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The International Space Station, set to be all but abandoned by NASA under the Vision for Space Exploration, has found new life, and perhaps new purpose, under NASA’s new plans. (credit: NASA)

The next logical step becomes logical

The International Space Station’s future and the ghost of the space station Mir


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For a generation, NASA struggled to get approval to build an Earth-orbiting space station as the “next logical step” in human exploration of outer space. The 1969 Space Task Force report contained plans for two space stations, one orbiting the Earth and one in lunar orbit. These space stations were envisioned as building blocks for a long-term human space exploration program that would eventually end up at Mars before leaving for the outer planets. Unfortunately, NASA’s appetite for massive future funding clearly stretched beyond the bounds of acceptable domestic politics; President Richard Nixon effectively rejected such grandiose schemes with the consolation prize for NASA becoming the space shuttle.

Building the post-Apollo human spaceflight program

Keeping the space shuttle as a tool was critical for NASA’s aspirations since its primary purpose was to support the space station when that was finally built. In fact, the shuttle payload bay was considered critical and had to be of a certain size so it could carry station modules to orbit during construction while also accommodating US Air Force payloads. The shuttle became operational in the early 1980s but that program became locked into a merry-go-round where repeated trips to orbit proved productive but the physical limitations inherent in shuttle-only missions meant long-duration space research was impossible. Placing objects in orbit and then returning to retrieve them proved less useful than originally envisioned. The Long Duration Exposure Facility, for example, was deployed in 1984 and retrieved in 1990. However, NASA made lemonade out of the shuttle by extending its mission time in orbit and devising payloads that would require the shuttle’s heavy-lift capability. The effects upon the space science program proved debilitating, though, as all payloads had to be rated safe enough to travel with humans, an added burden in terms of project cost and complexity. The effect was to reduce the number of space science missions and increase their complexity.

For a generation, NASA struggled to get approval to build an Earth-orbiting space station as the “next logical step” in human exploration of outer space.

On a parallel track, the agency aggressively pursued approval of an Earth-orbiting space station, a quest that remained a futile one for over a decade. For the United States, the embarrassing part was that the Soviets from the 1970s forward pushed aggressively to orbit a series of space stations, culminating in the Mir Space Station, whose core element was launched in 1986 and remained in space until 2001. The earlier space station effort, in the form of the US Skylab missions, had effectively ended in 1974 with that space station plunging into the Pacific Ocean in 1979, the last vestige of the Apollo program and its dreams of expanded space exploration.

Space station approval and the future

In January 1984, after much discussion and strife within the Reagan Administration, the President announced his support for an Earth-orbiting space station in his State of the Union address. This approval had come after multiple meetings and against the unified opposition of the president’s staff, whose expressed concerns about cost and schedule. After the shuttle development process in the 1970s, there was considerable skepticism in policy circles outside NASA regarding the agency’s ability to even honestly estimate likely costs and to keep to the original developmental schedule. NASA’s mantra was that the space station was the “next logical step” in the human space exploration progression leading inevitably to arrival on other celestial bodies beyond the Moon. Despite its political weakness, the space station was ultimately approved by Congress even with active animosity in some congressional circles. In some cases, these arguments were vestiges of the earlier 1960s debates over whether the Apollo program was worth the cost given the social and economic problems existing on Earth, echoes of which are heard today. In 1984, President Reagan’s personal commitment was sufficient to override opposition in the administration but the program became de facto an orphan politically with no executive branch champion outside NASA itself.

The original concept was for a space station to be operating in orbit by 1992 at a cost of $8 billion; a number that deliberately ignored critical costs such as launching the station components on the space shuttle. Within the Reagan Administration, the space station competed for scarce attention and support with the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) (aka “Star Wars” program), which was always much closer to the president’s heart. NASA now had its space station and was left largely alone in making its way through the political thickets of Washington. Unfortunately, the result was a program best characterized as bloated and unfocused; program budget projections continued to rise while the expected completion date slipped farther away. As a result, the space station entered a series of redesigns, the ultimate outcome of which was to raise total costs and reduce station capabilities. In that process, the station acquired international partners—the Europeans, Canadians, and Japanese—and a new name, Space Station Freedom. The Challenger space shuttle accident in January 1986 further stressed the agency and its programs with shuttle return to flight not accomplished until September 1988. President George H.W. Bush’s abortive Space Exploration Initiative, announced in 1989, came and went without any real impact on the space station program.

As usual, the United States made its choices effectively alone, informing partners rather than negotiating what was to occur or pursue alternative paths involving using the space station.

By 1993, the space station was in danger of cancellation with projected operating costs for the space station and shuttle programs rising to consume effectively the entire usable NASA budget, wiping out space science. In a series of dramatic congressional showdowns, the space station in its Space Station Alpha configuration survived termination in the House of Representatives by a one-vote margin. Its big budget science project competitor, the Superconducting Supercollider, was cancelled in a frenzy of congressional budget cutting. The political solution became redesigning the station again and incorporating the Russians into the space station program, now called the International Space Station (ISS). The Russians arrived both as a partner and a contractor. The US bought station hardware from the Russians in order to provide employment for Russian engineers and designers who otherwise it was feared would move to potentially dangerous states with their high quality technical knowledge. The Missile Technology Control Regime established in 1987 had heightened concerns about the dissemination of missile technology to what are now labeled “rogue states” or “states of concern.”

