The recent launch failure of a Falcon 9 rocket on its way to deliver supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) has drawn a lot of media attention. Most of this coverage has been very sympathetic to SpaceX (the company that built and operates the Falcon 9-Dragon system), with heavy reliance on the platitude “space is hard.” Following this doleful lament are assurances that this problem will be fixed and that our inexorable march to the stars will continue. As the commercial cargo and crew programs are heralded as a central core of the new, better, re-invented NASA, now is a good time to examine where stand. Exactly how much of the current space program consists of real accomplishment, as opposed to marketing?
Objectively speaking, the SpaceX accident was not particularly unexpected. Launch failures happen in the invariably risky field of spaceflight. Even in regard to the ISS re-supply program (of which this flight was a part), there have been two other recent failures, one by Orbital when its Antares rocket blew up on launch and a Russian Progress re-supply spacecraft failed when its antenna did not deploy properly. So accidents happen. The question is why? Is it a result of random bad luck – some part that failed at a critical time and won’t happen again? Or does it indicate some systemic problem that needs to be fixed before another mission can be attempted with any degree of confidence? At this point, we don’t know the answers and it would be unwise to speculate which cause is most likely.
My concern here is with a different issue – space marketing, the billing and selling of relatively minor events as major “accomplishments.” The distortion of program realities has left the public with a false impression about where we stand in space capability. Five years ago, this administration conducted a major re-vectoring of our national civil space program – arbitrarily terminating the strategic direction provided by the Vision for Space Exploration (an established program that had drawn overwhelming bipartisan support). In its stead, a Potemkin Village program was devised – a slight-of-hand maneuver that proclaimed a human mission to an asteroid and then to Mars as the nation’s new long-range goals in space. An effort to supply the ISS supply by “commercial” launch services was heralded as a “new direction” for the American space program, when in fact, it was already part of the existing program.
The initial success of SpaceX’s spacecraft for ISS re-supply missions (hyped as “privately developed”) ignited a barrage of marketing about the superiority of this new mode of operation over the traditional model of government-developed spacecraft. Supposedly, this new modus led to better capability for less money. (Who would argue against that?) In fact, with the retirement of the Shuttle, we now have less capability than we did, yet we are still spending about the same amount of money per year on NASA as we did when the “money-draining” Shuttle was operational. The Shuttle could deliver over 24 tons of supplies and equipment (and people) to the ISS on each flight; up-mass for the SpaceX spacecraft Dragon is about 3 tons. Shuttle had a cargo bay and cradle so that complex spacecraft could be worked on, refurbished and repaired. Neither the SpaceX Dragon nor the new Boeing CT-100 spacecraft (both intended to ultimately transport people to and from low Earth orbit) possess that capability.
The Shuttle program was terminated for two principal reasons. First, having lost two crews over the course of its 30-year history (where lessons were learned), there was the perception that it was inherently “unsafe” as a mode of space transportation. It is not clear just how safe the new “commercial” replacements for Shuttle will be because they have yet to fly, but the Falcon failure reminds us that accidents can always happen. Comparatively speaking, during its 30 years of operation, the Shuttle had a pretty good safety record – 133 successful flights out of 135 attempts (98.5%). Second, it was thought that since Shuttle operations (being very labor intensive) consumed such a large fraction of the NASA budget, that by retiring it, the savings would permit the agency to transition to new operations beyond LEO. Well, the Shuttles are now in museums. Where are the new missions? Even the SLS launch vehicle and Orion spacecraft – the new government-developed space hardware intended to take humans into deep space – have yet to become operational and when they do, they will fly only once or twice per year, at most. (“Where” is still up in the air.)
In short, we no longer have a civil space program. We have the simulacrum of a program. Marketing has replaced accomplishment. We don’t have to be going anywhere – we simply have to say that we’re studying it. This is not a new phenomenon; NASA has been claiming to be on their way to Mars since Apollo 11 flew in 1969 (even though that plan was specifically rejected by then-President Nixon who knew that it was politically untenable). For NASA, the Mars bird in the bush was always more important than the Shuttle-Station bird in the hand.
There’s nothing wrong with dreaming large and planning for some distant “horizon goal.” The problem comes when people start believing that the hype is the reality. One of the biggest offenders in this regard appears to be the New Space community themselves. Far too many people with real space experience (who should know better) accept that, while accidents on the road to “commercial space” are likely to occur from time to time, we will somehow recover from these setbacks much more quickly and easily than was experienced during an exclusively government-directed space effort. Additionally, there has been in recent years, a large measure of unreality in the expectations of New Space. The mass sale of private rides into space, the recent competition to select people willing to establish an off-world Mars colony, and the “terraforming” of Mars into a second Earth, are a few examples of ideas advanced and seriously discussed in many circles.
The unraveling of our civil space program has gone nearly undetected by the media (who reliably promote any absurd sales pitch tossed their way) and by the public in general (who basically don’t know what they don’t know, as it’s all made to sound promising). But facts are facts, and facilities and people critical to the success of the space program in the past have vanished and will not be returning. An entirely new generation will be responsible for what comes next (as it should be) yet they have been indoctrinated with a series of absurdly unrealistic beliefs and expectations about spaceflight and spacefaring. The difference between what is possible (how a program can be logically constructed and flown) and what is pure fantasy (dreams) has been blurred to the point where distinguishing between the two is almost impossible. This new generation desperately needs leaders who are willing and able to realistically approach the problems and devise a path forward; they’ve already bought into the marketing. While we need salesmen for space, the product they sell must be based on competent engineering and science, a program grounded in reality.
Is space “hard”? Of course it is. Any activity in which you are expected to hurl several tons of complex and delicate machinery hundreds of kilometers into the sky along a precise path and at speeds exceeding 8 kilometers per second could not be anything but “hard.” The myth of New Space is not that spaceflight is “easy” but that it can somehow be achieved more quickly and inexpensively using shortcuts unique to entrepreneurial companies but unknown in government circles. The most outlandish claims of imminent accomplishment come from those least qualified to judge the feasibility of those achievements. A recent piece on the SpaceX launch failure stated: “We’re not amateurs anymore. We’re not cheerleaders, either.” Actually, in the New Space field, many are both.
Americans are good at marketing. We used to be good at space too.