Aerospace experts are telling congress that NASA cannot achieve its goals in space with the current funding plan, but is the agency being asked to do too much? Has the time come to narrow its scope to increase its effectiveness at meeting the aggressive exploration goals placed on it?
Since its inception the US civil space program has accomplished many great things, which are arguably on par with the great exploration endeavors of the past: Magellan, Christopher Columbus, Ponce DeLeon and Lewis and Clark. But imagine if, along with all the other financial and logistical concerns they bore, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were also to have been responsible for factoring in provisions and money for the continuance of all the beachheads that had been established to that point in the young republic. Of course the notion is absurd, but could that be precisely what we’re doing with our space program? Could we be imposing continuance of the space-age equivalent of a beachhead secured long ago? And in doing so, doesn’t that dilute the agency’s strength and effectiveness?
The beachhead I’m referring to is called Geospace. It’s a region that spans the radiation environment from the Sun to Earth’s upper atmosphere — considered to be the fourth physical geosphere after solid earth, oceans, and atmosphere. I know; kind of a mouth full, but the importance of the latter will be made clear in a moment.
The mission to Geospace is a mature one. So much so that it has entered the realm of regular operations. So it may be no less absurd a notion to ask that NASA continue its presence in that region than it would have been to include the Lewis and Clark expedition as part of the same funding and administration blueprint used to explore the Boston or New York Harbors. At the very least, our capacity for space exploration has reached a level or maturity for which prudence would dictate a re-examination of how we structure our programs and agencies. Streamlining, even redefining scope and purpose may be a reasonable and warranted course.
Look at what NASA was able to achieve in the 1960′s and early 1970′s when the bulk of its resources and talent were aimed at the frontier. Were the stunning successes of that era due entirely to a much larger budget, or was it more a matter of focus? It’s a proven fact that individuals achieve more when there are fewer distractions. Is it inconceivable that the same process is at work at the organizational level?
If the mission of NASA were to be refined with a focus on Constellation, the program for going back to the moon then on to Mars, the resulting organization with its resources and funding redistributed and streamlined could achieve far more. But does this mean that other programs not in line with that goal are simply dropped? Certainly not.
Let’s go back to the missions to Geospace. Those should be placed under an agency for which this is already its mandate: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In the words of its new Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco, NOAA’s reach, “goes from the surface of the sun to the depths of the ocean floor…” Sound familiar? If you said the Geosphere, you’re right.
So it is no stretch at all to reassign every mission looking at the sun or the earth to NOAA. Indeed, NOAA is already performing that mission with its constellation of GOES satellites. More than just weather observation platforms, these spacecraft monitor the sun, the earth and the interplanetary space between. Geospace is already within their mission statement. And they fly these missions with their own cadre of world-class scientists, engineers and controllers. To reassign all remaining programs currently under NASA studying the earth and the sun to NOAA is not only technically feasible and fits within the current political structure, but it would also eliminate much redundancy and coordination between the two agencies due to the overlap in missions, thereby saving money. Those cost savings can then go to fund programs turning out tangible results rather than wasting them on dispensable layers of bureaucracy.
But there’s another facet of NOAA that lends still more credence to the argument for its dominion over Geospace: their space arm is inherently an operational institution. This stands in contrast to NASA, whose bailiwick lies purely within the domain of research and development. And the question of operations vs R&D is quickly becoming an issue with the International Space Station. Construction of the ISS is nearing completion, after which NASA will find itself in a position for which it has no experience: that of landlord, where operations — not R&D — are the prime concern.
So why not place Geospace strictly under NOAA and leave NASA to what it does best? deep space exploration of the frontier. Sometimes the best way forward is to take a step back.
Filed under: Civil Space Flight, Commercial Space Flight
On July 31, 1999 the NASA-built Lunar Prospector spacecraft crashed into a crater near the south pole of the moon.
Just over 7 years later on September 3, 2006 the European Space Agency’s SMART-1 crashed into Lacus Excellentiae (Latin for Lake of Excellence) in the moon’s southern region.
On November 14, 2008 an Indian-built spacecraft called Chandraayan 1 dropped a piece of itself, which impacted near Shackleton crater (named after Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, noted Antarctic explorer of the early 20th century) at the lunar south pole.
