Promising the Moon
by Greg Zsidisin
|Bush deserves credit for making such a strong statement about space, and working with NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe to develop a considered plan.|
However, the new plan’s many vagaries, challenges and questions leave advocates little on which to hang their hats, and plenty of opportunity for critics to charge that the plan would lead to massive new expenditure. That’s in part a case of the sins of the father: the $400 billion suggested retail price of the 1989 space plan is now being routinely inflated to $1 trillion in the press.
Let me list a few of the many questions the new plan raises, and the challenges it will face:
NASA will need to operate differently if this new program is to be truly affordable, stay within the prescribed budget, and become the gateway to human expansion into space that President Bush rapturously described. The new imperative must mean a new NASA, far more open to innovation and outside input. That is a battle yet to be fought.
There are age-old proposals for making the maximum use of existing resources and technology, which NASA should seriously review. This should mean everything from adapting ISS designs for lunar habitats and hardware to placing shuttle external tanks in orbit on shuttle flights. The tanks could be ferried to the Moon carrying their residual propellants (from which water can be derived), and might even be used as habitat structures after they have arrived.
Tether technology could play a key role in the new space program. Tethers Unlimited, Inc. (TUI) has postulated a cislunar transportation system in which two long rotating tethers, one in Earth orbit and the other in lunar orbit, would regularly move payloads between the Earth and the Moon without propellant. TUI claims the system could be made using existing materials. Surely tether technology deserves a serious examination now.
Probably the most important technology to reuse is that of the shuttle program. There is far too much growth potential, investment and infrastructure now in place to simply retire along with the shuttle orbiter. Any affordable space program would make the most possible reuse of shuttle systems, lest we repeat the mistake of Apollo and choose to scrap everything, only to expensively start from scratch.
At a minimum, NASA should dust off its own work on Shuttle-C, which replaces the orbiter with an engined cargo module to deliver large amounts of payload to orbit. Shuttle-C work was well along at Marshall Space Flight Center when the project was canceled in 1992. Especially with the current availability of large expendable engines, Shuttle-C—or another shuttle-derived vehicle, such as Buzz Aldrin’s Aquila or my own Shuttle-B—should be high on NASA’s list.
|Probably the most important technology to reuse is that of the shuttle program. There is far too much growth potential, investment and infrastructure now in place to simply retire along with the shuttle orbiter.|
The agency would also need do more to bring innovative space startup companies into the picture. It could begin simply by using the Assured Access to Station program (formerly Alternate Access to Station) to nurture more small companies trying to get into the launch field, especially in ISS resupply and crew transfer, before and after the shuttle is retired. More importantly, it means making room for these small companies among the aerospace giants.
The Columbia disaster and resulting accident report were the triggers and overriding influences for this new plan; that timing was what it was. However, if there is an acid test for human spaceflight, it is surely making a proposal like this on the heels of racking up a record budget deficit, with two simultaneous foreign wars and the constant threat of terrorism in play. It is hard to imagine a more difficult time for the case for human spaceflight to come onto the national agenda.
We are now at a moment of truth. Will a new, vigorous space program, with sufficient support, emerge in the coming year? Or will space supporters need to wait another 15 years after the second Bush space plan to try again?