For those of you who haven’t read the article yet, it essentially continues the endless speculation on the “new” US space policy and suggests the possibility of using the “Flexible Path” concept introduced by the Augustine commission as a spring board to future human exploration missions to Mars. These types of articles have been about as abundant as up-and-coming-stars/waitresses in Hollywood ever since President Obama took office, and I’m just about sick of them thank you very much.
Since the election of the new administration, we’ve had a much discussed transition team unable to maintain a professional dialog (anybody remember the “library spat” between Griffin and Garver?), a million dollar Augustine committee with insufficient political backbone to actually issue any clear directions, and a new NASA administrator whose only public visibility is when he makes appearances at local high schools.
Meanwhile, the rest of NASA seems engaged in a game of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic for a better view and never mind the iceberg ahead for the last 30 years: why is it that every “new” space architecture touted by one mastermind or another ignores the problem of lowering the cost of space access? The history of US human launch vehicle development since the Shuttle is so pathetic that it now leaves us bemoaning the day when a 30 year old system will be decommissioned leaving us with what, the brilliant new strategy of private industry providing human space access? We’ve been there before, it was called Orbital Space Plane – and it didn’t work then either.
The truth of the matter is that Earth-To orbit is hard, and the development of a truly innovative launch vehicle is an expensive and long-term effort. Unfortunately, the US government’s space investment policies have been about as long-lived as a common house-fly. After Shuttle there was National Aerospace Plane (NASP), after NASP there was 2nd Gen RLV, then there was VentureStar, Orbital Space Plane, Space Launch Initiative, Next Generation Launch Technologies, Constellation, and the most recent slated for the chopping block the Ares I & V launch family. Every program was shorter in duration than its predecessor, and each one was at a lower TRL than the previous one when it got canceled. When it comes to launch vehicle development, the only NASA solution to any kind of problem (technical or cost/schedule) seems to be to reset the clock and start over.
The current state of affairs is so discouraging, that even stalwart advocates of US human spaceflight programs have now resigned themselves to acting blasé towards the efforts by other nations – since the US can’t compete anymore, we talk of taking on a “mentoring” role, giving other nations an imperial pad on the back when they make it to their next space program milestones. We’ve been there a long time ago, good for you to catch up ? All the while the US celebrates its own most recent – highly dramatic - space accomplishments: we can now get Twitter feeds from our ISS astronauts so the world is immediately informed the next time s/he uses the urine collection device! Sign me up - not. Maybe it’s not all that surprising that this should be the flavor of US space accomplishments going forward, since marketing is about the only industry where this country still is a global leader. Let me do some marketing of my own then and apply some of the cutting edge tools of the trade: “it’s not how you feel about the product, but how the product makes you feel about yourself”. Well I don’t know how you feel about the US human space program these days, but I’m getting to the point where I’m embarrassed to tell people that I toiled in it for the last 15 years, with exactly zero to show for it.
Maybe President Obama will surprise us all and take the leash of Charlie Bolden so he can actually exercise some of his leadership skills, but already there is a toxic miasma of special interests swirling around the impending retirement of the Shuttle. What we need are less space agendas, and more clearly focused space policy. What we need is to get rid of the US paranoid isolationist legislation called ITAR, so the US aerospace workforce can once again participate in the international dialogue. What we need is a long-term policy commitment on how to solve the problem of getting into orbit at less than 7 figure price tags. How are we ever going to visit Mars, when we can’t even make it onto the front porch without using our grandfather’s crutches?