The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Dream Chaser at ISS
The future of US human space exploration may rely on partnerships like that for the ISS, ultimately including other nations as well. (credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.)

Fixing the US space exploration program

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The Apollo program ended in 1969 when the Eagle landed on the lunar surface. Additional flights occurred, but those were simply running out the string. Since that time, the US space exploration effort has become bipolar, with a space science component that moves forward, albeit often slowly, along with a human space exploration effort that has stalled out in low Earth orbit (LEO). Presently, the US presence in LEO—the International Space Station (ISS)—hangs on a thread. It is dependent on Russia for crew transport to the ISS while resupply efforts are repeatedly disrupted by failures: four since 2014 involving SpaceX, Orbital ATK, and Russia’s Progress. Commercial crew access to the ISS remains a work in progress while the Space Launch System (SLS) moves slowly toward a first crewed flight in the early 2020s. However, that first flight to lunar orbit is already being scaled back to just a lunar swingby. Both the SLS and the earlier, now cancelled, Ares 1 involve recycling Apollo program engine technologies—indicating possibly either a failure of imagination or of expertise.

Continuing disputes and opportunities

All of this is further hampered by intense disagreements over destinations for future US crewed flights. The Obama Administration remains officially wedded to the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and then on to Mars, but will be succeeded by the Trump Administration on January 20. Others, including members of Congress, want a direct return to the Moon as a prelude to any mission beyond to Mars or possibly Europa. The latter is less likely even though it appears to be a more habitable world, given the presence of oceans of liquid water beneath its icy surface.

Everything hinges on funding being sustained for an effort not yet fueled by fear, prestige, or nationalism, as the first space race was in the 1960s, but which lagged from the 1970s onward. Bruce Murray, co-founder of The Planetary Society, asked in 1990, “Can space exploration survive the end of the Cold War?” Efforts to generate a space race with China have floundered on a sea of public indifference. The space program at this point does not appear a particular interest for the new national leadership, except perhaps its military aspects. Visions of a National Space Council leading a resurgence are likely to be disappointed given that presidents do not give critical policy concerns to vice presidents: note President George H.W. Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle, or even earlier with President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson. A Space Council can do good work but it does so at the sufferance of the president and his staff. Presidents are more likely involved when the wheels fall off and NASA becomes a problem to be solved, after the Challenger and Columbia losses.

Everything hinges on funding being sustained for an effort not yet fueled by fear, prestige, or nationalism, as the first space race was in the 1960s, but which lagged from the 1970s onward.

Commercial space appears to be hitting its stride, although many of the prospective launch startups will likely fail due to the simple reality of too few payloads to accommodate all the potential launch vehicles. The vast increases in number of satellites to be launched—more than 4,000 in one constellation proposed by SpaceX—overestimates the actual number of launch vehicles required because many of the satellites are small. This is similar to the 1990s when the first large satellite flotillas were proposed: the launch industry then consisted of large vehicles with multiple smaller launch systems under development to handle the prospective new business. Unfortunately, most of the large satellite fleets never materialized—Teledesic, anyone?

The ISS is scheduled to now to operate through 2024. The US role with regards to the ISS has shifted over time, from an initial endpoint of 2015 under the Constellation program to successively later dates, reflecting evolving programs across the Obama Administration’s tenure as it also dealt with post-shuttle shutdown. The proposed shutdown in 2015 was linked to the initiation of the Constellation program with the end of US involvement in the space station and a focus on going to the Moon. That decision also included shutting down the shuttle in 2010 with completion of the station’s construction.

In both cases, the US plan was to recycle the saved funds, diverting them to pay for Constellation: all very logical, but unrealistic politically. The ISS partners rejected that approach since the station had absorbed large portions of their much smaller space budgets with no opportunity for benefiting from those expenditures. The US abandonment of the ISS would have left smaller partners responsible for expenditures they could not afford. Moreover, the US had lost much credibility during ISS construction due to its budget and program politics, which rarely took the needs or priorities of partners into consideration. Their protest led to the extension to 2020 and then forward as US views evolved.

Right now, 2024 appears to be a logical stopping point, not necessarily because of dramatic deterioration of ISS components—although that remains an issue—but rather because all parties desire to free their budgets for alternative programs. One must remember the space station began initial construction in the 1990s, meaning budgets were locked in place for years while new opportunities arose. While work is underway to see if the ISS can be extended to 2028, it’s not clear all the international partners want to participate. Russian statements have indicated plans for a departure from the ISS in the 2020s, taking at least some of their modules with them to build a new Russian space station. This is feasible, but may rely on the use of core modules that will have been in orbit for more than two decades. That could result in the end of the ISS, if the removed Russian modules deprive the station of key capacities, like propulsion.

The more interesting question is whether the private sector will be prepared to step out and lead the efforts to build an ISS-2 or some variant. Visions of microgravity manufacturing, hotels for tourists, and orbiting research labs all assume that it can be done profitably. Which options become the primary focus will depend on solving the essential question impacting all future space endeavors.

Pursuit of cheaper and more reliable space transportation remains the essential question, because continued high launch costs severely limit what is possible if achieving a profit is the goal. Profits can be reinvested in the industry, fueling future advances rather than dependence on subsidies alone. While there’s been much work to lower the cost of getting to orbit, the reality remains such costs remain too high especially if you factor in the possibility of launch failure.

