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?
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.