We Need Cheaper Access to Space: Can It Be Done?

By Richard Mains, Posted 01/27/10

NASA Strategy Struggles,  Source: Winona.edu

NASA Strategy Struggles, Source: Winona.edu

The Obama Administration’s first budget includes a revised NASA strategy for human spaceflight that’s considered the path to devastation and ruin by some, and a cause for joy and triumph by others. You could sum up the general response by current NASA funding beneficiaries as, “Change? Absolutely! But, not in my space program.”

The NASA Administrator’s view is that it costs way too much to get into space using our current infrastructure and the usual traditional aerospace contractors to build the launchers, the spacecraft and conduct the continuous ground operations..  Our ongoing need to transport humans adds increased requirements that makes it essential that costs be minimized, and safety uncompromised. Shuttle launches are now estimated to cost almost $1B each. Our launch rate is near an all time low and considering the expense, it should be no surprise. Limited space access is the major barrier to developing a true space economy that could provide down-to-Earth benefits and solutions to some of our major global challenges. Thus significantly cheaper access to space, as has been noted for years, is the fundamental change needed to allow human space exploration, commercial infrastructure development and private sector implementation of associated space services.

The proposed White House changes for NASA include cancellation of the Constellation Program that’s currently tasked with developing a medium-sized rocket and space capsule to transport crew and cargo to the International Space Station and back, when the Space Shuttle retires in 2011. The Program is also tasked with developing a large rocket able to transport crew and a lunar lander/human habitat to the Moon. Cost overruns, technology and safety problems and delays plagued Constellation and its death knell may have been the projected $1B cost per launch and the $50B cost to reach launch capability.  There would be a major gap between Shuttle retirement and any U.S. replacement for cargo or crew transport even if Constellation were continued. 

Obama proposes that responsibility for cargo transport and crewed spaceflight to Earth orbit be shifted to the private sector. Indeed, the day after Obama’s budget hit the streets, Bolden, the NASA Administrator, introduced what some call the “Merchant 7” consisting of seven companies who, based on competitive proposals, have been seed-funded by NASA (augments private investment funds) to develop new safer launch systems and technologies that can allow us to reach orbital space at much lower costs. The strategies for this could include: launchers that are more reusable; simpler rockets that use smarter, smaller, more lightweight subsystems; expandable, lighter spacecraft; increased competition between launch providers, and more. The new NASA budget also includes deferral of sending humans to the Moon for several years based on not having sufficient budget to develop large launchers, lunar landers, human life support and habitat systems to do so.  When the Russians transport our crew to the International Space Station (ISS it costs $50M each, but SpaceX, one of the Mercury 7 group, projects costs of $20M each with their developing Falcon 9 launcher and Dragon capsule.  . 

As many have reminded us, Obama’s new NASA strategy for major change in our approach to human spaceflight requires congressional review and approval, and it may emerge from that process looking quite different than it went in. Congress will argue that safety for commercial crew transport may be compromised for business profits, and that launcher availability delays caused by the less-experienced companies, are inevitable.  NASA selected both new and the old guard aerospace entities for the Merchant 7 and will ensure that safety is validated by design, test, demonstration and certification...and, they will not be certifying themselves for the first time. 

Bottom line, however, NASA will not have sufficient budget to pursue building a new human spaceflight program infrastructure and continue support for and increased utilization of the ISS. Human spaceflight to the ISS with increases in onboard microgravity research, including science discovery and technology development for future human space exploration, will now continue through at least 2020. Obama proposes an additional $6B for NASA over 5 years to support the commercial development of crewed spaceflight capabilities and related efforts. Painful though it will surely be, new benefits and options will emerge and hopefully allow many of those negatively affected by these changes to redirect their efforts toward more sustainable space efforts. The U.S. needs a new more efficient infrastructure to maintain the capabilities that we depend on and to create new opportunities to collaborate and compete in the global space economy. Our new exploration direction will be determined as we proceed on this new path and the passion for the pursuit will reemerge again. As Bolden suggests, “lets work together” on this incredibly exciting challenge that we can believe in.


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