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STS-1 launch
Thirty years after the launch of STS-1 kicked off the shuttle era, the future of NASA’s human spaceflight program is uncertain. (credit: NASA)

Whither human spaceflight?

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Anniversaries of major, positive milestones are usually events to be celebrated, and the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s mission that began the era of human spaceflight and the 30th anniversary of the first launch of the Space Shuttle, both on Tuesday, would seem to qualify. (Of course, at the time Gagarin’s flight wasn’t a positive milestone for the US, as it signaled yet another victory in the Space Race for the Soviet Union, but time—and the later US victories, including Apollo—have healed those wounds.) They are events that will, and should be, celebrated in Russia, America, and elsewhere.

That uncertainty about “what next” is arguably as great as it ever has been for human spaceflight since Gagarin’s flight 50 years ago.

Yet, particularly in the US, these anniversaries are met with a degree of melancholy. The shuttle program is 30 years old, but also nearing its end, with only two more launches scheduled; NASA will use the anniversary Tuesday to announce the locations that the remaining orbiters will be consigned to once the fleet is retired later this year. The end of the shuttle program also means the loss of thousands of jobs, adding to the angst. At the same time, what will “replace” the shuttle, at least in the sense of a traditional follow-on human spaceflight program, remains uncertain, with ongoing debates about the viability of commercial crew development and heavy-lift launch vehicles, destinations for human space exploration beyond Earth orbit, and schedules and budgets. That uncertainty about “what next” is arguably as great as it ever has been for human spaceflight since Gagarin’s flight 50 years ago.

It’s tempting to blame NASA’s current plight on the decision by the White House over a year ago to cancel the Constellation program after a review by an independent committee. Yet, while that move did cause significant upheaval at NASA and the broader space community, that decision and the ensuing debate are arguably symptomatic of more fundamental forces driving human spaceflight policy. Moreover, those forces suggest that time might be running out for a conventional human spaceflight program like those of the last half-century.

One of those forces is the simple fact that the Cold War is over. That competition between the United States and the Soviet Union kickstarted human spaceflight, as both countries poured massive resources into their respective programs in a quest to rack up a series of firsts and demonstrate their overall technological superiority. The momentum built up in the early years of the Space Age carried over into the following decades, shaping decisions like the development of the space shuttle and space station, and even, in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War’s end, bringing Russia into the project so that its engineers could work on peaceful space projects rather than missiles for Third World nations.

However, 20 years after the end of the Cold War, the momentum that propelled human spaceflight efforts has been spent. The International Space Station is now effectively complete, and the shuttle is now nearing its retirement. Cooperation with—even reliance on, in terms of human access to the station—Russia is now the order of the day. Efforts over the last several years to build up China as a new competitor with the United States in human spaceflight have failed to gain traction, perhaps because the Chinese government does not appear to be particularly interested in racing the United States to the Moon or elsewhere. While China does have plans for space stations and perhaps, much farther in the future, human missions to the Moon, their program has been proceeding at almost a glacial pace: the last crewed Chinese spaceflight, Shenzhou 7, was two and a half years ago.

That lack of an external impetus makes it all the more vital to come up with compelling internal reasons for NASA to maintain a human spaceflight program. Yet, that has proven difficult. There’s no shortage of reasons, from scientific research to economic benefits to national prestige, but none of them, alone or in combination, have provided the desired policy stability for human spaceflight. The Augustine Committee, for example, concluded that “the ultimate goal of human exploration is to chart a path for human expansion into the solar system”—a noble goal, but one that is challenging to translate into nearer term objectives that fit into the decisionmaking cycles of the White House and Congress.

It’s telling that the space-related issue that has attracted the broadest degree of interest among members of Congress is where NASA will transfer the shuttle orbiters upon their retirement.

“There have been three historic drivers for exploration on this particular planet,” Roger Launius of the National Air and Space Museum said in a speech at the Goddard Memorial Symposium outside Washington last month. Those drivers, he said, can be labeled “the three G’s”: god, greed, and glory. For human spaceflight, the first isn’t relevant—there are no natives to convert on the Moon or Mars—and for the second no one has yet demonstrated a compelling economic rationale. That leaves glory, which has driven human spaceflight to date. “The human spaceflight program has been predicated, in no small measure, on that particular agenda: prestige,” he said.

