Future of U.S. manned spaceflight looks bleak

Jul 10, 2011 By Mark K. Matthews

When Atlantis takes off from Kennedy Space Center, it will be the last time NASA launches astronauts aboard a government-built spacecraft for perhaps the rest of this decade.

The agency that put Apollo in the history books faces the biggest crisis since its formation in 1958. Plans to replace the shuttle with a government-run rocket are beset by budget and design issues. Attempts to bring commercial-rocket companies into the game are promising but far from certain.

And a country once willing to put 4 cents out of every federal dollar into NASA now spends about half a cent, as America struggles with more-earthbound concerns such as unemployment and health care.

"After a half-century of remarkable progress, a coherent plan for maintaining America's leadership in space exploration is no longer apparent," , Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan wrote in an op-ed this spring.

The reasons-NASA mismanagement, congressional parochialism and an influential aerospace industry-are not new. These problems have plagued NASA for years, but they're magnified by the end of the 30-year-old .

Consider what happened to Constellation, the program President George W. Bush and NASA chose to replace the retiring shuttle and return U.S. astronauts to the moon by 2020.

Its intent was "safe, simple, soon," and the design reflected as much: an Apollo-like capsule atop what amounted to a bigger version of a shuttle .

But the project was not either simple or soon. Its problems ranged from cost overruns to technical troubles such as violent shaking of the rocket - and last fall Congress and President canceled Constellation after five years and about $13 billion spent.

The result was nothing new to NASA.

According to an analysis by former NASA official Scott Pace, now at George Washington University, NASA has spent more than $21 billion during the past two decades on space-transportation programs, such as the X-33 space plane and Constellation.

"If you look at the pattern as a whole, it's a failure of leadership," said Pace, who added that the blame lies with administrations going back to Bill Clinton's.

Another space expert, Howard McCurdy of American University, said the constant failures speak to the difficulty of keeping a multiyear program going as Republicans and Democrats-with different budget priorities and industry allies- trade control of the White House.

Between administrations, these things get reconsidered to death," McCurdy said. "We spend our time redesigning the problem rather than building" a space vehicle.

Equally cumbersome is the influence of Congress, where NASA policy is dominated by lawmakers who have a vested interest in protecting their home states and industries.

As part of the deal to cancel Constellation, lawmakers settled on a new rocket intended to protect workers in Texas, Alabama and Florida while helping regular NASA contractors in the .

The new plan all but requires NASA to reuse pieces of the shuttle and Constellation to build a new rocket-benefiting established companies such as Lockheed Martin and Alliant Techsystems while essentially ruling out competition or the use of newer technology.

"You are always going to have that parochial problem," said former U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., former chairman of the House science committee. "It's hard to ask someone from Houston or Canaveral to vote against the interests or their constituents ... but you can't let it drive the train, or you wind up undermining the agency."

Under the current direction, NASA will continue building the capsule it aimed to complete under Constellation while flying it on a vehicle that will resemble the current shuttle configuration - minus the planelike orbiter.

But despite this reliance on decades-old technology, NASA has said that the money set aside - $14 billion during the next five years - isn't enough to build a rocket capable of flying to the International Space Station by the 2017 deadline set by Congress.

NASA's budget issues stand in the way.

For example, a presidential commission in 2009 noted that Constellation failed in part because it didn't get the funding it was promised. But NASA also has a long history of busting budgets and deadlines. The Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog, has kept the agency on its list of "high-risk" budget violators since 1990.

NASA advocates worry that this track record and increased austerity in Washington mean NASA could get even less money in the future, as tea-party-backed lawmakers push for greater cuts, especially with the shuttle no longer there as a shield to protect the agency's budget from being raided.

The House appropriations subcommittee with oversight of NASA introduced legislation this week that would set NASA's 2012 budget at $16.8 billion - nearly $2 billion less than Obama's request and at least $1 billion less than what NASA has received in recent years.

As it stands, NASA will fly its astronauts to the space station aboard Russian spacecraft until it can develop an alternative - government-run or otherwise.

One scenario, pushed by the Obama administration, would have NASA contract with commercial companies, such as SpaceX and Sierra Nevada, to fly crew and cargo to the station.

But though there have been some early successes - SpaceX in December became the first private company to launch a capsule into space and return it safely to Earth-a commercial company has yet to deliver cargo to the station.

A GAO report this year noted that NASA's commercial-cargo plans are almost two years behind schedule and will cost $300 million more than expected.

The problems aren't lost on NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden.

