Future of the US Space Program

July 17, 2017

On May 25, 1961 President John F. Kennedy made the famous pledge that America would land a man on the moon before the decade ended. On July 21, 1969 Neil Armstrong did just that, being the first human being to step foot on an alien world. In taking that small giant leap for mankind, Neil Armstrong thrust America squarely in front of space science, the unquestionable pioneer in solar system exploration.

The US Space program has lost a lot of glory since the glory days of Apollo 11. It has been nearly 25 years since a person has walked on the moon, moreover the US does not currently have a spacecraft that could go to the moon. The recent accidents with the Space Shuttle have also not helped improve the image of the US Space Program. Moreover, the prospects for the US Space Program get dimmer when you consider that the current cream of the NASA launch vehicles crop – The Space Shuttle – is based on technology from the 1970s (Schwartz, 2005).

It seems that the US Space Program has lost the splendors it once held during the Apollo years. Indeed, NASA has to fight tooth and nail every year to prevent budget cuts from Congress. Even already successful programs like the Hubble Space Telescope are already beyond their designed operational years with no replacement in sight. What happened to the US Space Program in between the years of 1969 and 2007? More importantly, what does the future hold for the US Space Program?

It seems that the US’s winning of the space race was also its own undoing. Without an opponent to compete with, public interest in space exploration started to wane. Another factor was the lack of another place to go. The US was successful in conquering the moon, what was next after that? Mars would have been the most logical conclusion but technology during that time (and arguably even technology in our time) is not in any shape to even attempt a manned landing on the red planet. Add to that the disappointing results of the Viking Landings that showed that Mars had no life; as a result public interest in Mars as a next frontier waned. The next time a probe landed on Mars was in 1997 – two decades after Viking I and II.

The focus of the Space Program then turned to the construction of Space Stations. However, these projects have failed to capture the public’s fancy, the esoteric science experiments performed in zero gravity having less appeal than grand missions to exotic locations. Moreover, the Space station, most especially the ISS has been the constant target of criticism for excessive spending.

The trend for Space Exploration during the past few years has been smaller, faster, cheaper. This advocated the successful use of robotic space probes to explore every planet in the solar system. These space probes have been for the large part successful, with a few failures. Space probes are cheaper, need no expensive life support system and does not lead to a national tragedy should the unthinkable happen and the space probe fail. Most importantly, space probes are good at what they do, bringing in a wealth of science that no human astronaut could match. An average space shuttle launch costs $450 million for a one to two week mission. All in all, $112 billion has been spent on the program since it became operational (David, 2005). For comparison, the New Horizon space probe en route to Pluto (a place no manned spacecraft could dream of reaching) costs $550 million (NSSDC, 2007).

It seems that space probes shall continue to be a cornerstone of future US Space Exploration. The reality is that NASA cannot hope to achieve the funding support it received during the Apollo and Space Race years and smaller, faster, cheaper will still be a part of US Space Exploration for years to come. A cursory look at the missions page on NASA’s website shows how many missions are composed only of computers and space robots.

While probes may be thought of as “doing the job” and they do so exceedingly well, there is still an allure to manned space flight. Every small boy or girl dreams of becoming an astronaut, of blasting off on top of a rocket to zero gravity, to walk and float on the surface of an alien land. I know of no child that only wants to become a computer operator at mission control – they all want to become astronauts. There is still an enthusiasm for humanity going into space – NASA only needs to recapture it.

That is one of the aspects of the Vision for Space Exploration, an ambitious space policy announced by President George W. Bush in January 2004. The Vision calls for the following achievements to be made: the completion of the International Space Station by 2010, the retirement of the Space Shuttle by 2010, and most ambitiously, a return to the moon by 2020.

With this new Vision, NASA has launched Project Constellation, a program to create a new generation of spacecraft for human spaceflight. These new spacecraft consist primarily of the Ares Rocket, the Orion module, the Lunar Surface Access Module (LSAM) and the Earth Departure Stage (EDS). The Orion module is similar to the Apollo Service and Command modules. Orion is split also into two, a command and service module containing a crew of up to six members in the command module and the propulsion and support machinery in the service module. The LSAM is similar to the Lunar Module of the Apollo era; it will be the craft to touch down on the moon and is also responsible for blasting off back to the orbiting Orion module. The EDS on the other hand is the main propulsion system to be used in traveling from Earth orbit to the moon (NASA, 2007).

The new generation is reminiscent of the Apollo days of NASA. It seems that NASA has abandoned the space plane concept eminent in the Space Shuttle design. With Project Constellation, NASA goes back to the old design of launching different vehicles on top of the Ares rocket. Additionally, instead of reusability, it seemed that NASA has opted for modularity. The different combinations of Ares launch vehicle and crew and cargo modules could accommodate different kinds of missions, from ferrying satellites to orbit, to supplying the International Space Station and to complete manned lunar landings – all using the same platforms and vehicles.

For example, on ISS service flights, the Ares I rocket is mated to the Orion crew module. This combination is launched from Earth orbit toward the space station. On Lunar flights, there will be two launches from Earth; the first carries the LSAM and the EDS atop an Ares rocket. The second launch will carry the Orion module that carries the crew. The Orion module, LSAM and EDS then rendezvous while on Earth orbit and the three together will be the craft to proceed to the moon.

With Project Constellation, the US Space Program is again aiming for the moon. However, unlike the Apollo era, this time the spending is more controlled, and the execution not that hurried. While Kennedy promised to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade, it will be another 12 years before Project Constellation’s target date for a lunar landing. How much more disasters, setbacks and budget cuts will come NASA’s way between now and then nobody knows. But one thing is for certain, as long as imagination is alive in every person, nations will still want to be great in space and boys will still want to become astronauts. Even though it is more expensive and less productive than its robotic counterparts, human space exploration is here to stay.

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David, L. (February 11, 2005). Total Tally of Shuttle Fleet Costs Exceed Initial Estimates . In Space.com. Retrieved May 14, 2007

National Aeronautics and Space Administration. (May 11, 2007). Constellation Program: NASA's New Spaceships. In NASA Official Website. Retrieved May 14, 2007

National Space Science Data Center. (February 27, 2007). New Horizons Pluto Kuiper Belt Flyby. In NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Retrieved May 14, 2007

Schwartz, J. High Tech in the 70's, Shuttles Feel Their Age. (2005, July 25). New York Times, p. Science.

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