In a few hours, the private company SpaceX, or Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, founded by Paypal inventor Elon Musk, is planned to launch into space for the second time and become the first commercial vehicle in history to dock with the International Space Station. Earlier tonight I received a simple request writer Lauren McFaul of Gather News about my upcoming photo book “After the Shuttle: An Artist’s Inside View of Post Shuttle NASA.” The questions were, short, simple, and straightforward
1. Displaced persons: Space X, being private, has a lot more latitude and autonomy in its workforce. Critics of the Shuttle program say NASA employment rolls were bloated. Could the Shuttle program have been accomplished more cost-effectively?
2. Back in the day of Space Congress, one of the big complaints heard in many of the back room talks was that NASA and the government formed a closed shop, unresponsive to outside suggestions. What\’s your take on that attitude? Opportunities lost, or did not really matter? Is SpaceX different, and why?
I did not feel that a short answer would adequately reflect my feelings on the subject, which the non economic issues are covered in greater length in the book than they are below, but I wanted to share them with you.
I live here on the Space Coast and everybody is hurting, my family and I included. When people are hurting, there are always people who will take advantage of that. One side screams “Obama cancelled the shuttle” while the other side yells “Obama cancelled Constellation” and the first tries to claim that we have nothing lined up to replace it, an intentional falsehood.
When President Bush cancelled the shuttle program at the advice of the Columbia Investigation Board, it was for good reasons. The spacecraft had no means of safely aborting a crew from a failing launch vehicle, unlike other every other crewed American space program. The Challenger crew could have survived if there was an abort system in place as there was in the past, and will be in the future. However no amount of technical upgrades via the several Orbiter Major Modifications can correct this severe flaw inherent to the shuttles’ design.
The second major flaw of STS was that the spacecraft was next to the launch vehicle where it is inevitably struck by foam debris, not just in the case of Columbia, but regularly. Even after a 2 year flight gap leading up to STS-114, the redesigned fuel tank still had foam separation issues. The same solution to the first problem solves the second: returning to an orbiter vehicle on top of the launch vehicle, be it a winged craft like Dreamchaser or a traditional capsule between the rocket and abort tower.
Because Mercury, Gemini and Apollo were such short programs and so long ago, it is easily forgotten, intentionally at times, that at the conclusion of the Apollo program there was nearly a decade gap before America returned to flight. Many of us have lived our entire lives knowing nothing but the shuttle. But if we think of the shuttle as a tool rather than an icon, it was created build the International Space Station. Now that its mission is completed, America and Earth want to stretch our legs and leave Low Earth Orbit. The flight ceiling of the shuttle is the Hubble telescope. In an ideal world, Hubble would be in a higher orbit than it is, yet the shuttle could only take it to a roughly 350 mile altitude, still inside Earth’s polluting light, and now we are planning crewed missions to 4 Vesta, 231 million miles away, past Mars.
The technological and medical developments are happening at a staggering rate to make this possible, including carbon nanotubes being developed at Johnson Space Center which are inserted just under the skin which can automatically sense and inject insulin when needed over long periods of time. Inflatable nylon habitats are being developed at NASA Langley Research Center in Virginia to be used as a modular lunar base or even room to move around on a long trip to Mars. These structures could easily provide inexpensive, fast emergency relief to disaster-ridden areas. All of that technology and medicine ends up in your home in a very short time through NASA’s mandated sharing of their developments to commercial industry. Every year, NASA publishes a thick book called NASA Spinoff chronicling all the NASA technology which has been used in other aspects of the world the year before. Anyone can go online and request a free copy of the current issue, and see every issue in PDF format since NASA began issuing this publication in 1976 at http://spinoff.nasa.gov/
When President Bush cancelled STS it was the right decision for the country based on design flaws that could not be overcome. The remarkable success record of the National Space Transportation System is a testament to the caliber of the people who worked on and around these vehicles. He immediately created the Constellation program to replace it, which far exceed the mission capabilities of the shuttle and would be ready well before the slated 2010 retirement of the shuttle program, completely avoiding a flight gap.
When President Obama cancelled Constellation, it was more years behind schedule than before work even even began on it due to crippling underfunding. An investigation board determined that it was more effective to start over, saving only the vehicle now called Orion. A new launch vehicle called SLS, or Space Launch System, is being developed which even exceeds Constellation, as well as every other thing we have ever used in history. It will have the largest cargo and lift capability ever created, more thrust and taller than a Saturn V and especially the shuttle. To reduce the return to flight gap, every usable piece of existing proven flight hardware from the shuttle has gone into the design of SLS, from using the same Pratt & Whitney RS-25 main engines to the core of SLS being an elongated external fuel tank. And once again, this new program is being threatened. Earlier this year congress purchased a 2014 Orion test flight option from Lockheed Martin, while the earliest possible date SLS will be a viable launch vehicle is 2017, with a more likely date in the current funding environment being past 2020.
So who is really to blame for the current state of Florida’s economy, space economy and America’s current flight gap which includes our necessity to purchase flights on Soyuz craft just to honor our treaties regarding the space station? Congress. Each president on both sides of the aisle continuously approved NASA’s budget requests and then congress slashed it. Unfortunately congress and the senate are too big to blame conveniently for news outlets on both sides whose goal is to inflame people for political ends, and real people who are hurting are used to mislead everyone elsewhere.
