Behind The Black Postings By Robert Zimmerman

History's Moment of Truth

The next five years will determine, for good or ill, the future of U.S. manned space exploration for decades to come. More significant, a confluence of forces will accelerate that process.

Several of these forces rely on the decisions of Michael Griffin, NASA’s administrator. Just as crucial will be the actions of Congress and the public, and the success or failure of several private entrepreneurs, including a former programmer who is trying to rebuild the American rocket industry single-handed.

Consider first the decisions of Griffin. He faces a serious problem trying to complete and supply the International Space Station. Because his predecessor, Sean O’Keefe, chose to rely solely on the space shuttle to ferry supplies, crew and new construction modules to the station, Griffin remains entirely dependent on the Russians, because the trio of remaining shuttles was grounded after the Columbia accident in 2003.

Worse, unless Griffin can get a shuttle replacement designed and built by 2010, he will have no way to ferry supplies or crew to ISS after that, if the shuttle is retired that year as planned.

Faced with this dilemma, Griffin has made it clear he wants to accelerate construction of the crew exploration vehicle, getting it built and operating by 2010. To do so, he is trying to streamline NASA’s operations.

No longer will NASA do an unmanned test fly-off in 2008 by two contractors at a cost of $1 billion before deciding on a final design. Instead, Griffin hopes to pick the CEV’s prime contractor by next year so the money can be used to speed construction.

“I don’t have a lot the money to be funding parallel development,” Griffin noted at the Space at the Crossroads conference in Washington on May 18. “To be honest, I don’t have any.”

At the same conference, Griffin also expressed interest in allowing other commercial companies to bid on providing basic freight service to the station.

“It is in our interest to sponsor commercial development in that area,” he said.

Even before Griffin arrived at NASA, the agency had carved out a separate $160 million slot in its fiscal year 2006 budget for “the acquisition of cargo and crew services to support the ISS.”

As that budget proposal noted, “It is necessary for NASA to establish (an alternative) transportation capability for crew and cargo for the space station program.”

In response to this need, Transformational Space, a consortium of new alternative space companies – including Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites, the builder of SpaceShipOne – already has proposed building a basic crew and cargo vehicle to supply ISS for $400 million and have it flying by 2008.

Also known as t/Space, the company even constructed a full-scale prototype and showed it off to the public and media during the International Space Development Conference in Arlington, Va., from May 19 to 22.

The vehicle, a basic capsule designed to land in water, would have a human pilot and be capable of carrying either cargo or crews to the ISS. By multiplying the $160 million per year that NASA has budgeted for basic cargo services through 2008, there is more than enough cash available to pay t/Space’s construction costs.

“We look forward to the chance to make our case to Michael Griffin,” David Gump, the company’s president, told UPI’s Space Watch at the conference. “We think we will save them money just … by having real competition in the program.”

Along with t/Space, at least one other company is competing to provide basic freight service for NASA: Kistler Aerospace, of Kirkland, Wash.

Kistler was born during the launch frenzy of the late 1990s, when the anticipated demands of satellite telephone companies such as Iridium and Globalstar were expected to produce as many as 200 satellite launches per year.

At the time, Kistler raised $600 million dollars in capital and completed more than 75 percent of the construction of its reusable rocket, the K-1.

When those launch hopes fizzled in the wake of both Iridium and Globalstar’s failures, Kistler went bankrupt.

Last March 29, however, the courts approved Kistler’s reorganization plan, allowing the company to emerge from bankruptcy. Kistler now is eagerly hoping to win the contract for that $160 million, saying it can have the K-1 ready to provide cargo services to the ISS in two years.

Then there is the CEV itself. If Griffin decides to award a cargo contract to one of the new companies, he will, as Gump suggested, increase the competitive pressure on traditional prime contractors such as Boeing or Northrop Grumman as they vie to build the CEV.

Putting even more pressure on the aerospace establishment is the effort of Elon Musk and his company, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., of El Segundo, Calif. Last month, SpaceX successfully completed a full launch dress rehearsal of its Falcon 1 rocket. With the rocket bolted to its launchpad, its engines fired for five seconds with no problems.

Musk, who made his fortune by creating PayPal and then selling it to Ebay for $1.5 billion, has won three contracts already for the Falcon I, with its first launch scheduled for sometime in August.

Should that launch succeed, SpaceX’s fees – $5.9 million plus range costs for the Falcon I and $15.9 million for its larger Falcon V – should allow the company to undercut every other competitor worldwide.

“With the lowest cost per flight in the world for a production rocket and superlative design reliability, (the Falcon family of rockets) has the potential to be the world leader in launches per year,” Musk said in a statement announcing the successful test.