The other virtue was that Russian space technologies are world class. As part of this new start, NASA embarked on a series of astronaut stays on the Mir space station, known as the Shuttle-Mir Program. This allowed NASA astronauts to acquire long-duration space experience and, through payment of funds, to continue economic support for the financially stressed Russian space program. However, the ISS continued to confront the same budget overruns and schedule slips as before, so that by 1998, when first in-orbit construction began, the program continued to confront major cost overruns that NASA appeared unable to fix. What was different was that some of the delays were the product of international partner problems, especially the Russians, who were struggling financially. Why did not matter, for the problem remained the same: cost overruns and budget issues.

In March 2001, the new George W. Bush administration made its mark by scaling back the ISS program further to “Station Complete” while cancelling the X-33 and X-34 programs. The former was envisioned as a precursor for a reusable flight vehicle replacing the space shuttle but was deemed too expensive, too erratic in schedule, and somewhat hazardous for human spaceflight. At this point, the Bush Administration did not have a distinct space program approach rather a determination to reduce the fiscal hemorrhaging characteristic of NASA’s programs. The GAO had released several studies demonstrating that NASA’s programs across the board were poorly managed fiscally for a variety of reasons, many related to the agency’s desire to push forward without clearly specifying what must be accomplished and consistently underestimating costs in order to sustain the program from outsiders. (A 2009 study on this can is: “NASA: Assessments of Large Scale Projects”.) In fact, in 1993, the Congressional Budget Office suggested dismantling NASA for these reasons and, in 2009, still found NASA budget estimates unrealistic, as discussed in the report “The Budgetary Implications of NASA’s Current Plans for Space Exploration”.

With the loss of Columbia during reentry in 2003, the Bush Administration began consideration of a fresh approach to the existing space effort that was tied to Earth orbit. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) final report redesignated the shuttle as an experimental test vehicle, reversing over twenty years of expectations that the space shuttle was an operational vehicle. This clearly reversed the earlier view that the shuttle was in fact a commercial vehicle, a venture that ended in 1986 with the loss of space shuttle Challenger.

January 14, 2004 saw the announcement by President Bush of a complete restructuring of the US space program even while NASA awaited its second return to flight in July 2005, when Discovery reprised its earlier 1988 return to flight after Challenger. The new program envisioned exploration beyond Earth orbit with the ISS and space shuttle effectively discarded: the shuttle in 2010, when ISS construction should be finished, and the ISS about five years later, depending on when completion occurred. The ISS went in the new Vision for Space Exploration from the next logical step to a dead end, one to be discarded as quickly as possible. The shuttle’s purpose would be completed when the space station construction was completed by about 2010.

As usual, the United States made its choices effectively alone, informing partners rather than negotiating what was to occur or pursue alternative paths involving using the space station. The US position regarding the ISS was particularly galling to the long-term partners, the Europeans and Japanese, whose research lab modules had yet to be launched to the station when the Vision was annoucned. The US plan would basically end the ISS just as the station went to full crew status (from three to six people), meaning that significant research could be conducted. The smaller three-person crew spent much of its energies on station maintenance and operations.

The logical partner for the United States was China, which envisions a scaled-up space program, albeit at a more modest pace than the driven US-Soviet space race in the 1960s.

The new US program, Constellation, would proceed back to the Moon, bypassing the ISS, which was to be deorbited about the time when the first flights of the new Ares 1 launch vehicle were to occur. A larger vehicle, the Ares 5, would launch a transfer stage and lunar module to dock with the Orion capsule, which was originally projected to carry a crew of up to six members to the ISS and four to the lunar surface. The ultimate objective—time indefinite—was to travel to Mars and other celestial bodies. NASA Administrator Mike Griffin proclaimed the Orion was “Apollo on Steroids,” signaling abandonment of winged crewed vehicle, at least by NASA.

The international partners were to say the least not charmed by yet another American decision to go its own way. The reality was once the US set off on its own path, with or without international partners; the partners were freed to pursue their own interests. Their interests in the immediate term were getting the maximum mileage possible out of their proportionately large investment in the ISS. The US attempted to interest the partners in joining Constellation but their response was not negative as much as disinterest at least in the short term given the realities of their budgets. In fact, the logical partner for the United States was China, which envisions a scaled-up space program, albeit at a more modest pace than the driven US-Soviet space race in the 1960s. Given the skepticism with which each party viewed the other, US-Chinese active cooperation in space was unlikely in the short term, especially after the Chinese shot down their own satellite in January 2007 in a demonstration of their military space technological capabilities. US concerns about Chinese space ambitions meant that cooperation became a political non-starter at best.

Despite the rhetoric from NASA leadership, there was concern whether the Constellation program was in fact doable given budget constraints and possible technological issues, especially with the Ares 1 launch vehicle and weight issues with the Orion capsule. NASA protests that these issues were normal and would be wrung out during the developmental process were not persuasive to a large segment of the space community. Those questions or warnings play into the next stage in the development of the US human spaceflight program.

page 2: post-Constellation blues >>