Last November, in Florida, I had the opportunity to see my first Space Shuttle launch. For the hundreds of millions of people who don’t pay more than a passing notice to the fact that human beings still go into space on a regular basis, this is a fairly banal thing. But to those who camp out all day, plan trips around Cape Canaveral launch windows, and scrupulously follow the ins and outs of NASA politics, this is the bread and butter.

Unless you score tickets to the Kennedy Space Center, which has the official ambiance and a giant countdown clock, the best place to watch a NASA Shuttle launch is from the nearby burg of Titusville, Florida. Titusville is a small town dubbed “Space City, USA,” by its largely aerospace-employed locals; it boasts both an Astronaut High School and a Spaceview Park, the latter of which is overrun by hardcore space-heads on a launch day. It takes the wild rumbling sound of the shuttle’s 1,300,000 pound solid rocket boosters several seconds to reach Titusville, twelve miles away across the Indian River — but it’s still loud as hell. And powerful, too, in a way I didn’t entirely expect. There was the Shuttle, which looked so small from a distance, one of six in a fleet so often criticized as “penguins” (y’know, flightless black and white birds) holding six people, worth untold billions (approximately 1.5 billion just to launch one), and stocked with 534,900 gallons of fuel. The real surprise was how fast it happened; within seconds of liftoff, STS Atlantis was just a blip going 15,000 miles an hour and the sky was torn in half by a ragged cloud of exhaust that later diffused in a lovely, thoughtful way. Check out a video of the launch here.

In any case, the experience revived my interest in the goals and operations of our bloated ol’ space agency. It’s been a few years since Universe took on the beast in a comprehensive way, and as we’re on the cusp of a new era for space — what with the now imminent retirement of the Shuttles, NASA’s success with unmanned missions, the much-debated “bombing of the moon,” and, most importantly, the Obama administration’s recent nix of Bush-era manned moon mission plans — it seems a fitting moment to revisit. Where are we, after all? Should we be laughing or crying? Should we cheer or lament the end of the Shuttle era?

Is NASA in the dumps?

Well, the answer is: it depends. Yes, this is the brink of a new era for space exploration, but it won’t be the anything like the “New Vision” envisioned by the Bush Administration six years ago. Gone may be plans of a return to the moon in the next two decades. Gone, too, may be the Ares rockets, the ostensible replacement for the dying Shuttle program. If Obama’s exclusion of Project Constellation from the 2011 United States federal budget goes uncontested by congress, gone will be all of NASA’s seemingly arbitrary, high-profile manned space mission plans.

What does this mean? Well, in my opinion, it’s good news. Project Constellation seemed crazy to me from the beginning; even former NASA administrator Mike Griffin once called it “Apollo on steroids.” While other space agencies and the booming commercial space sector busied themselves with innovative new rockets, single-stage to orbit vehicles, and space planes, NASA planned on stepping back to the kinds of rockets it had been successful with in the 1960s. Ever since being announced by the Bush Administration, the project has been perpetually underfunded and generally unpopular with scientists, who see the recent successes of NASA’s many unmanned missions as proof that sending people into space is risky and totally not cost-effective.

Says Obama of the new, stripped-down NASA budget: it’s a “bold new approach to human space flight that embraces commercial industry, forges international partnerships, and invests in the building blocks of a more capable approach to space exploration.” This means, simply, that the Obama administration believes encouraging the burgeoning private sector to pick up the space administration’s flack will lead to new industry as well faster, smarter, and cheaper rockets. It’s no secret that the commercial space industry has been flourishing in recent years — companies like Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Scaled Composites, Blue Origin, and SpaceX are making huge strides in research, development, and design of rockets, all on tighter budgets and way less administrative overhead than NASA could dream of having. Commercial rocket systems will almost certainly be a lot cheaper, and could potentially have us back riding rockets to the Space Station by 2015 rather than by the Ares 1 rocket’s proposed completion date of 2018 (which leaves us rocketless and dependent on the Russians for less time). They will also, hopefully, be safer than the Shuttle, whose track record inspires little confidence.

By axing NASA’s budget for manned space missions, the government is implicitly endorsing a more flexible path, one which puts the pressure on small entrepreneurial firms to build rockets for human spaceflight.

Let’s be clear on one thing, however. NASA’s never built their own rockets; they’ve always depended on commercial aerospace contractors like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Now that the government is openly talking about moving space travel into the commercial realm, what they really mean is that they’re handing the baton over to the underdogs — companies like the aforementioned SpaceX, Blue Origin, or Scaled Composites — who are flexible, innovative, and able to manufacture rockets without operating on a cost plus basis. This is a major shift from how the agency’s been running things for decades: NASA now intends to put its money back into R&D for long-term projects and research, allowing the private sector, for now, to take on the brass-tacks operations of low-Earth orbit and Space Station missions.

How do people feel about this? Well, there’s bound to be some congressional opposition, especially with politicians who represent districts with traditionally massive aerospace industry dependence. In these economic times, however, cutting millions out of government spending is more than likely to pass through uncontested. And even NASA, as a whole, supports this sea change. In an interview with the excellent video series, This Week In Space (see above), NASA’s deputy administrator Lori Beth Garver points out that, “NASA’s been trying to relive Appolo for the last 40 years. We do not have, nor do we hope to, the same kind of political situation that we did at that time that would cause something like a [space] race. Without that, just choosing an arbitrary destination and time doesn’t really make sense.”