This past June 10th, the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) crashed its Selene spacecraft (nicknamed Kaguya) into the moon.
Are you beginning to detect a rather disturbing trend, here?
And last week, two more NASA probes, the Lunar Reconnaisance Orbiter (LRO) and the Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), were dispatched to the moon, also to be crashed into it… intentionally!
Either the world’s space scientists have a really warped sense of humor, or there’s a sane, rational reason for all these perfectly good, multi-million-dollar space probes being slammed into the lunar surface. And as it turns out, there is a good reason after all.
President Bush united the country (arguably, setting the tone for the rest of the world) under a single, unified goal in space for the first time since the 1960′s: the Vision for Space Exploration. Under VSE we’ll first return to the moon then go on to Mars — with all due respect to some of my colleagues who would prefer it in the reverse order. Though I hold them in very high regard, even share their love of Mars and the idea of establishing a colony there, the moon is a far better choice at this point in time. Over and above the more publicized reasons for going back to the moon such as for natural resources and using it as a staging area for Mars flights, missions to our nearest neighbor in space will more readily and rapidly aid in establishing space commerce, which I deeply believe is the more exigent.
Our first colony on another world will be a feat of engineering and logistics, rivaling the great westward push through the US of the 1800′s, and not only for the courage that will be required of the people who make the journey but the extreme economic hurtles that must be made. In the old west, settlers took the tools they needed to work the land, a few livestock if they were fortunate and not much else. They lived off the land, bodies of water and the wildlife they discovered. Space settlers, on the other hand, must take everything, even the air they breathe, and the cost of transporting every extra pound of cargo adds up quickly in added fuel spent. For this reason, such a settlement must be self-sustaining to the greatest extent possible. But the moon is a harsh homestead, providing only for the more industrious individual. If we could find water there, we would in one fell swoop solve some of the more daunting problems of space habitation.
Not only does water provide for drinking, bathing, cooking and cleaning, but it is an ideal solvent, a catalyst for building materials like concrete, and when you apply to that good ole H2O the process of electrolysis, can be split into its basic components: hydrogen and — yes, you guessed it — oxygen for breathing.
And so it is that we’ve embarked on a quest to find water on the moon. But wait. What does that have to do with crashing spacecraft?
There are two choices available to us for finding that clear, and so far painfully elusive, substance. Either we send people en masse to hack away at the surface with an assortment of machines dedicated to the task or we try an intelligent and far more cost-effective approach. It turns out that when you slam an object into the moon at the kinds of speeds one must achieve for space flight, the resultant release of energy is quite impressive; more than enough to kick up a very sizable plume of material from the impact site. And if you have an instrument capable of detecting water (ice or vapor) in that plume… vuala! You have your detection method. In the past, instruments have been trained on such a plume from a distance, a method called remote sensing. But LCROSS launched last week will be employing another, ingenious technique. It’s called an in situ (Latin for “in the place”) measurement. Here’s how it will work.
Two spacecraft, a rocket called a Centaur and a “shepherding spacecraft”, fly connected to the moon. Actually, the LRO spacecraft is also connected, but it will not meet the same fate. The Centaur is aimed at the moon (and we’ll get to how we pick the impact site in a minute), guided by the shepherding spacecraft. Before impact, the two separate. The Centaur traveling at 5600 miles per hour reaches the impact site first, selected for this task because of its high mass, weighing in at approximately 34,000 pounds — heavier than a bus. On impact, it excavates material from the resulting 100-foot-diameter crater and ejects it 30 miles up! Meanwhile, the shepherd, descending along the same path, is flying through the plume, continuously taking measurements and sending them back to earth until its own demise. If there is any water in any form on that spot, it will be detected.
OK, so you have your method for detection. Though it’s true the moon is much smaller than the earth, it’s still a prodigious expanse and wilderness. How do you narrow your search area? One fact that helps with this task is that the moon has no atmosphere.
