TCS Daily

Space Odyssey

By Jeffrey Goldader - February 28, 2003 12:00 AM

A "good old girl," is how former NASA engineer Homer Hickam eulogized the Space Shuttle Columbia. Columbia has joined her sister ship Challenger in the history of the fallen.

Where do we go from here?

Three things will come from the painful inquiry now beginning into the loss of Columbia and her seven astronauts. Two of those will come quickly, within the next few months. The third will take longest, yet must be completed if anything positive is to come out of the latest sorrow.

The first result will be a determination of the immediate cause of the accident, whether it was heat-resistant tiles being damaged by foam falling off the external tank, or some as yet unrecognized failure.

The second result will be, sadly and almost certainly inescapably, the painful revelation that this catastrophe, like that which befell Challenger and her own seven astronauts, was inevitable, in retrospect. A long trail of documents and unfortunate decisions will likely show that this accident was anticipated, possibly in great detail, years ago, and deemed to be unlikely. Thousands of other scenarios were also imagined, yet this one actually occurred; the others have not.

The final thing that must come from the Columbia disaster is the most necessary, and may in the end be a worthy memorial to the people who died in the Texas sky. The American public needs to determine the proper role of American astronauts in the early 21st century.

In order to envision a future, we must recall now how the current state of things came to be. We are where we find ourselves today because of a 30-year-long lack of leadership and imagination on the part of Congress and the Executive Branch, a lack of realism on the part of NASA's leaders, and a lack of commitment on the part of the public.

Public Interest, Public Commitment

Let me deal first with the public. In the 1960's, the "space craze" was in full bloom. The Mercury, Gemini, and early Apollo astronauts were, fittingly, treated as heroes. In the book "Moon Shot," astronaut and co-author Alan Shepard recalled that Frank Sinatra-no softie, he-cried, on stage, when Gus Grissom presented his personal flight jacket as a gift to the singer. Some estimates say one billion people around the world watched Armstrong and Aldrin take their first tentative steps on the Moon. But that did not last. By the very next mission, television stations were receiving complaints that the moonwalks were interrupting regular programming. And for some reason, perhaps simple exhaustion, space had slipped from a central place in the consciousness of the American people.

The diminution of public support immediately started to eat away at the space program. With the public effectively out of the loop, the political winds that had sustained NASA began to fail. Even during Apollo, as Joseph Trento notes in "Prescription for Disaster," NASA had been burying any grand plans for its future, in order to avoid the wrath of budget hawks in Congress. As the Apollo program was winding down, NASA began to search for a future that would simply allow it to survive. The agency had wanted (1) a "space truck" to (2) construct a space station, which would be used to learn about the response of humans to long periods of weightlessness, and would eventually serve as the staging ground for (3) sending people to Mars. Aware of the slip in public interest and embroiled in Vietnam, the Nixon administration balked at the cost, and NASA ended up with only its truck: the space shuttle.

Danger of Unrealistic Expectations

Without a space station, the truck certainly could not fulfill its original purpose, so NASA and the military decided the shuttle would instead become the premier U.S. satellite launch vehicle. The development costs were likely understated from the very beginning. Chronically short of cash, NASA abandoned the original plans to build a completely reusable shuttle. Instead, a system with a reusable orbiter and solid-fuelled boosters, and a throw-away liquid fuel tank, was chosen. In the interests of cost and payload savings, an emergency escape system for the crew was scrapped. Trying desperately to keep the shuttle from being cancelled, NASA wildly oversold the program: there would be five shuttle flights per month, and the cost of sending satellites into orbit might be as low as $100 per pound. Using dubious cost models, NASA began claiming the shuttle would pay for itself.

After 10 years of work and about $40 billion (all figures now in 2002 dollars) in development costs, the first space shuttle, Columbia, flew in 1981. Almost immediately, it became apparent to most observers that the high flight rate and low costs would never come to be. Built with almost all new complex and poorly understood technologies, the shuttles required months of overhaul between flights. In 1985, with its pre-Challenger peak of 9 flights, the cost per flight was in the range of $500 million (or more than $10,000 per pound of payload delivered to orbit), even without any attempt to amortize the development costs. The shuttle had become the most expensive satellite launch vehicle around.

Difficult Birth of the Space Station

In the mid-1980's, the Reagan administration finally acquiesced to NASA's long-held dream of the Space Station Freedom project. For only $10 billion or so, NASA would get a general purpose research laboratory and satellite servicing depot. Immediately, the project began the unending series of cost and schedule overruns, redesigns, and de-scopings that continues to this day.

In a 1989 speech, former President Bush attempted to give some sense of direction to NASA. Bush advocated the completion of Freedom and, within 30 years, sending humans to Mars (apparently, not even NASA took the latter part seriously). Freedom lurched forward, until the spiraling costs, more than $30 billion by the late 1980's, led it to the precipice in the first months of the Clinton administration.

At that moment, poised on the edge of cancellation, the space station became an instrument of international diplomacy. The new Russian space program was brought onboard, and Freedom morphed into the International Space Station. The hope was that Russian experience with their own Salyut and Mir stations would save significant money and time. The money savings, at least, never materialized. The birth pangs of that collaboration and the International Space Station itself are documented in the book "Dragonfly: NASA and the Crisis aboard Mir," by Bryan Burrough.

