Imagine if you will a scenario in which the powers that be announce that beginning next year, all airline flights will be cancelled. In their place, emphasis will shift to various, commercial entities for geting passengers from the parking lot to the terminal.
Hearing such a thing, you’d probably – and rightly – walk away scratching your head and conclude that those same powers lack a fundamental understanding of airlines and what they do. Of course, this is a silly notion and nothing more than a rather odd mental exercise. Right? Well, not really.
Time and time again since the Administration announced it’s desire to cancel NASA’s Constellation program for returning humans to the moon, we’ve heard the argument framed along various permutations of this statement: the Obama administration intends on cancelling Constellation and instead focus on the commercial sector for getting astronauts to the International Space Station.
All variations of that statement leave the listener wondering whether the Administration understands why Constellation exists and what it seeks to accomplish. The focus of the program is not getting people to low earth orbit. The function of the program is getting people into deep space – and more precisely, the moon!
The issue of transport to low earth orbit has become the prime focus for the debate over the future of Constellation. In short, rockets – sometimes called “boosters.” But once they’ve reach orbit, their job is done. Going any place else — which is presumable the whole point of having a human space program — requires altogether different vehicles. So when we fail to address the issues of deep space transport and landing craft, we’re completely missing the point. It is these vehicles, which are the real idea behind Constellation, and they are called Orion and Altair. Together, they are the most important components of the program. Take away either — but particularly Altair — and NASA is reduced to a multi-billion-dollar taxi service, destined only to watch others reach and settle the moon.
Forget Ares! Let’s talk about Altair.
When the Administration announced it’s proposal to scrap NASA’s Constellation project, it touched off an explosion of opposition including a bipartisan letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden asking him to cease and desist in his actions to begin dismantling the program before the issue can be addressed — and voted upon — by the Congress. The American people have invested billions already in the program, and any unilateral action to end it is not only improper but unlawful. And many believe that to end Constellation completely will effectively end US leadership in space.
Now the rank and file within NASA are speaking up. In an effort lead by former astronaut and now Director of Johnson Space Center Michael Coats, NASA will be considering a Plan-B, and in his first show of independence since taking over as chief of the agency, Administrator Bolden is backing Coats’ play. He has instructed all NASA center directors to begin exploring “what a potential compromise might look like.”
The plan will be a stunningly rational effort to realign the goals of Constellation so that commercial, human space flight can assume the long-overdue role of transporting cargo and people to low earth orbit while leaving US leadership on the frontier of space intact. No other program typifies American leadership in space better than Constellation, but to be sure, some change is necessary.
There are three major aspects to Constellation. The first is a program to design and build two new rockets, Ares 1 and Ares 5; the former a booster to carry people to low earth orbit and the International Space Station, and the latter a so-called “heavy lift” variant that could carry large payloads including a spacecraft for transporting astronauts from earth orbit to the moon and beyond. And though Ares 1 has already flown and shows much promise to become a capable system, it’s a sad reality that both it and it’s big brother are simply too expensive. Neither could reach a flight rate that could offset the cost of development or to offer the country the frequent and affordable access to space that is needed. Private industry has matured its commercial systems to a point where they can offer transport services at a fraction of that cost of Ares. But more than that, the building of rockets no longer falls within NASA’s bailiwick. The agency was formed to be a research organization, not a manufacturer. It simply makes no sense to have the agency continue in that role. It would be akin to asking the FAA to build airliners. Just try to imagine the price of airfare were that to be the case.
It’s likely that there is going to be a tug-of-war between the two sides of the debate over Constellation. One side wants to keep all the large pieces of the program intact, while the other argues to scrap it completely. It’s yet to be seen how this will play out, but in all likelihood, Ares will go down in history as another good program that didn’t survive the budget axe. There’s a very bright side to this story, however, in that the commercial sector now has the opportunity to accomplish what no government program has: to dramatically reduce the cost of access to space, and in doing so, open up the frontier to the rest of us. There are opportunities to be had and fortunes to be made for those of us with the pioneering spirit. And along the way, all of us stand to gain from the natural resources space and other planets have to offer but that only private enterprise can afford to go after.
