Monday, March 28, 2011

Mixed emotions...

It's strange to write an opening paragraph after the post is written. But I wanted to give you a heads up. My opinions and ideas in this post may not be popular with the audience that's most likely to read it. I want encourage you to read the whole thing. If you get to a part you don't like, don't stop reading, you'll miss out on the complete journey of my thoughts. I'm OK with any disagreements you may have, but read the entire post, then lets engage in some debate.

Saturday morning while making pancakes for the kids, (being the space geek that I am) I had the NASA YouTube channel playing on my iPad. I wanted to listen to the recent media update on the Space Shuttle program.

I recommend you take the time to watch this video. I am not going to recap the whole thing, you can listen to it when you have a chance. What I want to talk about is the mixed emotions I had while listening. I figure since this my blog I can talk about my feelings and opinions. I have both when it comes to talk of the Shuttle program.

As many of you know the Space Shuttle is being retired this year, sadly there are only two flights left on the manifest. As a child of the 80's, I've grown up with the Space Shuttle, so I have an emotional reaction when discussing, reading, or hearing about "The End."

Where am I going with all of this you ask? Back to the video of course. Many of the questions asked to the panel related to the last two flights, the current status of the workforce, the "autopsy" being done on Discovery, and life after the Shuttle program ends. This immediately brings out my frustration, sadness, and disappointment. We are the United States, we are a leader in human spaceflight, we have some of the smartest people on the planet working for NASA, but now we have no US-based human spaceflight program. Nothing! We can't even resupply the ISS, never mind send an astronaut there. No big deal we have only invested billions of dollars to build the ISS, there's no reason to get there and use it (insert sarcasm here). No worries, we have the Soyuz to be the "ISS Taxi" (insert more sarcasm here). Don't get me wrong the Russians are qualified veterans in human spaceflight, they are leaders in ISS resupply, and they are a reliable and honorable spaceflight partner. But this is NASA. WTF? NASA having no program to get our own astronauts into space! Really? This whole gap in the US program goes against what NASA has been a pioneer of...system redundancy! We have no backup system if the Soyuz program has problems, either with the vehicle, the launcher, or the overall supply chain. No backup...come on! The ISS is a multi-billion dollar investment....and don't forget we have real live human beings up there. Don't they deserve a backup plan?

Now I know that NASA has lost its way without a real vision or challenge beyond the Space Shuttle (at least this is my opinion), but it's not entirely NASA's fault. Congress, the President (both past and present), the US taxpayer, and the shuttle program suppliers are all guilty on some level. All share a part of blame with NASA leadership for lack of cost innovations, inspirational ideas, and cutting edge technology goals. Let's be honest, the Constellation program and it's the goal of returning to the Moon was maybe not the best choice to inspire a game changing vision for the future of the US Space program. In hindsight, it is easy to see some of the problems with the overall program and it's direction. But, not having any plan, to handle US-based human spaceflight during the time between the Shuttle retirement and Constellation (which would not have been available by the time the Shuttle retired even if it wasn't cancelled), other than the Soyuz, is a my opinion. The ISS is a huge investment of our tax dollars and we are a lead partner in building, maintaining, and managing it. I want US vehicles flying US astronauts to and from the ISS. We owe to the taxpayers and our international partners to pull our own weight. How do you provide leadership on a program like the ISS when you have to ask your buddy (the Russians) for a ride to work because you don't have your own spaceship (another perfect spot to insert sarcasm)? We as a nation have failed in terms continued leadership and expansion of our human spaceflight program. Before I go on, please know that I am not as negative as I sound. I know we have real astronauts that are scheduled to fly on the very reliable and capable Soyuz spacecraft. Which means we do have a human spaceflight program at NASA, it's just not our own vehicles. What I'm ranting about in this section is our reliance on another nation's program for US transport. It's pure frustration for me that we won't be the leaders in this area for the near future.

Subject: Soyuz TMA
Photo Credit: Unknown
Now that I'm done ranting, there are a lot of great things going on at NASA that are....well....out of this world. NASA still has some of the smartest scientists, engineers, and leaders on the planet, doing really cool, game changing, scientific exploration and discovery (I know this because I was fortunate enough to attend the 2011 Sun Earth Day Tweetup at Goddard Space Flight Center). So, in no way am I calling NASA a failure. Nor is our current predicament in US-based human spaceflight all that bad. Yes, I just spent a whole paragraph ranting and being sarcastic, but we will rise above this current gap. Read on to see why I think so.