The station finally began to take form in orbit in 1998. Even still, the ever-increasing costs, presently at a life-cycle price tag of around $100 billion, brought NASA to declare in 2001 that the station would be considered "core complete" with a crew of three. NASA is at present unable to fund completion of the additional crew module and emergency return vehicles necessary to accommodate the originally anticipated seven person crew. Three people are barely able to meet the station's daily maintenance requirements, much less perform large amounts of top-quality science. Lost is the long-ago hope for a satellite repair station and science laboratory; instead, the primary goal for the station is its own continued existence, with a little medical and materials science thrown in.

And at this moment, we have lost Columbia. So where do we go from here? It must not be where we have gone before. Perhaps we can learn from the past.

Needed: A Clear Goal, A Mandate

It is time for the American people to stand up and decide what they want from NASA. What place do people have in space? On what missions, for what ends, will we risk blood and gold? If, aimless, NASA stays on its current path, we can be assured of... nothing. Unless a radical change occurs, no excitement, no adventure, no cutting-edge science will be forthcoming from the American human space flight program. The dialogue about the future of American human space flight must begin soon, since the decisions that will be made in the next few years will affect the program for the next two decades.

The space program must return to the public consciousness, and not just when a tragedy occurs. Possibly the best way to raise space flight to a more prominent place is through increased media exposure, in particular television. News programs have time every day to report on the latest misdeeds of the icons of pop culture. Can they not find time to air reports on space exploration even once per week? My own cable TV provider does not carry NASA TV (paid for by our tax dollars) even on their premium digital service, yet there is no shortage of shopping channels. Perhaps we should try demanding NASA TV from our cable providers, and remind them that at least one of the major dish networks does carry NASA TV as part of their most basic service package. People care about the things they see every day.

Once the public actively cares again about human space flight, the dialogue can begin. We have to decide precisely what we expect of NASA, and then make the commitment to pay for it in dollars and eventually lives, to stick with NASA in the good and bad times.

Political Support

The Apollo program, Trento noted, benefited from an excellent relationship between NASA administrator James Webb and President Kennedy. Webb was also savvy to the ways of Washington. This resulted in concrete support from the White House and Congress, not only in procuring large budgets, but also in numerous smaller ways that made NASA a respected and flexible agency. Trento detailed how, after Webb left NASA during the Johnson administration, NASA coasted for a while on Webb's legacy. Eventually, a succession of weaker administrators with poorer relationships with the White House and Congress, coupled with at least one Vice President, Walter Mondale, who was an active opponent of space exploration, gradually drained the well of goodwill dry.

The current NASA administrator, Sean O'Keefe, has worked closely with Vice President Cheney, and has the strong support of President Bush. O'Keefe was right there the day Columbia was lost, and has been a significant figure these last few weeks. As someone with the President's ear, he may be able to provide the leadership NASA desperately needs. The President must certainly appreciate the special importance of both NASA and the loss of Columbia to his home state of Texas. Can O'Keefe rekindle a close relationship between NASA and the White House?

For politicians to demand reforms and results, they will have to know that their positions on space exploration will decide our votes. Many of us regularly base our votes on single issues such as gun control, abortion, taxes, or the environment. Who among us has the courage to add space flight to the list? Politicians will be quick to say that they supported NASA's budget just last year, of course they're pro-space. Yes, but what did we get for that money? Simply supporting pork-barrel appropriations should not be sufficient to get our votes; we need to require that our representatives and senators support the space program the public wants.

Honesty and Good Decisions

The people who work for NASA and their professionalism, abilities, and dedication are national assets. The same engineers who have performed miracles before, who brought the Apollo 13 crew home when their spacecraft blew up halfway to the Moon, who landed the Pathfinder on Mars, who flew the space shuttle safely more than 100 times, will accept our challenge and mandate with joy.

Initial budgets for programs must be realistic. If a program is going to run over budget, NASA needs to be honest with the Congress and either ask for the money to complete it in a timely manner, or be prepared to have it terminated. Stretching out a program's completion just leads to more money spent in the end. In supporting the "core complete" option for the International Space Station, Administrator O'Keefe has demonstrated that he has the will to make these hard choices.

When NASA builds hardware, those machines should be specifically tied to completing whatever mission for which the public has given its approval. No more can NASA build shuttles, or stations, simply because they are "the next logical step," as a marketing slogan once described the space station.

A Good Start-and a Lesson Learned?

In just the last few days, NASA has started making what seem to be promising steps towards its future by releasing the initial set of requirements for an orbital space plane. Due for first flight in seven years, the space plane is designed to get people into space without using the shuttle. It would be a family wagon or minivan of sorts, capable of ferrying people and a limited cargo to and from orbit, mainly to the station. NASA has called for a highly reliable vehicle to be launched on a commercially available expendable rocket.

It will be important to watch the development costs and timescales, and to make sure that additional requirements do not sneak in and ruin the potential simplicity and economy of the project. Simplicity is the key to the success, economy, and safety of the space plane. If early projections of more than $10 billion in development costs turn out to be true, then this hopeful start may turn down the wrong path, where a fleet of a few expensive and complex vehicles manage one launch every few months. We have seen all this before.

Consider another possible future, one in which there exists a fleet of perhaps a dozen simple, reusable space planes costing somewhere around $100-200 million each, launched at $100 million per mission. The space plane would be the core element of a new space infrastructure, a way to get astronauts to space to carry out the mission chosen by the public. With a large enough fleet, perhaps two flights per month would not be out of the question. While not inexpensive, getting astronauts into space would at least be much cheaper and, we hope, more reliable than it is now. Precious money would be freed up for other initiatives... for a new beginning.

The author's views are his own and do not reflect the views of any organization with which he is affiliated.

TCS Daily Archives