The Future Isn’t What it Used to Be

Spaceflight / by Lee Billings /

Today, as many nations aspire to the Moon and America struggles to return, does anyone still have “The Right Stuff?”

Credit: NASA

It’s relatively easy for everyone to relive the moments leading up to humanity’s first steps upon another world, which occurred 40 years ago today. You can follow Twitter feeds or web postings providing real-time recaps of Apollo 11’s mission timeline. You can take in restored audio and video recordings of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin making their first forays onto the lunar surface. You can freely access and read the first batch of scientific papers resulting from the experiments the astronauts deployed and the moon rocks they brought back. You can even put yourself in the hot seat with a game on your iPhone that simulates the lunar descent and landing. (The iPhone, incidentally, boasts far more computing power than the Apollo 11 lunar lander possessed.) In fact, pretty much the only relevant thing you and everyone else on Earth can’t do now to celebrate the lunar landings is actually go back.

Today’s launch systems simply aren’t powerful enough to take humans and all their accompanying baggage back to the Moon. No force other than a threat to national pride and identity is seemingly powerful enough to change this. Two years after President John F. Kennedy made landing a man on the Moon a US priority, he was felled by an assassin’s bullet, leaving a deep wound in America’s psyche. Six years later, the national desire to fulfill his dream (and beat the Soviets) propelled astronauts to the Moon just as surely as Apollo’s rockets.

Since the end of the Cold War, the US and Russia have settled into the task of sending humans into space to do little more than go around in circles. Now, several of the world’s ambitious developing nations are the ones most eager to visit the Moon. Since 2007, China, India, and Japan have all separately sent robotic orbiters to the Moon as potential precursors of future human missions.

Faced with an apparent new space race and further spurred by the loss of the space shuttle Columbia and its crew, President George W. Bush announced in 2004 the US’s “Vision for Space Exploration.” The Vision calls for NASA to complete the ISS, retire the space shuttles, develop a new fleet of rockets and spacecraft, and use them to return to the Moon and, eventually, to go to Mars. In 2006 NASA unveiled its architecture for the Vision: the Constellation program. Constellation includes two rockets, the smaller, crew-launching Ares I and the massive cargo-lifting Ares V. The other key pieces are the crew capsule Orion and the lunar descent stage Altair, as well as an Earth departure stage for boosting payloads to the Moon. Using Constellation, NASA proposed to send astronauts back to the Moon by 2020.

Since its announcement, little has gone smoothly for the Constellation program. Constantly delayed space shuttle launches have pushed back the dates for the International Space Station’s completion and the shuttle’s retirement. Each day the shuttle program continues, further much-needed funds are drained from Constellation development. Currently Ares I and Orion are closest to completion, with the other major components still on the drawing board, but even these initial basic components are proving very difficult to design and produce on time and within budget. Worse still, faced with the most severe global financial crisis since the Great Depression, the Obama administration has proposed a budget that would cut billions from NASA’s funding after the fiscal year of 2010. Without that money it’s hard to see how Ares V, Altair, or the Earth departure stage will ever be more than paper rockets. Constellation is in crisis, and the Vision is slowly fading.

Some seemingly welcome this. Despite the Challenger and Columbia disasters, the space shuttle remains popular with politicians and the public. It possesses unique, hard-won orbital construction capabilities that Constellation cannot match, and since the Ares I isn’t slated to fly until at least 2015, retiring the shuttle in 2010 as planned could create a long “spaceflight gap” in which the US would have no domestic capabilities to launch its astronauts to the International Space Station. When completed, the station, for which the shuttle’s capabilities were crucial, will have consumed an estimated $100 billion during its construction. To free up funds for Constellation, NASA currently plans to cease operations and de-orbit the ISS in 2016, turning it into a $100-billion fireball.

There are further issues: Some believe that the barren, lifeless Moon is a stumbling block, and that NASA should instead send humans directly to more promising locations like Mars or nearby asteroids. A vocal segment of space scientists oppose human spaceflight outright, pointing out that its high risks and costs and limited science returns should be avoided by relying on cheaper, more capable machines. Though, if human space programs were entirely cancelled, it seems unlikely that all its riches would then flow to robotic science missions.

Faced with dwindling budgets and a plethora of opinions about the future of Constellation, in May the Obama administration created a blue-ribbon panel of 10 space experts, chaired by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine, to review NASA’s human spaceflight program and make recommendations for its future. One thing is clear: If NASA is still in the business of sending humans into space a half-century from now, where its astronauts are going and how they get there will probably depend in large part on the committee’s findings, which are expected in August. Essentially all options are on the table: Extending the lives of the shuttle and ISS, scrapping the Constellation architecture to embrace proposals for alternative rocket systems, or abandoning the Moon as a destination are just a few possibilities. But staying the course doesn’t seem to be a realistic option—without improbably massive infusions of funding, it’s unclear how NASA can achieve the Vision at all.

Perhaps a thousand years from now the Moon landings will be seen as the most significant events of the 20th century. But separated by only 40 years, and stranded in a world where the momentum of the space race was squandered rather than preserved, it’s hard not to speculate on what might have been and conclude that Apollo’s greatest significance isn’t found in bootprints on the Moon, but in the cold revelation of humanity’s capacity to create works of transcendent beauty—and then destroy them. Let us hope that 40 years hence the same won’t be said about our present space programs and plans.

Originally published July 20, 2009

Tags history space technology

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