SPECIAL REPORT

NASA Sace Shuttle prospects beyond 2010

Clouds of concern surround space agency program for replacing US national icon.


Artist's rendering showing comparison of Orion's design evolution across the Orion 604, 605 and 606 configurations. Orion now consists of 2 main parts-a reusable crew module similar to the Apollo Command Module, but capable of holding 4-6 crew members, and a disposable cylindrical service module containing the primary propulsion systems and consumable supplies. For LEO flights to and from the ISS, Orion is to be carried aloft on an Ares I crew launch vehicle.

"I could not be more pleased with the progress we are making," he said. "Orion is headed where it needs to be." Doug Cook, deputy associate administrator for exploration at NASA headquarters, added that Orion's "initial operating capability" and maiden flight to the ISS will launch on schedule in Mar 2015.

Yet on the same August day as the teleconference, NASA's own Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) released its annual report, which posed harsh questions about the program's progress. It faulted the agency with "a lack of clear direction" for Constellation, citing "surprising anxiety" about the program among NASA employees, when early stages of development are "usually marked by enthusiasm and optimism."

The report also questioned the agency's approach to safety features on Orion. Ten days later, the National Research Council (NRC) released a 158-page report based on a 10-month, independent review of NASA's Exploration Technology Development Program by 25 veteran aerospace experts.

This panel agreed with NASA and the ASAP report that budgetary problems are posing "significant challenges." It also found that the agency was making progress, but noted that there was room for improvement, especially in communicating risks and human health factors associated with new technologies, and with longer-term projects beyond the next Moon shot.

Minding the gap

Meanwhile, the initial 2-year gap between the Shuttle retirement and the launch of the new Orion has widened to a 5-year gap-a period during which time the US will be without a spaceship. Aldrin says, "Unless we do something, we're going to have to rely on Russia and the Soyuz to take us to our $100-billion space station.

That's unacceptable to me. We might as well forfeit leadership in the space program." Given Russia's recent acts of aggression in Georgia, the gap impact on the American space program could be severe. "This tension with the Russians is more than a bilateral question between the US and Russia-it's international," says Vincent Sabathier, senior fellow and director for space initiatives at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

"NATO was supposed to provide protection for and involve Georgia in NATO, and Russia moved in just before," he says. "Washington is already talking." Among those in Washington talking is Sen Bill Nelson (D-FL), the only member of Congress to have served as a Shuttle payload specialist (STS 61C Columbia, Jan 12-18, 1986).

NASA's Constellation program continues work on development of the Orion spacecraft that is to return humans to the Moon and prepare for future voyages. This artist's rendering shows a cutaway concept of the Orion crew exploration vehicle's crew module.

This summer he publicly announced his fears that deteriorating relations may result in Russia denying the US rides or charging exorbitant fees-or Congress killing that option altogether.

NASA's current deal to purchase rides on Soyuz exists only with a Congressional waiver from the Iran-Syria Non-Proliferation Act, which prohibits the US from buying space-related goods and services from Russia as long as it is exporting nuclear technology to Iran.

That waiver, which expires in 2011, is up for renewal this fall. "I don't think a waiver now is going to be popular," says Aldrin. The gap represents déjà vu for many insiders. Despite the Shuttle's overall success, the decision to put all the human spaceflight eggs into one basket following Apollo is largely viewed as "one of the colossal mistakes in history," as NASA Administrator Michael Griffin told 60 Minutes earlier this year.

"The development of the Space Shuttle program in the 1970s was not wisely planned, it was underfunded, and we rushed into a decision that left us with a gap," recalls Aldrin, who is leading an effort to form a group from the Space Exploration Alliance, a partnership of the nation's premier nonprofit space organizations, to re-examine Constellation and check out all other viable possibilities.

Call for review

Growing concern about the time gap, coupled with the Russian issue, is driving the momentum for independent reviews of NASA's choices. "It's of critical importance that we make the right choice and not repeat any of the mistakes that we made with the Shuttle, because the systems we're developing now are going to be used for the next 30 years and so," says Logsdon.

Since NASA falls under the Executive Branch of the government, it takes its orders from the White House. "In recent months there has been increased criticism of NASA's approach to replacing the Shuttle and preparing to resume human exploration," says Logsdon.

"Almost certainly the next Administration is going to take a hard look to see if there's any fire where there's smoke, and whether these criticisms are valid or not. If they are valid, they could set the program back several more years."

Some fear that they could end it altogether. And no one wants to even guess what the fallout of that might be on NASA. The National Academy of Sciences is assembling its own 14-member panel, to be headed by General Lester Lyles, a former director of the Strategic Defense Initiative/Ballistic Missile Defense Organization.

It will study the goals and rationale of the US space program, and plans to publish its report and recommendations to the new Administration in Jul 2009. Many see this as too long to wait to address the gap and consider the options. As Aldrin notes, "there are options."

Alternatives to consider

One alternative is Direct 2.0, aka Jupiter 120 rocket, a relatively simple design produced by NASA employees working off-government-hours. Known as "the rocket NASA won't talk about," it would use most of the existing Shuttle hardware, including the giant orange external fuel tank and 2 solid rocket boosters to launch the Orion capsule into space.

The only key modifications would be the capsule at the top and an engine at the bottom of the external fuel tank. This would save billions of dollars, proponents claim, because, unlike Ares, it would not require modifications to the launch pads, the Vehicle Assembly Building or other manufacturing facilities.

It would also get America back on the Moon by 2013, and save thousands of jobs in Florida. "There is another obvious way of filling the gap-that is to fill it with another program," says Aldrin. "We did this for Apollo-it was called Gemini.

We could bring together the rockets that would be needed to carry out the lunar program, like the Delta IV and the Atlas V, with 2 Shuttle-Cs, and a crew on an EELV [evolved expandable launch vehicle]. We could develop another program now that gives us redundant access to low Earth orbit."

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