Decision Time for America’s Future in Space

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There are moments in time when a decision or set of decisions that may seem or may not seem important can change the vector of history — times when a simple choice can decide the course of civilization. These moments of choice are framed and defined by a coincidence of historical forces converging at exactly the right time. The same or similar choice made in a different moment, by a different person in a different place, might have little or no effect, but when the forces, players, moment and place do line up, amazing things can happen. Isabella made such a choice; the Founding Fathers made such a choice; Kennedy made such a choice. From each of these flowed other decisions, actions and reactions, an infinite number of smaller choices, each leading to its own infinite number of actions and reactions, literally changing the future in the years, decades and centuries after.

This is exactly such a time, and a few key choices made right now as to the direction of our space program will have huge implications for NASA and our nation’s future.

At the top level of national space policy we need to adopt the frontier/settlement philosophy I have laid out many times in the past. Unfortunately, given the players involved, the debate leading to such a change will be long, and we simply do not have the time right now, as our exploration ship is sinking and is about to be delivered its coup de grace by its supposed friends in Congress. Luckily, a simple change or two right now can save our ship as we prepare for a new course before those at the wheel scuttle our future and kill off the chance for any grand new national space agenda. Rather than deep philosophical debates and discussions, some simple math and the ability to read a calendar and look out the window may suffice to at least get us on the right trajectory long enough for the greater issues to be dealt with.

The first and easiest choice that will change the future right now is for Congress to completely eliminate the monstrously lethal Senate Launch System earmark before it destroys NASA and our entire government human space exploration program, and reprogram the funds into exploration, technology development and a full-bore push for a U.S. commercial human orbital space fleet by 2015.

Contrary to claims, the plan to build this $38 billion giant rocket, using outdated technologies to repeat the achievement of Apollo 8 some 53 years later in 2021, then delivering a flight rate of only one or two flights per year, will decimate NASA. The irony of the situation is so blatant as to be painful, given that the ostensible goal of its most vocal proponents from Texas and Florida is to create new opportunities for the standing army of people who used to work on the space shuttle program. In fact, in the long term, the opposite is going to occur.

Instead of evolving and translating the skills, facilities and capabilities of our traditional space industry and work force into a new space economic and exploration machine that could deliver endless returns in the form of new jobs, new companies, new exploration projects and science, Congress is about to throw it all away.

The Senate Launch System essentially forces the U.S. to jettison an entire generation of expertise in spaceflight, advanced technology and exploration systems, not to mention most of our astronaut corps and the Johnson and Kennedy space centers where such work is based. While trying to fund and build the SLS, NASA will kill itself as an exploration entity.

By stopping this insane and dead-end behemoth of a rocket to nowhere, we can re-invigorate our entire space economy, begin at last to continue the grand tradition that created this nation and first took us into space, and quite literally change the future.

If it were my choice, I would use the $38 billion that Congress wants to flush down the toilet of history to save NASA by funding useful programs that will actually open the frontier and get the agency back to exploring almost right away. Others will have their own priorities on how to spend the funds, and while I might not agree with them, I can’t imagine they could dream up anything worse than the Space Launch System (SLS).

Priority one for me is transportation. Right now Congress is strangling NASA’s plans to end our dependency on the Russians by flying astronauts on U.S. commercial rockets to the international space station through its Commercial Crew Development program, cutting the requested and measly $850 million allocation to around $300 million. Rather than whittling away at its already ridiculously small budget and hamstringing those bold companies both old and new who are stepping up to the plate with the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), let’s triple the requested budget and let them go at it. Instead of the FAR, pay for delivery — safe, on time and on schedule. Write a simple one-page set of requirements and get out of the way. This would yield us at least four U.S. companies capable of flying NASA astronauts into space within four years and create a new American frontier in low Earth orbit with multiple space stations opening their airlocks for business and science, even as China struggles to loft its first small space station module. By the date the SLS was to orbit the Moon, we would have a base on the lunar surface and be heading to Mars.

Let’s invest in the orbital infrastructure needed to support an American frontier exploration effort and an economic industrial boom in low Earth orbit. Let’s turn NASA’s brilliant thinkers, engineers and facilities loose right now to support space-based enterprises such as commercial laboratories, propellant depots and new energy sources. Let’s start a U.S.-led technology and engineering revolution here on Earth spurred on by new incentives, prizes and research to support our private sector as it advances upwards, much as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics did for aerospace.

In parallel, let’s put NASA’s experts to work on far frontier exploration technologies such as space-to-space-only multipurpose crew vehicles and interplanetary propulsion systems to carry us more quickly to the Moon and Mars, and live-off-the-land systems that allow us to use space resources to create propellant and supplies; and lay out a path of steppingstones to Mars beginning with the Moon, then the martian moons Phobos and Deimos, and eventually down to the red planet’s surface. (If we’re going to explore asteroids, let’s at least go to some that are on the way to where we really want to go!)

We can use some of the savings to relight the exciting parts of our space science programs, including martian sample returns, an expanded life search and the building of sensible and economical astrophysics telescopes.

We can use what’s left to reinvigorate the educational outreach and the myriad other things NASA can do to light the imaginations of a new generation of American children — which will be enhanced by their being able to look up and see we are moving outwards and they can actually get involved by getting jobs supporting the opening of the frontier.

While we make the big decisions about our future in space, we need our representatives to take another look at the SLS program and cancel it before it cancels that future. America needs champions right now who will stand up and not just say it is time for a real change in our space program but will fight for the right choice to be made. We need leaders who will admit the old way has failed, that defending traditional and outdated space projects will not work in the future, and that it is time to choose a new path to the stars.

Congress, the decision is now yours.

 

Rick Tumlinson is an entrepreneur, writer and consultant in the space industry.