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Recent events have focused our attention yet again on the gap between promises made and the reality of our national civil space program’s performance. It’s easy to see, if one cares to look at the big picture, that while our space effort is slowly sputtering to a halt, many steadfastly hold to an unsustainable, unworkable program. So convinced are they that this stark reality, though patently true and verifiable, isn’t staring them in the face, that they ignore the obvious gaps, or worse, dismiss them out of hand and work against a knowable course correction that could fix the problem.
In September 1962, then-President John F. Kennedy gave a stirring speech at Rice University in Houston. In it, he called for (and outlined) the need for a national determination to put a man on the Moon. Clips of his speech are often re-played, as it is thought to epitomize the spirit of the Apollo program. Indeed, there was a national “spirit” and “right stuff” in that distant era – one not concerned with the Moon or with space per se, but rather, driven by the desire to defeat the Soviet Union’s goal of conquest here on Earth, by winning a technology race in space. A comparable zeitgeist does not now exist.
This week, Dava Newman, the Deputy Administrator of NASA, will also appear at Rice University. While reading the description of Newman’s forthcoming appearance, I was struck by how much of what is asserted in the text is simply untrue. There is no “Journey to Mars” except in the minds of some agency bureaucrats. The supposed three-stages of the “Journey” – low Earth orbit (LEO), the cislunar “proving ground,” and traveling to Mars – hypes new technology and capability development, exemplified by the existing LEO phase featuring missions to the International Space Station (ISS); missions currently gathering data on long-term spaceflight, particularly in terms of deconditioning of the human body. But the time required for a round-trip to Mars will not be simulated; the recent “Year in Space” by astronaut Scott Kelly covers roughly only a third of the expected total duration of a human Mars mission.
Along with important questions remaining about how people will survive long-duration missions in space, there also is a lack of knowledge and experience in long-lived, reliable operating systems (as evidenced by continual breakdowns of equipment on ISS). Some problems are fixable (and fixed) by its occupants, but the more serious ones require parts and re-supply from Earth, an option not available to those on their way to Mars. If a system cannot be fixed en route, or if the parts needed for a fix are not onboard, the crew is left without options. Don’t expect them to turn around and come home in a heroic “Apollo 13”-type scenario, as an abort-and-return mission would likely involve weeks to months, putting crew survival in grave jeopardy.
NASA claims to be developing spaceflight to Mars in which “explorers will be practically independent of spaceship Earth.” In fact, they are pursuing exactly the opposite architectural approach. All pieces – equipment and supplies – of NASA’s “Journey to Mars” are to be launched from Earth. NASA states that the forthcoming Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket will enable and provision this journey. What they do not make clear is that even as large as this SLS rocket will be, multiple launches will be required to conduct a single human Mars mission (at least 8 and possibly as many as 12). This orbiting hardware is then assembled in space into a spacecraft before departing for Mars (launch windows occurring only every 26 months). To assemble and fly such a massive, complex (and as yet not fully understood) space system is a non-trivial problem for whatever entity attempts it.
Some say NASA needs to get out of the space transportation and launch business and buy commercial, but what of these “New Space” promoters, those intrepid entrepreneurs and capitalists boldly pioneering business in space? Here too, there is less than meets the eye. It’s been almost 12 years since SpaceShipOne flew twice to the edge of space and won the coveted Ansari X-Prize for flying the first repeatable, private spaceflight. And though we hear a lot about “space tourism,” the only paying customers flown into space to date got there aboard a Russian Soyuz. It was said at the time (and continues to be believed in many quarters) that prizes are the incentive needed to get the ball rolling – by seeking a monetary trophy and garnering technical acumen and business credibility, a torrent of innovation and industry activity will bring a new era of low cost, personal spaceflight. Yet, here we sit, still dreaming of that golden age.
Despite battling these business profile headwinds and entrepreneurial wind sheer, the salesmanship of New Space continues apace, with all of its variety and ferocity. The public is inundated with articles describing what the New Space sector will achieve in the next few months-to-years – promised future breakthroughs that are greatly outstripped by endless promotional hype. There are no hotels for space tourists on orbit and no way to get any inhabitants there if there were. The Google Lunar X-Prize has had its deadline extended three times (currently to the end of 2017), but no launch date for a first attempt to win the prize has been set. Some promising New Space companies have had significant layoffs (possibly as prelude to going out of business) or have suffered devastating technical setbacks.
