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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.