This year is a banner year for marking anniversaries of achievements in space. The first walk in space was 50 years ago in March, and 40 years ago this month, the Apollo-Soyuz mission brought two Cold War adversaries together.
We can look back with pride on our achievements in space, but we should look ahead with concern for the uncertain future of America's human spaceflight program.
We should have a policy built on past activities and on a vision that doesn't change as administrations come and go. But we don't have one.
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The Hubble Space Telescope makes the point. Twenty-five years ago, on April 25, the space shuttle Discovery put the Hubble into orbit around Earth. In its quarter century of star gazing, Hubble has significantly altered the world's perception of the cosmos and furthered humankind's understanding of the universe. It has revealed previously unattainable properties of space and time. It is a unique scientific facility that continues to provide new views of the heavens and opens the door to discoveries.
But Hubble is more than just an outstanding science facility. It is living testimony to the value of humans in space and an incredible example of how humans and robotics can complement each other to achieve spectacular results.
After its deployment, Hubble's primary mirror was found to be incorrectly shaped, which meant the telescope could not focus all the light from an object to a single sharp point. Instead, each object it observed had a fuzzy halo. If the $1.5 billion telescope was to be salvaged, immediate modifications were required.
Fortunately, a second-generation wide-field planetary camera was already under construction. The new camera was equipped with specially ground internal mirrors to exactly counteract the effects of Hubble's flawed main mirror. Ensuring that properly focused light was provided to Hubble's other instruments was a more difficult task. An instrument was designed to take the place of the photometer in one of the four main below-mirror instrument bays. The instrument included 10 small mirrors mounted on five motorized arms. They could be extended into the primary mirror's light path and send light that was properly focused to the other instruments.
The new instruments had to be thoroughly tested to prove they could correct Hubble's vision problem, and in turn they had to be installed on the telescope. Hubble was experiencing other problems as well. Unexpected vibrations caused the telescope to rock back and forth when entering or exiting Earth's shadow. During a series of tests, engineers identified the source of the vibrations: The observatory's two solar arrays were flexing in response to temperature changes. The problem could be alleviated with replacement arrays modified to make them less susceptible to flexing, and the new arrays in turn needed to be installed on the telescope.
The fortunate requirement that enabled the successful repair of Hubble was the telescope's original design philosophy that provided for periodic visits by space shuttle astronauts performing space walks to maintain, repair and upgrade the telescope. The designers of the telescope had planned ahead and provided for orbital replacement units and instruments with standardized and space walk-compatible interfaces. And the telescope itself was designed with built-in astronaut crew aids, such as handrails and tether points, sockets for attaching portable foot-restraint platforms to provide secure work sites, standardized access doors, electrical connector maps and instruction labels.
It took three and a half years to complete the design, development and testing of the instruments and modifications necessary to restore Hubble for it to become a productive and revolutionary science facility. It also took intensive training and planning to prepare a crew of astronauts for what would be the most ambitious shuttle mission ever attempted. Five back-to-back spacewalks, a record number on a single mission, were planned to replace Hubble's two solar arrays, to correct the telescope's blurry vision and to replace gyroscopes and other equipment.
After years of effort and hours of exhaustive training for astronauts, space shuttle Endeavor launched Dec. 2, 1993, on a mission of repair and salvage.
The astronauts captured the telescope and mounted it on a platform in the Endeavor's cargo bay. Over the next five days, four astronauts installed the two instruments designed to correct Hubble's vision problem. They also installed two new solar arrays, four new stabilizing gyroscopes and electronic controls for the gyro packs, additional computer memory, a new solar array drive control system, new electrical fuses, a new cable to fix an instrument power supply and two new position-sensing magnetometers.
Since the 1993 repair mission, Hubble has revolutionized astronomy. It is one of the most notable spacecraft ever launched considering its impact on our scientific understanding of the universe. One could call it stellar.
After that first historic repair mission in 1993, the space shuttle and astronauts have since visited the Hubble Space Telescope for four more repair-and-servicing missions: shuttle Discovery in February 1997 and December 1999, Columbia in March 2002, and Atlantis in May 2009, for the most demanding and intense mission of them all.
During that mission, two instruments had to be repaired over the course of five space walks, a task not envisioned by the telescope's designers. Astronauts had to access the interior of the instruments, change components and reroute power. It was a complex and demanding task to perform in a space suit. Yet the astronauts were successful, and two new instruments gave Hubble a full complement of five functioning instruments.
The space shuttle and its astronauts had again restored the Hubble Space Telescope and kept it alive to produce extraordinary science. On each successive mission, they left Hubble a far better and more capable facility than what was launched in 1990.