Subject: GSFC Sun Earth Day 2011 NASA Tweetup
Photo Credit: NASA/Pat Izzo
Here is why it's not all bad. There are conversations, ideas, and plans happening everywhere about this "new" industry called Commercial space. Actually, it's more than ideas and talk. Real hardware is being built and some has actually flown...successfully! And what's really cool is some of the players in this "new" industry are both new (SpaceX, ArmadilloVirgin Galactic with Scaled Composites, Bigelow, Blue Origin, and Masten Space Systems) and experienced companies (Boeing, Lockheed, Orbital, ATK, and ULA). Togther they are entering the next phase of human exploration to, and beyond, LEO. I am excited about what I am seeing, reading, and hearing from all these companies. My only disappoint is the most likely vehicles to fill the LEO gap are capsule designs. I think the revolutionary Shuttle design is much more elegant (and in my opinion a more practical approach) than the capsule technology that requires the spacecraft to be "dropped" through the atmosphere (technically the current capsule re-entry method is considered a "lifting-body" entry like the Shuttle, but for me they are two different more elegant than the other). But, that being said, SpaceX/Dragon, ULA/Orion, ULA/CST , and ATK/Liberty (key: launcher/crew-cargo module) all have a relatively good shot a being successful in the near future. In fact SpaceX has launched their Falcon 9 booster (twice) with spectacular success and they have flown the Dragon crew module into orbit and back with the same success. Unfortunately these companies will not have flight certified vehicles ready by June 2011 when a Space Shuttle leaves the pad for the last time. It will take a couple of years before any of these designs will be available for a return-to-flight of a US-based human spaceflight program. The good news is we will get there.

Subject: SpaceX Falcon 9 with Dragon Capsule
Photo Credit: NASA
It's the conversations, ideas, activity around this next phase of the US space industry, that causes me to have such mixed emotions. The Space Shuttle ending = sadness, anger, frustration, and disappointment. Commercial space getting traction = excitement, hope, enthusiasm, and eagerness to participate. I think we are still writing the definition of Commercial Space. So here is what I think it will be:
  • It's new (and experienced) companies providing, highly reliable, reusable, commercially viable launch vehicles.
  • Its crew and cargo capabilities to LEO, the Moon, and Mars.
  • Its Space Tourism, like the Dragon crew module to a Bigelow orbiting hotel.
  • It's the next generation airline like Virgin Galactic. (And let's be honest, Branson says they are a suborbital space tourism company. So, why does his craft look like, fly like, and act like an airplane? Why will it operate from today's airplanes? Simple it's really the next generation of airline travel and Virgin is going to be the only player in town. If he succeeds, and I think he will, with seats available at $20K or less, he will have a viable suborbital airline....with ZERO competition. Think about that for a minute. Pretty cool huh?)
  • It's private industry (such as medical or big pharma) having affordable access to LEO and the micro-gravity environment in order to develop new products and procedures that make life better, longer, and of higher quality.
  • It's universities having reliable, cost effective access to space for new scientific discovery.
  • It's better launch vehicle technology that allows NASA access to the outer solar system for more economical science missions. Missions of discovery, understanding, and pure exploration. Missions for us to better understand our origins. Missions that push technologies, ideas, and boundaries beyond the known edge of the envelope.
Subject: Virgin Galatic's SpaceShipTwo
Image Credit: Virgin Galactic
Subject: BA-330 Inflatable Space Station modules
Image Credit: Bigelow Aerospace
I would go on and on but you get my point. Commercial space is a developing and expanding industry. I like to make the analogy of the aviation industry and how it started. Commercial space is in the same position. Aviation was not economically successful when it started out. But it grew into a commercially viable industry (some would argue this point), it's accessible to most people, and has an excellent safety record (again we could debate this point but not now). I truly believe the commercial space industry is going to reach for, and actually get to, the star

I want to go back to the video and point out one comment that caught my ear. I'm paraphrasing this quote: "...we have a lot of talented people on this team (meaning the Shuttle program) and their talents will be needed as these commercial space companies ramp up. Our team has the skills, passion, and dedication to meet the growing talent demand that will be needed...." So, for me I feel good about commercial space because the future employees of this "new" industry will come from the current NASA program. These companies will be more efficient and do more with less employees, but there are more companies in operation. This is in contrast to there being just NASA and a handful of contractors (or more simply put a limited employer pool). So fewer employees but more players means more opportunities for the affected Shuttle workforce....I hope. As a disclaimer: I don't know about ability of the workforce to transition or if the skill sets are applicable, but it seems from the program management opinion, that the talents will be in demand and available to the commercial space companies in the near future. I also want to believe there is opportunity for non-NASA insiders who want to join the industry as well.

I hope this post causes you to think. To think about the proud, highly successful, pioneering history of the Space Shuttle program. To think about what the retirement of this reliable and versatile vehicle means to NASA and future of the US Space program. And to think about what Commercial space will mean to your personal future, as well as our nation's future and our planet's future. I would hope that this will cause you to be more attentive to what is going on at NASA and at the companies that will take us into this rapidly approaching tomorrow.

Subject: Space Shuttle Program Patch
Image Credit: NASA
I'm not sure how to wrap up this post. Maybe it best to leave it open ended. It's not like there is going to be closure for me right now. The Shuttle will retire and we will wait for the commercial space industry to mature. Until these things happen I'm going to continue with this battle of sadness and excitement. We'll have to wait and see.

Thanks for reading and joining me on this journey...


1 comment:

  1. Wow. What a well developed essay and commentary. I have been feeling so many of the same frustrations and hopes, but had not assembled them so eloquently in my brain. Thanks for cutting through it for me.