Reality bites: the future of the American human spaceflight endeavor
Political assets going forward
Having pointed out the reality of NASA’s history since early in the space program, one must note the assets the agency has in fighting to keep the US space exploration program alive into the future. First and most critical, although often not acknowledged, the move to stop Constellation, whether immediately successful or not, has fed the fires of American nationalism in a manner reminiscent of the early space age. For a younger generation, the US space exploration effort personified by NASA and its efforts has been a fixed point in the political universe. That has led to an at times condescending American attitude toward China and India, who are in the early days of their space programs with their human spaceflight efforts now much touted or anticipated. Their obvious pride in achieving national space program accomplishments returns one to the early days of the space age when the Soviet-American competition dominated discussion of future space activities.
A revival of American pride and nationalism is one part of the dismay over the Obama administration’s decision to seek a different path than Constellation but it is largely submerged in the public rancor over jobs. What should comfort supporters is that no advanced state has given up their human spaceflight program yet including the Russians who economically were much worse off after the Soviet Union collapsed than the U.S. in the current economic circumstances. What is occurring is a greater awareness that sustaining a human space exploration program in absence of extreme political justification will be a more long term project. As was pointed earlier (see “The future of American human space exploration and the ‘Critical Path’”, The Space Review, January 11, 2010), space exploration efforts going forward are more likely to be vehicles for international cooperation, efforts the United States is likely to participate in fully. The reality is that the Chinese space program is moving slowly and systematically forward with little current evidence of being in a “space race” to the Moon or elsewhere. India lags behind China since their first crewed mission is still a prospect rather than a reality. The Chinese are obviously attempting to maximize their political bang for the buck from their accomplishments but they are proceeding systematically. In a sense, the Chinese benefit from the fact that the space race of sixties did so much; there is no pressure to duplicate that truncated timeline.
Going to the Moon the first time in the 1960s was perceived as a political-prestige necessity so national go-it-alone efforts dominated public perceptions. Subsequent visits will still kindle national pride among those who are successful, but the political willingness to pay the price may be significantly lower. Future projects, such as Moon and Mars exploration, will be cooperative with both political rivals and allies constituting part of the team. That will make things more awkward at times and slower to move forward, but the reality is in the immediate term, governments will remain the mechanism by which significant human space exploration will occur. Private ventures engaged in space exploration are more likely to be thinly disguised subsidized national efforts whose failure is not as politically traumatic. Private ventures, if they are truly economic instruments, demand that there be an economic payoff sufficient to cover the costs of development and operations plus a return for investors. That is why comsats and now remote sensing satellites work economically: investors get their money back. Other private ventures are more problematic.
What justifies the large expenditures required to go to other celestial bodies for a private venture is the pursuit of profits or revenue. The Lewis and Clark expedition in the early 1800s was a government-funded expedition; once wealth was found and documented, private parties followed. Helium-3 gets cited as a justification for going to the Moon commercially but the fact is that helium-3 requires a commercially viable fusion reactor in order to have an economic rationale for going to the Moon. That reactor does not exist presently and is under development with an experimental design, ITER, expected to be operational by 2018, although even that will not demonstrate the viability of helium-3 fusion, only that using isotopes of hydrogen. If eventually successful, then a sufficient commercial justification could be said to exist for returning to the Moon on some accelerated schedule. Lacking such an economic justification, governments in some combination are the most likely arrangement for reaching the Moon.
Another political asset, albeit partially intangible, is that space exploration has its identification with being high tech; Congress and presidents are likely to buy into supporting a space exploration program as an example of American high-tech capabilities. The value of space technologies in this context is as a driver supporting national economic competitiveness. Whether space technologies are that high tech was placed in question during the shuttle era when the shuttle was flying technologies developed in the 1970s and early 1980s into the 1990s and early 2000s. For example, NASA went on eBay to buy obsolete computer equipment since that was required for the equipment in the shuttle. Refurbishment of the shuttle fleet has removed that problem but the reality is that politicians clearly perceive space technologies as high-tech ones. Properly exploited, that provides additional force behind arguments for a robust space exploration program.
The intangible that underlies much of the mystic quality of American space exploration is its linkages to the age of European exploration, when explorers set forth into what was the unknown world of the Americas and Asia. You see this in several titles in the NASA History Office historical series: including the multivolume series Exploring the Unknown and the first project history, This New Ocean, of the Mercury program. Former NASA Chief Historian Steven J. Dick most publicly has made that linkage in a number of essays published in the NASA History Office’s newsletters and other forums. The argument is that space exploration by humans is the modern equivalent of the pioneer spirit. This argument says that human societies lose their dynamism when they stop the exploration process. Human nature always leads one to wonder what is over the next hill and the one beyond that.
Historically, this can-do spirit characterizes US national image although it has been damaged by more recent events. There was a saying that you no longer hear that reflects that hubris: “The difficult we do immediately, the impossible just takes a little longer.” A society without limits was our post World War 2 self-image, one that has encountered setbacks but still optimistically sees itself as the world leader. “Giving up,” as opponents characterize the Obama choice, does not fit that self-image and must be rejected. This view was embodied in much of the early science fiction literature of which Star Trek in its various manifestations remains one of the most visible examples, “the final frontier.”
The pioneer or human spirit argument for space exploration encounters several objections including the reality that space, the final frontier, is one best explored by machines given the physical distances and hazards involved. One example is the growing realization that the radiation hazard is becoming more significant as a potential problem for crewmembers for which there are no easy solutions. That does not mean the hazards cannot be overcome, but the problem is that takes resources, which the historical record indicates is a chancy proposition. One must remember the Apollo program was completed essentially within eight years or so and after Apollo 11 landed in July 1969, its political support began to evaporate so that the last three Apollo missions were canceled and the Space Task Force report fell by the wayside in 1969. There was no political downside for President Nixon when he rejected the Space Task Force report, only after great internal debate, approving the shuttle as a placeholder. There was no political support for large-scale NASA post-Apollo plans; funding the space shuttle through the development process was always an uphill battle. NASA persevered and was successful in building the space shuttle but in doing so, the agency psychologically and organizationally locked itself into a fragile, difficult-to-operate system. The shuttle as an engineering and aeronautics project was truly path-breaking but it was a path that no one has since followed. In fact, NASA’s return to Apollo capsule models for the Orion system represents graphic evidence of the dead-end quality of the shuttle. That does not mean shuttle-type vehicles will not reappear after material science is able to develop a more robust vehicle outer skin.
The irony is that given past history, outlined above, even if the supporters of Constellation are successful in overriding President Obama’s budget decision, for FY 2011 the reality is that their program will not suddenly become immune to further cuts and stretch-outs. Given the likely budget scenarios, money for what much in Congress and the public outside a few states consider a lesser priority will be an uphill battle. How often members of Congress can demand exceptional protected budget status successfully will be an interesting question. Given that many of the strongest congressional advocates are resolute and very public enemies of the president’s programs, Constellation will carry a heavy burden into the future. In 2012, no presidential candidate will be elected to the office based on his or her support or not for the space program. As the title suggests, reality bites.