Garver is right. NASA’s been trying to rally passionate public engagement in recent years the only way it knows how, the only way it’s worked in the past: with manned space missions. However, this is a different age. There’s definitely still a space race going on, but it’s far more diffuse; as China, India, Europe, and the many commercial space enterprises get into the game, we no longer have one common competitor, but dozens. And I don’t think it’s helpful to think of any of these as “competitors,” too; this isn’t the Cold War. This is an era of lateral, collective space development, collaboration, an inevitable zeitgeist. It’s surprisingly reasonable for NASA to be aware of the milieu of space in 2010, adapt to it, and allow those people into the process that would undoubtedly have beaten them to the punch anyways.

We will still go to space. But the way we go will doubtlessly surprise us.

Comments

  1. #1 Colin Evans
    March 17, 2010

    May I offer one correction to your excellent comments. Lost in all the kerfuffle over the specific cancellation of Constellation is the fact that the current proposed federal budget still INCREASES the funding for NASA. Canceling constellation will effectively increase resources on other programs even further by halting a drain to a project they didn’t believe in anyway. One more the media got wrong.

  2. #2 doug l
    March 17, 2010

    A lot of the commercial activity in space seems to be of the kind that needs a lot of gentle handling and low gravity forces and of high-value, like tourists. But supporting research in developing a cheap way to get fuel and other bulky durable stuff up there where it can be put to use, and doing that a whole lot cheaper than using missile technology that was more about defense, would really pay-off and see commercial activity in space go from tourism for the elite into an industrial and scientific research platform without equal.
    And it would open the door for the development of space based solar.

  3. #3 Calli Arcale
    March 18, 2010

    “companies like the aforementioned SpaceX, Blue Origin, or Scaled Composites ”

    Hey, don’t forget Orbital Sciences. They’re a major player in this. They made a play for the Constellation contract, and today they are working on a Taurus 2 rocket and an unmanned cargo vessel to potentially deliver supplies to the ISS. They’re not as close to launch as SpaceX is, but they’re closer than Blue Origin and certainly closer than Scaled, at least as far as providing services to NASA goes.

  4. #4 Robert Koenn
    March 18, 2010

    Another thing that so many choose to ignore is that whether we continue to fly shuttle or not, we will still pay Russia for rides to the station and for emergency return capability for all the ISS crew members. Flying shuttle will not mean we do not need to depend on the Russians, they have the only vehicle capable of performing the emergency escape and because of that we will ride up and down on Soyuz, shuttle or not. So in my mind that is poor rationale for continuing the extremely expensive shuttle. And we will only have to pay the Russians for 5 or 6 seats a year at the current price of $51M per seat. That is a huge price cheaper than shuttles taking a crew up for 10 days at ISS twice a year.

  5. #5 Nils Ross
    March 28, 2010

    Claire, your blog post covers the how, but what’s the current feeling of ‘what’? Where is the US space program, or any of the other dozens of space programs ‘going’? Are we just concerned about our ability to get into orbit, build detectors of various kinds, explore Mars and perhaps the other planets in our solar system by robot? Is there a feeling of some kind of ultimate goal, or are we in still in flux in this regard, treating space essentially as a place to conduct experiments and little else? I really am curious, I’m not trying to sound judgemental.

  6. #6 one
    April 10, 2010


    It’s NOT a Blue Origin idea!

    http://www.newspaceagency.com/articles/03notblueoriginidea.html

  7. #7 ankara halı yıkama
    July 24, 2010

    May I offer one correction to your excellent comments. Lost in all the kerfuffle over the specific cancellation of Constellation is the fact that the current proposed federal budget still INCREASES the funding for NASA. Canceling constellation will effectively increase resources on other programs even further by halting a drain to a project they didn’t believe in anyway. One more the media got wrong.

    thank youu

  8. #8 montra---trimek----pig----thailand----
    August 1, 2010

    —-visit——nasa——-

  9. #9 ev tekstili
    August 4, 2010

    How do people feel about this? Well, there’s bound to be some congressional opposition, especially with politicians who represent districts with traditionally massive aerospace industry dependence. In these economic times, however, cutting millions out of government spending is more than likely to pass through uncontested. And even NASA, as a whole, supports this sea change. In an interview with the excellent video series, This Week In Space (see above), NASA’s deputy administrator Lori Beth Garver points out that, “NASA’s been trying to relive Appolo for the last 40 years. We do not have, nor do we hope to, the same kind of political situation that we did at that time that would cause something like a [space] race. Without that, just choosing an arbitrary destination and time doesn’t really make sense.”
    thanksss

  10. #10 koltuk yıkama
    August 17, 2010

    emergency return capability for all the ISS crew members. Flying shuttle will not mean we do not need to depend on the Russians, they have the only vehicle capable of performing the emergency escape and because of that we will ride up and down on Soyuz, shuttle or not. So in my mind that is poor rationale for continuing the extremely

  11. #11 ankara evden eve nakliye
    August 17, 2010

    programs ‘going’? Are we just concerned about our ability to get into orbit, build detectors of various kinds, explore Mars and perhaps the other planets in our solar system by robot? Is there a feeling of some kind of ultimate goal, or are we in still in flux in this regard,

  12. #12 Nichlas Boardman
    October 13, 2010

    Why is mars red? What causes mars to be this color?

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