On earth, our atmosphere protects us from the sun’s immense heat. It acts as a filter, allowing no more energy to reach the service than we need. Were it not for this filter, the sun would boil off our oceans. Back on the moon, this is precisely what happens to any water ice exposed to the sun’s rays. With no atmosphere there to reduce solar radiation, the ice heats up and boils away into space.
Knowing this, you might be tempted to throw in the towel, thinking that the whole of the moon is exposed to the sun and therefore couldn’t possibly contain any water ice. Luckily, there are some regions that lie in permanent shadow. At no point throughout the lunar year does the sun penetrate. Where might these places be, you ask? Well, I imagine you’ve already gleaned part of the answer from the fact that all the probes mentioned at the top of this article were being crashed into the moon’s southern regions.
It is estimated that both the north and south polar regions contain craters that lie in permanent shadow, so it is there where we will target impacting missions. Finding water on the moon will be like discovering a lush oasis in the middle of the desert. That one resource could sustain a permanent lunar colony from which commerce could grow, bringing about a new and prosperous economy. A bit much to expect, you say? Perhaps, but I’ve a sneaking suspicion it may not take that long to find out.
When Gwynne Shotwell, President of SpaceX, said at a commercial space flight conference hosted by the FAA in February that it would not be NASA but rather the company’s own commercial astronauts to fly Dragon on its upcoming demonstration flights to the International Space Station, she wasn’t kidding. On Tuesday the formation of a new Astronaut Safety and Mission Assurance Department was announced. And in a very wise move, they selected US Navy Captain and former NASA astronaut Ken Bowersox as its Vice President. Now SpaceX joins the ranks of Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic in forming their own astronaut corps.
“Ken Bowersox is a critical asset to the SpaceX team, as we prepare for crewed missions aboard our Dragon spacecraft,” said Elon Musk, Founder and CEO of SpaceX. “His experience in the U.S. astronaut corps, and aboard the International Space Station, will be invaluable in shaping the future of commercial manned spaceflight.”
Captain Bowersox is a US Naval Academy aerospace engineering grad and brings with him the benefit of 19 years experience in space flight, including 5 shuttle missions, 2 as Commander, and was Commander of Expedition 6 aboard the International Space Station. In all, he has logged 211 days in space.
Commercial, human space flight is still under fire (see A Rock In The Road) and it looks as though the path to providing a commercial, crew transportation service to and from the International Space Station (see Commercial Human Space Transportation Now) will not be an easy one for SpaceX. That’s why the selection of a man such a Bowersox is so important. To quiet the remaining naysayers who insist that commercial providers are simply not up to the task of providing NASA with safe and reliable service, the company needs a man in their astronaut department with the right background. And when it’s one of NASA’s own, those dissenting voices have far less over which to object and may eventually fall silent when faced with the reality that they’ve vastly underestimated the expertise and agility of the commercial sector.
Captain Bowersox will shine for far better reasons than politics. He’s the right man for the job and at a time when the company is dealing with flight delays that can only serve to bolster the skeptics of commercial, human space flight.
Commercial space flight took yet another leap forward yesterday with the groundbreaking of the world’s first purpose-built, commercial spaceport. The New Mexico Spaceport Authority has begun construction of Spaceport America in Upham, New Mexico near Las Cruces.
Will Whitehorn, president of our world’s first spaceline Virgin Galactic, was at the ceremony and said,“The groundbreaking is an enormous milestone for Virgin Galactic which is investing over $300 million in developing a new space launch system, which will operate at Spaceport America after it opens. Today’s event clearly signals the birth of a new commercial age in space and is a proud moment for the vision and foresight of both the people and government of the state of New Mexico.”
What this means for you and I is that we’re a step closer to low-cost access to space. When Spaceport America opens, they’ll become the next element in a growing infrastructure built around the premise of space flight for everyone. From that infrastructure will come commerce and industry. Space and the opportunities it brings are our future, and the facilities they’re building their in the desert are a gateway to that future.
The 300+ people who have already purchased tickets to fly into space will be traveling to Upham where they’ll begin their own, personal journey to a place few humans have seen. They’ll take in a view of our planet once reserved for an elite few. And now, even before the first flight has left the ground, there is talk of reductions in ticket prices up to 75%. Will you be next?