When NASA was first formed, NASA’s first director had to turn money down because they already had more than they could use. NASA’s major failing histrionically is that they do not put their accomplishments in view of the public well enough and people have forgotten that everything from the insulation in their houses to the gas mile improvements & safety features of their cars to their rechargeable batteries, cell phones, GSP, and every other aspect of their lives, are gifts from NASA to the human race. Once the people have forgotten that, the people who represent them forget it too.
America’s economy is suffering. Brevard is hurting. Florida has the second highest foreclosure rate in the country. The official unemployment statistics everywhere intentionally exclude under employed and people on other forms of public assistance, much less the people who cannot even collect benefits. The budget for a single year of the Afghan front of the war on terror could exceedingly fund NASA for 50 years. As Americans, the socially responsible option available to us is to fire the people who are hurting NASA’s budget in November, and thereby hurting Florida and America. Unfortunately, the damage is done, not only economically and socially, but the human cost to the country of losing the best people who are moving on to other jobs simply support themselves and their families. People who say the best and brightest the world have to offer are being overpaid would see those people leave of their own accord or never accept the position, accepting pay commemorate to their skill and demand elsewhere as private industry competes for them, just as NASA should. That is not to say NASA has not been wasteful, but the place to save money is not payroll if you want to attract the type of people needed for the greatest undertaking in human history.
Newt Gingrich has been a long time supporter of space, but not of the way NASA does things. He has long argued against the large reward based system of a single government contractor, arguing that the free capitalist market competing commercially will drive down costs while speeding innovation, rather than locking in a single technology for 30 years. He argued that had we been doing this from the announcement of the shuttle’s retirement, there would have been an overlap in launch service providers rather than a return to flight gap, and at a fraction of the cost. The budget cuts to NASA’s FY2012 budget have caused a policy shift in this very direction, and SpaceX is the exemplification of that argument. SpaceX is sitting on that launch pad tonight because it got an earlier start than the other 6 CCDev contenders.
For example, SLC-40, the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station which SpaceX is leasing, was previously used to launch Titan rockets. The sound suppression system was inadequate for the 9 engines of the Falcon 9 rocket, causing harmful vibrations to the vehicle. The Army Corps of Engineers came out, inspected everything, and determined that a multi-million dollar upgrade to the flame trench was needed to widen and elongate the concrete structure and pool. The problem was solved much faster by SpaceX by installing a waterfall system over the ends of the flame trench channel, and with better results at a cost of only $100,000. The launch vehicle itself is no different, being one of the most inexpensive we have seen in a very long time, possibly ever if you are to adjust inflation.
The minds of those who innovate in such a way deserve pay commensurate to their skill. A person is worth what someone is willing to pay them. As such, private industry is filling their ranks with displaced NASA and United Space Alliance skill. These programs are designed to be efficient, and the companies combined cannot accommodate everyone from the single NASA program, and rightly so. Their cost savings of efficiency are America’s savings and it is grossly unfair that the best thing for America and the rest of the world may be the worst thing for Florida. I do not envy those who must choose. The competition between companies for those contracts will further drive technological innovation at the private industry level as well, but by the time the companies will be in a position to create these few hundred jobs in Brevard a few years from now, Florida will not in a position to provide them, and though workers will move into Brevard from elsewhere, it will be more than a decade from now before the local economy will begin to resemble the normalcy of those technology jobs pouring money into non-space related local businesses which will have to begin again from scratch, as they have all closed down.
Tonight’s potential historic uncrewed launch could change half of that. Earlier this week NASA announced a modification to its Launch Service Contract to include the Falcon 9 vehicle. To speed up America’s return to flight, NASA has allowed the combining of COTS 2 and 3, allowing them to (2) demonstrate the ability to abort a rendezvous with ISS and then (3) to dock with it by berthing, or being pulled in by robotic arm. This will save anywhere between several months and more than a year of preparing an extra flight. This flight will also satisfy one of America’s international treaty mandated resupply flights to ISS, the reason we have to buy those Soyuz tickets, though with low priority cargo, mostly food that can be easily replaced by another flight should the mission fail.
At the point where SpaceX succeeds, either tonight or at a later time, America will have a real, viable, safe and inexpensive alternative to the flight gap problem and all who complain about the Soyuz solution, with the money being recirculated into the American economy, new space innovation, and even research into Elon Musk’s other venture, Tesla Motors, building high end electric sports cars. Research into new battery technology by Tesla has even benefited NASA and America in other areas.
To the question of secrecy and open government, people have a right to know what their money is doing, stockholders and taxpayers alike. President Obama’s new Transparency and Open Government Initiative is a remarkable step in this direction and should be applauded. Missed opportunities are an unfortunate moot issue of life, best left to historians, and one can only reflect on where to go from here in any situation, studying the past only to learn from mistakes, not to dwell, yet “For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these ‘It might have been’.” I however, am looking to the future, and what I see and believe I will see in my lifetime excites me to my core.