In an email to staff last week, he wrote that "some say that our final shuttle mission will mark the end of America's 50 years of dominance in human spaceflight." These critics, he added, "must be living on another planet."

But he offered little to counter those critics, other than: "At NASA, failure is not an option."

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center noted that support for NASA still remains high; nearly 60 percent said it was essential for the U.S. to be a world leader in space exploration.

But these polls over time have reflected support a mile wide and an inch deep, and it remains to be seen how NASA would stack up against other budget priorities.

In Florida, the future of NASA isn't simply a matter of national pride. About 7,000 shuttle workers will lose their jobs once the program ends, and the prospects of many of these positions quickly returning is grim.

Rep. Bill Posey, R-Fla., who represents many workers, attributed the erosion of NASA to public and a lack of leadership in the White House. But like Bolden and others, he has few solutions other than a bill urging NASA to return to the moon by 2022.

"It's something we take for granted, like our freedom," said Posey, who put the onus on Obama to fix the situation. "We need leadership in space. . . . If NASA is going to survive, it's going to need more-spirited outreach to Congress and the public."

Obama largely has stayed above the fray, although he has visited Kennedy Space Center twice during his presidency.

Most recently, in late April, he and his family got a guided tour from Janet Kavandi, a veteran of three shuttle missions. Afterward, Kavandi said the first family was very inquisitive-particularly Obama's daughter Sasha, then 9.

"His youngest daughter asked why we still don't go to the moon," Kavandi said. "I didn't answer that one."

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User comments : 24

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dogbert
1.8 / 5 (5) Jul 10, 2011
"It's something we take for granted, like our freedom," said Posey, who put the onus on Obama to fix the situation. "We need leadership in space. . . . If NASA is going to survive, it's going to need more-spirited outreach to Congress and the public."


We need leadership, but there is zero possibility of it in the current administration.
mosahlah
2.3 / 5 (3) Jul 10, 2011
This country is going down. What happened to the "Shining city on a hill"? Oh, thats right, jeremiah wright got his vision elected.
ryggesogn2
2 / 5 (4) Jul 10, 2011
The future of manned space flight is quite bright. There are several private companies developing systems to make a profit is space: Virgin Galactic, Bigelow Aerospace....
http://www.bigelo...ndex.php
http://www.virgingalactic.com/
http://www.spacex.com/
Vendicar_Decarian
1 / 5 (2) Jul 11, 2011
Ahahahahahaha.. 2 years ago Bushie was promising to send Americans to Mars.

And the American people were stupid enough to believe it.

Now the Economic reality has begun - just begun - to set in.

And on August 2, Republicans vote to put 30 million more Americans out of work. Unless of course they increase the debt ceiling.

Ahahahahahahahahaha..........
Vendicar_Decarian
5 / 5 (3) Jul 11, 2011
"The future of manned space flight is quite bright. " - RyggTard

Virgin Galactic isn't even getting close to sending anything into space. Won't even get half way there.

Space x had a chance while there was government work. But now that America is economically collapsing due to Conservative Libertarian Fiscal treason, it will fail as well.

Bigelow is more visionary, but visionary in a non-existent market.

The Libertarian vision of a private space economy is a failure like every other Libertarian vision.

boznz
5 / 5 (1) Jul 11, 2011
May I be first to welcome our Chinese Space Overlords
ShotmanMaslo
1 / 5 (2) Jul 11, 2011
Space x had a chance while there was government work.


SpaceX has lots of payloads on the launch manifest besides those from US government, so I doubt the company itself will fail.

As for NASA, it still has billions available for manned spaceflight. If these billions were invested into existing rockets and fuel depots instead of wasted on the SLS, the future of manned spaceflight would indeed look bright. Instead of this, we will get Constellation 2.0.
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (4) Jul 11, 2011
The future only looks bright if the govt is paying the bills?
The Mayflower was a privately funded enterprise.
ShotmanMaslo
1 / 5 (2) Jul 11, 2011
The future only looks bright if the govt is paying the bills? The Mayflower was a privately funded enterprise.


There are no privately-funded spacecrafts except communication satelites, because there is no profit, and the losses would be unacceptable. There were private ships in the times of Mayflower, because it made economic sense then. Thats not the case with manned spaceflight currently, without government money there will probably be none (or only minimal).

On the other hand, rockets do make economic sense even without government money. Thats why there is little reason for NASA to have their own when there are already flying cheaper commercial alternatives available. This is even more important in times of low NASA budgets.

