We’ve been hearing various positions from the U.S. presidential candidates regarding the future of the nation’s space program. The emphasis ranges from Moon base establishment to extensive commercial “outsourcing” of space exploration and variations in-between.
Let’s start with the most common political themes: First, the American space program is a source of national pride. Second, it has immensely benefitted the nation through research and development. Third, the space program is highly expensive and extraordinarily bureaucratic. Fourth, at best, the future of human space exploration will be some complex, quasi-governmental-commercial undertaking.
Sadly, a common understanding of overall U.S. space investments and their returns is usually lacking by both the general public and the candidates. Acknowledgement is rarely given to the vast national infrastructure, equipment and institutional memory that have been the direct result of government and industry space successes since 1958. This is not to say that candidates have ignored the past half-century’s space foundations. All candidates proudly commend and extol past achievements, but there’s a strange underlying, almost subconscious, theme that future space explorations will somehow begin from scratch.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The greatest hallmark of American space endeavors is the fact that they were built, layer by layer, upon the hard-won intellectual and financial investments of prior administrators, engineers and scientists. Insiders know this as old-fashioned applied systems engineering — while the outside world sees results in just another spacecraft or rocket.
Numerous arguments can be made why these appearances exist (e.g., research and development lead times, budgetary pressures, political orientation, etc.) but the fact remains that each generation builds on the work of prior generations and this can be immensely positive if properly managed and exploited.
Why is this important? Why should we care? The answer is that U.S. space efforts are confronting the most demanding criteria in today’s fiscal environment — i.e., how to maximize national returns on investment.
It’s only common sense to minimize the need to “reinvent the wheel” with each step in space exploration. U.S. human space exploration has proceeded step-by-step:
The Mercury and Gemini programs each had a particular emphasis. Mercury saw the initial development of a manned capsule, rocket and mission control. Gemini saw multiple crew manned capsules, advanced rockets and pioneering on-orbit operations (rendezvous, docking, etc.).
Apollo, in turn, combined the advances, resulting in a three-man capsule, lunar landing craft, the Saturn heavy-lift rocket and beyond Earth orbit departure and return.
· The space shuttle brought the full combination of aerodynamics and aerospace experience to widen into a reusable spacecraft,advanced solid and liquid propulsion integration and the flexibility to return to Earth after completing multiple mission operations.
The international space station, utilizing the space shuttle, brought about modular “spacecraft” construction in space, long-term space habitation and numerous ongoing scientific research and development efforts.
Fortunately, the vast American space infrastructure built to sustain these early programs did not disappear after the conclusion of each effort. Examples include bicoastal launching and sites; integrated aerospace platforms and launch equipment; industrial manufacturing plants, equipment and highly technical trained personnel located in a majority equity percentage throughout the 50 states; hundreds of thousands of experienced engineers, scientists and managers; and tens of thousands of university and industry research cadre dedicated to space endeavors and student learning.
It is worthwhile to note that existing U.S. space infrastructure is a combination of both government and industry endeavors. Unlike many government investments over time, commercial industry not only met contractual requirements, providing government-owned equipment, but extended aerospace experiences to multiple endeavors (e.g. numerous spin-offs) that contributed to innovation, productivity and a growing gross national product. More importantly, over the decades, industry evolved to a point where it is able and willing to initiate independent space ventures.
A vast infrastructure investment in plant and personnel exists, and this is not restricted to just one sector of the economy.
The principal theme for presidential candidates should not just be tied to a particular extraterrestrial goal or fiscal budget number.
Rather, they should recognize that the nation has a tremendously capable aerospace work force and infrastructure designed to adapt and build upon past investments. Determining how to maximize returns from past investments should be a fundamental starting point for future U.S. space exploration discussions. Why now?
· It will stimulate economic recovery and job growth at lower fiscal costs. Loosely quoting a prior senior NASA manager: “I have never seen a dollar spent in space.
All was spent in the United States of America.”
It will maintain, in a real sense, American predominance within a highly technical economic sector that is just beginning to evolve and expand commercially.
It will provide both immediate and long-term innovative and productivity benefits to the American economy.
· It will continue to enable truly commercial competition by ensuring a stable foundation of space capabilities exists for entrepreneurs to build on for new, unproven markets.
Assuming we want to build on the capabilities and infrastructure the nation currently has in order to gain more return from its investments, what are the most promising areas to start with?
The international space station represents a massive learning investment in on-orbit space operations and international program management. We should be exploiting the station to conduct research and technology programs that not only benefit life on Earth but will prepare us for voyages to the Moon, Mars and beyond.
Maintain the funding for commercial cargo and crew development programs. However, place a requirement for the participants to show how they are taking advantage of available U.S. infrastructure within the funding they are receiving. Reduce the funding if they are not.
It is common best practice to use Design Reference Missions (DRMs) to guide every phase of design, development, test and verification of a new system. However, the current DRM for governmental U.S. space exploration is not defined and contains multiple, and potentially conflicting, requirements. The Space Launch System () would benefit from a small, clear set of DRMs that are derived from a realistic space architecture.
The Orion capsule could be flown on a4 Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle for test and verification and to train the government and industry work force.
The J-2X engine, under development for the SLS upper stage, exploits nearly a half-century of NASA spaceflight experience and technological and manufacturing advances to deliver up to 294,000 pounds of thrust. It is an excellent example of leveraging past investments for greater returns.
We should not feel bound to repeating the glories of past space achievements, but if the nation is to remain competitive and lead in human space exploration, we need to build on past investments in people and infrastructure. We should take advantage of opportunities to “stand on the shoulders of giants” as we take the next steps beyond low Earth orbit.
Ed Stanton is a former director of NASA’s Constellation Systems Division and currently a volunteer program chairman with the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.