WASHINGTON The battle over the future of U.S. human spaceflight is about to be joined.
The Obama administration's proposal to fundamentally change the way NASA operates while using more commercial launchers to reach low-Earth orbit has generated howls of protest in Florida and other states with major NASA centers. President Obama will visit the Kennedy Space Center on Thursday (April 15) to lay out his vision for where the United States is headed in exploration after the space shuttle program ends later this year.
Critics say the president needs to enunciate a national space strategy that lays out clear goals and possible milestones for reaching those goals. The obvious target is a manned landing on Mars. How humans get there and when are the subjects of much heated debate.
NASA has always been a mission-oriented agency. To organize its operations and those of its contractors, proponents of a Mars mission say the president needs to articulate a clear strategy for reaching Mars and other points in the solar system.
The administration maintains that NASA's resources must be redirected from programs like the underfunded Constellation moon-rocket program, which the White House wants to kill, to a range of R&D programs designed to develop what NASA Administrator Charles Bolden calls "new capabilities." These new technologies would be used to leave Earth orbit to explore asteroids, Mars, perhaps the moons around other planets and Lagrange points, the locations in the solar system where gravitational forces balance each other.
It's clear that today's chemical rockets won't do the job, and Bolden said last week in laying the groundwork for the President's speech in Florida that NASA will fund research on a new heavy-lift capability that would replace Constellation. In a nod to critics, Bolden said NASA would also try to use some Constellation technologies in a new heavy lifter.
It's also clear that the politics of space exploration must also be transformed in the debate over where to go next and how to get there. Critics of the administration's plans for NASA immediately played the jobs card. An estimated 7,000 NASA workers and contractors will lose their jobs when the shuttle program ends.
But the U.S. space program should no longer be viewed as jobs program. Rather, the space agency's expertise must be redirected so that the American space program can once again break free of Earth orbit.
Critics have also warmed that turning over low-Earth orbit mission to commercial launchers will compromise safety. Veteran space watcher John Pike has gone so far as to predict that astronauts will be killed riding commercial rockets. The key will be ensuring that NASA's stringent safety procedures for manned spaceflight are vigorously applied when commercial rockets are launched.
One potential commercial supplier, SpaceX, claims it offers a safe but cheaper way to transport astronauts to low-Earth orbit. For example, SpaceX mates it rocket stages horizontally rather than stacking them vertically. This eliminates the need for costly maintenance towers.
SpaceX is currently preparing to test its Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral. A successful test would boost prospects for using commercial launchers for U.S. manned flights.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk correctly points out that NASA needs to change its relationship with aerospace contractors, eliminating cost-plus contracts that encourage rocket makers to pursue the most costly solution, often resulting in program delays. But safety concerns remain.
We present a debate over the future direction of U.S. manned spaceflight. We invited NASA weeks ago to contribute to our debate among the engineers who will build the next generation of space hardware. The space agency issues dozens of press releases each week. So far, agency officials have not responded to our request to contribute to this forum.
Our debate about the future of space exploration includes Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14 lunar module pilot and the sixth human to walk on the moon , and Marion Blakey, president of the Aerospace Industries Assocation.
|Marion C. Blakey|