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shuttle launch
The Space Shuttle was one example of a single solution to the nation’s space access needs that fell short of expectations. (credit: NASA)

Groundhog Day 2010

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The news on February 1 was that that the Obama Administration is canceling the Constellation program, the Ares booster, and Orion crew vehicle. The decision really should have been announced the following day, Groundhog Day, because it was like living through a repeat of some bad memories.

US space launch efforts have a long history of setbacks due to big decisions made in Washington, DC. From the decision for the first US satellite, Vanguard, to be launched on a completely new and unproven rocket, to the Constellation cancellation, the word from DC has almost always been wrong, and usually disastrously so.

Of course, the denizens of DC always have to come back and fix the problem later, and often they screw up that part, too. But aside from being wrong the Big Decisions out of DC have one other characteristic; they invariably embrace One Big Idea and reject all others. In fact, they invariably proceed to eliminate all others.

From the decision for the first US satellite, Vanguard, to be launched on a completely new and unproven rocket, to the Constellation cancellation, the word from DC has almost always been wrong, and usually disastrously so.

When the decision was made to build Vanguard, no one said to the Army or the Air Force that they should plan to back up the Naval Research Lab’s efforts with their vastly greater experience, deeper pockets, and more mature rocket programs. In fact, they were told expressly not to do so. The Army’s Von Braun was champing at the bit to put up a satellite but was told to not do it. The IGY satellite program was considered to be simply a scientific satellite and that was all, not the major propaganda coup that Sputnik turned out to be. The recovery from that disaster consisted of getting the guys who should have done the mission in the first place to scramble frantically to launch a replacement.

The folks in Washington DC prefer big, draconian, One-Size-Fits-All Decisions. The 60’s was the heyday of this attitude. The F-111 was supposed to replace a host of other aircraft. The C-5A was the world’s largest airlifter, but was supposed to be capable of landing and taking off from dirt strips like the much smaller and more numerous C-130. The Space Shuttle was supposed to replace all other launch vehicles, and attain 50 launches a year to do that.

None of this One Size stuff worked, and it wasn’t even close. The F-111 ended up fulfilling fewer types of missions than did more conventional aircraft such as the F-4. The C-5A was deemed too valuable and too costly to risk landing on a forward airstrip in a combat area; the special equipment designed for that capability was purchased but never installed. And we don’t need to discuss how well the Shuttle did in comparison to the ELVs.

The decision to create the Shuttle program was the biggest mistake ever made in US aerospace history. But it need not have been so bad had it not included getting rid of all the expendable boosters as well. The reason Ares had to rely on first stage propulsion developed 30 years ago and second stage propulsion developed over 40 years ago was because the Shuttle decision shut down all other new booster development. That same problem has hamstrung every other launch development effort since we went astray with the Shuttle.

Even the “good” decisions out of DC have tended toward the draconian. The best decision made since the Shuttle came out of the recommendations made by a special NASA/Air Force review team headed by USAF Gen. Moorman in 1994. This produced the decision for NASA to concentrate on producing a new Reusable Launch Vehicle to replace the Space Shuttle while the USAF built a new, “evolutionary” launch vehicle to replace the old ELVs.

These otherwise excellent recommendations got translated into draconian directions. The new USAF ELV was going to consist of one family of vehicles for medium and large payloads, winner take all. As for the new RLV, NASA viewed it as Shuttle all over again, but a chance to get it right the second time; it would sweep all others before it.

The Constellation decision shows “One Size Fits All” lives on.

What really happened was the Air Force eventually abandoned the “winner take all” aspect and agreed to buy both Atlas V and Delta IV as well as, most recently, anybody else that produced a working vehicle that met requirements and was cost-competitive. And as for the new RLV, NASA simply gave up on it, the concept being a victim of the same untenable set of requirements that spawned the Shuttle.

But the Constellation decision shows “One Size Fits All” lives on. And I guess that making sure there are no competitors to a decision is a good one from the standpoint of Washington politics. Congress often gets confused when offered real choices, and besides, it is best not to have anyone potentially competing for your budget.

So here we go again. Instead of telling NASA to develop a simple reusable manned vehicle for use on existing rockets, to figure at last how to assemble exploration ships on orbit, and to go explore commercial manned launch options as well, it’s another One Size Decision. And one day they will have to fix it. And they’ll probably screw that up, too.