Closing the Gap

by Walter Cunningham

“On the plains of hesitation lie the bones of countless millions, who, at the dawn of victory sat down to rest, and resting, died.” —George W. Cecil

Before we know it, 2010 will be here. Hundreds of thousands will be flocking to Florida for a view of the liftoff of the last mission of the space shuttle. On its return to Earth, the orbiter will be grounded—permanently. NASA’s resources will be devoted to the Constellation Program and development of the Ares rocket and the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV). An American astronaut will not be going into space on an American spacecraft again until 2015, assuming policy changes, funding, presidential elections, and any number of other unknowns don’t push the date back further.

The road map for the early demise of the Space Shuttle was laid out in a 2004 private report, “Extending Human Presence into the Solar System,” issued by a Planetary Society committee, chaired by Mike Griffin. The committee, which included several astronauts, recommended as few as 10 launches before grounding the shuttle. The following year, now NASA administrator, Mike Griffin, was executing that plan, albeit with a few additional missions.

The self-inflicted hiatus is driven partially by fear of the space shuttle, but mostly by the unwillingness of Congress and the American public to adequately fund manned spaceflight. Timing for terminating the Shuttle and ramping up the Constellation program seems to be driven by the Office of Management and Budget, even though NASA’s share of the Federal Budget is a miniscule one-seventh of its peak in the 60s.

The Orion spacecraft will eventually restore an American presence in space, but the heavy-lift and on-orbit servicing capability of the shuttle will be sorely missed, not to mention the Orbiter’s dexterous manipulator, or the ability to return 25 tons from space.

This hiatus may be another of those two-steps-forward-one-step-back experiences that has marked NASA’s first fifty years. Some consequences of the five-year intermission:

NASA survived an earlier hiatus from 1974 to 1981, a period during which we flew one politically motivated, but otherwise meaningless docking mission with the Russians. During that period, the space industry lost tens of thousands of workers, our progress slowed, and our space program has not been the same since. The loss of experience during that period may have contributed to the slow withering of NASA’s reputation and credibility. It was not a good thing then and is not a good thing now.

In the early 70s, it was assumed that the Apollo spacecraft had served its purpose and would be useless in accomplishing the next generation of objectives in space. NASA was excited about building a brand new spacecraft and flying brand new missions. They are now back tracking and developing Orion—“Apollo on steroids,” as some call it. In retrospect, the Apollo command/service module was not the dead-end once thought. It could probably have evolved to service the ISS. After all, most of the trips to the ISS have been made by Russian space “capsules.”

When the Apollo program was canceled in the early 70s, following six historic landings on the Moon, the spacecraft was cited as too risky and the cost of Apollo launches too high. The answer was to be the Space Transportation System—the Space Shuttle.

Now, as we rush to cancel the Shuttle program, all we hear is: that it is too risky and shuttle launches are too costly. I assure you, manned spaceflight will always be risky and the Constellation system will be quite expensive.

Since the Columbia tragedy in 2003, critics, both inside and outside of NASA, have been lobbying to send the space shuttle to the NASA junkyard. They have caught the “new car syndrome;” NASA wants a new spacecraft, so they are finding all manner of things wrong with their current model. That means the safest American spacecraft ever, with the most capability of any space vehicle, will be gone before 2011.

Closing the gap 01

NASA has been funding the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program in hopes of developing domestic space transportation services. Budding commercial providers hope to send cargo and possibly crews to the ISS after the orbiters are withdrawn from service. Without commercial providers, the United States will depend on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to carry astronauts to and from the space station. And NASA has already signed an $800 million contract with Roskosmos, the Russian Space Agency, to continue servicing the ISS.

The COTS program is a long shot at best. Even the best commercial launch companies will encounter unexpected delays and, in the end, we will be dependent on the Russians. Is that the best we can do for the thousands of dedicated workers who have made America’s space program the envy of the world?

A few congressmen and senators see the security threat posed by an American dependency on an increasingly autocratic and potentially hostile Russian government. Legislators like Congressman Dave Weldon (R), and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) are trying to appropriate an additional $2 billion to close the gap by extending the life of the shuttle; others favor moving the launch date for the Orion and Ares forward.

With tens of billions of dollars invested in the ISS, just the risk of it being held hostage by another country is a recipe for orbital extortion. Russian President Vladimir Putin is becoming increasingly hostile, and his influence could dominate Russian thinking for the next 10 years. The payoff for Russia not grounding our human access to space could very well come from U.S. concessions in economic, political, or military arenas.

I predict, leaving the ISS and our multi-billion-dollar space program hostage to a foreign nation, is a gamble we will come to regret.

What we should be doing is operating the space shuttle until development of the new Orion and Ares Launch Vehicle are well in hand. Shuttle retirement should be referenced, not to the arbitrary date of 2010, but to the first flights of Orion. It is not essential that the two programs overlap, but we need to shorten the time when no American spacecraft will be flying. Leaving a one or two year break between the Shuttle and Orion programs would hardly be noticed.

Closing the gap 02In 2015, when NASA begins operating a new spacecraft, the average experience level of the astronaut corps will be down. New recruits entering the program today could have a wait of 10–15 years before gaining any flight experience. Due to attrition, operational experience will be in short supply just when it will be needed the most—during the design and development phase of Orion and Ares. Astronauts with engineering skills and flight experience will be at a premium.

Adding two missions a year through 2012 would give astronauts, engineers, flight controllers, and management added flight experience to be used in the development and testing of Orion. It would also enable NASA to fly the $1.5 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer and several other experiments already bought and paid for and sitting in storage.

A long hiatus will have a bearing on our leadership in space. Our worldleading space program plays a major role in our social, economic, and technical growth. It is part of our national strength. Do we really want to put our space program into the hands of the Russians for such a long period of time? None of the other world-class space programs are taking a five-year vacation. We cannot maintain our leadership if we are dependent on other countries and unable to control our own future.

With the windfall from the current high price of oil, Russia has raised their sights on the strategic goals for their space industry. They plan to build a new manned spacecraft and carrier rocket, and they have authorized construction of a new launch facility on Russian territory to reduce their dependency on the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. They also have long-range projects aimed at the Moon and Mars.

Russia has been emphatic about never being dependent on any foreign power for its space program. They came close in the Nineties, when we shared our TDRS satellite network to help keep their Mir space station operating and pumped billions of dollars into their space industry.

They also emphasize they will not turn into a country, which “only provides launch services, as a sort of space cabby.”

China, too, plans to send humans to the Moon around 2025. In order to reduce its reliance on overseas technology, China is replacing all of its imported communications and broadcast satellites with home grown ones. Their presence in space will certainly be felt at a time when the U.S. is taking a break.

Other nations are making progress toward putting humans in orbit.

We cannot afford to lose our lead among space-faring nations. Narrowing the gap between the shuttle and Orion would reduce the problem of holding on to a skilled workforce and help the United States maintain its lead in space exploration, along with the related science and technology that drives economic growth. U.S. dominance in space hasn’t been lost yet, but it is definitely eroding.

What we really need is a fix for the five-year hiatus, not a band-aid. That means both extending the life of the shuttle and moving the launch date for Orion forward. NASA needs a $2 billion appropriation to extend the life of the shuttle for 18 to 24 months, and an additional $2 billion to move the first flight of Orion closer by 18 to 24 months.

Four billion dollars is a drop in the bucket for a $3 trillion federal budget and a $13 trillion economy. The money would enable us to maintain world leadership in a range of technologies essential for our future well-being and allow us to continue to sit at the top of the technical pyramid. As the richest country on the face of the Earth do we really want to be dependent on Russia to launch our astronauts into space? I think not!