The next logical step becomes logical
With the election of Barack Obama as president in 2008, the Constellation program now entered into a new political environment, one made much more treacherous by the economic collapse that occurred in 2007–2008 and continued into the 2009 when the new administration came to office. In this new economic political environment, NASA was not going to be at the top of any presidential priorities; this reality mirrored the earlier Bush Administration’s record of rhetorical support but no demonstrated willingness to stretch in order to keep Constellation on track, its technology issues to the side. For the Obama Administration, this was especially true given the likelihood that NASA would require significantly more money in order to make Constellation work as a program. NASA’s history is typical of many government agencies: buy in low and then get more funding down the road when no one wishes to cancel the program.
Clearly, the Obama administration did not have an immediate solution as to what to do with NASA in terms of long-term support and future direction, so they turned to one of the icons of official Washington, Norm Augustine, to lead a review of the program and by implication the future of any US human spaceflight effort. That report provided further ammunition for Constellation critics within the administration when it stated that significant additional funding would be required over years to keep the program on track. The Committee’s report suggested the ISS might be pushed out to 2020 in order to maximize benefits from the investment by the US and the international partners. Their assessment of Constellation was that the Ares 1 and Orion would not be available until 2017, leaving a gap of seven years in US human spaceflight capabilities. In addition, downsizing Orion from six to four crew members would further delay its availability for flight operations.
Building upon this report and other data regarding costs, the administration proposed scrapping the Constellation program in its present configuration and moving to a flexible approach to future human space exploration. This announcement was characterized by vagueness, a pattern that had earlier occurred in the early days of the administration with the initial rollout of its economic policy. Under pressure, President Obama on April 15th provided a more detailed portrait of his vision for a new space exploration effort in a speech at KSC. The shift is to still terminate Constellation but develop the Orion capsule as a lifeboat for the ISS, increase NASA funding over five years, develop a new heavy-lift launcher, push commercial launch to orbit for crew and cargo delivery to the ISS, continue an expanded space science program, and develop the technologies necessary for human exploration beyond the Moon although Mars is not explicitly targeted. Embedded in the speech is an explicit commitment to continuation of the ISS beyond the Bush Administration’s deadline of 2015 for de-orbiting. Development of the Orion capsule as a lifeboat implies there is somewhere to go once the spacecraft is in fact developed and operational. The flexible path is to lead NASA and the United States out beyond the orbit of the Moon to other celestial bodies with eventual arrival at Mars.
Much of the opposition to the demise of Constellation is rooted politically in constituency politics, that is, loss of jobs as programs end. For Florida, this represents a rerun of the 1970s post-Apollo economic blues as NASA waited for the shuttle to come online, which it did, but later the planned. The president’s speech is a response to a political reality that was going happen in any case as the shuttle goes out of service. The assumption is that future human spaceflight vehicles will not be as labor-intensive as the shuttle has been. The army of technicians and engineers servicing the shuttle will no longer be necessary. In fact, the establishment of United Space Alliance in the 1990s—the corporate entity currently responsible for shuttle refurbishment and preparaions for flight—was an effort to significantly reduce the required shuttle labor force. Presently, delays in Ares 1 development already meant layoffs due to the growing gap before spaceflight resumed, a gap that grew from two years initially in 2005 to five to seven years by the end. Delaying shuttle fly-out would not materially change the numbers, only delay them.
What has occurred, inadvertently and against NASA’s plans, is the restoration of the space station concept as the centerpiece of US human spaceflight for much longer than projected by the Vision for Space Exploration. After an investment of more than a $100 billion by the United States and the international partners, the space station will now become more like the original concept announced in 1984: a center for research, development, and testing. If one looks at the original plans for the space station, its proposed span of operations was impressive, including flying free fliers in a flotilla around the space station for purposes of microgravity manufacturing and other delicate manufacturing processes. The delays in constructing the space station just meant a steady and relentless decline in the number of its functions and purposes, all achieved at ever-greater cost. The space station, in the judgment of some, became an albatross rather than the centerpiece of future human space activities.
What is happening now is that the United States is being forced to adapt to a situation where it no longer dominates events at least until the United States returns to routine human spaceflight. The reality, not always understood, is that this situation would have arisen even if the Constellation program continued on its projected, albeit delayed, path. Regardless of President Obama’s choices, the US confronted a new situation due to the Constellation program’s failure to keep on track and on budget. Advocates ignore the reality that the bulk of Congress is not terribly driven or excited about the space program because its linkages to their constituents are not concrete and immediate. As a general proposition, most would support an American space program, but the reality is that support is not strong enough to drive them to significantly increase NASA’s budget without some greater sense of where the program is going. Prematurely killing the ISS was a perplexing decision from their perspective since NASA seemed to be throwing away a generation of its work and saying, in effect, “Let’s start over.” The Vision for Space Exploration in one sense was a clean-sheet concept despite the obvious carry forward aspects of the Apollo program, but Congress and the American people seem reluctant to start over without first exploiting what has taken several decades to build.
The first signal of American loss of control was the declaration by the international partners that the ISS’s lifespan would be pushed out until 2020, allowing for more efficient usage of the facilities that have been deployed as part of the space station. This possibility had been signaled earlier and drew additional support from the Augustine Committee report, which directly suggested that option. The Vision for Space Exploration was structured so the ISS went away quickly, as far as the US was concerned, but that was all premised on the assumption that the Constellation technologies would arrive on or close to schedule.
The United States is not reduced to the status of insignificance in space activities but its relative standing has changed, which generates much anguish in NASA and the larger space advocacy community. Why is twofold. First, the NewSpace community is arrogantly suggesting NASA’s obsolescence yet again, an arrogance based on projected or touted claims regarding their future activities—claims unfounded in actual activity, such as taking humans to orbit and back safely. Second, there is the nationalist appeal inherent in all human spaceflight activities up to this point; the US cannot be seen as falling behind the space activities of the novae riche of the second generation of human spaceflight, meaning the Chinese and the Indians, with possibly the Japanese and Europeans finally entering the field as independent players.
Taking another pathway to the future is disturbing when you have a particular model of how to do human exploration in your head. NASA has attempted four times to move beyond the Moon: the Post Apollo Applications Program, the Space Taskforce Report in 1969, the Space Exploration Initiative in 1989, and the Vision for Space Exploration in 2004. All of those were big efforts at space exploration, but three failed to occur and the fourth is on life support. The new model involves more systematic activities without the space spectaculars Americans have come to expect from NASA. The ISS is now becoming the hub for human exploration and exploitation of outer space, for a time at least. China is following its own path with its Tiangong modules to be arranged as a space station, but that is not as significant as the fact that the international space community is now building on what it has in hand, the ISS. Already there are suggestions that the ISS lifespan might be extended out to 2028, which means another generation of use. The revised Orion capsule program implies that the ISS will be around for a while and will need a reliable array of lifeboats: Soyuz, Orion, and others.
What appears to be the likely path to the future is a glimpse back at the past when the Mir Space Station survived past its shelf date because it was useful and an important symbol for the Russia Federation. US experience with Mir came at the end in the Shuttle-Mir Program and was messy; a view that impacted how NASA saw space stations. That probably influenced their willingness to give up the ISS when it was considered not useful. Build a space station; by 2004, been there, done that, next. Events and choices by earlier administrations along with the present administration are returning the ISS to prominence for concrete political reasons—there is no support for an Apollo-type effort that was on a virtual war footing given the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. However, circumstances have led NASA and the United States back to a world envisioned by Wernher von Braun and gloriously portrayed in several Disney short films. It is not a giant wheel spinning in space, but its purposes are increasingly harkening back to days of yore.