Fly me to the . . . moon?

March 1, 2004
It is certainly true, as astronauts and others have been saying for years, that nobody gives a ticker tape parade for a scientific spacecraft.

By John Rhea

Click here to enlarge image

WASHINGTON—It is certainly true, as astronauts and others have been saying for years, that nobody gives a ticker tape parade for a scientific spacecraft.

It is also true that we don't fly flags at half-staff when a scientific spacecraft is lost.

Despite the controversy over robotic vs. manned space operations that has been raging in this magazine and elsewhere in recent months, I don't see this as an either/or proposition.

I am reminded of the slogan of computer manufacturer Univac (since absorbed into Unisys Corp.) 20 years ago: making machines do more so man can do more.

That slogan probably fell victim to political correctness, but the idea appears to be as valid as ever.

Sorting out these roles so that they complement rather than conflict with each other will lie at the heart of President Bush's Kennedy-esque challenge to return to the moon by 2020 and use it as the staging point for further manned missions within the Solar System.

What troubles me about this vision is that he, with NASA's acquiescence, proposes to do it on the cheap.

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe spelled out the financial underpinnings in a joint appearance with the President earlier this year to announce the initiative: "What you see in Fiscal year '05 [the federal fiscal year that begins this Oct. 1] will be equating to about $16.3 billion [total NASA budget] and increasing at a rate of about 5 percent or a little more for the next couple of years thereafter."

This is not going to get the job done. Executives of the electronics industry could surely provide examples of development programs that failed because the financing was backloaded and companies wound up spending more money because they did not tackle fundamental problems up front.

Nor is this tendency limited to the advanced technology industries. I'm reminded of the old Fram oil filter commercial in which the mechanic at the garage tells the motorist he can "pay me now or pay me later." In this context, now is greatly preferred.

As part of the package that the administration is trying to sell to Congress, the space shuttle is to be phased out in favor of a new Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) that is due to begin manned operations by 2014. Initial manned lunar landings of the CEV — which appears to be remarkably similar to the Apollo spacecraft of the 1960s — is due the following year.

This decision regarding the shuttle is probably long overdue, given its excessive operating costs (upwards of $10,000 per pound to place a payload into low earth orbit, according to the congressional watchdog agency, the General Accounting Office, but it needs to be phased in to minimize disruption.

One of the victims of this idea will be the Hubble Space Telescope, which has become the joy of astronomers, once shuttle crews are no longer able to service the spacecraft. The Hubble Space Telescope got off to a rocky start because of initial design flaws (another case in which paying later proved more costly), but these servicing missions have been among the most substantial accomplishments of the shuttle program.

Rather than putting all our eggs in the one basket of a new space system, as this nation did with the shuttle, it might be better to create a stable of launch vehicles tailored to a spectrum of missions.

There are niches that the shuttle has not been filling since NASA leaders tried to jam all their missions on to the shuttle in order to keep it full and try to achieve economies of scale.

For example, one of the victims of the shuttle was a small solid-fueled rocket known as the Scout that was incredibly cheap and thus attractive to users without deep pockets.

The Scout was so cheap, in fact, that it enabled universities and other countries without space programs of their own to develop and launch small satellites and accumulate experience in spacecraft operations. The universities I remember were the University of Iowa and Rice University in Texas.

The satellites were launched from a facility at Wallops Island on the Delmarva Peninsula of Virginia that NASA inherited from its predecessor agency, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.

I remember covering my second satellite launch there as a reporter on Dec. 15, 1964. It was the San Marco satellite developed by the University of Rome, and we did some serious partying with our Italian hosts after NASA successfully put it into orbit. Today the facility is mothballed, and a rusting Scout vehicle sits outside a rarely visited museum.

Also as part of the effort to trim the up-front costs of the new venture, the International Space Station (ISS) is being redirected to concentrate on human factors. There will be a little extra money in the new budget — up from this year's $1.498 billion to $1.863 billion in 2005 — and the much-delayed space station is finally due to be completed by 2010.

O'Keefe waxed poetic about this in his appearance with President Bush, saying that human factors "will become the primary, almost singular focus of our research agenda . . . so we're reordering . . . the very specific emphasis on the research on station to emphasize life sciences, human physiology, the human effects, and consequence of long-duration space flight."

What O'Keefe did not say was that human factors accounted for only half of the original plan for the space station. A big selling point in NASA's original proposals to Congress back in the 1960s was that the station would also be used to develop new manufacturing techniques to take advantage of the unique properties of microgravity and a hard vacuum found only in space. One of the beneficiaries of that research would have been the semiconductor industry, which might have been able to produce purer crystals in that environment. Similar benefits were envisioned for the pharmaceutical industry. Those opportunities are now gone unless they can be resurrected elsewhere.

There is no lack of demanding challenges for humans and robots in space, but this program as it is now conceived is more hoopla than substance.

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Military Aerospace, create an account today!