With the decision by congressional appropriators to effectively cancel the U.S. Air Force’s Affordable Responsive Spacelift (Ares) rocket development program, yet another bid to dramatically bring down the cost of putting small payloads into space has gone by the wayside.
If the U.S. Defense Department and NASA took all the money they’ve spent in the last decade on abortive efforts to develop low-cost rockets, put it into a single program and stuck with it, the United States might actually have such a vehicle right now. As it is, that money, which runs well into the hundreds of millions of dollars, has effectively gone down the drain.
This is not to say that Ares was the best program to break the price barrier that keeps so many universities and other would-be space researchers out of the game — maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. Rather, it is to say that the U.S. government either has been a poor judge of which projects to sink money into, or demonstrated a stunning lack of resolve in failing to see any one of them through to even a demonstration launch.
The continued lack of affordable space access represents a dismal failure on the part of the government and the mighty U.S. aerospace industry to help encourage and nurture the next generation of space engineers. Ask any space executive in government or industry to name the biggest problem they see looming on the horizon, and nine times out of 10 they will say it is the lack of new blood to replace a rapidly aging work force.
Small wonder, when a college or graduate engineering student’s chances of building hardware that actually will make it into orbit fall in the range of slim to none.
There is plenty of blame to go around, from Air Force officials who are so focused on operational missions that they lose sight of the future; to lawmakers whose funding priorities all too often are geographically rather than merit based; to companies that have lobbied to kill government-led rocket development programs on the grounds that they unfairly compete with the private sector even when they are all to happy to accept government cash when it comes their way.
Given the crushing budgetary pressures faced by both NASA and the Pentagon, it seems highly unlikely that either will be able to start, much less follow through on, any new development effort that makes space routinely accessible to universities and other research institutions that lack deep pockets. But they are not completely helpless in this regard. The Air Force, for example, has a secondary payload adapter ring for its workhorse launch vehicles that it seems reluctant to use.
Congress could go a long way toward fixing the problem by mandating that one out of every five Air Force Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle missions carry a secondary payload adapter. Lawmakers also could set aside funds at NASA or the Air Force for one launch a year for university-built payloads aboard vehicles such as Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s Falcon 1, which has an advertised launch price of around $7 million.
These are not perfect solutions, but they are simple and would cost very little relative to the overall U.S. civil space and defense budget. If action is not taken to resolve this longstanding and glaring problem, the loss in terms of bright young minds that shunned space because of its inaccessibility will be incalculable.