9 July 2011

The End of an Era

Posted by Ryan Anderson

Yesterday morning, the last space shuttle launched for the last time. There will never be another shuttle launch, and personally, I’m glad.

Don’t get me wrong, the shuttle is a spectacular machine and it has done some great things. The people involved in making it all work and the astronauts who risk their lives to fly in the shuttle have my deepest gratitude and respect. But the shuttle is 30 years old. It never lived up to its promise of frequent, cheap launches. Instead, it only launched a few times per year, and each launch cost a staggering $1.5 billion. The design turned out to be plagued with safety issues which cost the lives of 14 astronauts and resulted in years of delay as the disasters were investigated.

But while I’m glad the shuttle program is drawing to a close, I am worried about the future.

In a perfect world, over the past 30 years, NASA would have quietly been investing in new technologies and drawing up plans for the next generation of launch vehicle, even as the shuttle carried out its missions. But with tremendous cost of the space station and the shuttle itself, little funding was left to look ahead to the next step. Several attempts at designing a new launch vehicle were made, but none ever came to fruition because of technical complexity and cost overruns.

I was hopeful when the Constellation program was announced that the Ares rockets would serve as the next step in human space exploration, but the program was chronically underfunded and was hamstringed by the requirement that it use adapted space shuttle components rather than new technologies. Eventually, the Augustine Commission assessed the program and found that it was so behind schedule and over budget that it would not be able to achieve its goals.

Following the Commission’s recommendation, president Obama called for the cancellation of Constellation and a new program relying partially on commercial launch vehicles in the near-term while NASA develops a heavy-lift launch vehicle for future missions to near-earth asteroids, the moon and eventually Mars. This announcement came at the same time that the shuttle program, which was cancelled by president Bush, was finally winding down.

The plan put forward by Obama was a good one, and if it had been implemented quickly and cleanly, the gap in US ability to launch astronauts would be less than what Constellation could achieve. But instead the plan was met with dismay by those who claimed the plan would destroy the US human spaceflight program. The people making this claim were typically those associated with either the shuttle or Constellation, and who faced the loss of jobs or lucrative government contracts as those two programs were shut down. So instead of making a clean transition to the next step, we are still in the midst of an ugly battle over what the next launch system will be. The congresspeople who made the false claim that Obama’s new plan killed human spaceflight are now busy making sure that their predictions come true.

Congresspeople from districts that were associated with the shuttle are pushing for a shuttle-derived launch vehicle. In other words, instead of using cutting-edge technologies to build a new rocket, they want the next launch vehicle to be made using parts from a system designed 30 years ago. I’m not an aerospace engineer, but I do know that the solid rocket boosters on the shuttle are very dangerous (you can’t turn off a SRB once it is burning), and it really disturbs me to see congress making what amount to engineering decisions for the next launch vehicle. Pushing the envelope too much in designing a launch vehicle inevitably will face cost overruns, but failing to make use of 30 years of new technologies just because we want to placate some aerospace companies who want to keep building shuttle parts is not the path to a successful program. If the goal is really to achieve great things in space, we should give the engineers a simple, clear goal, sufficient funding, and then get out of their way.

In the end, I am very pessimistic about NASA’s chances of doing great things in human spaceflight. With NASA required to do as the president says (something which typically changes with each new president), and funded by an incompetent congress, the stability required for an expensive long-term project like human spaceflight is just not there.

I truly hope I’m wrong about NASA and that somehow a successful human spaceflight program will emerge from the mess that congress has made of Obama’s plans. But in the meantime, my last, best hope is in private companies like SpaceX. They have already demonstrated that the Falcon 9 is more capable than Constellation’s only constructed rocket, the Ares 1-X for a tiny fraction of the cost, and there are rumors that SpaceX is considering a heavy lift vehicle of its own.

It is an interesting and pivotal time in human spaceflight. It is clear that we are at the end of an era. I just hope, in spite of all my cynicism, that we’re also at the beginning of something better.