The Possible End of Deep-space Human Spaceflight

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We are watching the potential collapse of America’s deep-space human spaceflight agenda. Meanwhile, many appear to believe that hope is our best and only strategy. Considering the stakes, this is highly risky and potentially disastrous.

Any good program manager or strategist will tell you that we always need a Plan B. Now is the time to develop our backup.

The root cause of the crisis is easy to see. The retirement of the baby boomers has created a huge structural budget deficit, which impacts everything, including national space policy.

In case you missed it, in a Jan. 26 Republican presidential debate in Florida, with tens of millions of Americans watching, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney stated, “If I had a business executive come to me and say they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the Moon, I’d say, ‘You’re fired.’”

U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas added, “The only part that I would vote for is for national defense purposes. Not to explore the Moon and go to Mars.”

They were responding to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s call for a permanent base on the Moon by 2020.

Gingrich was clobbered — in Florida of all places. He tried to respond, which opened him to more attacks. The Romney campaign stated on Feb. 5: “Speaker Gingrich just doesn’t seem to get it. Our staggering national debt and recurring deficits are jeopardizing America’s fiscal future — yet he attacks critics of his Moon base proposal for being ‘cheap’ and ‘stingy.’”

Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania piled on, producing a radio ad: “Reckless spending has led to a $15 trillion national debt. That’s $50,000 of debt for every person in America, and it’s crushing our economy. And what’s Newt Gingrich suggest? Spending half a trillion dollars on a Moon colony.

“Gingrich’s idea is fiscal insanity. And another reason true conservatives are uniting behind Rick Santorum.”

It worked — Santorum jumped into the national lead as the “not Romney” candidate.

This is a wake-up call for those with an interest in human space exploration. We only hurt ourselves by ignoring how large budget deficits affect the thinking of our elected leaders.

The key to saving deep-space human spaceflight is to formulate an argument that resonates with the budget-cutting pragmatists in the U.S. Congress on both sides of the aisle and with the Mitt Romneys, Rick Santorums and Ron Pauls of the world.

We only need to look to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which explains many things, such as why the largest expenditures in the federal budget are Social Security, Medicare and national defense. Based on Maslow, our argument should clearly and unequivocally address the fundamental security needs of the American people.

One strategic goal that does so is low-cost and reliable access to space, which has explicit support within the national security community. Further, we have proof that it is a winner in a time of fiscal austerity. Low-cost and reliable access to space won the political debate in the early 1970s, in a period of fiscal austerity, and thus was born the space shuttle. It won the argument in the budget-cutting 1990s, and we created the X-33, X-34 and X-37.

It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that what worked before can work again. The past is prologue.

The more pragmatic politicians — those concerned about budget deficits — still want low-cost access. If you listen to Romney, Paul and Santorum, they like “cheap.” They also like things that benefit national security.

This industry is filled with business people. We need to stop selling and start marketing. We need to give these pragmatists what they say they want.

Now is the time to develop Plan B — a national space strategy that will result in commercial, reusable launch vehicles.

The secret is that we have the basic technology today to implement the original vision of the space shuttle from the 1970s — of a two-stage-to-orbit reusable launch vehicle that flies 50 or more times per year. The X-37 is empirical proof that we have the critical basic technology in hand. As a Mach 25 reusable spacecraft, it demonstrates the hardest part of a two-stage-to-orbit reusable launch vehicle.

We are far ahead of where we were 40 years ago. Structures, materials and thermal protection systems are stronger, lighter and more durable. We have advanced computational design tools many orders of magnitude ahead of those from the 1970s. We have vastly improved our general knowledge of hypersonics with the shuttle, the X-37 and other programs.

We can’t lose another decade. We may not get another chance. The deficit reduction wolves — the pragmatists — are knocking on our door.

 

Charles E. Miller is president of NexGen Space LLC. He left NASA in January after serving as senior adviser for commercial space. This commentary is based on remarks delivered at the 15th annual Federal Aviation Administration Commercial Space Transportation Conference.