Manned spaceflight activity has hit a new high in terms of activity in orbit over the calendar year 2009.
The previous record, of 1746 man-days, has stood since 1997. Activity then went into decline thanks to electrical problems with the Shuttle fleet, the abandonment of Mir, and then of course the Columbia disaster, reaching lows of less than 800 man-days in 2000 and again in 2004.
The new record is 2180 man-days, thanks to expansion of the ISS crew to six persons some of the time. However, on 1 December, the crew was mysteriously reduced back down to a caretaker crew of only two astronauts, for reasons which I have so far been unable to discover.
Launch activity has failed to surpass previous levels. 2009 saw nine manned launches (five Shuttle, four Soyuz), with a total of 46 seats to orbit, plus one spare seat on Atlantis in November which, mysteriously, was left vacant on the trip to orbit (it was taken by Station resident Nicole Stott for the return to Earth). Who is the mystery person who should have been in that seat to join Williams and Suraev on the ISS? Was there a malfunction somewhere, or just a management cock-up?
The current launch activity records were set as long ago as 1985, when eleven manned launches carried 63 people to orbit. This has not yet been surpassed, indicating that, by this measure, manned spaceflight has still not yet recovered from the Challenger disaster of January 1986.
On 2 November 2009 the International Space Station passed its ninth year of continuous occupation (not counting the first two-day taxi flight to reach it). The record currently remains the second long-term occupation of Mir, at 9 years 354 days, which the ISS will exceed on 22 October 2010, assuming that it continues to be occupied continuously until then. Champagne glasses at the ready!
Questions remain about how sustainable the new level of manned spaceflight activity will be.
NASA has demonstrated that its commitment to the ISS is lukewarm at best. There seem to be no official plans for its long-term maintenance, let alone future expansion. The year 2009 saw the resident crew of three persons doubled to six, and the number of private visitors paying their own way to space doubled to two – yet Station managers seem unable to maintain a six-person crew for long, and the plans for future Space Adventures clients seem veiled in uncertainty.
On the latter point, at the beginning of November, industry analyst Charles Lurio reported that the timetable for a dedicated “space tourist” Soyuz carrying two private spaceflight participants was unclear (dates of 2012 and 2014 were mentioned as possible). In the meantime, the company told him, single-seat opportunities could possibly emerge which could be taken advantage of, but none are scheduled at present.
Thus the most important breakthrough achieved by the ISS – the demonstration of the fact that private individuals are willing to pay for their own spaceflights, a fact of enormous and incalculable significance for the future expansion of manned activities in space – continues to be ignored by the space agency partners in the Station.
I should like to offer a cautious welcome to the new British Space Agency, announced by Lord Drayson on 10 December.
Apparently there is to be a competition to create a name and a logo. Some have suggested it should be called the Royal Space Agency. I am totally unable to understand the idea to link it to the archaic institution of the royal family – I know of nothing they’ve done to promote it, and the Prince of Wales is well-known for his anti-technology views.
The question is, what will be the remit of the British Space Agency? Will it be empowered to promote the existing UK policy, or to be a copycat, if cheapskate, NASA?
With all the talk about exploration of the Moon and Mars, I fear that it may get caught up in grandiose dreams of astronaut adventures which it can’t possibly afford on the budget it gets, and will end up contributing a few bits and pieces of hardware and an astronaut or two to whatever the US is doing, as part of a huge international bureaucracy which does everything as inefficiently and short-sightedly as possible (as with the ISS).
This is not the way forward.
What we should have is a British Space Enterprise and Development Agency (BSEDA), which focuses on implementing our current space policy. It needs to model itself after NACA (supporting entrepreneurial and socially useful activities in space), not NASA (which dreams up massive exploration plans for which the rest of society has little appetite).
Our current policy – you may recall – is basically to avoid expensive vanity projects, and to focus on value-for-money projects which achieve scientific and commercial return. This policy has so far been put rigorously into effect with regard to avoiding prestige projects, but only very half-heartedly with regard to the other goals.
Thus our policy of doing world-class science in space was utterly shamed by the way that the immensely popular Beagle 2 project was abandoned before it had returned any scientific data whatsoever (the first attempt at landing on Mars having failed). Our policy of encouraging commercial and social return has so far been blind to the largest near-term developments in these areas, namely personal space exploration (space tourism) and space solar power, and consequently blind to the critical importance of lowering the cost of access to space, and to the fact that the UK has a huge competitive advantage in efficient designs for reusable launch vehicles. (The recent contracts to Reaction Engines hopefully represent the beginning of a change in this blindness.)
We had in effect two contradictory space policies: encouraging commercial development of space (for which cheaper access to space is essential), versus keeping the UK out of launch vehicle development (despite our competitive advantage in this area and other countries’ lack of interest in doing anything effective).
It would be ironic if the only effect of having a British Space Agency was to get UK astronauts onto the prestige projects we had hitherto avoided, thus managing to subvert the only space goal we have managed to stick to so far!
And, yes, I too want to see astronauts – including UK ones – on the Moon and Mars, but not like Apollo, not on expensive and controversial programmes which are scrapped at the height of their success in order to make economies in the face of the latest war, financial crisis or change of political colours. The only meaningful way to go to the Moon and Mars is sustainably, and the only way to do that is first to consolidate our position in low Earth orbit.
That means securing the long-term future of the ISS, adding more commercial space stations, and getting routine transport to space, for both cargo and passengers, into the profit-making private sector. Then we have the basic infrastructure on which sustainable long-term lunar and planetary exploration can be built.
We need a space agency boss who understands this, and does not want a wannabee NASA or ESA.
However, the BBC news report suggests that there will be no new money, only a reshuffling of existing funds. In this case rebranding the BNSC will have little effect, and it does not matter much how it is managed.
See also: Taylor Dinerman, “Britain’s new space agency: a provincial subcommittee or a national asset?”. He makes an interesting point about how ESA tends to merge its civil and military space activities, whereas countries like the US do a better job of keeping these aspects separate. But he fails to highlight the critical importance of low-cost, high-volume spaceplane access to orbit, or Britain’s world-beating interests in this area.
On 6 December I received the following news about the Space.co.uk website from Paul McDonnell:
I have some very good news on the Space.co.uk closure – it is no more! Andy Hugh who some of you may know from the rocketry world stepped in at the 11th hour and has taken over the site. It will continue to run as a UK Space Portal and we are looking forward to hearing Andy’s plans to develop it in new ways. We will stay involved during the handover and hopefully in the future. We wish Andy every success with the site.
Regards, Paul and Martyn.
PS Andy can now be contacted on <andy at space.co.uk>
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