I’ve been thinking all summer about NASA’s Constellation program. In general, I think it’s great to be getting out of low Earth orbit…but I think the strategic goals of the Vision for Space Exploration and the technical solutions in Constellation are somewhat lacking. My experience this summer at Johnson Space Center, and the Augustine Commission’s generally open mind, have made me very hopeful – I’ve noticed that the people at JSC aren’t as gung-ho Orion-is-the-best-thing-to-hit-space-since-John-Glenn as I feared they would be. (That seems to happen more at Marshall Spaceflight Center, where they are building Ares, and in the mind of Mike Griffin, who has called anybody who wants the current architecture to change “ignorant.” Note that that includes famous people like Buzz Aldrin and a lot of top-flight engineers.)
The current Constellation architecture is a result of basically two factors:
(1) A knee-jerk response to the Columbia disaster. NASA wanted safety during reentry, and it decided that capsules never burn up in reentry. (Never mind that while Shuttle had two major disasters in ~130 missions, Apollo had two major disasters in ~20. The tildes are because both numbers depend a little on how you count.)
(2) The Vision for Space Exploration, which sets a “Moon sorties first, then Mars sorties, and I guess we can support ISS until it’s just barely finished” mission for NASA.
That first item is a terrible point to be feeding directly into strategic planning and design work, because it limits creativity and ingenuity. Right now, Constellation is operating under the assumption that it should use as little new technology as possible. Compare that to the Apollo design days, when engineers designed their spacecraft with materials that had yet to be invented. The second item takes away from Constellation the kind of grandiose vision that could really attract attention and acclaim to NASA. We have gotten complacent with our space program; it seems routine to the ordinary Earthling. That’s the exact opposite of what we need to nuture strong public support of the space program (and science and technology in general): astronauts, flight controllers, scientists, and engineers need to be heroes again.
So where do I think NASA should go, and what should it do to get there? First of all, let’s take a look at the capabilities that NASA has now.
NASA has an incredible low-Earth-orbit capability. The Shuttle lets us bring a lot of mass into orbit. It also lets us bring a lot of mass down from orbit, which is crucially important for the Space Station’s science architecture and is a capability that Orion ignores. We also have a lot of experience with rendezvous, capture, and docking, from the assembly of ISS, Hubble servicing missions, and the like – going all the way back to Gemini – also a versatile capability virtually ignored by Orion. Finally, ISS has given us a lot of long-duration spaceflight experience.
NASA is also very good at getting robots to and operating them on Mars. Sure, several missions failed, but each of those did so because of a specific technical reason which all have known fixes. The last four major missions (Phoenix, MER1 and 2, and MRO) were all – or still are! – rousing successes.
Now let’s look at what’s problematic about today’s space program. The Shuttle is horrendously expensive to operate. It is also unsafe, not because its design is inherently flawed, but because each launch requires a total refurbishment of the vehicle and the vehicles are effectively 20-30 years old.
Here’s what I think NASA ought to do strategically, and (without doing any detailed trade studies, because though I’m a Ph.D. candidate in spacecraft engineering, I am acting as but a humble blogger here) how I think it could get there.