Editorial: Looking Beyond Space Station

by

It has been nearly two months since the White House took delivery of an independent panel’s report assessing NASA’s human spaceflight plans and outlining alternatives featuring different hardware choices and astronaut destinations. Although no decisions have been made, and nothing is likely to be announced before the end of the year, change appears in the offing given one of the panel’s primary conclusions: NASA’s current path is unsustainable under any likely budget scenario.

In the meantime, NASA continues to spend heavily on the program of record, dubbed Constellation, whose primary early elements are the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and its Ares 1 launcher. These vehicles comprise NASA’s space shuttle replacement system and are intended initially to ferry crews to the international space station and, later, to the Moon.

The betting in space policy circles is that the administration will cancel Ares 1 in favor of a different approach to getting astronauts to and from the space station, perhaps involving vehicles developed with NASA funding assistance but without the hands-on government oversight that can drive costs through the roof. The independent review panel, led by former Lockheed Martin chief Norm Augustine, said that with NASA funding support, a commercially developed crew transport service could be available sooner than Ares 1-Orion and at less cost.

It also seems likely that NASA will be directed to abandon the Moon as its primary exploration objective in favor of a mix of destinations beyond low Earth orbit. This so-called Flexible Path approach, as outlined in the Augustine panel’s report, could feature astronaut visits to Lagrange points — stable orbital locations that are ideal for parking deep-space observatories like the planned James Webb Space Telescope — and, eventually, asteroid visits and martian moon flybys.

Not surprisingly, the companies most heavily invested in the status quo are lobbying hard to preserve it, while those hoping to develop alternative crew transportation services are clamoring for change. But this is largely a debate over how to replace the space shuttle’s crew transportation capability; all but lost amid the fray is what comes next for NASA’s human spaceflight program, and when.

Augustine’s conclusion that the Constellation architecture will cost more money than NASA is likely to have at its disposal bodes poorly for Ares 1, whose selection as Orion’s launcher was driven largely by requirements associated with putting astronauts on the Moon for extended stays. But advocates of a new approach tend to gloss over the costs associated with starting anew; these likely would include contract-termination fees,  modification of an existing rocket to make it safe enough to carry astronauts, and a redesign of Orion, which is sized for Ares 1 and optimized for lunar missions. None of these will be a cheap undertaking.

Indeed, it is fair to ask whether NASA will realistically be able to afford to incubate and then sustain a commercial astronaut taxi service — perhaps with multiple providers — while simultaneously developing a heavy-lift rocket and other hardware necessary for missions beyond low Earth orbit. NASA can only go so far in stripping down Orion, for example, without leaving it incapable of the most intriguing Flexible Path missions, such as asteroid visits or martian moon flybys, both of which would entail long-duration flights.

Constellation, notwithstanding its disconnect from budgetary reality, offered a clear, evolutionary and programmatically logical development path from replacing the space shuttle to putting astronauts on the Moon. As the Augustine panel noted, it was a sound execution plan given the mandate NASA was handed by the White House in 2004 and the funding that was promised at the time.

The current White House seems poised to point NASA in a different direction, one that likely will have immediate implications for the contracting community. But if this shift is not accompanied by a long-term commitment to meaningful exploration of space beyond low Earth orbit, and a credible story — with resources to match — for getting there, this whole exercise will have produced no winners.