In May 1968, during its first run in theaters, the classic science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey captured my six-year-old imagination. A few months later, in the real world of spaceflight, Apollo 8 orbited the moon. I watched in wonder on Christmas Eve as an overexposed Earth glared from the black & white TV screen in our kitchen. So began a love of spaceflight that has now spanned 46 years.
I didn’t know as I listened to the astronauts taking turns reading from Genesis that not everyone was as enthralled by spaceflight as I had become, nor that we had already begun to retreat from the moon before we landed there for the first time. Four years after Apollo 8, Apollo 17 returned to Earth, and the era of piloted space exploration drew to a close.
The Space Shuttle always made me a bit suspicious. I suppose that was because it looked too much like an airplane to be a proper spaceship. I cheered, of course, when it detached from its 747 carrier aircraft for the first time in August 1977. I knew that it would soar into space in a year or two, but the fact that it fell to Earth instead of soaring into space right then left me cold. Still, Nova programs on PBS and many articles in magazines promised me that the amazing Space Shuttle would be so capable that to keep its payload bay filled NASA would have to build giant solar power satellites and space colonies.
Like many space fans, I was thoroughly primed when at last the Space Shuttle Columbia flew in April 1981. Sure, that first flight was three or four years late. Sure, there were technical problems even as Columbia soared aloft. NASA would beat those, though, and soon amazing things would happen. We might even launch humans to Mars in the 1990s.
The delays and problems continued. Die-hard space fans defended the Space Shuttle, pointing out that space was hard and that the Shuttle’s new way of doing business was bound to prevail. President Ronald Reagan even went so far (in January 1984) as to call on NASA to build a Space Station by 1994. As 1986 dawned, we looked forward to a teacher and a journalist in space. We would see launched from the Shuttle’s payload bay the Galileo Jupiter Orbiter and Probe on a mighty Centaur-G’ upper stage, unprecedented views of the cosmos from the Hubble Space Telescope, and numerous satellite servicing missions and money-making commercial payloads and satellites.
Of course, none of that happened quite as planned. On 28 January 1986, soon after I started graduate school, I arrived home from my office hours to learn that the Space Shuttle Challenger had been destroyed a little more than a minute after launch.
The Challenger accident was attributed to “NASA ‘can-do’ culture,” but the fact was that the fundamentals underpinning the Space Shuttle were flawed from the start. It could never fly routinely. It could not operate more cheaply than expendable rockets. It could not launch the Space Station as then designed.
The decisions that dictated the Shuttle’s capabilities could be traced back to 27 January 1967, when the Apollo 1 fire undermined confidence in NASA. That led Congress to make big cuts in funding meant to give the space agency a future.
The Nixon Administration and Congresses during the 1970s filled the gap those cuts created with the Space Shuttle, which had been proposed originally as a Space Station crew rotation and resupply vehicle. They refused, however, to pay for the Space Station that gave the Shuttle its purpose. The Shuttle instead got a new purpose: to do “practical” things in space that would “benefit” Americans and do them for less than the cost of expendable rocket launches.
The Space Shuttle should have taught us a lesson: if one seeks to travel into space, one must avoid cutting corners. Space is indeed hard: one must spend the money necessary to develop the means to reliably travel to and from space and to operate there. Furthermore, because space is hard, spending enough money to avoid the foreseeable problems will not fend off all disasters. The cost of losses will have to be added to the operating cost of spaceflight systems.
At the moment we are engaged in what feels like a repeat of the Shuttle experience. Commercial crew and cargo are seen as revolutionary. They have captured imaginations. New companies will open up the space frontier as never before by bringing to bear the forces of entrepreneurship – or so it is said. Tourist hotels in space and Mars colonies are right around the corner. We will spend less to develop and take advantage of these revolutionary capabilities than we spend to fly proven expendable rockets and spacecraft; even proven expendable rockets and spacecraft that long ago amortized their development cost.
It is, apparently, a beguiling vision for many. I believe that it is naive at best. The failures we witnessed last week are not one-off events; we have witnessed others and will see many more. I can state this with confidence because commercial crew and cargo and Branson’s space tourism scheme are relying on new spaceflight systems, which always experience problems.
If we acknowledge that failures happen even when entrepreneurs are involved – as we now must – then we must tailor our programs to accommodate those failures. It is not enough to declare that we will not be stopped. It is important to investigate whether we should stop; that is, whether the accidents have revealed anything that undermines our basic assumptions.
I believe that it is time to end the commercial crew and cargo competition. That is not to say that we should end commercial crew and cargo flights. We must, however, adopt a realistic attitude toward them. Inexperienced companies flying barely proven systems are not superior to established companies and space systems. If established systems cost more, then we should be prepared to admit that there could be a really good reason; that those systems have worked through their teething troubles, which is bound to cost money.
We should seek to use the best available systems, and never put low cost ahead of safety or our program objectives. In fact, I would argue that cost should be a minor factor in the development of crew systems. Space is too important for it to be otherwise. We should not make the shortsightedness that manifested itself after the Apollo 1 fire a continuing element of U.S. space policy.
Were I to be appointed King of Space, I would award Boeing the ISS crew contract and SpaceX the ISS cargo contract right now. I would divert the funds presently being spent on multiple crew and cargo alternatives to those two companies strictly for those purposes. I would forbid SpaceX to test reusability during taxpayer-supported ISS cargo flights; the company could, however, proceed with a reusability test program on their own dime and, if they enjoyed success, I might allow reusability to become part of the ISS cargo delivery system.
I would require that Boeing build its CST-100 crew vehicle so that it could be converted into a cargo vehicle. It could thus serve as a back-up for SpaceX Dragon. I would also start work on a “Block I Orion” which could back up both CST-100 and Dragon.
Ultimately, I might do away with redundant systems, or systems that did not perform as hoped. So, for example, if the “Block I Orion” suffered recurrent failures that would require costly modifications to rectify, I might simply scrap it. Or, if I found that the CST-100-based cargo spacecraft performed better than Dragon, I might terminate the cargo contract with SpaceX.
The SpaceShip Two test failure requires special treatment here. I have long assumed that space tourism will fail as an industry. I anticipated a scenario like this: a cargo of billionaires burns up during reentry, the lawsuits fly, and most everyone cancels their reservations.
No one needs to fly a suborbital hop with five minutes of weightlessness, any more than they need to ride a roller coaster. It is important to acknowledge that roller coasters that kill their riders do not last long – even if some people persist in wanting to ride them.
I do not know if the SpaceShip Two crash on Halloween will kill space tourism. I do believe that it shows that the current SpaceShip Two design is flawed. It is too complicated, for one thing. Complicated piloted space systems suffer more trouble than simpler ones (no piloted space system can be truly simple). I have often wondered why Sir Richard Branson did not opt for a capsule design.
After Challenger, we made bad choices. We put band-aids on the Shuttle’s flaws and settled for much less than we were promised. We did not initiate work toward a Shuttle replacement, so that even now we have none. We behaved as though space is far less important that it is. It is probably asking too much – one still has the sense that we grossly undervalue space – but I hope that, in light of last week’s failures, we will find the wisdom to look long and hard at our present course and make whatever changes are required.