But with the end of the shuttle program, the servicing-and-repair missions ended. Hubble would be on its own. The shuttle and the astronauts had proven the salvation of the telescope. But over and above ensuring its success, the shuttle proved its value, able to repair, service and retrieve satellites. It carried to orbit the large modules of the International Space Station and enabled their installation and the overall assembly of the station, the largest man-made structure in space.
The shuttle was designed and built by the generation of engineers that made the Apollo program a success, and it had fulfilled their vision of what was needed to support a vibrant and active space program. They saw low-Earth orbit as the gateway to space and the need for a permanent capability in this region to open that gateway. The shuttle, with its construction and maintenance capability in low-Earth orbit, achieved that goal and in turn, supported the access and development in regions farther from Earth.
On July 21, it will be four years since space shuttle Atlantis landed at the John F. Kennedy Space Center. Its 13-day mission to the International Space Station was the 135th shuttle flight since Columbia first flew more than 30 years earlier in April 1981. With the words of Barry Wilmore from Mission Control in Houston, "We congratulate you, Atlantis, as well as the thousands of passionate individuals across this great space-faring nation who truly empowered this incredible spacecraft, which has inspired millions around the globe," the space shuttle program ended.
Space shuttles have taken 355 people to space. Since their demise in 2011, the United States has been unable to put people into space except on other nations' spacecraft. It's a capability the U.S. has had since Alan Shepard's flight on May 5, 1961. The U.S. went from flying and operating the most advanced and capable spacecraft in the world, to flying as passengers under foreign command. Americans continue to journey to space on Soyuz spacecraft, but we are no longer able to work on facilities such as Hubble, or assemble large structures in space. We will look back on the space shuttle one day and realize what the nation lost, or rather, what it gave up.
It was President George W. Bush who decided to end the space shuttle program. He did so when he initiated a new program to return to the Moon. On Jan. 14, 2004, he proposed that NASA refocus its programs and resources with the objective of returning humans to the Moon and plan for the prospect of humans going onward to Mars. Bush's "Vision for Space Exploration" had three goals: complete the International Space Station by 2010; develop and test a new spacecraft by 2008 and conduct the first manned mission no later than 2014; and return to the Moon by 2020 and use it as a launching point for missions beyond.
When President Obama arrived in office in 2009, he established the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, chaired by Norman Augustine, to assess the status and future of the Constellation program, which was the name of the planned mission back to the Moon. The 2004 plan to develop and test a new spacecraft by 2008 had not occurred. The original 2005 schedule for the Constellation program had envisioned Ares I and Orion, two essential elements, being ready to support the International Space Station by 2012, two years after scheduled retirement of the shuttle. By the summer of 2009, that date had been pushed back to 2015. An independent assessment of the technical, budgetary and schedule risk to the Constellation program indicated that an additional delay of at least two years was likely. This meant that Ares I and Orion would not reach the International Space Station before the station's then-planned termination date of 2015. Continuing working on the Constellation program would have resulted in a gap of at least seven years in America's ability to launch astronauts into space. During that time, America would have to rely entirely on Russia if it wanted to send astronauts to the space station.
The committee, in considering the budget for the exploration program, thought that meaningful human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit would require a $3 billion increase in NASA's annual budget above the fiscal 2010 figures. Like most major vehicle-development programs, Constellation faced technical challenges. The committee decided that although the engineering problems could have been solved, doing so would add to costs and delay.
As author Joan Johnson Freese stated, "Constellation (the Vision for Space Exploration) was doomed from its inception as a mismatch between the ways-means-ends required for any kind of programmatic success."
"NASA's budget," the Augustine Commission said, "should match its mission and goals." Amid the Great Recession, with American troops fighting foreign wars, Obama had to decide whether to spend more money to return to a timeline close to Bush's 2004 vision. Instead, he pulled Constellation off life support and let it die.
Human spaceflight has historically been a measure of a country's leadership. America's inability to put a man in space has certainly affected perceptions about U.S. leadership in space. And that is likely to continue for some time, stoking uncertainty over the future of human space exploration.
That uncertainty has triggered three major reviews of NASA and its programs in the past three years. The National Space Foundation published a report in December 2012, "Pioneering: Sustaining U.S. Leadership in Space." The National Research Council also published a report the same month, "NASA's Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus." Two years later, "Exploration: Rationales and Approaches for a U.S. Program of Human Space Exploration (2014)" was published by the National Research Council of the National Academies.
