As voters decide pros and cons of presidential candidates, there is also an important debate in the space community on whether NASA and the nation have chosen the right path for our future in space. As someone who has been privileged to pilot NASA’s space shuttle and to lead NASA and contractor teams in execution of human spaceflight objectives, I believe strongly that NASA’s plans — to ensure reliable transportation to the international space station and to go on to the Moon by 2020 — represent the right choice. Many others share this view. The NASA plan, now called the U.S. Space Exploration Policy, has received widespread bipartisan support in Congress.
At the start of human spaceflight, NASA was chartered to provide the capability to place Americans in space. NASA must ensure continued human access to space for the U.S. government. To accomplish this goal, NASA and its contractors are developing the Constellation of vehicles and outposts that will support utilization of the international space station, enable Americans to settle the Moon and lead to destinations beyond. The Ares 1 rocket and the Orion crew exploration vehicle are the first of these new capabilities. Both programs are currently in the development phase — a time when routine engineering processes of analysis, testing and adjustments based on test results can create public uncertainty even as they meet their fundamental purpose of eliminating what does not work and focusing development on what does.
Along with Ares and Orion development efforts, NASA is supporting entrepreneurial efforts that can lead to commercial human transportation capabilities to low Earth orbit under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. To meet the dual objectives of ensuring U.S. human access to space and stimulating entrepreneurial efforts to develop crew and cargo capability, Ares and COTS-based launchers must co-exist.
Ares and Orion are essential for future Moon missions, while COTS may be available sooner and at lower cost for missions to low Earth orbit, including to the international space station. NASA is precisely right to cultivate both the tried and true and the bold new venture.
NASA’s options for uncrewed scientific programs like the Mars Rovers also will include commercial U.S. launch capabilities — the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) and orbital launch vehicle.
The U.S. Space Exploration Policy of Ares, EELV and COTS systems will prevent over reliance on a single launcher while protecting industry and holding NASA accountable to their core purpose of providing human access to space for government missions. The Launch American directive for uncrewed scientific payloads supports commercial capabilities. NASA is encouraging and supporting entrepreneurial efforts as the nation strives for lower-cost access to space and ultimately for commercial human launch services.
The question is not Ares or EELV or COTS; we must encourage them all.
Brewster Shaw, a former astronaut, is currently the vice president and general manager of Boeing Space Exploration, headquartered in Houston, with operations in Florida, Alabama and California. He flew three space shuttle missions – as pilot of STS-9 and as commander of STS-61B and STS-28.