Given the Trump Administration’s focus on commercial space as a priority, a lunar return mission may prove to be more complicated than many imagine.

Reusable launch vehicles (RLVs) are the long-term option but the difficulty is the technology. Significant weight needs to be launched to LEO if the visions above are to be realized. SpaceX has reinvigorated interest in RLVs with its flyback efforts involving the first stages of Falcon 9 launches, but the process is not routine, nor have refurbished stages been reflown yet, which is the critical test. While that flight test, expected to occur in 2017, will be a major milestone is successful, the actual savings are still to be determined. Flying a booster twice may save money depending on the recycling cost, but the real savings will come with multiple flights reusing the same equipment with minimal refurbishing. Remember the Space Shuttle was partially reusable, but the processing costs were too high.

Paths forward

The private sector will clearly be the favorite of the new Trump Administration, but what that translates to in terms of funding is unclear. SpaceX is obviously moving to exploit its opportunities as a global launch provider. Purely private exploration is possible, but most will be subsidized by the public sector due to the lack of any economic return sufficient to justify the costs of space exploration. Private ventures to mine asteroids and the Moon will continue developing, although their rate of progress ultimately depends, again, on the market.

Abandoning the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) program is highly likely, with a return to the Moon as the new road forward. Whether the budget from the US will be there is less certain, though, so other options move to the fore. The Trump Administration will likely do little directly on NASA immediately because higher priority issues will move to the fore. The greatest impact on NASA will revolve around its Earth science program, although abolition or severe cuts of the program may run into the reality that such observations have economic and social benefits aside from climate research. That could mean instead controls are imposed on reporting certain research conclusions rather than the data collection itself, which remains NASA’s primary focus.

Given the Trump Administration’s focus on commercial space as a priority, a lunar return mission may prove to be more complicated than many imagine. First, the commercial focus will likely mean that funding will go toward facilitating private space, including technology development, but aimed instead at Earth orbit and not crewed voyages beyond Earth. Second, the new Congress consists of many members who philosophically reject large government programs outside the defense realm. In terms of space activities, they will support opening greater opportunities for private actors but not to fund them, judging that as corporate welfare. Barring an existential threat against Earth and specifically the United States, funding for government civil space programs will be tight. At least rhetorically, these members are not driven by prestige and scientific curiosity unless their constituents happen to work in the industry or agency. The congressional members from Florida, Alabama, and Texas with significant NASA and related facilities are often very conservative, but focused on jobs for their constituents despite their otherwise ideological proclivities.

Given likely budget realities, the United States will have to begin unreservedly the process of working with partners in order to achieve a new Moon mission and especially as humans reach out to Mars. The coalition could begin with the ISS partners but must eventually incorporate others, possibly India and China.

Reaching the Moon and ultimately Mars in such circumstances will be obviously difficult possibly impossible given the erratic nature of Washington politics. The US congressional budget process gives both supporters and opponents annual opportunities to argue about budgets. Many assume that Republicans controlling the White House and Congress means that budgets will pass routinely, but recent experience suggests that may be a mirage. Having tasted the apple of budget intransigence, members in the House especially may not be amendable to simply pass budgets forward especially if the deficit is not cut. In fact, there may be greater willingness to strike especially at agencies whose importance is not self-evident to many members. NASA budgets may be cut or simply programs stretched out indefinitely as a result. Therefore, if space exploration is to proceed forward, the US may have to do something that it has not always done well.

Working well with others

That involves working with international space partners across the spectrum of possibilities. The United States is unlikely to be able to fund a Moon or Mars program by itself. Such financial clout made it possible for the US to dominate its partners, as occurred in the ISS. Multiple times, the US reconfigured the ISS with usually minimal interaction with partners prior to the US decision. That began to change after President George W. Bush announced that ISS construction would be completed and effectively shut down shortly thereafter, with the savings diverted to support the Constellation program. The international partners’ outrage was sufficient to force the US to continue support of the ISS longer, a first for true cooperation without the American hammer over their head. The days of Apollo are truly gone, and the new world is one populated by other nations that can be effective, even demanding, partners.

Given likely budget realities, the United States will have to begin unreservedly the process of working with partners in order to achieve a new Moon mission and especially as humans reach out to Mars. The coalition could begin with the ISS partners but must eventually incorporate others, possibly India and China, for example. For the US, the latter partner will be the most difficult, but is critical for ultimate success. The Chinese clearly see themselves as the United States of the 1960s, fully capable of doing their version of Apollo without partners. Whether that Chinese position is immovable or a phenomena of the current situation is unknown.

What steps are required to start that process are unclear until probably 2018 or 2019 since it will take that long for international politics to settle out, at least in the space realm. By then the Trump Administration and Congress will have marked out what is possible given ongoing budget realities. That is unlikely, in the absence of an existential threat of some kind, to include vast sums to support space exploration. Too often, rhetoric concerning US space exploration policy is a pursuit of the perfect program rather than the good program that allows progress forward. Rhetoric and policy must come into alignment if the future is to be seized.