Congressional Rocket Designers Out of Their Element
History tells us that America’s national direction is often set by policy statements at the presidential level, and also that the execution of policies is entirely dependent upon the perceived seriousness of the policy statement by other arms of the government, together with the energy expended at the top level in follow-up activity. When President John Kennedy set a policy statement for the United States to send humans to the Moon, he meant it, and the follow-up activity was energetic by every measure.
Not so the policy statement by President George W. Bush at NASA Headquarters on Jan. 15, 2004, in which he espoused a new course for the space program — a return to the Moon, and then a voyage to Mars. That policy lacked follow-up energy and fund¬ing, and died an early death. It was a mistake to propose a budget at the outset that had no credibility after examination of likely mission requirements.
Most recently, President Barack Obama stated in a speech April 15, 2010, to space specialists at Kennedy Space Center in Florida that the United States will, among other space initiatives, undertake development of an advanced heavy-lift launch vehicle. That was a policy statement, and in the normal course of events one would expect that NASA would step up with plans to do just that and then work those plans through Congress. Again, a follow-up energy comparable to President Kennedy’s is absent.
The heavy-lift rocket did appear on congressional space committee agendas, however, a sign that the policy statement had some legs. A heavy-lift rocket would open the door to doing vastly greater things than are possible with existing launch capability — ventures as ambitious as the Apollo program.
But curious things began to occur in Congress. In the course of discussions it became apparent that scientists and engineers are no longer needed. Members of Congress arrogated to themselves the right to design the next rocket, a heavy-lifter that bears no resemblance to anything that could be described as an advanced rocket. Development of an advanced heavy-lifter, as proposed by President Obama, was off the table.
It is troubling that even though hobbled by minimal knowledge of the subject, members of Congress have the power to direct the creation of what would predictably be the most expensive rocket ever built, a forced marriage of expensive relic hardware that belongs in NASA’s junk bin. That, in turn, would create a self-extinguishing future for heavy lift, when frequency of flights will be constrained by bud¬gets and even reduced by budget trimming.
But it was predictable when considering that legislators are heavily lobbied. “For the heavy-lift launch vehicle you will use solid rockets that are built in my home state.” “You will use the space shuttle external tank that is built in my home state.” “You will use the shuttle main engines that are built in my home state” (never mind that the cost of those main engines on a per ounce basis is about the same as gold).
This is the sorry geopolitical game that is being played that has no relationship whatever to normal practice — first, flesh out policy and goals so clear direction can be provided to the executing agencies, and then worry about the budget. If the policy is serious, then you have to fund it. That is the job of the legislators (doubters should think Iraq, Afghanistan, the international space station). Within NASA and in industry are countless engineers and scientists, bored with routine, capable, and aching to do something new. Embarrassingly, NASA provided the Congress a depressing picture of what the future heavy-lifter would look like — a modern day Tower of Babel, assembled of antiquated parts to satisfy special interests. Industry too is complicit and culpable, content to crank out products it has already developed, lobbying for their continued use and spending far too little to advance the art.
A thoughtful person might wonder too at the euphoria regarding the recent success of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. () in creating and launching a rocket based on 50-year-old technology. The promised breakthrough is lower costs, but even at half the cost of an Atlas or , launching payloads, including humans, to Earth orbit will remain very costly. But more important, the risks of placing future rocketry in the hands of private industry should be more carefully weighed. That too is part of Congress’ job — to obtain assurance that launch services are protected from the pitfalls that are common to private ventures, including going out of business. The nation’s space program is too important to risk placement into an unregulated environment. We need to understand better what we are doing. The present status is that we do not have enough answers, including the possible consequences of large-scale unregulated operations.
Finally, it appears that we are now facing an interesting choice: Concede that the Lego blocks that make up launch systems were all invented over the past 60 years and all we need to do from now on is to rearrange them, or recommit to the idea that advancement in technology is what we are about, and all the tools and accumulated knowledge that have been acquired should be used to continue advancements, leading to safer, more reliable and more economical launch systems for future space missions. The former foretells business as usual — the latter will lead to starships.
Edward Hujsak is a career rocket engineer and the author of two books on rockets, “The Future of U.S. Rocketry” and “All About Rocket Engines.”