OpEd: Building for a Long Future in Space

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We have been at this decision point before. The issue 50 years ago was which technical route should we follow for the nation’s first manned spacecraft: ballistic re-entry or winged re-entry? Max Faget, who designed the original Mercury capsule and contributed to the designs of the Gemini and Apollo spacecraft, was a firm supporter of ballistic re-entry as was eventually used for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. The ghost of Max Faget must have a sardonic smile at the experience of our astronaut who returned to Earth from the international space station (ISS) in a Russian ballistic re-entry vehicle .Others were not so sure and preferred an approach that incorporated more airplane-like features.

According to the NASA History Office publication “Spaceflight Revolution, NASA Langley Research Center from Sputnik to Apollo” by James R. Hansen, Chuck Matthews, who, like Faget, was working at Langley , came up with a concept for a space plane that was similar to what eventually became the space shuttle. The basis for the performance was U.S. Air Force analysis of space operations. The concept included a payload bay that would permit a significant weight in orbit. (The ISS was not yet envisaged. That came a decade later).

Two continuing space requirements — single-stage-to-orbit and the shuttle as a multi-stage booster with low cost to orbit — were ignored. From the outset, the shuttle approach demanded technological miracles, and after Russia launched Sputnik NASA was in a hurry.

Forgotten in the issue of tiles was the massive effort to put tiles on the orbiter and the continuing demands to make the system perform.

Where does that leave us?

Today, now that the shuttle is built but due to be retired by the end of the decade, we face a similar issue: Should the vehicle for servicing the international space station be a vehicle with ballistic re-entry or more like the shuttle?

The answer for the next few years is both. Beyond that, we need to ask, what are the NASA space missions?

Here are my recommendations, provided as building blocks or a stair-step approach:

– Demonstrate routine ISS logistics operations

– Define and develop a new logistics system

– Conduct ISS upgrades for increased reliability and safety

– Expand ISS crew accommodations

– Design and develop a lunar capable Crew Exploration Vehicle system

– Develop initial lunar base missions support capability, dedicated lunar crew accommodations and lunar mission-related equipment testing and checkout

– Establish lunar base support facility at the ISS

– Establish crew departure and return capability for Moon and Earth trips

– Establish storage and transfer of lunar mission supplies

– Establish a manned lunar base as the stepping stone to further space exploration

We also need a solid Russian logistics agreement as a back-up for ISS logistics. The current one expires soon and follow-on is not guaranteed .

The most important national space program is human exploration of the planets. That effort should create harmonious international relations with an architecture that has the following four pillars:

– Providing for the health care of crews operating at great distances from Earth

– Development of an interplanetary transportation system

– Planetary infrastructure for the colonies

– A canopy of satellites orbiting Mars

There are obvious ways that the manned space flight and the planetary exploration programs may be mutually supporting.

However, we should be clear that we are establishing international colonies on the Moon and Mars. We should be defining the future infrastructure now. We have to have clear perspective that we are engaged in a human endeavor that will last for generations.

The starting point is to create a logistics vehicle to support the ISS. It would be wise to ensure it is compatible or readily adaptable for support of ISS/ lunar-related logistics missions. One could easily envision unmanned ISS/ lunar supply trips.

Concurrently, we should be defining the colonies for exploration of the Moon and Mars with emphasis on human performance. The rest of the architecture will follow in trail as we and other nations define our goals in human exploration.

Francis X. “Duke” Kane is a retired Air Force colonel and president and chief operating officer of The Schriever Institute, San Antonio.