Adding even more intensity to this competitive race to build new crew and cargo vessels is the America’s Space Prize, a $50 million purse offered by Bigelow Aerospace of Las Vegas, Nev., for the first American company able to put five people into a 250-mile orbit, then repeat the effort within 60 days. The flights must be completed before Jan. 10, 2010.

Bigelow is building a series of low-cost orbital modules for private use, either as space hotels or for commercial research, and needs a cheaper method for hauling its modules and passengers into space. The company hopes the prize will encourage that effort.

Combined, these forces are conspiring to transform the U.S. human space industry before 2010. In fact, for the first time since the early 1960s, all indications point in only one direction – up.

Nonetheless, though these trends seem strong, there is no guarantee they will prove true. Griffin could decide he cannot risk hiring new and untried companies. Congress could decide there is not enough money to fund the program. Musk’s rocket could explode at launch.

The U.S. public also could decide it would rather read about fad diets and the best Internet software than the quest to conquer the stars.

Should this new and increasingly private effort by the United States to send humans into space fail, it is likely the country will be out of the space exploration business for many decades to come. Future explorers will speak Russian, Chinese, French and maybe even Hindu, rather than English.

Such failure is unlikely, however. Not only is this convergence of forces pushing the United States toward success, but past history also suggests the country is culturally primed for a triumph.

Compare today’s situation with that of England in the late 16th century. In 1585, the British attempted to establish their first colony in North America, at Roanoke in what is now Virginia. The attempt failed.

For the next few decades, through the ’80s and ’90s, the British interest in the New World waned. It was the Elizabethan age. The English had other concerns beside exploration and colonization, preferring to fight off the Spanish Armada – their version of our Cold War – while enjoying a remarkable burst of literary creativity from geniuses such as William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, John Donne, Christopher Marlowe and others.

Then, at the dawn of a new century, the urge to explore rose up again, and in ’07 the English set out to establish a colony in North America. This time, the colony, called Jamestown, succeeded and soon was followed by others. The permanent British colonization and settlement of North America had begun.

Now, we are seeing the same historical pattern. From 1969 to 1972, the United States succeeded in landing men on the moon. Then we pulled back and lost our nerve, and for the next few decades we were content to fight the Cold War while sending the shuttle in endless circles around Earth.

It is now the dawn of a new century, even a new millennium. Once again there is a rebirth of interest in exploration and innovation. Once again we are at a moment of truth.

I suspect that, like the British 400 years ago, this time the U.S. effort to conquer the stars will stick.

One final thought. In 1599, at the dawn of the English effort to colonize North America, the poet Samuel Daniel wrote the following words:

And who in time knows whither we may vent
The treasure of our tongue, to what strange shores
This gain of our best glory shall be sent,
To enrich unknowing nations with our stores?
What worlds in the yet unformed Occident
May come refined with the accents that are ours?
Or who can tell for what great work in hand
The greatness of our style is now ordained?
What powers it shall bring in, what spirits command,
What thoughts let out, what humors keep restrained,
What mischief it may powerfully withstand,
And what fair ends may thereby be attained.

In 1599 Daniel correctly foresaw how the effort of England to build societies in the New World would shape the heritage of many future generations. His prediction holds true today. The work we do now will determine the language and heritage of all future human generations, both here on Earth as well as out there amid the stars.

Let us hope we have the courage to match our ancestors.

Robert Zimmerman is and shall remain an independent space historian. His most recent book, “Leaving Earth: Space Stations, Rival Superpowers, and the Quest for Interplanetary Travel,” was awarded the Eugene M. Emme Award by the American Astronautical Society for the best popular space history in 2003. He is also the author of “Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8″ and “The Chronological Encyclopedia of Discoveries in Space.”

This concludes the Space Watch series by UPI.

5 Comments
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  4. James McLane says:

    Robert,
    I’m the caver who spoke to you briefly after your June 21 talk to the AIAA in Space Center Houston.

    The exchange between you and some of the audience after your presentation was especially interesting. While you are an extraordinary writer with unusual perspective, you have not had to work technically inside the system and thus cannot have the most accurate concept of how the space program does things (or doesn’t work).

    I am sure you were not aware of the distinguished personages at the meeting who took exception to some of your opinions. For example, the man who wanted space exploration to be an international endeavor is a PhD NASA civil service engineer who has taken part in every program since Gemini.

    The gentleman in the back of the room who adversely commented on the role of privatization in space was once the head of the Engineering Directorate at Johnson Space Center. Later he served for years as Boeing’s Chief Engineer for the International Space Station.

