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.
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Signs of a Renaissance

There may be many problems apparent at NASA and among the U.S. aerospace giants these days, but there also are signs that space exploration is about to undergo a renaissance, with an explosion of creativity unseen in decades.

To explain this conclusion will require telling a personal anecdote, which begins in the mid-1980s.
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A Shrinking, Timid Industry

The May 2 announcement that Boeing and Lockheed Martin are forming a joint venture to build and launch rockets for the U.S. government is another sign the established sector of the American rocket industry continues to shrink and stagnate.

This situation is especially critical because the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is looking to that industry to build its shuttle replacement. Unless other companies step forward and offer competitive services — and NASA is willing to hire them — the lack of flexibility, efficiency and innovation in the industry’s establishment base will make successful completion of the crew exploration vehicle difficult, if not impossible.

The non-competitive nature of the American aerospace industry was evident last fall when almost all of the major aerospace companies decided to team up to bid on the CEV rather than compete against each other.
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The New Colonial Movement

Last week’s successful launch by India of two satellites was clear evidence international competition to explore the empty reaches of space is beginning to heat up.

The swelling number of countries both willing and able to explore outer space also suggests the United States’ past domination is no guarantee of future mastery.

India – possibly the most underrated spacefaring nation of all – best epitomizes this new international space race.

Most of the recent publicity about India’s space effort has centered on its plan to launch an unmanned probe to the moon by 2007.
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The Engineering Crisis Redux

The turf war between engineers and scientists over government funding erupted again last week with the release of an interim National Research Council report criticizing NASA for canceling or delaying a number of space-based Earth science projects.

Worried the cuts might lead to a long-term downturn in U.S. research capabilities, the report — along with testimony by scientists at a congressional hearing the day the report was released — failed to address an already existing problem: For the last 20 years, the country’s engineering base has shown a disturbing and significant decline — a decline that shows no sign of abating.

One of the central arguments used repeatedly by scientists whenever there is a hint of research funding cuts at NASA, or anywhere else in the government, is that the cuts either will force people to leave the field or discourage students from entering it.
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New Openness at NASA?

Despite evidence NASA’s bureaucracy is continuing to resist any meaningful reform, in recent months one NASA department seems willing to recognize the advice of outside experts, a circumstance not seen at the space agency perhaps for decades.

Whether Michael Griffin, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s new administrator, can or is even willing to extend such openness throughout the agency’s entire management remains the $64,000 question.

First, some history and context. A long time ago, on May 30, 1987, I was co-chairman of an event in New York City called the Challenger Space Fair.
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Is There Life After Hubble?

The arrival of Michael Griffin as new NASA administrator — along with his promise to reconsider the decision to cancel the space shuttle servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope once the shuttle starts flying again — makes the immediate future of space astronomy look suddenly much brighter.

Space astronomy’s long term, however, remains problematic. Even if a shuttle servicing mission upgrades Hubble successfully sometime around 2007, the most that mission can accomplish is to extend the orbiting observatory’s lifespan until about 2012. By then — if nothing else is done — the new gyroscopes will begin to fail and the world’s only optical space telescope will again approach the end of its life.

Worse, if the National Aeronautics and Space Administration launches and docks its planned de-orbiting module to Hubble following the shuttle repair mission, the module’s presence will make it impossible for any future servicing missions to dock with the spacecraft.

In other words, the de-orbiting mission — though guaranteeing a safe demise of Hubble — places a fixed and irrevocable death sentence on the iconic telescope.
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The Right Man for the Job?

The Senate hearing on and subsequent vote to approve Michael Griffin as the new NASA administrator took just two days but that was time enough for Griffin to make clear how he stands on three of the agency’s most controversial issues: the Hubble Space Telescope, the space shuttle’s return to flight, and plans to replace the shuttle fleet.

Questions by members of the Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation relating to a fourth topic — bad management at NASA by both its upper-level employees and Congress — helped reveal the daunting political and bureaucratic difficulties Griffin will face trying to remake NASA into an effective government organization.

