In about a week from when I am writing this, I will be one of those people giving space shuttle Atlantis a “go” or “no go” for launch, and if the former, for the last time. Except for a three-year break when I wondered out to the wilds of New Mexico and then ventured back into the Big City as a technical writer, I have worked for the space shuttle program for twenty-seven years. I served the first part of my tenure as an astronaut and flight controller trainer and abort specialist. I took that vehicle and operational knowledge and expertise and put it to work during the second part of my tenure in the Shuttle Safety organization, where I was the contractor lead engineer for Safety’s Flight Operations Group. I have lived through and learned from both shuttle accidents. So, suffice it to say, that as I am forced to leave this world, it has been more than a job; it has been a career, a way of life, I’m being kicked out of just as I hit 60 years old.
I interviewed for a job last year with the FAA’s AST-200 division and was offered a job I wound up turning down for reasons I won’t go into and which had to do with more than me. If they ever open a position in Houston, I might apply again; the job seemed like fun and was another chance to make a difference, as my career choices always have. I mention this to establish that I have no prejudices against the new guys in “commercial space” and wish them all the best. At the same time, I am cognizant of the current regulatory environment which is designed to give them a lot of leeway. Only time will tell whether it is too much.
When I sit down and read articles and commentary on the new age of manned spaceflight that is both dawning and being forced on the country, it seems to me, like almost every other venture in the country these days, most people are polarized into two camps. One camp believes that NASA is a dirtbag, a bloated bureaucracy that can accomplish nothing and that the private sector will provide the saviorship of manned spaceflight that is needed. The other doesn’t trust the private sector and believes that only the government can do it right. The truth is being lost in hyperbole and rhetoric, and neither of these views contains what I believe to be the best course for our country.
First, let’s talk about what the media is reporting is “commercial space”. The new players in the game are Space X, Sierra Nevada Corp, Orbital, Blue Origin, and others I won’t take the time to name. (I intend to handle Virgin Galactic separately.) The old players are Boeing, Lockheed, Grumman, Rocketdyne, ATK, to name most of them. While it is the new guys who are currently receiving all the press and have been named “commercial space”, the reality is that all of these companies are private companies bidding for NASA contracts. The difference between the older companies and the newer companies isn’t their technologies but the economics driving their business models and the operating rules the companies had to compete under. The new guys have the benefit of a less restrictive regulatory environment and, because of that, have been able to develop designs that are largely their own even though they are still aimed at the same market, i.e., NASA. The old guys grew up in an environment where their designs were tailored to strict NASA requirements, including redundancy and part specifications that contributed to higher costs. They are also separated by hyperbole and, perhaps, hypocracy. It’s a public game to “trash talk your opponent”, and some of the new guy CEO’s treat NASA as if it was one, even as they also talk about how they deserve to get NASA (i.e., taxpayer) funds. It’s rare that when one of these guys talk, they actually compare apples to apples. Usually, they’re really only hitting half the truth.
For instance, the talk usually centers around the cost per pound of payload and they zero in on how they can deliver “x” number of crewmen to orbit for less money than the shuttle. Such a statement ignores the rest of what the shuttle can do and glosses over the national capability that is being lost with the shuttle’s retirement. The shuttle could deliver seven crewmen to ISS and tens of thousands of pounds of payloads and facilitate the placement of much of the latter on the station’s exterior. While many of the new commercial space or ISS international partner vehicles can deliver one or the other, there is nothing on the books that allows for the delivery of both at one time, nor is there anything that can accommodate large payloads that cannot fit though either the delivery vehicle’s or ISS hatches. Considering that there are still rather large unknowns about equipment life aboard ISS and why some of these failures are occurring, I am convinced that the retirement of the shuttle without an equivalent replacement capability will prove to be a huge oversight and national blunder. This is another reason why NASA’s pursuit of a Space Launch System makes sense as do Space X’s plans to develop a heavy-lift vehicle. No one can predict the future, and 2020 is not much less than a decade away.
That said, I also believe it is time to turn over most low earth orbit activities to what the press is calling “commercial space”. The market appears to support several different approaches to orbital flight and crew delivery, though admittedly the only current market lies in launch services that are still mostly governmentally driven. The next budding market will probably be space tourism, which is the area that Virgin Galactic is set to exploit and will undoubtedly do so first. However, at least for the time being, that market is relatively small. As costs fall, that market will expand; but whether it is a sustainable market is the big question. Secondly, the safety of the venture will largely determine whether it survives. Law restricts the FAA to be largely “hands off” with these new companies. When I interviewed with the FAA, we had several discussions about whether I believed spacesuits were required when flying paying passengers. I did and do; otherwise, a cabin depressurization above 65,000 feet, also known as the Armstrong line, will result in the death of all aboard even if breathing oxygen is available. NASA’s regular access to space has, perhaps, been the failure of its success in that the average Joe Blow has no clue how risky spaceflight is and will continue to be, especially as you engage the energies necessary to put something into orbit. Virgin Galactic’s suborbital flight is a great thing but its technical challenges are at least an order of magnitude less than those it will face if they ever turn their birds into orbital machines that have to re-enter at 25,000 feet per second.
Meanwhile, we are retiring the shuttles right when NASA and its contractors have truly learned how to repair and operate them and mitigate their operational risks. Instead, we’re spending tax dollars on developing systems that, even though developed by American companies, won’t do anything functionally different than the shuttle did while turning the real space vehicles into museum pieces. The new vehicles are still “taxies”, a comparison that was used by Norm Augustine to disparage the great machine the shuttle was. It had its problems, sure, but we had learned to how to live and manage them. That learning curve will now start anew with the new boys and their toys, and it remains to be seen how the public will react when people flying on these new vehicles die, which they inevitably will.
Indeed, it is the public’s reaction (and that includes the media) to the shuttle accidents that played such a large role in NASA becoming the bureaucracy it is today. I saw the agency change from the free-spirited agency it was to a somber, more introspective, and more image-concerned organization after the Challenger accident. In this perfection-expected, litigious society, how the public will react to an accident and loss of life with the new guys remains to be seen, though there is no reason to expect anything else than a reaction in line with the endeavor’s political camps. In any case, whether these new start-ups have the economic resources to weather the storm of an accident is anyone’s call, and certainly something our government needs to be looking into since we’re putting all our eggs in their boats. And it is at the cost of losing a huge operational capability. Anyone who thinks that all those rocket scientists just thrown out of NASA are going to be picked up by the new companies is smoking weed. There are only going to hundreds of jobs opened by these guys not thousands as the current administration has said. Why the auto industry deserves a bailout and aerospace deserves a beating is beyond me…
What then is the role of government? Is it simply to bankroll these new start-ups? No. Part of the purpose of a free government is to provide infrastructure for free enterprise to flourish (which really doesn’t include funding it) and to provide the citizenry with those things they need that free enterprise won’t provide. So, the government needs to be pushing space exploration forward, which means it needs to be involved in pushing us out to the moon or Mars where there is no current incentive for private companies to go. So, while I personally consider an Earth-to-asteroid mission as more of a stunt, I do believe it is NASA’s role to expand human presence to the moon or Mars or beyond. However, this needs to be done as part of a national space vision that integrates government and private sector efforts as one. Failure to do this will result in more start/stops, knee-jerk reactions to the momentary political and/or economic environment, something that will not serve the long-term growth of our country or the human race. It only makes sense that if we’re going to spend the money and take the risks that spaceflight demands, we get somewhere. Where that “somewhere” is…is what we have to decide.