The Best of Times, the Worst of Times: A Tale of Two Human Space Programs

commercial_crew_earthAll the promise, perils and contradictions of America’s human spaceflight effort were on display earlier this week in Washington, D.C.

Things were looking good for a day or so, but then the proverbial other shoe dropped to remind everyone of the deep trouble that lies ahead as NASA attempts to restore its human spaceflight capability and send astronauts beyond low Earth orbit.

As NASA struggles to execute a series of ambitious programs on increasingly tight budgets, the main beneficiary appears to be the bumbling, crisis prone Russian space agency Roscosmos, which has reaped a financial windfall as a result of America’s equally bumbling human spaceflight policy. And matters could get worse before they get better (for NASA, at least).

The events of the week played out as follows.

TUESDAY

Deep Space Dreams

Artist concept of the SLS in flight. (Credit: NASA)
Artist concept of the SLS in flight. (Credit: NASA)

NASA and industry officials held a panel discussion to discuss human deep space exploration, which is set to commence in 2021 using the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft.  SLS is running five months ahead of schedule and is below budget, one industry official crowed. And Orion is on schedule for a test flight aboard a Delta IV rocket late next year. Not bad for a couple of programs rolling along on a flat, $3 billion plus annual budget.

Even amid the optimism, some cautionary notes emerged about whether the program can stay on schedule due to Congress’s inability to pass annual budgets and the automatic budget cuts caused by sequestration.

“I learned to live and operate under continuing resolutions, and I thought I had that mastered,” said NASA Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier. “Then we got sequester, and they upped the game on me.”

Deep Space Commerce

Artist's conception of a Bigelow lunar habitat. (Credit: Bigelow Aerospace)
Artist’s conception of a Bigelow lunar habitat. (Credit: Bigelow Aerospace)

At a separate event, NASA released the results of a study conducted by Bigelow Aerospace urging that the space agency develop an approach to cis-lunar space based on the successful Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. For a relatively modest investment of public funds, NASA partnered with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation to develop two new rockets and cargo freighters to serve the International Space Station (ISS).

Company Founder Robert Bigelow — who has ambitious plans for private space stations and lunar basis — told reporters that the issue of property rights in space needs to be clarified. He said he would make a formal request to the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Tranportation (AST) to review the issue by the end of this year.

WEDNESDAY

Celebrate Good Times, C’mon!

Cygnus is released from the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)
Cygnus is released from the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

NASA celebrated the success of the COTS program, which ended after Orbital completed a successful demonstration flight of its Cygnus freighter to ISS late last month. Orbital is now in the advanced preparation stages for its ISS flight under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract, now scheduled to for mid-December. SpaceX has already flown two CRS missions and is preparing for a third one in February.

During the celebration, NASA officials looked ahead to the success of its Commercial Crew Program, which has been run under COTS-style rules. Three companies — Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corporation and SpaceX — are competing to develop crew vehicles that will transport astronauts to ISS on a commercial basis.

The Other Shoe Drops

commercialcrew_360Even as agency officials were celebrating COTS and looking ahead hopefully to human flights, NASA Inspector General Paul Martin released an audit illustrating how the COTS really isn’t working very well for the Commercial Crew Program.

The report found that while the three commercial partners are making good process, NASA faces a number of challenges, including a failure thus far to develop a life cycle cost estimate for the program and the need to coordinate with the Federal Aviation Administration and U.S. Air Force.

Although NASA’s challenges are solvable, there is a much bigger problem that is well beyond the space agency’s control. Congress has refused to fully fund the program, which has already caused the start of commercial flights to slip from 2015 to 2017.

“Specifically, the Commercial Crew Program has received only 38 percent of requested funding for fiscal years 2011 through 2013, bringing the current aggregate budget gap to $1.1 billion when comparing funding requested to funding received.”

The delays could worsen unless the program is fully funded, which will result in more money being spent to launch U.S. astronauts to ISS on Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

“Between 2012 and 2017, NASA will pay Roscosmos $1.7 billion to ferry 30 NASA astronauts and international partners to and from the ISS at prices ranging from $47 million to more than $70 million per person.  After 2017, NASA hopes to obtain transportation to the ISS from American spaceflight companies.”

A COMING TRAIN WRECK?

In this photo posted on Twitter by NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg, she undergoes a spinal ultrasound scan conducted by European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano. (Credit: NASA)
In this photo posted on Twitter by NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg, she undergoes a spinal ultrasound scan conducted by European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano. (Credit: NASA)

Further schedule delays could push the start of commercial flights toward 2020, which is the year in which ISS is currently scheduled for decommissioning. A further three-year delay would render the entire program moot.

NASA wants to extend ISS operations until 2028, which a study has found to be technically feasible. The main goal is to complete research to help pave the way extended human missions to deep space. The station is also host to an increasing number of commercial microgravity experiments.

However, it’s uncertain whether the space agency’s international partners — Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada — will agree to the extension. Several of the partners appear to be more interested in pursuing new projects than in continuing an old one whose annual operating costs are high.

Meanwhile, ISS soon could have some serious competition. China is positioning its multi-module space station — whose first element will be launched in 2018 — for the post-ISS era. It is eagerly recruiting international partners to fly astronauts and experiments aboard the facility.

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Robert Bigelow describes his plans for private space stations. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Bigelow Aerospace’s plans for private space stations is dependent upon the ability of NASA’s commercial crew program to produce affordable human transports. The company is initially targeting sovereign governments as station tenants.  If Bigelow is successful, the company could draw away support from NASA’s efforts to continue ISS operations. The effort would also build up the space capabilities of foreign nations.

One option would be for NASA to decommission ISS in 2020, and to purchase a space station from Bigelow on a commercial basis. There are potential problems with this approach, however. How easy and costly it would be to replicate the research capabilities that ISS possesses is an interesting question. The option also includes a degree of risk in that it’s currently unknown whether Bigelow will succeed with his private venture. If Bigelow’s stations or business plan fail, NASA could end up throwing away a valuable asset with no easy way to replace it.

It might end up having to do the first, regardless. There are serious questions about whether the space agency could simultaneously support a vigorous deep space exploration program using the expensive SLS/Orion combination while still maintaining an aging space station in orbit. NASA’s budgets are already squeezed, the future doesn’t look much better.

NASA’s hope is to significantly reduce the cost of operations through its commercial cargo and crew programs. Although the cargo program is proving successful, the crew effort is endangered by Congress’s unwillingness to fully fund it.

This refusal is endangering Bigelow’s commercial program for low Earth orbit, which could help reduce the unit costs of crew and cargo vehicles that would serve both ISS and the company’s private space stations. Bigelow also needs his commercial orbital program to succeed first before trying to place modules on the moon and send them off on deep space missions.

The bottom line is that the future of the American space effort is very much in flux.  What was supposed to be a week for celebrating success and looking toward a bright future has turned cloudy and threatening. It’s likely to remain so for quite some time to come.