The National Research Council's 2012 report said NASA was at a transition point due to circumstances beyond its control. The NASA budget stayed steady in real terms but its programs were getting more expensive and its Apollo-era infrastructure was aging. Its programs were out of sync with its budget, and budget pressures would continue. The National Research Council noted that there was no national consensus on what NASA's mission should be. Nor was there national consensus — or even agreement within NASA — about the existing mission to send a human to an asteroid. The council made recommendations and proposed options to get NASA back on track.
The Space Foundation took a slightly different approach. It felt NASA should be a pioneering organization and should divest itself of all extraneous activities. The Space Foundation called for a major reorganization.
The 2014 report noted that, other than on America's commitment to the International Space Station, no long-term national consensus on human space flight existed. The authors felt NASA could retain a human space-exploration program, achieve meaningful milestones, reassert U.S. leadership, and allow for substantial international collaboration.
But that would work only if they had a logical sequence and was funded at a level to maintain ground personnel, mission controllers and flight crew competence. The authors felt progress in manned flights beyond low-Earth orbit would take decades and cost hundreds of billions of dollars. They laid out principles. They noted that every space nation now accepted the need for international collaboration. And they pointed out America's short-term goals for manned missions were different from those of its traditional partners. Most space-faring nations are focusing on the Moon, but U.S. plans are focused on deflecting an asteroid to demonstrate NASA's ability to protect Earth from harmful space objects.
NASA did not respond formally to any of the three reports. And uncertainties about manned missions persist.
The International Space Station will be in orbit until at least 2024. It is a model of international cooperation and should lay the foundation for an international program of manned missions beyond Earth orbit. But the ability to assemble large structures in orbit and for space-walking astronauts to work on them — abilities that helped build the station — no longer exist. Fifty years ago, Alexei Leonov became the first person to leave his ship and walk in space. The ability to do that was vital to building the space station and making a success of Hubble.
America is not building a second-generation space shuttle but is instead building three space capsules: the Orion and two others, from Boeing and SpaceX. All will land by parachute, like spacecraft of the 1960s, and none will allow space walks comparable to the space shuttle. Unlike Hubble, the next big telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope (due for launch October 2018) will have to be right the first time. There will be no way to repair it. It is already more costly than originally planned, and there is no shuttle to take astronauts to save it if something goes wrong.
The U.S. Air Force's Boeing X-37B, which began as a NASA craft but was transferred to the Pentagon in 2004, is an unmanned space plane that looks like a small space shuttle. Like the shuttle, it returns to Earth and lands on a runway. It has been flying successfully for five years. A scaled-up version with an astronaut crew to work outside the vehicle could reestablish America's ability to build and maintain big structures in Earth orbit.
Doubts about human space travel are clear in the Augustine Committee's review and the three reviews of NASA. The Augustine Commission in particular said "NASA's budget should match its mission and goals." Obama is requesting $18.529 billion for NASA in fiscal 2016, an increase of $519 million, or 2.9 percent, over 2015. That's a sizable investment, but NASA faces long-term budget pressures. Its challenge is to spend wisely and build on existing capabilities.
Money spent on human exploration should be used to develop capabilities needed for a meaningful program. Research into long space flights can be done at the International Space Station, which should therefore be vigorously supported. Abundant launch vehicles are already on the commercial market, and yet a new and very expensive launch vehicle, with undefined payload and mission, is being developed. Three spacecraft are being developed to carry astronauts to space. Does the nation need three space capsules with limited capabilities? The capability that is lacking is the one that saved Hubble and built the largest structure ever assembled and flown in space. A redesigned X-37 that can carry astronauts could provide such a capability.
Reducing the cost of space flight would be a big help. Jeff Bezos of Blue Origin and Elon Musk of SpaceX are pursuing the technology for reusable rockets. United Launch Alliance is pursuing reusable first-stage engines for its next-generation Vulcan rocket. It expects the recovery of the engines alone to reduce the propulsion cost of the booster by up to 90 percent. A fly-back booster was considered during early design studies for the space shuttle, and could be achieved today. NASA should lead the way to provide such a capability and establish U.S. leadership in launch technology.
America needs a space policy that has a vision that can build on past achievements and keep moving forward. A big part of that is construction, maintenance and servicing in low-Earth orbit. Another is international cooperation. And we should realign our goals with those of other major space-faring nations and look back to the Moon, so we again become the leaders in space. After all, we've been there before. A lunar exploration program would provide the foundation for manned missions beyond the Moon. Our eyes must look to the skies with purpose toward that limitless frontier.
George Abbey is senior fellow in space policy at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy. He is the former director of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.