose in serving as the assembly waypoint.

Increasing flight rates in support of the assembly hub also takes advantage of economies of scale and improves launch system reliability. A fully funded, American job providing, non-outsourced commercial cargo and crew program makes the approach affordable in the near term. Resources freed up by the commercial procurement of transportation services to low Earth orbit then can be made available to fund the nation’s longer-term deep-space exploration objectives.

Settling on a destination is of utmost importance, as most recently pointed out by the NASA Advisory Council. Clearly, the home run is Mars. But we need some base hits before we embark on the red dirt road.

The Moon is still the best candidate for establishing an initial home away from home. From an architectural point of view, it offers key challenges common to many exploration missions beyond low Earth orbit. The Moon also can help solve the question of whether zero-gravity issues (such as spinal cord and eye damage) go away in a partial gravity environment. We may never be able to protect humans from these debilitating effects, but we certainly can engineer a partial-gravity vehicle for long-duration human spaceflight, and the Moon offers a readily accessible platform for resolving this future-inhibiting question.

Three days’ travel time lets us test out sustainable logistics options for maintaining a human presence at a distance. For a country just now being able to demonstrate year-round access to the Antarctic, that seems to be a reasonable first step. An asteroid, by contrast, offers none of these selling points, other than its ability to draw attention to the fact that we would spend billions on a human crewed mission that the robotic Dawn mission has mostly completed for far less.

So let’s put an end to the confusion and get on with our human space flight program. New technologies, economic benefits and national security are recognized byproducts of these efforts. Exploration, new frontiers and problem solving is what made this country great. That we are not on the forefront of such endeavors is indicative of the malaise enshrouding our nation today. Congress and the president should agree on a destination and a budget level, let progress proceed apace, and then get out of the way. It may be rocket science, but it is not that hard if reasonable goals are provided to the rocket scientists to achieve.

Fortunately for Houston, the Astros decided to hold onto their name for the foreseeable future. A switch to the American League in 2013 hopefully will lead to a winning season. One hopes furtively that similar change is coming soon for the U.S. human spaceflight program.

 

Michael Lembeck is vice president, engineering, for DCI Services and Consulting of Webster, Texas.