Human versus robotic space flight: Which of the two merits our attention, efforts and money the most? This debate has persisted off and on for decades now, and it still manages to provoke bitter disputes among many in the science, engineering and even political arenas. But why?
Before moving on, perhaps we should preface this discussion with some simple definitions. As the term suggests, human space flight is that with a human crew and possibly passengers. This is in contrast to robotic space flight whereby a device launched into space is remotely controlled by humans on the ground. A good example of the latter can be seen when you turn on the television to watch the weather. All the satellite images you’re seeing are from spacecraft that are being flown by teams of controllers and engineers from a dedicated ground facility. Commands are sent to the spacecraft and answers received over radio and/or microwave transmission.
The debate over human and robotic space flight resurfaced recently in the UK when the European Space Agency (ESA) selected British army officer Major Timothy Peake as the next in their corps of astronauts. Some are hailing him as the first astronaut to fly into space under the British Union Jack, though that is questionable. That’s not to slight the major in any way who was selected, because of his extraordinary talent and abilities, but there are some facts worth noting here. First off, the UK government is still not contributing funds to ESA’s human space flight program. The other partner countries are still left to cover that cost. Secondly, Helen Sharman of Sheffield, England flew as a private individual to the Russian Mir space station in 1991 as part of Project Juno, and she proudly wore the British flag on her space suit, Russian made though it was. Michael Foale, Piers Sellers and Nicholas Patrick, all British borne, also flew into space but did so under the US flag, having become citizens by the time of their flights. Sadly, most Britons choosing to pursue manned space flight have been forced to leave the UK, faced with London’s stubborn refusal to provide funds for the endeavor. And Major Peake’s selection seems to have changed nothing in that regard.
The attitude started in the 1980’s when Margaret Thatcher pulled the plug on any hopes of the UK joining other European countries such as Germany, Italy and France in the manned space flight program for the International Space Station; that, despite President Ronald Reagan’s attempts to persuade her otherwise. Many of Great Britain’s science ministers since that time have successfully fought against any and all participation in human space flight, the most outspoken of whom was Lord Sainsbury. He maintained that stance until the end of his eight-year tenure in November 2006. In January 2003, he made what is probably the best summation of the viewpoint held by all British detractors when he said, “We believe that it does not offer value for money and so we do not support it.” Very pragmatic; at least, on the surface.
Across the pond, the US spends a great deal more on space flight, and with more funds available, there’s less for those opposed to human space flight to quibble over. Yet we in the US have our own detractors who would like to see the human element completely cut out of space exploration or at least sharply curtailed. In an editorial on May 27th, USA Today said that “NASA Should Deemphasize Manned Spaceflight.” That camp, like Thatcher, Sainsbury and others have arguments that on the surface sound completely logical and — I’ll say it — down to earth. But isn’t that the very problem? Many of us associate human space flight with the extravagant; an endeavor reserved for an elite few. From there it’s all down hill: we reason that extravagant equals fanciful equals costly equals unnecessary.
Dig deeper and you may find that there are pragmatic reasons to support human space flight. No matter your country of origin, one of your prime considerations is that the homeland is competitive in the world market place. This means having a strong educational system, particularly in science and mathematics, which turns out competitive graduates. But how do you lure kids towards the sciences? Of course there will always be a certain number of them who are of uncommon intellect and gravitate toward it without encouragement, but that may not be enough. The call of space exploration has proven time and again to capture and keep the enthusiasm of our youngsters. Once that dream was taken away, in the case of Britain, or delayed to the point of seeming impossible, in the case of the US, a huge downturn in math and science followed. Considering this fact, isn’t it worth a certain percentage of the tax revenue of every country to participate in the dream of human space flight? And if you’re the leader of a country fearful that the electorate will not support human space flight, consider this: If you want to unite all of humanity behind space flight, you must involve all of humanity in space flight. That means making it attainable to the common man. This happens as a natural consequence of balance between civil and commercial space flight. Ultimately, we the tax payers ask the question: if I can never go into space, why should I pay for it? Give us the realistic expectation that we and our children can participate, and it changes the equation dramatically.