But in an era where the superpower competition that kicked off human spaceflight has end, the influence of prestige as a motivating factor wanes. Today, in the grander scheme of things, space policy is a minor issue that grabs the attention of only a small fraction of members of Congress, most of whom have a parochial interest in the topic because of the presence of NASA facilities in their states or districts. It’s telling that the space-related issue that has attracted the broadest degree of interest among members of Congress is where NASA will transfer the shuttle orbiters upon their retirement.

“If you want to understand space policy, the first thing you have to understand about it is that it’s not important,” said Rand Simberg, chairman of the Competitive Space Task Force, in a talk at the Space Access ’11 conference in Phoenix on Saturday. “Nothing bad happens to anybody if we don’t meet a schedule in human spaceflight. Nobody loses an election, nobody gets fired.”

Despite these two problems—the loss of the external momentum built up during the Cold War, and the relative internal unimportance of space policy—NASA’s human spaceflight program might continue relatively unaffected by them but for the presence of a third problem: the nation’s looming fiscal crisis. For years some have warned that the growth of entitlements would force the nation to make some hard spending decisions (see “The Vision for Space Exploration and the retirement of the Baby Boomers (part 1)”, The Space Review, April 14, 2008). But the recent recession and growth of federal spending have accelerated those concerns. As demonstrated by the negotiations last week on a fiscal year 2011 budget (more than six months after the year started), the question is no longer whether spending should be cut, but instead by how much, and where. Last week the House Budget Committee released its budget blueprint, which includes a call to reduce non-security discretionary spending—the category that includes NASA—to below 2008 levels.

While the nation’s budget woes won’t be resolved solely by cutting non-security discretionary spending, which accounts for about a fifth of the overall federal budget, it is a much easier target for near-term cuts than defense spending or entitlements. That suggests NASA will feel the budget pinch sooner rather than later. “In the next year or two or three, the reality that NASA cannot have a manned exploration program of traditional proportions within their budget is going to become obvious,” said XCOR Aerospace president Jeff Greason, who served on the Augustine Committee, at Space Access ’11.

All that suggests that the window for a traditional government human spaceflight program, like those of the last 50 years, may be closing. Without a strong reason to do so, NASA may find it difficult to defend continued spending on human spaceflight in an era of budget austerity. That window is probably no longer than ten years, as NASA and other ISS partners have recently agreed to keep the station operating through 2020. Without some change in the status quo, it’s not difficult to imagine that, in an era of diminished budgets and lacking a compelling rationale, a future administration and Congress might decide at that time that human spaceflight is simply not worth the cost.

“In the next year or two or three, the reality that NASA cannot have a manned exploration program of traditional proportions within their budget is going to become obvious,” Greason said.

The end of a NASA human spaceflight program would not mean the end of human spaceflight, of course. Russia and China have programs, and other spacefaring nations, including India, Japan, and Europe, have shown an interest in developing their own capabilities. Moreover, the commercial sector, while developing slower than some expected, is making progress towards having their own human space capabilities. Within the next few years several companies will have suborbital systems, with orbital systems—developed with or without NASA support—likely to follow.

Yet, a future without a NASA human spaceflight program—or, more accurately, without a NASA human space exploration program—is deeply unsatisfying to many. Is there a way to avoid this fate? Barring an unexpected rapid development of Chinese capabilities, or some other unforeseen influence, it’s unlikely an external force will come to the agency’s rescue. Likewise, the importance of space policy is likely to remain at its current low levels. The best chance, it appears, is to make human spaceflight more affordable, and thus more sustainable over the long haul.

Greason believes that requires a greater degree of partnership between NASA and the commercial space industry. Companies can provide more affordable solutions for space access and related systems, and NASA can provide the investment needed to develop those systems in the near future and serve as an initial anchor customer, such as through agency’s planned commercial crew development program. “If NASA does that, we will be their best friend,” Greason said, “and they will be our best friend.”

Such partnerships, though, require reexamining five decades of business as usual and conventional wisdom for human spaceflight. That’s difficult to do, as debates over the last year and more about commercial crew have demonstrated. It will also require a greater willingness of the public and private sectors to work together, and even a bit of humility among the staunchest proponents of commercial spaceflight. “I want to preach against the sin of triumphalism” of commercial space, he told the strongly pro-commercial Space Access audience. “We’re not there yet, and our problems are not over.”

Debates over the future of human spaceflight, particularly NASA’s role in it, will continue for years to come. While the overall outcome of those debates remains to be seen, one thing is certain: the next 50 years of human spaceflight will, by necessity, be very different from the first 50.