The Senate hearing Tuesday was quickly followed by a unanimous vote on Wednesday night to approve Griffin.
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Part 2: How Politics Drives NASA

For NASA’s management culture truly to change, there must be fundamental reforms, not only within NASA, but also – more important – in the way Congress and the president oversee the space agency.

More than two years after the shuttle Columbia accident, however, it does not appear that elected officials have made much effort to reform their own behavior when dealing with NASA.
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Part 1: A Cultural Change at NASA?

Part 1 of 2. A serious misconception has developed in recent months in the public, media and NASA regarding the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s criticisms of NASA’s management.

Worse, that such a mistaken assumption about the CAIB report’s conclusions could persist both inside and outside NASA as it attempts to return the space shuttle to flight bodes ill for future space projects.

The problem centers on the overused phrase “broken safety culture,” as if that statement summarizes accurately the CAIB’s negative assessment of the agency.
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NASA Impeded by Science Lobby

Many scientists have complained about the Bush administration’s gutting of research funding, but a careful analysis of NASA’s fiscal year 2005 budget shows almost half-a-billion dollars earmarked for additional pet science projects.

Ironic, but the successful lobbying effort by scientists to secure those projects actually sabotaged other, potentially more valuable, research.
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Spacefaring by Bureaucrats

After more than a year of preparation, NASA has formally released its request for proposals – the detailed specifications for contractors to follow – bidding on the right to build the Crew Exploration Vehicle, the spacecraft the agency plans to use to explore the solar system in the coming decades.

A close look at that RFP, however, raises questions about whether the resulting effort will produce a spacecraft capable of achieving NASA’s exploration goals or another failed project, costing a fortune and producing nothing except blueprints.
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Going to Mars in Earth Orbit

Many Americans have questioned repeatedly the usefulness of the International Space Station, but it stands as NASA’s only gateway at the moment to the rest of the solar system. Without the station — or something comparable — it will be difficult if not impossible for U.S. engineers and scientists to do the research necessary to make interplanetary travel possible.
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Backing a Bad Hubble Decision

NASA officials have claimed they performed a risk analysis before deciding to cancel the last space-shuttle servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, but no such analysis was ever done.

Worse, sources told UPI’s Space Watch that NASA also has ignored at least one proposal to reduce the risk of sending a shuttle crew to Hubble – in order to justify its decision.
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An Oasis on the Moon?

As the human race begins the in-situ human exploration of the solar system in the coming decades, one essential ingredient to that journey will be water – not only because it will suggest where alien life might reside, but also because future explorers will need it to survive and prosper.

On Mars, the hunt for water has been intense and, in recent months, extremely encouraging. The most recent discovery was announced Wednesday when European scientists released images from the Mars Express spacecraft – which has been orbiting the red planet since Dec. 25, 2003 – showing what appears to be a frozen sea buried under a layer of volcanic ash near the Martian equator.
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Saving Hubble, Defeating Fear

Of all the items unveiled in NASA’s proposed fiscal year 2006 budget Monday, the decision to eliminate funding for a servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope was by far the most controversial.

Yet, though NASA officials now seem adamant and united in their conviction that such a mission — by either humans or robots — is too challenging to achieve, rescuing Hubble is not as complicated or difficult as they would have the public believe.
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A Promising NASA Budget?

Despite fears by many in the scientific community that President George W. Bush’s initiative to re-invigorate the American manned space program would cause deep cuts in NASA’s science budget, the administration’s proposed 2006 budget – announced with great fanfare on Monday – left almost all of the agency’s present science programs in place, while providing increased clarity and focus to its future plans.

Overall, the proposed budget asks Congress for a 2.5 percent increase. This is less than the 5 percent originally called for by Bush last year when he first put forth his new space initiative, but the increase compares quite favorably to the cuts proposed for a significant number of other government programs.
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Turf War Heating Up

A House Science committee hearing on the future of the Hubble Space Telescope illustrates clearly how the battle for NASA money is about to reach critical mass.

The stakes are high, prompting the death of several decades-old NASA programs so that a corresponding number of new projects can see life.