Here’s a final thought: human and robotic space flight need not and should not be mutually exclusive. We as a species need to explore and we need to face the dangers that come with it. It’s written in our DNA and is as much a part of our nature as breathing. Notice that I said ‘we as a species.’ If you’re reading this article and thinking to yourself, “I can’t see exploring the heart of Africa or the ocean depths, much less space,” think what your life would be without the explorers. There is hardly a single corner of human society untouched by exploration and the benefits it brought. And to rely upon machines to do that for us would be like deciding to take half as many breaths, because, hell, sitting just doesn’t require it. When we become too comfortable, we stagnate. It’s as simple as that. But that’s not to say we should be cavalier about risk taking. Tasks which put human life at too great a risk will fall to our machines. Where we go, they will go; a partnership. Why not bear that in mind when making policy over something as impactful to our collective future as space exploration?
I’ve said it before, and it bears restating. Commercial, human space flight holds immeasurably more promise of opportunities for the common man in space than government-run programs. Constantly-shifting tides and administrations and politicians bent on playing power games have for decades held this dream hostage.
What I call the “space equals NASA” mentality has led to a government strangle hold on space flight, thereby reserving that domain for the elite. The 110th congress enacted legislation to change that situation, but there are those who are attempting to circumvent it. Submitted for your perusal is this case in point.
Section 902 of the 2008 NASA Authorization Act clearly states that “NASA shall make use of United States commercially provided International Space Station crew transfer and crew rescue services to the maximum extent practicable…” The language is unmistakable: the people of this country want a commercial transportation system for moving both cargo and crew to and from the International Space Station. And it’s a solution that makes great fiscal sense.
Damnable foot dragging by the so-far headless agency notwithstanding, NASA has set aside $150M of the new Stimulus Bill for the COTS-D option (see Commercial Human Space Transportation Now) that would result in a crewed demonstration of the new SpaceX Dragon spacecraft. Yet Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) would seem to think he knows better than both houses of Congress who made the bill into law last September. A ranking member of the Commerce, Justice and Science Subcommittee within the Senate Appropriations Committee, he’s holding up the release of funds approved by Congress in February, arguing against the funding of commercial crew and cargo systems.
At a hearing on the NASA FY2010 budget request, he referred to the Commercial Crew Initiative saying, “I ask, is this the hope we will hitch our dreams of the future of manned spaceflight to?” With his state set to profit from Constellation, could it be more a question of self interest than of dreams? We’re also left to wonder which part of “NASA shall make use…” of this option he doesn’t understand? The time for debate has passed. Opinions over whether or not it’s good idea are, with all due respect to the senator, irrelevant. It’s the law.
Whether intended or not, Shelby is circumventing the will of the people of this country by hijacking money that was clearly meant to go to a commercial crew capability. He so much as admits his desire to see all public funds for human space flight instead go exclusively to government agencies, stating that, “I believe that manned spaceflight is something that is still in the realm of government, because despite their best efforts, some truly private enterprises have not yet been able to deliver on plans of launching vehicles.” As for the first part of that statement, we must consider the fact that Marshall Space Flight Center — one of the larger NASA space centers and a key player in the government’s Constellation program — are in the senator’s state. Are we to ignore the obvious conflict of interest there? And the latter is pure subterfuge. The fact is that SpaceX, builders of the Dragon spacecraft the senator is trying so diligently to shoot down, has met its flight goals and is on schedule to make its cargo (and crew if that option is funded) demonstration flights. And there’s one other key point the senator seems to be conveniently forgetting, as pointed out by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) in a separate hearing: “… you would not even have to pay until the COTS-D partner was able to successfully demonstrate that capability.”
Yes, it’s business as usual in Washington. A program that could be incredibly impactful lies desperately wrapped around the axle, captive to the will of a single bureaucrat guided — it would seem — by self interest rather than a sense of the greater good. Call me old fashioned, but I rather thought that once a bill is made into law, it’s a done deal. The government is obligated to follow it at that point. If you agree, you might want to challenge the good senator. You can reach him at http://shelby.senate.gov.
