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Nostalgia or 'New Space': The Answer for NASA

Nostalgia or 'New Space': The Answer for NASA

Orion heads for space in December, in its first test launch. Credit: NASA.

When a United Launch Alliance Delta 4-Heavy rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral in early December, a suddenly exuberant NASA could point with pride to a test flight in which all systems performed flawlessly.

Media coverage of the event showed the dramatic launch with a suggestion of the old Apollo-era magic. Was this the space agency’s route back to manned flight, and, if so, what would the destination be? Prompted by President Obama, NASA has its eyes on a nearby asteroid mission, with the grand prize of Mars some time in the 2030s.

Apollo 7 launches in 1968. Credit: NASA.

But among the public, most of the questions this aerospace writer got involved the purpose of Orion, its cost, and the lack of a clear direction. We might contrast the Orion flight with another major launch, that of Apollo 7 in October of 1968.

Crewed by by Mercury astronaut Walter Schirra, with command module pilot Donn Eisele, and lunar module pilot Walter Cunningham, Apollo 7 bore certain similarities to the Orion launch. In both cases, the capsule being flown was new, in the Apollo instance a redesigned craft following a disastrous fire that killed three astronauts on the ground. In both cases, the rocket was not the design meant to fly missions beyond Earth orbit. Apollo 7 flew a Saturn 1B booster rather than the more powerful Saturn V.

Similarly, Orion’s booster had nowhere near the power of the next great NASA rocket, the SLS, or Space Launch System. But Apollo 7 had something that Orion did not — public understanding of the mission.

In 1968, locked in a geopolitical struggle with a Soviet Union that seemed on a par with itself in terms of space technology, the United States was committed to a moon mission powerfully proposed by one U.S. president and endorsed by his successors. National pride, political positioning, even foreign policy seemed tied up in the success of an Apollo landing.

All of this is why the media of 1968 covered Apollo 7 heavily, even though it was never to leave Earth orbit. It was seen as a vital step in a series of ever more ambitious flights, in a financial climate in which NASA received, at the high point, over 4 percent of the federal budget. Today’s NASA gets about one-half of 1 percent and struggles to meet the conflicting demands upon it.

The Orion capsule is technologically sound — as Apollo proved, NASA knows how to do these things — but it’s the SLS that will launch crewed missions, and the first of these isn’t going to happen until 2021. NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission might conceivably fly that early, but it’s hard to imagine the agency attempting such a complicated mission on the first manned launch of a brand new capsule.

An artist’s concept of the Space Launch System (SLS) as it will look standing on the mobile launcher at the launch pad. Credit: NASA.

In short, we’ve moved a long way from the era of Wernher von Braun, when huge rockets were conceived as creating a sequence of events that would lead not only to a manned space station but to the moon and, eventually, an entire fleet of spacecraft sent on an exploratory mission to Mars.

Post-Apollo America, fatigued by an Asian war and skeptical of pursuing a race that had already been won, turned its back on lunar landings. The Space Shuttle that followed in the 1970s was the result of a choice President Nixon offered NASA. Money was too tight for both a shuttle and the space station it would service. Choose one or the other and proceed.

The space shuttle was a remarkable achievement, but one that never lived up to the promise of cheap access to space that its most ardent supporters claimed for it. The shuttle could put a large payload into orbit, but with no station to service, what else was it meant to do?

Eventually, the building of the International Space Station would provide the needed destination, but the loss of Columbia in 2003 delayed operations, and lingering questions about shuttle safety continued to plague the vehicle until the final landing of Atlantis at Kennedy Space Center in 2011.

Was NASA confined to Earth orbit, with even that mission now handed off to Russian launch teams who boosted American astronauts to the ISS from Kazakhstan? The confusion of the Constellation program and its aftermath affected the debate.

In 2004, speaking at NASA headquarters, President Bush had proposed a return to the moon. The Constellation Program replaced the shuttle with a heavy-lift rocket called Ares V and the Orion capsule it would carry. Six years later, having never achieved the funding it needed and behind schedule, Constellation was cancelled, and the moon abandoned as a target, although Orion and a heavy rocket — the SLS — remained in the game plan. The Asteroid Redirect Mission emerged, the goal being to sling a small space rock into lunar orbit robotically and eventually visit it with a human crew.

People who ask why NASA seems to have no clear destination, unlike in the driven days of Apollo, forget that the agency is responsible to Congress and a political system whose own direction is mired in the satisfaction of constituents. A key reason why we have SLS is that big rockets create jobs, which in this case stretch from Florida through Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. Yet to accomplish things like sending crews into space on its rockets, the space agency has to overcome a budget decline that is mirrored by a drop in public support — only 20 percent of Americans currently think NASA’s budget is too small for its job. And NASA is being asked to have the big rocket ready to go for a second, unmanned test of Orion in 2018.