The battle lines are complicated and confused, as different factions realign themselves in ways not seen since the very founding of NASA almost 50 years ago.

At the moment, this war of turf is being fought over whether to send another servicing mission — manned or unmanned — to the Hubble Space Telescope.
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The Russians are Coming

To judge the future by recent events, one might think that by 2010 U.S. tourists will be flying to orbital U.S. hotels on U.S. spacecraft, while at the same time the Bush administration initiative to return humans to the moon will be charging forward at warp speed toward a 2015 return.

Think again. The future of space in the next decade could just as easily be dominated by a resurgent Russian space industry, innovative and efficient, with the ability to provide quality service to its customers at a low cost.
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Cooperation’s Failure at ISS

The recent Russian decision to cease transporting U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station after 2005 highlights two harsh realities few Americans have been willing to face: the Clinton administration did not plan well in building the ISS and the new Bush space exploration initiative has compounded the problem.

Together, they put U.S. access to its own space station in serious jeopardy and threaten to damage American-Russian relations, perhaps severely.
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The Outlook for 2005

The wheels of human space exploration might turn very slowly, but all signs indicate they are beginning to turn faster and – if all goes well -finally might reach escape velocity in 2005.

Without a doubt, the future remains cloudy for a number of NASA issues. Until a new NASA administrator is chosen, for example, there is no way to predict what will happen to the Hubble Space Telescope.
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Bush 43 vs. Bush 41 in Space

January 14 will mark one year since President George W. Bush stood before a packed audience at NASA headquarters in Washington and announced, to great fanfare, a new American space initiative.

What few have noticed or recognized since then is how the response to that proposal in the past year has illustrated a complete and fundamental change in the nature of the space exploration debate.
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Scientists and Engineers at War

Public and political support is growing for President George W. Bush’s ambitious plan for space exploration, but at least one scientific organization has cast doubts about Bush’s vision — although whether those doubts carry any weight or have much validity is debatable.

On Nov. 22, less than three weeks after Bush’s convincing victory in the presidential election, the American Physical Society published an analysis of the administration’s proposal to refocus the U.S. space program away from the space shuttle and International Space Station and toward a return to the moon and further human exploration of the solar system.

The APS report was bluntly skeptical of Bush’s initiative and feared its impact on science research funding.
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O’Keefe’s Exit May Save Hubble

The timing of NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe’s sudden announcement Monday that he was resigning from the space agency to return to the academic world suggests his reasons were more complicated than he stated in public.

Moreover, despite the overall excellent job he has done, O’Keefe’s exit from NASA possibly is the best thing that could have happened for human space flight, for the Hubble Space Telescope, and for the American space program itself.
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Congress Impedes NASA Prizes

NASA is embarking on a bold new strategy to spur new private investment in spaceflight technology. If the effort succeeds, it could transform both the agency and the U.S. aerospace industry, but first there is the matter of congressional authority to overcome.

On Nov. 15, one day before the successful last flight in the now-dead X-43 project, NASA officials held a meeting at headquarters in Washington to promote a new agency-sponsored prize program inspired by the Ansari X Prize for private spaceflight.
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NASA Does New Thing the Old Way

NASA’s recent flight test of an experimental vehicle capable of hypersonic flight was an engineering triumph, but it also could turn out to be another in a long list of the agency’s bureaucratic failures.

Last Tuesday, the X-43 test program made its third and last flight — the first had failed when the Pegasus launch rocket went out of control while the second reached Mach 6.8 — using a scramjet engine to achieve a record-breaking speed of Mach 9.6. It was a breathtaking success, which — in a stark demonstration of NASA’s standard operating procedure — immediately resulted in the program’s shutdown.
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Big or Small NASA Space Vision?

The decision by Boeing and Northrup Grumman to join forces in their bid to build NASA’s next generation manned spacecraft, dubbed the crew exploration vehicle or CEV, significantly reduces the number of major aerospace players available to the agency.

This also forces NASA to make its choice from only two camps, neither of which is ideal: the oversized and experienced vs. the undersized and innovative.
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