Paul Adair is a 21-year Germantown resident, retired scientist, writer, and lecturer.
The political machinations of late 15th century Spain have little impact on our lives today. However, the voyages of Columbus during the same era changed the world. Similarly, today's partisan bickering in Washington will mean little to future Americans. How America responds to the challenges and opportunities of space exploration will shape the future of our species.
National space policy is determined by both the President and Congress, with the primary direction given by the President. At the time that President Obama took office, US plans for space exploration, as envisioned by the Bush administration, included a return to the moon by 2020, de-orbiting the International Space Station (ISS) by 2015. and retiring the Space Shuttle in 2010. The Shuttle would be replaced in 2015 with a new space vehicle developed under the Constellation program. This ambitious plan included the Altair lunar lander, the Orion crew carrying vehicle, and the Ares rocket series, which would launch Orion into space.
Shortly after after entering office in 2009, Obama initiated a review of our plans and policies in space. This review group, known as the Augustine Committee, found that the the Constellation program was in disarray. The program was so over budget, under funded, and behind schedule that it would probably never reach its objectives.
Based on recommendations by the Augustine committee, the Obama Administration developed a new plan which was outlined in an April 15, 2010 speech at the Kennedy Space Center. The Constellation program was canceled. We will not target a near-term return to the moon. NASA will focus on cutting edge science such as planetary rovers, space-based observatories, and advanced propulsion. The working lifetime of the International Space Station will be extended by five years. We will not develop another government-controlled vehicle to access Low Earth Orbit (LEO), but will instead work with private US companies to provide access to LEO destinations such as the Space Station. NASA will focus on development of heavy lift rockets for human voyages beyond LEO.
One of the more controversial aspects of the plan is that NASA will encourage the formation of a private US space vehicle industry. Humans have had the capability to orbit the earth for more than fifty years, since Yuri Gagarin's epic 1961 flight. Getting into LEO is no longer rocket science, but is reliable and proven rocket technology. However, only the governments of Russia (USSR), the US, and China have sent humans into orbit. Governments are not known to worry about spending money, so the costs of human orbital access has remained high. By encouraging the competition and innovation at which the private sector excels, we could lower costs to a point that human travel into space becomes routine.
This approach is already starting to pay-off. NASA has encouraged private development of orbital vehicles through seed money, a multi-stage competition, and guaranteed transportation contracts to the winning companies. Most companies have employed NASA alumni in order to gain rapid expertise.
On December 10, NASA announced that three companies were selected to continue development leading to qualification for carrying 7-astronaut crews to LEO. SpaceX, founded by PayPal entrepreneur Elon Musk, appears the farthest ahead. In May and October of this year, the company sent unmanned vehicles to dock with the ISS, the second one carrying supplies. The vehicle used was designed to carry astronauts. With added crew accommodations and safety features, the first passenger-carrying flights are estimated for 2015.
Aerospace companies Boeing and Sierra Nevada have also been awarded development contracts for LEO manned flights. Both companies will use Atlas V rockets to propel their vehicles to orbit. Boeing's CST-100 crew capsule has a cylindrical shape. Boeing is also estimating their first human flights for 2015. Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser crew vehicle looks like a space plane, with the ability to glide to a landing like the Space Shuttle. NASA is working closely with each company to assure crew safety.
Leaving the easy part to private companies, NASA will do the difficult stuff. They will build the next generation of heavy lift rockets, in a program creatively called the Space Launch System. The program will use various configurations of the external tank and modified boosters from the Shuttle program. The crew will ride in the completed Orion vehicle from the canceled Constellation program. Slated for an unmanned lunar orbital test flight in December 2017, the system will be in operation a full two years sooner than an optimistic time-line for the former Constellation program. The system will be used for human trips beyond LEO, including visits to nearby asteroids, the moons of Mars, Lagrangian points, lunar and Martian orbits and eventually, lunar and Martian landings.
According to President Obama, this vision for our national space program embodies a "bold new approach to human space flight that embraces commercial industry, forges international partnerships, and invests in the building blocks of a more capable approach to space exploration”.
Since the end of the Apollo program in 1972, human exploration has been confined to Low Earth Orbit. Current NASA plans call for rapid development of vehicles to extend our reach into the solar system. By developing a private-sector ability to reach earth orbit and beyond, many more people will be able to travel to space. During the next decade, we will become a true space-faring society.