NASA’s latest budget, released as part of the so-called ‘CRomnibus’ in December, actually gives the agency half a billion dollars more than President Obama had requested for 2014, for a total of $18.01 billion. It’s not exactly Apollo-style funding and remains well below 1 percent of GDP. The question is whether it is enough to sustain projects as complex and demanding as SLS and Orion without the schedule slippage that looks more and more likely to occur. We know what NASA can do with the necessary budget and public support, but both are now lacking.

As for Orion itself, it has run up a tab in the neighborhood of $9 billion, one that will only grow as it is tested and eventually made ready for human missions. Theoretically, an Orion with separate crew module could carry humans to Mars, the orbiting of which in the 2030s has been mentioned by President Obama. To make that happen, though, would require a reliable SLS tested hard and often, and more national will and money than the U.S. taxpayer seems willing to deliver. Critics have taken to calling the SLS a "rocket to nowhere."

What to do? Perhaps so-called "New Space" provides the answer. Companies like SpaceX, a private rocket firm created by PayPal founder Elon Musk, are changing the launch landscape. The SpaceX Dragon capsule, riding atop the company’s Falcon 9 rocket, has made several successful journeys carrying supplies to the International Space Station. Ahead for SpaceX is a larger Dragon capsule that will, in the next few years, begin carrying astronauts into orbit.

Other companies are in the vibrant mix of entrepreneurial talent and celestial dreaming that makes up New Space, all hoping to cut the cost of reaching orbit by developing their own equipment and using reusable space technologies. They include names like  XCOR Aerospace, Virgin Galactic, Bigelow Aerospace and Orbital Science, with many more in the works including Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. Like Musk, Bezos brings a sizeable Internet-made fortune to the commercial space industry, which now crackles with enthusiasm and a certain degree of bluster.

In reality, commercial space, at least at this juncture, needs NASA as a customer, but the SpaceX relationship with the agency has produced a powerful proof of concept, an ISS supply chain costing far less than the agency could manage on its own. These synergies may hold the key to the coming decades in space. A slow development path for SLS may emerge as a stark contrast to what might be achieved if Musk’s SpaceX can deliver on its promise of Falcon 9 Heavy, a rocket whose economic operation and timely arrival — Falcon 9 Heavy may fly three years earlier than the SLS — could make SLS look like a design that has outlived its time.

What has appeared as a synergy between commercial space and NASA may well become outright competition, with some in the New Space community aggressively calling for commercial missions to Mars using, perhaps, a series of Falcon 9 Heavy launches to carry supplies and ultimately crew. The next few years will determine whether these young companies can live up to their bold rhetoric. If so, the pressure on NASA to re-think SLS and Orion itself will be strong. The agency’s successes are too numerous to mention, not only in terms of human flight but robotic exploration throughout the Solar System. Can NASA itself be redesigned?

Keeping commercial and government space efforts productively engaged will be the great challenge of the present decade and beyond. A proven capability of putting humans and heavy payloads into space would give companies like SpaceX a compelling argument for assuming the heavy-lift part of the mission, letting NASA focus on its manifest expertise at mission technologies, investigating new propulsion concepts and pushing the envelope on spacecraft design. Let commercial space, in other words, push the payloads into space that NASA has designed to maximize science and begin the human expansion into the solar system.

So goes the argument. But the finer points of debate won’t matter when we start finding out whether New Space really can live up to its claims of cheap access to Earth orbit, including manned flights and heavy payloads. NASA’s future direction will be shaped by these outcomes every bit as much as by the decisions made by policy makers and politicians in Washington. Re-directed NASA funds could help craft an effort that could jointly develop advanced capsules for humans and create new robotic missions focused on research and science return.

Meanwhile, compelling data from our space probes has made an eloquent case for investigating several outer system moons — Europa around Jupiter and Enceladus around Saturn — to look for signs of life. Both moons appear to have internal oceans and are ripe for further study.

We also have perennially interesting Mars, where life may once have flourished and where it may still reside just meters under the surface, and eventually Mercury, where solar power is vast and could power a future space infrastructure. NASA can design and build the equipment to capture spray from the geysers of Enceladus and perform astrobiological experiments on Mars. Joint operations with commercial space could lower the cost of manned missions to the planets under a collaborative roadmap of development. The question budgeteers will face going forward is whether increasing NASA’s dealings with the New Space community are the best way to make this vision a reality.

Paul Gilster

Paul Gilster is a longtime technology and aerospace writer with a fascination for how we use computers.

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