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COUNTDOWN

By Frank Sietzen, Jr.

Space in the Summer Doldrums
As summer revisits North America, space activities in the U.S. are facing crises at nearly every turn. In civil space, cost overruns in the International Space Station threaten its very usefulness, portending leaving it adrift only to be kept running with the possibility of little science. In advanced human space exploration technology, the station’s ills have stripped virtually every dollar (considering the budget of the past few years more like dimes) from the research budget. In commercial space, the folly of the 1998 export-licensing shift has all but destroyed the boom of the recent past. In space launch the failure of the low Earth orbit constellations like Iridium and ICO have flattened launch market projections, some of which were being eyed by struggling reusable launch entrepreneurs. Consolidations in U.S. aerospace continue, notwithstanding the failure of the G.E.-Honeywell merger as this is written. Only military space programs seem destined for attention, but a careful review of the FY2002 budget additions just made by the Bush administration show few dollars directed to accompany the recent rhetoric.


Space, in America, is in the summer doldrums.


And abroad it’s not much better.


France recently demurred on the NASA effort to get its approval to supply, in a barter arrangement, the rescue craft for the station. Ariane 5 production is aimed at shrinking the costs of producing the big booster, thereby making it more attractive for commercial sale. But even with such cuts, revenue is likely to be reduced overall, since growth in sales are unlikely to make up for the reduced revenue from the cheaper rockets. Japan is banking all on a late August test flight of the H-IIA. Its failure would all but ground Japan’s plans for space autonomy.


Following Dennis Tito’s pioneering voyage, the 16 international partners on the station are to approve a protocol for the next space tourists, but some hint that NASA is already dragging its feet. A review of commercial plans by NASA isn’t expected to be completed until fall. And the Bush White House doesn’t seem to be in any great rush to either identify a new civil space chief or a space policy to go with him/her.


So what are we to make of all this?


Since America has not chosen—at least not yet—to lead the way in a new space plan, the great spacefaring powers must do so together. Thus the current climate calls for even greater space cooperation. Long range planning in this environment is difficult, to be sure, but it is time the U.S. and its space partners start looking beyond the ISS towards practical goals for the decade ahead, after the station has been assembled. Since the U.S. clearly isn’t interested in staking out a firm position on a new human spaceflight goal, then perhaps one can be arrived at by consensus. This will require a careful and candid series of exchanges among the partners. This also assumes that the existing ISS partnerships are the starting point for future human exploration.


We are talking about, of course, returning to the lunar surface or Mars expeditions. In such international space exchanges, perhaps a clear path back to the Moon can be arrived at by determining now, before anyone starts talking about making such goals into policy, which technologies or mission sequences each partner might be interested in.


Or not.


If the great spacefaring powers would reject a given mission, then the United States would be in a better position to determine what might be feasible and what might not.


This is not the best way to sanction a future space goal — in essence by osmosis.


But with seven months of the Bush administration complete, and no new NASA administrator or space policy in sight, it is time to start planning for alternate ways to continue humanity’s reach into space beyond Earth orbit.


Space remains critical to humanity’s future, and we have to just work harder to make leaders know that. It is not the time to give up, but to get tough!


Oh, and one other national adjunct to this international effort at communication. While the Senate and House have named their members, the White House is dragging its feet on naming its six members to the Congressionally-mandated panel looking into the future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry. The commission is to complete a report by March, 2002 on what plans the federal government should put in place to help the industry, mainly by a cogent program of research and development, which has fallen to its lowest point in 40 years. We urge whomever still cares about aerospace within the administration — surely someone does — to name their people and let the commission finally get started. After all, as summer comes to Washington, it has only seven months left out of its original 15 to craft a plan for the future of all of aerospace.


That is, if it has a future.


Sorry to sound such a pessimistic note.


Consider it part of the summer doldrums, circa 2001.
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