Editorial: 2008: Progress and Inertia

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  Space News Business

Editorial: 2008: Progress and Inertia

posted: 17 December 2008
12:16 pm ET






For many spacefaring countries, particularly in
Europe
and
Asia
, 2008 has been a year of progress, of long-awaited milestones and national firsts. For the
United States
, frustrating inertia has been a dominant theme, despite some success stories.

Among the many noteworthy positives from the year,
India
‘s Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter stands out; it is not only the nation’s first planetary mission, but also a model of international cooperation. Chandrayaan-1, which launched Oct. 22 and reached its final lunar orbit Nov. 12, carries 11 instruments, six of which were supplied by or in cooperation with partners in the United States and Europe. The Indian Space Research Organisation managed to keep the mission close to its original schedule – a rarity in the space enterprise – at a cost of less than $100 million. Chandrayaan-1, while relatively modest in scale, symbolizes something very big: the determination of an increasingly capable space power to expand its frontiers in exploration.

China also has big aspirations, and in 2008 conducted its most ambitious human spaceflight to date, a mission featuring a three-taikonaut crew and the nation’s first-ever spacewalk.
China
is closing out the year with a flurry of launch activity, an indication of a robust overall program.

For
Europe
and
Japan
, 2008 was a watershed for participation in the U.S.-led international space station program; both saw their primary research modules launched to the orbiting complex aboard NASA space shuttles.
Japan
‘s Kibo and
‘s
Columbus
modules had been delayed several years by a variety of factors, including technical issues and the grounding of NASA’s space shuttle fleet following the 2003
Columbia
accident. Their deployment, coupled with the recent mission by NASA’s Space Shuttle Endeavour that prepared the space station to accommodate six-person crews starting in 2009, have at long last brought world-class research aboard the facility to the brink of reality.

For the European Space Agency (ESA), 2008 also brought the first launch of the Automated Transfer Vehicle, which through 2015 – and likely beyond – will deliver cargo to the space station and boost its altitude. The vehicle is part of ESA’s space station obligation and could serve as the foundation for a future independent European human spaceflight capability.

While its established programs were coming to fruition, ESA was building a blueprint for the next three years, which was sealed, along with the requisite funding commitments, in late November by representatives of the agency’s member governments. The plan, among many other things, increases ESA’s science funding by 3.5 percent annually and promises major new investments in Earth observation.

Japan
, meanwhile, charted a brand new course for the future with passage of a law that lifted its longstanding ban on military space activities and reorganized its space management structure to emphasize utilization. Although it remains to be seen what changes ultimately will result from the law, it is clear that
Japan
now views space as a critical strategic and economic enterprise, as opposed to simply a research activity.

For the
United States
, unfortunately, the successes of 2008 were largely overshadowed by disappointments and setbacks. On the civil side, Endeavour’s space station assembly mission was a highlight, to be sure, as was the successful Phoenix Mars lander mission, Messenger’s Mercury flyby and the launch of the Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope.

But NASA struggled throughout the year with inadequate funding and cost-growth on key programs, including the flagship-class Mars Science Laboratory; differences over how to deal with these issues led to the March resignation of the reform-minded Alan Stern as associate administrator of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate. More recently, NASA decided to delay the Mars Science Laboratory’s launch by two years, to 2011. Also delayed was the final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope after a glitch aboard the observatory changed the list of tasks to be performed.

Meanwhile, NASA’s space shuttle replacement effort was dogged all year by technical concerns and second guessing of the agency’s chosen architecture. Now there are serious doubts that key elements of the program, notably the Aries 1 crew launch vehicle, will survive the transition to the new administration of President-elect BarackObama. Should Ares 1 be canceled next year, NASA will be forced back to the drawing board, with nothing to show for the considerable effort and resources already expended on that launcher.

If NASA had less than a banner year, things were worse for the
U.S.
national security space enterprise, which fell into a kind of malaise that manifested itself in an inability to get anything done. Operationally, the U.S. Air Force and National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) were quite literally grounded, unable for most 2008 to launch the rockets in which taxpayers are investing more than $1 billion annually.

Things were similarly stagnant on the development and procurement front: While the GPS 3 satellite navigation system finally was put under contract, the Space Radar was canceled, effectively wasting the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on design studies; the Broad Area Space-based Imagery Collector system, viewed by some as a contravention of White House remote sensing policy, was derailed; and the Transformational Satellite, or T-Sat, communications system was put on indefinite hold as the Air Force, which has spent more than $1 billion on design studies, takes yet another look at program requirements. Frustration with the Air Force’s T-Sat paralysis came through loud and clear in a recent memo calling for action on the program by Pentagon acquisition czar John Young, who, in a handwritten addendum at the bottom, implored the service to “act immediately” and to “stop poorly using taxpayer dollars.”

Part of the problem has been the persistent inability of the
U.S.
military and intelligence community to work more closely together, despite the fact that in many areas their data requirements are converging. They might want to take a look at what’s happening in
, where three countries operating military reconnaissance satellites recently reached agreement to share data with European Union military forces.

Change is coming to
Washington
in the new year; of that there can be little doubt. But whether the
U.S.
government space enterprise will be able to stop spinning its wheels and gain some real traction in 2009 is yet to be determined.