Whither Human Spaceflight at the Start of the Second Decade of the 21st Century?

Posted on Sun, March 20 2011
STS-97 Launch
STS-97 Launch

Space Shuttle Endeavor as she lifts off November 30, 2000, carrying the STS-97 crew of five.

The first decade of the twenty-first century has offered both serious challenges and enormous potential for the development of new human launch vehicles that could finally achieve the long-held dream of reliable, affordable access to space. But at the end of the decade, the policy questions posed by the 2003 loss of Columbia about the future U.S. human spaceflight still loom large. One difficult issue to be wrestled with in human space access policy is how to break the cycle of NASA choosing the “one best way” to reach space and cutting off alternatives that might be more successful. Since the beginning of the agency such a cycle has led to the extensive hyping of systems and the resultant disappointment and loss of credibility when they fail to deliver on the promises of those advocating them. This then leads to another round of analysis and other projects. Just since the Space Shuttle began operations in 1981, the landscape has been littered with failed efforts that might potentially replace the shuttle ranging from NASP to X-33 to Orbital Spaceplane, and I could go on. Although the transportation of astronauts to Earth orbit is presently both difficult and expensive, sustained investment in advanced technologies could resolve this. Unfortunately, there is seemingly little stomach for making those investments. While there are some positive developments in this arena, especially the creation of a new Office of the Chief Technologist at NASA charged with pursuing “game-changing” technologies, the effort remains underfunded. Perhaps the private sector efforts of SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, and others will come to the rescue of human spaceflight in the U.S. The recent success of the launch of Falcon 9 and the Dragon capsule by SpaceX is a positive sign, but I urge caution in trumpeting it as THE answer to the nation’s human space access dilemma. Although the trajectory is positive, the SpaceX team still has a long row to hoe from this test flight to an operational system. Likewise, the U.S. Air Force’s recent success with a modified X-37B reusable orbital vehicle suggests that innovation for non-crewed military purposes may also be applicable to NASA’s human spaceflight program. Interestingly, beyond technology R&D at NASA—which of course may be critical to the next human spaceflight system—the space agency may well have to look beyond its personnel and its various centers for the next human space access system. This is not unprecedented, but it is troubling after more than 40 years of being able to harness on its own capabilities to resolve these technological challenges. The space agency relied on modified ballistic missiles developed by the military to launch its Mercury and Gemini spacecraft into orbit, but since Apollo it has owned and operated its own systems.  

Space Shuttle Atlantis Docked with ISS

Space Shuttle Atlantis was photographed while docked to the Destiny laboratory on the International Space Station (ISS) during the STS-104 mission.

President Obama’s decision to rely on private sector efforts to develop next generation human space access capabilities was a bold, controversial initiative. However it turns out, it represents a path that harkens back to an earlier model in which NASA had more equal partnerships with other organizations to accomplish its space exploration mandate. I am heartened by recent developments in this arena. Of course, if this fails, it is quite possible in the next few years that America may find itself without a human spaceflight capability after the shuttle retires this year. At this point in the history of human spaceflight, 50 years after Alan Shepard made his first suborbital flight and John F. Kennedy challenged Americans to reach the Moon by the end of the 1960s, it is appropriate to consider the possible futures for American astronauts in space. I am reminded of a statement that has been used repeatedly to suggest American ingenuity: “If we can send a man to the Moon...?” But I would then end the phrase with this question, “…how come we can’t send a man to the Moon?” Are we seeing U.S. leadership decline in this most exclusive of all endeavors undertaken by great nations of the world? A lesson in humility might spur a national commitment to redouble our efforts. The late social commentator and comedian Sam Kinison once said to other nations seeking to undertake space spectaculars: “You really want to impress us! Bring back our Flag!” If Americans are sufficiently impressed that another nation can do things in space that we cannot, we may come to view this as a crisis, and as is always the case in a perceived crisis, the U.S. will make the investment necessary to overcome it. Maybe China, India, or any number of other nations seeking to advance their national prestige will bring back our flag from the Moon, metaphorically at least, and prompt us to redouble our efforts. With sufficient diligence and resources, of course, virtually anything humans can imagine in spaceflight may be achieved. We should be concerned, however, that neither sufficient diligence nor resources will be available for this great initiative. In the process of failure we may also lose our longstanding intrinsic ability for access to space with our seasoned, capable, and resolute astronaut corps. These outcomes are most unsettled as the end of the first decade comes in the twenty-first century.