Today’s launch of the Atlantis was the final launch of any Space Shuttle, after a little over 30 years of space voyages for the program. Its final return to Earth, currently scheduled for July 20, not-so-coincidentally the 42nd anniversary of the first moon landing, will mark the end of an era. But what era will that be?
To listen to many of the hysterical cries a year and a half ago, when the administration abruptly canceled the out-of-control Constellation program — which, had it succeeded on its own terms, would basically have repeated the Apollo missions over half a century later, at horrific cost and years behind schedule — today’s launch marks the end of American human space flight itself. But to think this is to be oblivious to the space industry that is rapidly forming: that of private, for-profit providers operating for private and public purposes. A number of companies are developing systems to deliver passengers to both suborbit and Earth orbit. Some of the suborbital ones — Virgin Galactic, XCOR Aerospace, Armadillo Aerospace, and Blue Origin — may start test flights into space next year. They may start offering suborbital transportation services, both for people who want to experience space and serious researchers, a year or so later.
For orbital transportation, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) successfully launched and recovered a pressurized capsule last December that could have carried a private astronaut, and is expected to be capable of doing so safely in three or four years. Blue Origin and Boeing are also developing capsules of their own, and Sierra Nevada Corporation is working on a small lifting body that will, like the Shuttle, be able to glide to a landing on a runway.
While some of these companies are receiving NASA funds, the amounts are comparatively trivial and on the basis of fixed-price milestones, not the vast expenditures of the bloated cost-plus contracts that led to all the overruns and schedule slips on the Constellation and other traditional NASA programs. With the end of the Shuttle, NASA desperately needs private services to be able to get its astronauts to and from the International Space Station, and with signs that fiscal sanity may be taking hold in Washington, it equally desperately needs to get such services at a more affordable price than either the Shuttle or the Space Launch System can offer. When one totals up all of the program costs over the decades, each Shuttle flight cost well over a billion dollars, and each flight of the SLS will likely cost even more. In contrast, SpaceX quotes a price of $20 million a seat for astronauts — less than one-third of the price we’re now being charged by the Russians, who offer the only means of supporting ISS for crew transfer and lifeboats until we get the new systems on line.
What is really coming to an end is an anomalous and, in a sense, un-American era of belief in Big Government in space. It started in the panic of Sputnik and the “missile gap,” and was exacerbated by being beaten again when the Russians sent the first man into space — in response to which Pres. Jack Kennedy called for a race to the moon. In so doing, he established a paradigm for how we would do space flight that was a huge departure from Dwight Eisenhower’s conception of NASA. NASA was never intended to develop and operate launch systems, but was supposed to provide the technologies needed to keep the young American space industry on the leading edge, as the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics had with aviation for decades. With Apollo’s success, most accepted this mode as normal, despite the fact that the moon program was ultimately canceled because of its high cost. At that point, moving the huge existing NASA centers and contractor base (and political contributions and votes) on to a next big project — the Shuttle — seemed natural, though in retrospect it was as absurd as a country developing its own unique airplane and using it as the basis for a state-run airline, with exactly the results one might expect from such a project.
Astoundingly, the president, of all people, seems to get this much better than some supposed conservatives and Republicans. In his Twitter session, he actually expanded on his vision of space:
We’re still using the same models for space travel that we used with the Apollo program 30, 40 years ago. And so what we’ve said is, rather than keep on doing the same thing, let’s invest in basic research around new technologies that can get us places faster, allow human space flight to last longer.
And what you’re seeing now is NASA, I think, redefining its mission. And we’ve set a goal to let’s ultimately get to Mars. A good pit stop is an asteroid. I haven’t actually — we haven’t identified the actual asteroid yet, in case people are wondering. [Laughter.] But the point is, let’s start stretching the boundaries, so we’re not doing the same thing over and over again, but rather let’s start thinking about what’s the next horizon, what’s the next frontier out there.
But in order to do that, we’re actually going to need some technological breakthroughs that we don’t have yet. And what we can do is for some of this low-orbit stuff, some of the more routine space travel — obviously no space travel is routine, but it could become more routine over time — let’s allow the private sector to get in so that they can, for example, send these low-Earth-orbit vehicles into space, and we may be able to achieve a point in time where those of you who are just dying to go into space, you can buy a ticket, and a private carrier can potentially take you up there,while the government focuses on the big breakthroughs that require much larger investments and involve much greater risk.
Former George H. W. Bush space adviser Mark Albrecht gets it, too:
Our institutions are bloated, wasteful and bureaucratic. Elected representatives act as fiscal stewards of jobs in their states and districts, making efficient and coherent allocation of resources nearly impossible. Private industry wields its consolidated power to smother competition, grow cost and mimic its slow and bureaucratic customer. And the academic community, for its part, deftly uses its power to influence, adjudicate and validate government science initiatives to ensure that it gets its “fair share” of the exploration pie.
The system has become adept at resisting reprioritization and powerful in protecting itself and the status quo. The only successful initiatives to alter the direction of our space efforts at the national level since the end of the Cold War have been negative. Cuts count; they force change.
But unfortunately, the end of an era isn’t always obvious to everyone, and on Capitol Hill — one of the last redoubts of those who want to maintain the status quo — there is a rear-guard fight to preserve the pork and associated jobs (and contributions, and votes). The initial markup of NASA’s budget was released by the House appropriators Wednesday. In keeping with the new supposed mood of thrift in Washington, the top line of the agency’s budget was cut below 2008 levels.
There were three major casualties: the mismanaged James Webb Telescope, successor to the Hubble, that was far over budget and years behind schedule; the Commercial Crew program, intended to bring forward the time at which we would no longer be reliant on hitch-hiking rides to space with the Russians; and the technologies that are key to actually reducing the cost of space operations. On the other hand, elements of the former Constellation program — the ongoing earmarks known as the Space Launch System, for which no payloads are defined or funded, and the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (the over-specified space capsule formerly known as Orion) — had their budgets increased, though the program still doesn’t have enough money to actually build its planned vehicles, which would be ridiculously overpriced and overdesigned for the mission of getting to and from the ISS.
But there may be a reckoning. There is a new branch of the Tea Party specifically devoted to space issues, and it’s not happy about this:
NASA today is like the old Soviet Union design bureaus. There is only one way to build a rocket . . . the NASA way. Only the NASA way hasn’t worked in over thirty years and the Soviet Union actually did build rockets using slave labor. NASA doesn’t get that luxury today. NASA will waste billions on sole-source contracts, being pushed by influential members of congress and their lobbyists, utilizing defunct Constellation contractors instead of using the free market, American exceptionalism, and limited government’s power in competition.
Congress may get away with building rockets to nowhere for one more year, but if it wants to usher in a new era of human space flight, it’s going to have to let go of the failed past and fund the true future. If those few who actually make the decisions about space are unwilling to do so, the rest of us who want both fiscal sanity and progress in space may hold their feet to the fire next spring in the primaries.
— Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer, serial entrepreneur, and consultant on space commercialization. He blogs at Transterrestrial Musings.