Annus Horribilis: Space in 2011

A review of the year in space. It’s not pretty

Cue music, "Also Sprach Zarathustra".....

A long established year-end tradition – for good or ill – is a review and analysis of the preceding twelve months.  Who am I to fight this trend?  Being that I am a “the glass is not only half-empty, but chipped and cracked down the middle” space policy town crier, be fairly warned as I conclude this year’s blogging with a look back at 2011.

The retirement of the Space Shuttle this past year vindicated T.S. Elliot’s pronouncement about the nature of the end of the world.  The U.S. workhorses that ferried Station pieces and crew to low Earth orbit await their museum berths.  The most heated emotions and debate surrounding this event dealt with the agency’s selection of the final resting places for the working U.S. space access machines.  To the outrage of many, space-oriented places like Houston and Huntsville were cold-shouldered in favor of show business-oriented Los Angeles and New York City.  In the heat of this controversy (so dire that members of Congress from space-economy communities rose from their slumber to pen op-eds mirroring constituent alarm),  few noticed or understood that without a replacement, the country’s capability for humans to access space had been discarded.  As  2011 closes out, construction and assembly of the International Space Station is complete – it is a unique Earth-orbiting platform for ongoing scientific research, accessible for the price of a ride on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

This past year was heralded as the opening chapter for a new approach to human spaceflight – the American civil space program was to advance more economically through the use of commercial launch services to LEO.  We’re waiting and watching, with more than a little trepidation, as millions of taxpayer dollars are doled out to “New Space” companies branded “commercial.”  Recent history shows taxpayer-funded, new-technology enterprises have failed spectacularly.  It’s troubling that simultaneously, these space access ventures are making similar claims of soon-to-be superior, cheap alternatives toward solving a pressing national problem.

In other exciting developments, the agency announced their new “mission statement” –  “To reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind.”  Some noted the new statement says nothing about conducting missions and doesn’t mention space.  But it is stirring – a mission statement for an agency without a mission.

After being kicked long and hard by the Congress, NASA finally decided that they should probably go ahead and build a new launch vehicle.  Despite some initial foot-dragging (and the conspicuously ignored presence of an obvious and inexpensive alternative), the agency buckled down and produced a design for a new heavy lift launch vehicle, one that looks remarkably similar to the now-discarded Ares system.  With continued work on the new Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, looking remarkably similar to the now-discarded Orion spacecraft, we soon will be ready for new and exciting missions to untrod landscapes in space – perhaps a large rock –in a decade.  Maybe.  Perhaps even for less than its estimated $100 billion cost.

Robotic science missions, the so-called “crown jewels” of the space program, had their own share of difficulties this year.  The Goddard-run James Webb Space Telescope, the second-generation successor to the highly successful Hubble Space Telescope, is coming in late with a price tag of more than $8.7 billion and counting.  Its continued cost growth threatens all NASA space science programs.  JPL’s own giga-project, the $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory, was successfully launched and will encounter the planet in about six months, hopefully at very low velocity.  Less costly robotic missions to a variety of destinations continue to return copious amounts of data; whether there will be money to reduce and analyze it all remains uncertain.

The past year was the 50th anniversary of both Yuri Gagarin’s first flight into space and John F. Kennedy’s announcement of the Moon landing goal – two events separated by type and location but connected in motivation.  It also was the centennial year of the race to, and attainment of, the South Pole – an event with reverberations throughout the ensuing years as a template for national efforts in exploration.  The space program, steeped in the history of global geopolitics and national competition, has sputtered slowly to a stop under that motivational and operational model.  A new paradigm for the space program is needed, one that ensures its long-term viability and stability.

To their own and the nation’s detriment, NASA is trapped by one model when thinking about space.  Missing is the notion of permanence and expansion into space.  A variety of “anyplace-but-the-Moon” destinations for human spaceflight have been mooted and studied in the past year, including near-Earth asteroids, L-points, the tiny, asteroid-like moons of Mars, lunar orbit, and even a human Venus flyby.  All of these imagined missions require knowledge, hardware and technologies that we do not now possess.  All expose human crews to substantial risk through long-term exposure to radiation and microgravity.  None create permanence of human presence or extension of capability in space.  And all travel to destinations offering little scientific and exploratory benefit or variety; their main attraction seems to be the yet-to-be-explained agency imperative to cross them off some “been there” check-list.

Several plans to develop cislunar space through an incremental, step-wise approach have been advanced.  The goal in each is not a flags-and-footprints type of space extravaganza, but the steady expansion of capabilities and reach beyond low Earth orbit.  Such a modus operandi is possible through the development and use of lunar resources —specifically the water ice found in quantity at both poles of the Moon.  In stark contrast to the Apollo template (and regardless of budgetary ups and downs), constant, steady and measurable progress can be realized through the creation of this “transcontinental railroad” in cislunar space.

I note with sadness, the passing of some great space visionaries this year.  John Marburger, former Presidential Science Advisor, was one of the few who truly understood the meaning and purpose of the Vision for Space Exploration.  Lunar and planetary scientists Baruch Blumberg, Bill Muehlberger, Mike Drake, Paul Lowman, Nick Short, Chuck Sonett, and my academic advisor and friend Ron Greeley passed away this year.  Theirs were voices of knowledge and experience and they will be missed.

The year 2011 was an annus horribilis for the national space program.  Here’s to the forthcoming year and hopes for a return of sanity to space policy.

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