Private industry stands to get a real shot in the arm by providing a commercial crew capability to the ISS. And a healthy commercial space industry will naturally lead to opportunities for regular folks, off planet. Government-centric thinking has resulted in the current situation where space belongs exclusively to an elite few. If we want that to change, it will require a break with the “space equals NASA” mentality. But before we can do that, we may have to move a few rocks from the road.
Virginia-based Space Adventures, Ltd. has just announced the next tourist to visit the International Space Station. Canadian Guy Laliberté, founder of Cirque du Soleil and the ONE DROP Foundation, has already begun training at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City in preparation for his flight, set for September 30, 2009. He will be joining the Soyuz TMA-16 crew that includes Russian cosmonaut Maksim Surayev and NASA astronaut Jeffery Williams, and his 12-day stay aboard the station will mark the seventh such mission by a tourist.
Space tourism is proving to be an anchor for commercial, human space flight. The industry, which so far includes taking paying passengers, cargo and possibly NASA astronauts to the International Space Station and flying still more paying passengers into suborbital flights, is already establishing itself as a strong economic base from which other industries will emerge in support of it. Ultimately, the symbiotic relationship that develops between tourism and it’s support industries will lead to the first spaceborne infrastructure, a prerequisite for any permanent human population in space.
The few private citizens flying to space now are paving the way. Others will follow and in greater numbers. Once a destination capable of accommodating even a handfull of people on a steady basis is established, we will have reached another tipping point leading to the settlement of space. At the moment, the only destination is ISS, a situation which will either continue, prompting a re-evaluation of the station’s charter, or it will serve as a starting point and an impetus for another, dedicated space station. Either way, a permanent destination will naturally need other industries to support it: transportation systems for flying passengers to and from, life support systems and consumables, food service, entertainment, and the list goes on.
Once a critical mass is reached, the entire system feeds upon itself, insuring steady growth and opportunities as yet unforeseen. It all begins here and now with small-scale tourism. But like the torents of water reaching the ocean, having started as a mere trickle of a mountrain stream, so too will this first vanguard of space tourism end in a full-scale march into the rest of the solar system.
History was made twice over last Friday when the crew of the International Space Station was increased from 3 to 6. For the first time in its ten-year history, the station has taken on a full crew compliment with the arrival of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft carrying European Space Agency astronaut Frank De Winne, Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko and Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk. The three joined mission commander, cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, astronaut Michael Barratt and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Koichi Wakata already there from Expedition 19. With these six crew members of Expedition 20, all five of the station’s partner agencies are represented on the station simultaneously for the first time: NASA, the Russian Federal Space Agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.
For a period of two weeks next month, the station will make history again with the largest crew ever of 13 when the shuttle Endeavour transports another 7 astronauts, there to deliver and install the Japanese Kibo laboratory. This will add to its already huge span longer than a football field. And with construction of the station nearly complete, it’s finally able to realize the science mission for which it was conceived and built.
Things are certainly looking bright for the future of the International Space Station. But the situation isn’t quite so reassuring for the US and its prospects of getting to the station after the shuttle retires next year. As a [presumably] contingency measure, NASA signed an agreement with the Russian space agency to ferry astronauts to the station through 2012… for a price, or course. For the paltry sum of only $51M a seat, the Russians will be happy to give us a ride. Oh but the cost of doing business is rising fast, you see. Materials aren’t cheap, you now, and the cost of labor… Well, huh.
In only a matter of a few weeks, the cost of a seat has gone up $16M above the price they charged the most recent space tourist, Charles Simonyi, an American software entrepreneur who flew in March. Better book now while the cost is still so low.
I say that, tongue-in-cheek, about the Russians. They saw an opportunity to make money, and they took it. That’s how it works: supply and demand. Let’s just hope that the folks at NASA take advantage of that rising star SpaceX: the company that at this moment is in the advanced stages of developing a spacecraft capable of carrying our astronauts into space and at a small fraction of what the… er hem, “other guy”… will charge. Problem is, NASA’s dragging its feet funding the crewed portion of that contract (see Commercial Human Space Transportation Now).
We buy seats on a foreign carrier for an exorbitant price while a domestic company stands ready to fulfill the need, yet unable to move forward for lack — so far — of funding. Go figure.