NASA’s new authorization bill (S.3729) was passed by Congress before they cleared out of town and will soon be signed by the President, codifying into law the federal government’s formal abandonment of the Vision for Space Exploration. In its place is a mish-mosh of platitudes, entitlement programs, pontificating blither about “unique” missions, commercial aerospace welfare and most significantly, an utter lack of direction for our national space program.
I’ve already heard the reaction to the sentiments above, as the space blogosphere has hashed and rehashed space access, space direction and space pork and now is left with – what? Defensively, we’re told, “The new bill does too have direction!! We’re going to Mars! We’re going to a near-Earth asteroid!! We’ll develop new, “game-changing, leap-ahead” technologies to make spaceflight easier and cheaper – that will take us there sooner! The commercial sector will develop new, ultra-affordable launch vehicles to allow the movement of humanity into space!” They will just ... “Make it so.”
A statement that “Mars is the ultimate destination” is not programmatic direction, but rather an exhausted platitude, unsupported by any facts in evidence. We do not now have the technology, the will or the national wealth to expend on a human Mars mission and will not for decades. The idea that some new “magic beans” technology will spontaneously arise to enable a human mission is technically illiterate. The quasi-religious belief by some in the efficacy of “New Space” efforts to provide routine and inexpensive access to LEO is touching, but unsupported by any evidence. It is certainly true that many NASA programs have cost more and taken longer than promised or planned, but that’s been the nature of the space business since its founding 50 years ago. At least NASA had a track record of building and flying spacecraft, under a variety of difficult technical and fiscal conditions. But for now, NASA’s manned space workforce has been told to make tracks for other employment.
The likely effect of the proposed new “direction” for NASA by this administration has been apparent to many of us for some time now – the end of human spaceflight by this nation. Although some of us suspect that this shattering of a national capability is all quite deliberate, motives do not matter at this stage. The new authorization bill makes some significant changes to the administration’s proposal. The only pertinent question is, can pieces of the space program be picked up and re-assembled again, sometime in the future after years of destructive non-activity? It is in this vein that I want to examine some of the language of the new authorization bill.
The most prescriptive part of the new authorization is its language dealing with a new NASA-developed heavy lift launch vehicle (HLV) and a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), replacements for the now-terminated Project Constellation. The launch vehicle description reads as though the authors of the bill had some solution (or range of solutions) in mind, a surmise supported by the requirement that the agency use “existing Shuttle parts and infrastructure to the maximum extent possible.” The specific requirement is for a vehicle with a payload capacity of 70 to 100 metric tonnes to LEO, capable of growth to 130 mT, including a possible “Earth departure stage.” It is further specified that this vehicle be capable of launching the MPCV into orbit and to supply cargo and crew to the ISS.
The crew vehicle description is a little more vague, as befits a spacecraft with no defined mission. Although it is specified that the MPCV shall be capable of conducting missions beyond LEO, its primary mission seems to be crew and cargo delivery to the ISS. In addition, it must be capable of supporting “rendezvous, docking, extra-vehicular activity” and “servicing of assets” in “cislunar space” (interesting wording that). The bill goes on to define the intent of this provision in another section (804) related to making space-based telescopes (like the James Webb telescope at Earth-Sun L-2) serviceable by humans. But by using the term “cislunar,” it may well be that something else might be lurking in the background.
The prefacing language in the bill (the seven “findings” of the Senate) is even more interesting (Section 301a). Cislunar space is mentioned in 4 of the 7 provisions of the prefacing section; human lunar surface presence is mentioned in 3 of those 7 sections. Strange language for an authorization bill that “abandons the Moon as a destination,” as claimed in many press reports. What should we make of this unusual language and phrasing?
I think that the bill’s provisions for a NASA-developed HLV and crew spacecraft reflect a fundamental ambivalence on the part of Congress for the “new direction” adumbrated by the administration last spring. It would seem some healthy skepticism exists as to whether a purely commercial solution to human LEO access is possible or even desirable. In addition, although the President is now famous for remarking that a return to the Moon is pointless because “we’ve been there,” someone on the Hill fortunately recognized the lack of understanding embodied in that statement.
The bill’s wording about human access to “cislunar space,” as well as the mention of “in situ resource utilization” indicates that some in Congress are not blind to the wealth of knowledge recently acquired showing that the poles of the Moon contain abundant water – material useful to those countries willing to go after it in order to achieve affordable space faring capability and routine access to cislunar space, where all advanced countries’ satellite assets reside.
In short, I detect in the new authorization bill the hand of someone in the bowels of the committees – a staffer perhaps – who has perceptively salvaged a slender thread of capability for the use of some future national leader, one that supports a robust American space program. I note that the authorization calls for a report in 90 days on how the agency proposes to implement the new plan. Somebody will be watching them.