Human space flight: in praise of (a modified) Option 4B
by Edward Ellegood
|I hope President Obama recognizes the opportunity he has been given to—as the Committee puts it—“chart a path for human expansion into the solar system.” Talk about a legacy!|
With the report as his guide, Obama can also make some relatively easy decisions that would save tens of thousands of high-value jobs nationwide, advance US leadership in several strategic areas of research and technology development, re-establish space as a stimulus for math and science education, open new commercial space markets, and keep some key campaign promises in an important electoral swing state.
Unfortunately, the path ahead isn’t very clear. The Committee offered no official recommendations, only five options (eight when including their variants, compared here) mixed with some hard-to-avoid conclusions about how badly we’ve gone astray with the current Constellation program. Here are some of the Committee’s findings:
The President will be compelled to address each of these issues as he reviews the options, and Florida could be a major beneficiary of his decisions. So which option is best for our state? If we base our preference on meeting Florida’s goals of minimizing the human spaceflight and heavy-lift rocket gaps, promoting commercial involvement, keeping the Space Station operational until at least 2020, and enabling near-term exploration beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), I think the best of the bunch is Option 4B.
|It appears feasible to swap the Moon destination in Option 4B with the “flexible path” destinations (asteroids, etc.) described in Option 5. This would accelerate our exploration beyond LEO by five years or more.|
Like some of the others, Option 4B keeps the Space Station going through 2020, uses commercial rockets to launch cargo and crew to space, and brings humans back to the Moon by the mid-2020s. Unlike the others, 4B extends the Space Shuttle to 2015 and debuts a new “Shuttle-derived” vehicle before 2020, shrinking the human spaceflight gap to 1–2 years and the heavy-lift rocket gap to 0–5 years.
But wait, there’s more! Based on an initial review, it appears feasible to swap the Moon destination in Option 4B with the “flexible path” destinations (asteroids, etc.) described in Option 5. This would accelerate our exploration beyond LEO by five years or more. Call it Option 4C.
It’s important to note that the options compared here are from the Committee’s incomplete “summary report,” and they’re subject to changes that might be included in their final report. Unless these changes are significant, I think President Obama has an opportunity here to do the right thing for both Florida and the nation.