Human Spaceflight After Massachusetts

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The surprising results of the Jan. 19 special election for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts appear to have explicitly rejected President Barack Obama’s and the Democrats’ agenda among independents in that overwhelmingly Democratic state. By electing Republican Scott Brown to the “Kennedy seat” and eliminating the Democrats’ 60-vote super-majority, this result provides the Senate both the votes and the motivation to resist presidential initiatives, even among some members of Obama’s party. It is a possibly mortal blow to many of the changes the president hoped to enact.

The vote also may have significant adverse effects on the nation’s civil space program.

Rapidly mounting national debt, sharply increased deficit spending and the perception that government power is growing beyond what the nation wants appear to be the major concerns of the independent voters who turned out for Brown. None of that is good news for NASA.

The Augustine committee’s report assessing U.S. human spaceflight plans argued that no meaningful goals beyond Earth orbit were achievable without an increase of at least $3 billion to NASA’s budget, and more if the international space station were to be supported beyond 2016. Speculation within the space community was that the Obama administration was considering an increase in NASA’s budget of some $1 billion. Ares 1 would be canceled, and as a down payment for the future, resources would be invested in a heavy-lift vehicle smaller than Ares 5 and more directly derived from the space shuttle. Meanwhile, the space station would be supported at least until 2020, possibly with human-rated commercial launch vehicles.

Seeing the results in Massachusetts as a rejection of further deficit spending, and with everyone from unemployed workers to fiscally broken states clamoring for federal money, the administration is unlikely to propose much or any increase in the space agency’s budget. Meanwhile, there is significant bipartisan congressional pressure to continue implementing the “program of record,” the Constellation program, in the shape previously approved by Congress. After Massachusetts, members of Congress with Constellation-related projects in their districts may be better positioned to resist change, at least in the short term.

Where does that leave human spaceflight?

Space policy is likely to be even lower on the Obama administration’s long list of priorities than it was before Brown’s victory. Unless they were imminent, no decisions are likely in the near future.

If we could not afford Constellation before, we certainly cannot now. Even though it is approximately halfway through its development, Ares 1 is unlikely to survive beyond this year. Meanwhile, NASA will continue to waste money on a set of projects that are probably doomed to cancellation when the administration finally decides what to do with the space agency.

Those who hope to add money to keep the shuttle flying, always an improbable proposition, are even less likely to succeed.

Most important, no initiative beyond low Earth orbit that costs significant additional money is likely to be approved in the current political environment.

In contrast, the space station is probably secure. As an international project, abandoning it would cost the United States immense good will and political capital. We have invested so much in the station that ditching it on the point of completion, and before any scientific results can be harvested, is likely to be a nonstarter for many members of Congress of both parties, let alone the international partners. The Obama administration’s delays in making decisions on human spaceflight also play to the status quo, and even more than Constellation, the space station is the status quo.

Is there any hope at all for an expansionist future for humanity in the solar system? I believe there is.

Human spaceflight, like the world, is increasingly becoming a multipolar game. That gives humanity more opportunities to succeed and makes competition a reason for the United States to keep a hand in that game.

If we are going to continue supporting the international space station, we have to get there. The station is already driving the deployment of cargo spacecraft by Europe and Japan, and in the United States it is the market encouraging subsidized development of commercial freighters by Space Exploration Technologies and Orbital Sciences Corp. Boeing and Lockheed Martin may also be seriously considering entry into this market.

If Ares 1 gets canceled, the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services contracts will have to be expanded to include human transportation or be replaced by a similar capability. Lockheed Martin is likely to push harder for replacing the Constellation project’s Orion spacecraft on an Ares 1 with Orion on an Atlas 5.

An expanded commercial launch industry could enable and encourage commercial industrial and tourist facilities evolved from Bigelow Aerospace’s privately developed inflatable module. Two development models are already in orbit and apparently performed well.

From these seeds, the roots of a truly commercial space industry could begin to grow. Space entrepreneurs, many of whose dreams include no less than human colonization of the solar system, might finally have the market, and the financial and political wherewithal, to get a start on realizing those dreams.

For the foreseeable future, these dreams will be confined to Earth orbit. It is frustrating and disappointing to many in the space industry to realize that we will almost certainly lose yet another attempt by the government to explore deep space, with no prospect for a near-term replacement. Realistically, getting from the international space station to human deep space exploration was always going to be a difficult and painful transition.

Let us recall that old fable of the tortoise and the hare. Just possibly, slow consolidation of our position in Earth orbit, supported by an increasingly well-established commercial transportation industry, will prove the best — and ultimately the fastest — route forward. It is certainly a more secure way to expand human trade, commerce, science and culture into the solar system than any number of big projects that fail to survive the inevitable changes in national priorities and politics.

 

Donald F. Robertson is a freelance space industry journalist based in San Francisco . For further examples of his work, see www.DonaldFRobertson.com