People ask what is NASA doing. Partly, that is because NASA doesn’t do a very good job of keeping the American people up to date about what it’s doing. So here is s synopsis of NASA, today.
To start off with, NASA is working on some amazing things that will in the next decade present us with the capability to return to the Moon and travel beyond. So the short answer to what NASA should do is that it should continue what it is doing now, building the infrastructure that will, in 5 years, see us able to again explore beyond low-Earth orbit.NASA’s aeronautics branch will in that same time help evolve commercial airline and cargo aviation through the blended wing and sonic boom mitigation technology programs begun in the mid-2000’s and now currently maturing. Meanwhile, although it won’t be glamorous, ISS and our robotic programs will crank-out important science.
The Orion spacecraft is close to crossing the finish line of being the first human-rated spacecraft to be built by us since the Shuttle. Within two years, on Experimental Test Flight 1 (EFT-1), Orion will be launched from Kennedy Space Center and sent onto a trajectory that will see it reenter Earth’s atmosphere at something like 80-90% of the velocity of a lunar mission. During this test, every spacecraft system including GNC, structural loads, and acoustics will get shaken-down. This will be Orion’s final human rating test, after which it will be certified for anything from low-Earth orbiting to lunar exploration missions, and beyond.
There are several autonomous, robotic lander programs, including Marshall’s Mighty Eagle and Johnson’s Morpheus, currently under development within NASA. None of these could however even imagine an attempted landing at the lunar poles, which incidentally the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has recently shown, at -400 degrees F, to be one of the coldest spots in our solar system, including Pluto, until one considers the ALHAT, or Autonomous Landing Hazard Avoidance Technology, technology being developed by Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, Draper Labs, and Langley Research Center. AmericaSpace.com has a good review of this program that we just carried. With ALHAT, a lander, robotic or crewed, could land at the lunar poles where light may not have shown for billions of years.
The plan germinating from deep within NASA, and that sees some tentative support within Congress, is to fly one, or both, of the Morpheus and Mighty Eagle landers on the first flight of the Space Launch System in 2017. The reason for this is to begin to answer the question of whether, and in what form, there is water on the Moon.
Why is water so important? For one, if water does exist on the Moon in a form that can be refined, we don’t need to build fuel depots in space–the Moon will, with it’s shallow gravity well and the extraction of O2 and H2, become the Mother of all Fuel Depots. With a ready supply of water that does not have to be hauled out of Earth’s deep gravity well, lunar outposts, and their natural follow-on crewed missions beyond the Moon to Mars, become much more affordable and safer with the technology we’ll have beginning in 2017.
The commercial space era is about to begin. SpaceX has developed a capable rocket in the Falcon 9 and a good, reusable cargo spacecraft in Dragon. Between 2013 and 2015 to 2016, SpaceX will be paid $1.6 billion to haul 20 mT to ISS over 12 launches. And Orbital Sciences will be paid $1.9 billion to also launch 20 mT to ISS in 8 launches during that roughly same period. The total Commercial Resupply Contract, or CRS, will cost $3.5 billion for delivery of 40 mT to ISS. This will mark the beginning of commercial space.
So why is NASA spending $8 billion to develop the 70 mT to 130 mT capable Space Launch System? Well, consider this for a moment. In 2017 will be the first flight of the Space Launch System, or SLS. One launch of the first generation of the 70 mT version of the SLS rocket, called SLS Block 1, will cost $1.5 billion. That’s a lot of money. But that one launch will pay for a craft that can boost 70 mT into low-Earth orbit. In other words, for 37% of the cost of the whole CRS contract SLS will launch 75% more cargo.
But, it’s better to measure launchers by their cost per kilogram or pound. Both SpaceX and Orbital will through the CRS contract charge NASA between $12,000/kg and $18,000/kg, depending upon whether the currently hidden support cost of NASA are accounted for. The cost for SLS Block 1 (70 mT) is expected to be about $8,500/kg. With the more impressive SLS Block 2, which will have a 130 mT launch capability to LEO, that cost will climb to about $10,000/kg. That is still 20% better than any other launch offerings, including those of Orbital Sciences and SoaceX. This is why there is such strong support for the SLS program despite the dearth of publicity for the program, annual efforts by the Administration to slash SLS funding, and vigorous delaying tactics from 2010 – late 2011 by it’s two NASA leaders that led to them being subpoenaed by a Democratic controlled Senate. SLS is a Ford F-150 pickup that costs less and gets better gas mileage than a Prius.
The biggest loss of Shuttle wasn’t that we can no longer launch American astronauts into orbit, though that’s bad enough. The real loss is that we today don’t have a human-rated, that means very safe and dependable, launch capability to put large payloads into orbit. So if one or two of ISS’s solar arrays degrades, or 3 gyros go bad, until SLS becomes operational, we have no way to send replacement parts.
The reasons Congress created the SLS program were many. One was to develop the capacity for us to fly beyond low-Earth orbit. But another reason, and if not reason then benefit, was to develop a rocket that could, in one launch, resupply ISS with cargo mass that nobody could and do so safely.
I don’t want to overlook the robotic exploration program. Mars Science Laboratory is on its way to an August landing on the Red Planet. The science MSL will deliver will expand our knowledge greatly. The James Webb space telescope is proceeding along well now. When it’s launched, it will, much as Hubble has done, rewrite most of our astronomy textbooks. The current missions underway from LRO to Dawn may not get much press but are contributing great science.
Nor do I want I let pass without mentioning the Commercial Crew Program, or CCP. Congress has again funded at $500 million this effort to develop a commercial crew capability. With so many participants vying for this money, none will likely be ready to demonstrate their ability to ferry crews to and from ISS until 2019. If NASA follows Congress’ recommendation to down-select to just 2 or 3 participants, that date would move up to 2017. And if any of the CCP participants put in their own funds, that date will only move forward more. Boeing recently said that it will use its own funding to get its CST-100 spacecraft flying by 2015.
NASA today is, at the direction of Congress, building the infrastructure that will allow the U.S. to once again explore. It’s going to take awhile to build what is needed for us to do that again. For 30 years, we sat still, complacent to do as we’d done since John Glenn’s February 1962 mission, orbiting the Earth. But that is going to end soon enough. Beginning in 2014 people will begin to see tangible signs that a new exploration capable spacecraft is coming. And a year-and-a-half later, in late 2016, people will see a new rocket standing, ready for its first test, and one able to loft the hardware needed for beyond low-Earth orbit space access.
All of this is being funded now, today. If we stay on the course, if we don’t change horses midstream, we will within 5 years have the ability to once again reach-out and continue the push begun in the 1960’s towards the exploration and settlement of our solar system.