Issue 47, 1 July 2009 -- 40th Apollo Anniversary Year

  1. What future for Constellation, 40 years after Eagle landed at Tranquility Base?, by Stephen Ashworth

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What future for Constellation, 40 years after Eagle landed at Tranquility Base?

by Stephen Ashworth

The Augustine Committee has now begun hearings on the future of NASA’s manned spaceflight programme in Washington, and Jeff Foust has posted a report on The Space Review.

At the same time, with slightly less public attention, the guys over at the Space Renaissance Initiative google group have been engaged in extensive discussion of the way to go to reach the goal of developing a spacefaring civilisation.

To my mind, the key concept in these debates is the distinction between HEROIC and SYSTEMIC programmes.

A HEROIC manned spaceflight programme is one which goes way beyond the experience and technology base to achieve a heroic feat of exploration -- Apollo being perhaps the most shining example in history.

A manned flight to Mars, undertaken with space infrastructure at its current level of development, would be a possible future heroic programme. The manned grand tour of the Solar System portrayed in the BBC series “Space Odyssey” a few years ago would be another.

A SYSTEMIC programme, by contrast, is one which confines itself to relative modest feats of exploration beyond what is currently accessible, and which incorporates its discoveries into the broader global economic system, thus extending the infrastructure base and enabling future exploration to go still further.

Seafaring capabilities in the 15th century were just about good enough for European explorers to sail to India around southern Africa, and to the Americas across the Atlantic. The increase in oceanic navigation led to improvements in ships, bringing Australia and Antarctica within reach in the 18th and 19th centuries. Those explorations were just within range of the existing system, and caused the overall system to grow organically.

It should be clear that heroic exploration is only sustainable so long as the political will to continue it remains in place. Systemic exploration, on the other hand, draws in commerce and trade, thus creating a far broader constituency for maintaining new links. On Earth this was the pattern of growth of international maritime trade. In space so far this has been the pattern of growth of the use of satellites for comms, satnav and Earth observation.

We can then ask: what sort of NASA do we want? And, by extension, what sort of ESA / Roskosmos / JAXA etc.?

From the SRI discussions, Al Globus has posted some interesting quotes from Dr Mike Griffin, NASA Administrator until earlier this year:

“I know that humans will colonize the solar system and one day go beyond” (Washington Post).
“In the long run, a single-planet species will not survive”, and: “One day, I don’t know when, but one day, there will be more humans living off the Earth than on it” (Rolling Stone Magazine, 23 February 2006).
“For me the single overarching goal of human space flight is the human settlement of the solar system, and eventually beyond. I can think of no lesser purpose sufficient to justify the difficulty of the enterprise, and no greater purpose is possible” (2003 testimony before Congress).

These views are only consistent with the SYSTEMIC exploration of space.

Meanwhile, in his Space Review article, Jeff Foust had this to report on the ISS programme:

“Current NASA plans only call for operating the station until 2016: in his presentation ISS program manager Mike Suffredini said that ‘our plan is to operate through the end of 2015 and deorbit it in the first quarter of 2016.’”

This is the clearest possible statement of the view, by a senior manager, that NASA’s job is to carry out HEROIC exploration alone. A facility costing tens of billions (some say, 100 billion) dollars to build is to be deliberately destroyed after only 15 years of use (less than half that time at full occupation). It will not be replaced; it will not lead to better space stations or more frequent access to them. It will be destroyed because only in this way can NASA afford a Moonbase, which will therefore in turn be destroyed or abandoned when NASA wants to move on to explore Mars.

Compare the systemic alternative: one space station leads to growth in the numbers of stations and traffic to and from them, creating a broad infrastructure base in low Earth orbit upon which lunar flights can be constructed much more affordably than otherwise.

Another Space Review article, by former NASA Associate Administrator Wes Huntress, also discusses Constellation purely as a heroic enterprise.

Meanwhile Jeff Greason of XCOR Aerospace (also reported by Jeff Foust) says of exploration that it “helps the country prosper (as exploration has helped other civilizations prosper in the past), but only if people can do something with the knowledge gained from such exploration.

‘That is the one thing we have lost sight of in our civil space program, and that’s the why we do what we do,’ he said. ‘There is an infinitely large number of ways that you can go about exploring, but there is not an infinitely large subset of those ways which not only result in exploration, but would also result in a path left behind... and things being done in a way that the nation and the world can make use of what we have found.’”

If the vision so eloquently expressed by Mike Griffin is to become reality, then Greason’s view of progress must be put into practice, and the views of Huntress and Suffredini rejected.

This means that the fate of Constellation is an insignificant detail in comparison with whether NASA continues to support private development of reusable launch vehicles through its COTS programme, and especially the manned or COTS-D phase of that programme.

According to Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX (again as reported by Jeff Foust):

“Musk said that having a commercial capability to access the station for crew and cargo was vital not just to avoid being reliant on the Russians but to free up NASA for exploration of the Moon and beyond. ‘COTS is really an enabling function for NASA. By having COTS to do commercial crew servicing of low Earth orbit activity at an affordable cost, that enables NASA to go beyond low Earth orbit,’ he said. ‘It seems like the only way forward, the only way we can do exciting things in human spaceflight, is if commercial companies handle the low Earth orbit stuff and NASA focuses on beyond low Earth orbit.’”

How COTS fares under the new administration of President Obama and NASA Administrator Bolden is vastly more significant than any decisions taken regarding Constellation.

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Astronautical Evolution is an e-mail forum devoted to debate and comment from an astronautical evolutionist perspective. To subscribe / unsubscribe / contribute / comment, please e-mail Stephen Ashworth, sa--at--astronist.demon.co.uk.


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