Thats why COTS and CCDev style programs (government funding and private development) are the best way to go for human spaceflight currently. Best of both worlds.
ShotmanMaslo
1 / 5 (2) Jul 11, 2011
...
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (3) Jul 11, 2011
There are no privately-funded spacecrafts

Yes, there are.
ShotmanMaslo
1 / 5 (2) Jul 11, 2011
There are no privately-funded spacecrafts

Yes, there are.


Such as? Bigelow modules may be considered one, I will grant you that, but even these are based on NASA Transhab concept and have yet to fly manned. All the other private spacecrafts do recieve government money.
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (2) Jul 11, 2011
There are no privately-funded spacecrafts

Yes, there are.


Such as? Bigelow modules may be considered one, I will grant you that, but even these are based on NASA Transhab concept and have yet to fly manned. All the other private spacecrafts do recieve government money.

http://www.spaceshiptwo.net/
How much govt money was spent on SpaceshipTwo?
TheRedComet
not rated yet Jul 11, 2011
If Congress does get a rocket designed for maned space flight by 2017 primarily for transportation to the International Space Station. ISS life span is between 2020 to 2028 the rocket would only be used for 3 to 11 years for ISS purposes. Might as well let Russia take the burden and invest in autonomous robotics for future missions.
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (3) Jul 11, 2011
How is Congress going to design a rocket?
They can't design a budget.
KM2G
5 / 5 (2) Jul 11, 2011
Maybe it is better for NASA to just pull back and not worry about a new design but work on a propulsion engine. Why spend what little money they have to make a whole system when they can just work on the engine and let a private company work on the design. I mean don't they do it for jet planes?
ShotmanMaslo
3 / 5 (2) Jul 11, 2011
How much govt money was spent on SpaceshipTwo?


SpaceshipTwo is a glorified plane, suborbital only. It does not achieve low Earth orbit. Real spaceships fly much faster, and also cost much more.
FTL4Life
not rated yet Jul 11, 2011
The future only looks bright if the govt is paying the bills?
The Mayflower was a privately funded enterprise.

No it wasn't.
They recieved a large payment in land from the British Government.
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (3) Jul 12, 2011
The future only looks bright if the govt is paying the bills?
The Mayflower was a privately funded enterprise.

No it wasn't.
They recieved a large payment in land from the British Government.

The ship and journey were privately financed.
"The Merchant Adventurers were the group of investors whose capital funded the Pilgrims voyage on the Mayflower."
"To finance their journey and settlement the Pilgrims had organized a joint-stock venture. Capital was provided by a group of London businessmen who expected--erroneously--to profit from the colony. "
rbrtwjohnson
not rated yet Jul 12, 2011
Keeping nationalism apart, the whole of humanity will benefit from space exploration. I hope manned space flight goes on in multinational cooperation. I believe future of space exploration will be with phase shift propulsion. www.youtube.com/w...xPghXTCg
baudrunner
1 / 5 (1) Jul 16, 2011
The space program up to this point has been a successfull proof of technological expertise. Now, there needs to be a genuine purpose. Merely re-sending man to the moon for the sake of it is pointless and wasteful. If, for example, we decide to return to the moon to mine Helium-3 to power a Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR®), we can automate the process, thereby saving a lot of money. Mars is the next level for manned space flight, and we can't deny that the future is in Mars exploration. If Americans think that it is so damned important to be the world leader in space exploration (whatever for?) then obviously all efforts should be directed toward that end.

I do not worry about NASA's future, because the government needs to pour money into things, and NASA is a good channel for spending money that will be diverted from the military budget in the near future.
Vendicar_Decarian
3 / 5 (1) Jul 16, 2011
Lets see...
1. The Mayflower was a diseased ship.
2. It didn't went off course and got lost.. Landing other
than it's planned location.
3. It disgorged it's "passengers" into a inhospitable environment in which in a few short months threatened the passengers with starvation.

4. They only survived because of Handouts (welfare) from Amerian natives.

5. When the Mayflower returned to egland, it was such a great success that it was scrapped and sold as fire wood.

"The Mayflower was a privately funded enterprise." - RyggTard
ryggesogn2
1.8 / 5 (5) Jul 16, 2011
The govt funded Apollo program killed three astronauts before it launched and several prototypes were blown up on the pad.
The entire system was quite fragile and a one bad sensor nearly killed three more astronauts in space.
The govt funded Space shuttle killed many more.
The govt funded space program was so 'successful', the govt is scrapping the system with no replacement.

The Pilgrims thrived after adopting free market practices and promoting the value of hard work.
1gaetanomarano
not rated yet Aug 03, 2011
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The END of NASA *** ghostnasa.com/posts2/075endofnasa.html
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