The next big piece of Constellation is Orion. Sometimes described as a scaled up version of the Apollo capsule that first took men to the moon in the 1960′s, this spacecraft represents a big leap ahead of its predecessor. Yet this program has had to reinvent certain technologies lost when Apollo was canceled in the early 1970′s. For example, ablative shielding was first invented in the early days of manned flight to keep spacecraft re-entering the earth’s atmosphere from burning up by carrying away heat with the layers of its surface literally blasted away during descent. The loss of this and other technologies as a result of our abandonment of the lunar program in favor of a space plane never capable of going beyond low earth orbit stands as the biggest mistake NASA has ever made. Apollo represented not only an enormous investment of the country’s treasure but in the dreams of its citizens to continue to push back the boundary between what is possible and what is only imagined. Orion, or more accurately to say it’s mission as a transporter of humans between planets, may be fertile ground for the commercial sector as well. Already a company called SpaceX has developed a capsule for moving cargo to, and waste from, the International Space Station, but it was designed from the beginning to carry humans as well. Other companies are ready and capable of doing the same. The time is ripe for them to step up to the plate.
And finally there’s Altair. Able to transport astronauts to the surface of the moon, this spacecraft embodies the dream from which Constellation was born: to return humans to deep space. And it is upon this vehicle that NASA should, above all else, focus its resources and funding. This is where there is real research to be done, and this is where the agency can continue in another role to which it is ably suited: that of macro-economic enabler. Around this vehicle and its destination will arise the first space-based economy. Private enterprise will follow NASA to the moon, providing all manner of logistical support including everything from food to communication services. Along the way, the technologies transferred to that sector will enjoy a ceaseless process of improvement and cost reductions.
So here we are at a another crossroads. There is a critical choice to be made, and we had better get it right. This debate surrounds the continuation of our deep space program, not whether private enterprise should participate in manned space flight as so many of the so-called pundits have put it. Private enterprise will ascend. That much is a foregone conclusion. The wheels of progress cannot be stopped. But at the same time, we must not abandon the moon as we did 4 decades ago, lest those same wheels roll over us. Russia, China and yes, even India are poised to take up the challenge of building the first lunar settlement. The miraculous discovery of water there late last year is not lost on them, neither is the presence of abundant natural resources such as platinum for building hydrogen fuel cells for our next generation of automobiles or helium-3 for providing clean, renewable energy for an ever-increasingly energy-hungry world. And these are only two among many.
Pursuing a plan-b for keeping but restructuring Constellation is a good idea: one worthy of our best efforts. Canceling the program outright amounts to throwing out the baby with the bath water. The Administration is attempting to sell the idea that pouring funds and effort into the production of a heavy-lift rocket without interplanetary vehicles will, somehow, miraculously translate into a human presence in deep space down the road, but this is only so much vapor ware. It doesn’t add up, let alone provide any focus. Without Orion (or a commercial version) and Altair for transporting people into deep space then landing them on another world, we’re left stranded in low earth orbit again. The Apollo program teaches us what happens when you lose momentum. We’ve spent four decades playing catch up for that mistake. Let’s not make it again.
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight
Commercial Spaceflight Federation, March 2, 2010
On Saturday, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson signed into law the “New Mexico Space Flight Informed Consent Act,” following similar legislation already passed in Virginia and Florida. The legislation marks a key step towards commercial operations of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo at the New Mexico spaceport. Recognizing that commercial suborbital spaceflight is a developing industry, the law provides critical liability protections that will enable spaceflight businesses to operate efficiently and effectively for their customers.
“This legislation secures New Mexico’s investment in Spaceport America and its resulting job creation by ensuring we are competitive with other space states such as Virginia and Florida who have similar legislation in place,” said Gov. Richardson.
The state legislation builds upon the federal Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act, passed by Congress in 2004, which states that “space transportation is inherently risky” and requires space flight participants to sign an informed consent waiver in recognition of this fact.
Steve Landeene, Executive Director of Spaceport America, added, “The passage of the Space Flight Informed Consent Act was critical to the success of Spaceport America and our ability to attract and retain commercial space companies to New Mexico. Any company taking participants into space must obtain a signed waiver where they acknowledge the inherent risks of spaceflight.” Landeene said that this protects New Mexico and operators licensed by the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation such as Virgin Galactic, but still allows legal options in cases of gross negligence.
Spaceport America’s 10,000-foot runway is currently under construction in preparation for flights of SpaceShipTwo. Since August 2009, Spaceport America has created almost 500 construction jobs in New Mexico, with more to come.