A Space Program For the Rest of Us

The new space policy expected since the loss of Columbia almost a year ago was finally announced by President Bush Wednesday.

In his speech, the president correctly pointed out that in over three decades since astronaut Eugene Cernan was the last one to kick up lunar regolith, no American, or indeed human, has been farther from the earth's surface than four hundred miles or so. In response to this tragic statistic, in stirring words, the president pronounced that "humans are headed into the cosmos."

After years of watching science fiction movies, like 2001, and television shows like Star Trek, it's a message that we have grown to absorb culturally for decades, but now, for perhaps the first time, it's formal federal policy.

Whether or not it will actually result in achieving the goals that Mr. Bush laid out remains, of course, to be seen. Only the most minimal one, of starting preparatory robotic exploration of the moon in 2008, will occur within his term of office, and that only if he wins reelection this year. The rest of the objectives--completing the station and phasing out the space shuttle in 2010, manned visit to the moon in 2015, lunar base in 2020--will all occur, if at all, after he has left office.

The speech was broad brush, with details and specific architectures to be left for later, which is appropriate. Some of the few details that were revealed are a little troubling.

It's apparently the end of the Orbital Space Plane project, which is a good thing--it will probably transform itself into the new Crew Exploration Vehicle, which is apparently intended to become a modern version of the old Apollo capsule. But if I heard the speech correctly, that vehicle isn't to be ready for a decade, in 2014, while the shuttle is scheduled to be taken out of service upon planned station completion in 2010. This implies that there will be a four-year gap during which we have no ability to get people into space, at least on a government-funded American vehicle. I suspect that this, and other issues, will be fleshed out over the next few days.

It should be noted that on that schedule, it will take us over a decade to get back to the moon, whereas we did it much faster the last time, when we knew much less about how to do it. Of course, the last time, funding was no object--a circumstance that no longer holds. It should also be noted that if the station is completed in 2010, it will be over a quarter of a century after the program was initiated--results from the new initiatives will have to be more timely to keep to the stated schedule.

Many have pointed out that the goals are not new--they're the same ones that Vice-President Spiro Agnew presented as a follow-on to Apollo during the Nixon administration, and that the president's father laid out on the Washington Mall on July 20, 1989. In both cases, they fell flat, and were eviscerated by the press and the Congress. Indeed, in the latter case, NASA itself played a role in subverting them by coming up with an outrageous cost estimate of half a trillion dollars, thus removing this potential distraction from its desired focus on the space station.

The challenge of the administration will be to prevent this initiative from similarly faltering, at least during its term. From this standpoint, the proposed schedule and funding profile is convenient, because the majority of new expenditures for this will occur, like the milestones, after the president is out of office. Most of the initial funding will come from a reallocation of already planned NASA resources, with very few new funds to be requested.

The other strategy will be to have an independent commission come up with the implementation approaches that were absent from the speech, and the president announced he was doing exactly that, to be headed by Pete Aldridge, a veteran aerospace executive. It's not a choice that I find particularly inspiring--I'm afraid that Mr. Aldridge is too deeply steeped in space industry business-as-usual, but there will be others on the commission, and I hope that there is an outreach program to seek fresh ideas and approaches.

While I'm glad that the president has stated a national goal of finally getting humans beyond earth orbit, I'm disappointed that those humans are apparently to continue to be NASA employees, who the rest of us watch, voyeuristically, on television. NASA was not just given the lead--it was apparently given sole responsibility. There was no mention of private enterprise, or of any activities in space beyond "exploration" and "science." It was encouraging to hear a president talk about the utilization of extraterrestrial resources, but only in the context of how to get to the next milestone.

This is the part of the policy that should be most vigorously debated in the coming months--not whether or not humans, and American humans, are heading into the cosmos, but how we get humans doing that who aren't only civil servants, and whether or not there are roles for other agencies, and sectors of society. Given NASA's track record, and in the interests of competition, the administration should in fact consider setting up a separate organization to manage this initiative, and put out portions of it to bid, whether from NASA, DARPA, other agencies, or the private sector.

Most of all, I hope that the administration can break out of the apparent NASA-centric mindset demonstrated in the president's speech and come up with a broader vision, rather than a destination, and help create a space program for, as Apple Computer used to say, the "rest of us."

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.

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