Which brings us to Space Exploration Technologies Corporation – SpaceX, billed as the company endowed with the vision, drive and capability required to lead humanity to its second home in the universe – Mars. Yet, as with most New Space claims, what has been promised is much greater than what has been delivered. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch system suffered another setback this week when their vehicle and payload exploded on the pad. Accidents happen (and have happened) to the best of those who work in the business of space, and each time these accidents (and subsequent investigations) happen, we are reminded why leaving Earth isn’t routine – because it’s hard and expensive.
Much of the accomplishment of SpaceX is incremental rather than transformational. The development of a flyback booster receives endless press coverage, but to date, none of the company’s used stages have re-flown. Billed as lowering costs (and building clientele), reusability is marketed as a breakthrough approach to affordable space access from Earth (though SES, based in Luxembourg, may want to reconsider their announcement about being the first to fly a payload on a used Falcon 9 first stage after this week’s accident). By SpaceX’s own estimates, if recovery of booster stages becomes workable as a complete end-to-end system, they envision a reduction of “up to 30%” in the price of launch. (That “up to” is always significant in public pronouncements – usually, it can be translated as “a lot less.”) Another SpaceX innovation is the use of super-cooled propellant (“slush liquid oxygen”) to boost performance. It does, but only at about the 8% level. It is not clear whether either of these innovations will revolutionize space access through a reduction in cost or an increase in performance, and of course, at what cost to reliability.
What is clear is, to gain the lion’s share of the market, it’s vital to have and keep positive media attention focused on your business by heralding the most insignificant of events (or plans for future events) in order to drive business your way and squeeze out your competition. An example is the unveiling of the manned Dragon 2 spacecraft in 2014 (which was a mock-up, not a piece of flight hardware). This event was carried live on streaming video – passionately and professionally praised in a wide variety of media. Yet we have heard little about it since. Instead, we get reliably favorable news stories about forthcoming SpaceX PR events – next up is Musk’s presentation this month (at the International Astronautical Congress being held in Mexico) about his just-around-the-corner plans for a human colony on Mars. One story promotes Musk’s corporate claim that the first flights for this milestone in human history will occur in the year 2024 (this from a company that has yet to announce the date of its first manned mission to LEO). Simultaneously, we also have NASA’s “Journey to Mars” being advanced by the media.
Ordinarily, ludicrous and ridiculous public claims are mercilessly disassembled and destroyed by that watchdog of freedom – the American press. So we need to ask, has the media bungled their job when questioning the viability of SpaceX and Musk’s promotional strategy with breathless, softball coverage of virtually anything they announce? Like the fictional FBI agent Fox Mulder on the TV show “The X-Files,” New Space fans “want to believe” – and apparently, many reporters in the space media are fans. “We love SpaceX,” begins the honest headline of a recent story by Eric Berger of Ars Technica, who then wisely advises Elon Musk to focus on the near-term and the achievable in space, and to cut back on the hype and the grab for glory.
That does not appear to be a good marketing strategy though, because fortune and fame hinge on continually selling the dream of space. And in that sense, SpaceX fits perfectly with the mindset of their governmental predecessor and current business partner, NASA. Both remain bound to a similar blueprint of promoting a distant dream (humans on Mars) rather than doing what is necessary in our national interests (“not because it is easy but because it is hard”) – the work required to build and perfect real systems (reliable flight hardware to LEO and cislunar space) that will allow us to achieve a permanent foothold off planet, while maintaining and challenging our important technology sector. They are also alike in their apparent disinterest in pursing a return to the Moon – a place both known and reachable – where building a true Earth-independent architecture through the use of lunar material and energy resources, holds the promise of giving us affordable and routine access to space beyond LEO.
So, regardless of the details Elon Musk announces in Mexico later this month or Dava Newman’s comments on NASA’s “Journey to Mars” next week at Rice University, color me dutifully skeptical.