    I’m reading your book “Leaving Earth” and noticed your quote by Winston Churchill in the front regarding Russia. Ironically the most vocal opponent of your ideas at the AIAA meeting was Winston Churchill’s grandson!

    The Russian lady who took umbrage at your stereotypical impression of Russians has a distinguished background at NASA and is involved in technical relations between our two countries.

    NASA has always used private industry; it’s just that the current contracts are not set up properly. It’s all too easy to make steady money by prolonging the status quo on any NASA project while NASA gold plates the job with a plethora of lavish extras until it gets too expensive or impractical to continue.

    You can read all about it in this article by me at:
    http://www.thespacereview.com/article/1635/1

    Best wishes, Jim McLane

  5. Dear Robert,
    Its remarkably ironic that this relic of an age now lost appears in the same blog as your uninformed (at best) criticism of a university diversity program. If you would apply the same intelligence you hope you posses in astronautic affairs to the actual, mmm *diverse*, world of 1585, or 1599, you might take a lesson or two that is worth your time and effort.

    For one thing, British colonization of North America was a side show, a small expense to the Crown and a risky venture for those who put up money. It was first and foremost only to those who tried to found the colonies, and their families. “State of the art” ship building satisfied transport needs for colonization and for commerce. The business of Great Britain neither rose nor fell on the results of the North American colonies, especially in 15-anything. Great Britain was an agrarian society, finding its way out of a feudal system where might meant right, and ridden by religious wars.

    By contrast, Spain’s great threat to Britain was financed by the profit of looting Central and South America, accompanied by slavery, genocide and atrocity. Like Rome, the Spanish empire was financed by straight-forward theft, before or after murder, rose quickly, and rotted from within. It was a world-changer from the first generation after Columbus found, mm, whatever he found. This too was supported by state of the art technology, in fact, by technology which lagged the art because wealth and established power were content extracting the maximum return from existing, and soon obsolete, technology. The profit was in theft, not finding a better return on investment.

    What Spain’s (im)moral quagmire and Great Britain’s small and indifferent steps are both telling us is that watching the Europeans find, exploit, settle and thrive (or not) in the Americas misses the role played by the population of non-Europeans who had wealth to steal, technology and food crops that thrived in various American conditions, and not enough political – military – technological – medical – etc. resources to defend themselves.

    The native Americans had arrived themselves by foot or perhaps small boats. Provisions could be found on the journey, abundant resources were available to stone age gatherer-hunters. Anyone brave enough could try, vast investment or special training wasn’t required.

    In short. for the initial waves of late stone age immigrants and the later waves of European immigrants, it was *profitable* for an individual to make a self-financed trip in a group as small as a family or two. Once there was permanent settlement, the traveling party didn’t even have to be big enough to support intermarriage. Technology was whatever you had, and only a large ship crossing blue water needed long-shelf-life stored provisions. Its worth noting that transport by water has been and remains the absolutely cheapest way of getting a dozen or two people, a store-able cash crop or shippable live stock, finished goods of art or craft, etc, from point A to point B.

    Compare with outer space, or even any location 200 meters above ground level.

    Traveling to outer space – 50 miles, up or above, requires gaining 50 miles altitude above sea level. 80-ish km. that’s 9 times the height of the tallest mountains, 6 or 7 times the cruising altitude of a passenger airliner. Humans can’t stay conscious at airliner altitude without artificially increasing pressure, even breathing pure oxygen. Its really cold, so a completely artificial environment is needed. At 1/6 or 1/7 of the distance to the edge of space, its already uninhabitable, and it only gets worse as you continue to climb.

    So at lower altitudes, non-free-fall, you need a structure holding you up or you need power pushing you up. Expensive. At higher altitude, where free-fall is possible, you need 17,000mph speed, nearly 30,000kmph. 30,000 kmph = 30,000,000 meters per hour, and an hour is 60 minutes, so you need to cover 500,000 meters, 500 km, per minute. 8km per SECOND, to keep in orbit.

    So the choice is expend energy to get to 8km/s at 80+ km altitude, or expend constantly to stay up, or build a structure to support yourself. By 7km altitude, you’ll be needed a pressurized and heated environment, a box or a can or a bag to live in. A big hamster ball.

    Lets say that the altitude is a given- your there, by some means. How do you eat? How do you get water? How do you make enough money to pay your cell phone bill, since that’s your one connection to the rest of the world (oops- you’re too high- don’t forget a satellite phone) How do you sustain yourself? How do you pay your phone bill? You have to carry all the equipment to grow food and recycle waste, or make so much money you can pay, oh, $10.000 a day for food and water to be sent up?

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