Predictions are dangerous things. Dick Morris, a political commentator, found this out the hard way recently. He predicted that Mitt Romney would win the U.S. presidential election in a landslide. Yeah, so much for that. Predicting what the space program will be like in the future is similarly treacherous.
In 2009, one would have thought that betting that the Constellation Program, NASA’s program of record at the time, would be the path forward for NASA – would be a safe bet. Launch Complex 39B had been renovated to include a new lightning protection system and the first flight of a “new era” had occurred (the launch of Ares 1-X). Surely no politician would come in and cancel all the progress that had been made. No one would scrap all the work that had been done. So much for that too.
The “Vision for Space Exploration” and Constellation Program now rest on the scrapheap of history. The Ares I and V launch vehicles and Altair lunar lander joined the MOL, Venture Star, DC-X and Dyna-Soar in the ranks of spacecraft that never were.
Where we stand today is with a space agency whose foundation appears to be made of ever-shifting sand. Where potential destinations morph and change and in some cases vanish. During a speech given at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in 2010, President Obama stated that the Moon was no longer an objective of NASA as we had already “been there.” Instead the president selected an asteroid and Mars (2025 and 2030s respectively) as objectives for NASA’s human space flight program.
Now there are rumors and rumblings that the space agency might be turning its gaze once again to the Moon (although NASA’s official position is that it is not planning to put boots on the lunar regolith anytime soon). The one destination that has cropped up recently is Lagrange 2, a point in space where the gravitational influence of the Sun, Earth and Moon are nullified.
As for spacecraft, that too is an interesting factor that is in play. There has been some suggestion that the international partners interest in the International Space Station – is waning. They want to go to the Moon. More so than perhaps with any other faction, this would deeply impact the companies working on commercial spacecraft.
If concerns that the ISS will be abandoned are based in reality, and not on the shifting sands mentioned above? They could have precious little time to do what they are being instructed to do. How little? Perhaps less than five years. What’s the value, what is the business model in producing a spacecraft which would only be used for such a short period? There isn’t one, and this fact could become important soon.
This possibility is, as stated above, based on rumors; comments made in passing that reflect the sands shifting around the feet of those at ground zero. Uncertainty has plagued NASA for years now and that uncertainty is reflected in the recent announcements of layoffs by Boeing and Pratt and Whitney Rocketdyne.
Rocketdyne’s layoffs were comprised of 100 employees and were attributed to anxiety within the space industry. Boeing let 300 of its managerial employees go; these individuals worked in the firm’s defense division. Space efforts are often tied to defense and it is unclear if Boeing’s decision will also impact its space flight efforts.
There is much talk about how these companies will open up the orbital realm to all of us. Those that believe this ignore one simple fact. Companies are in the business of making money, those comprised of altruists usually don’t last too long. The cost to send people to orbit means that space tourism will remain the property of billionaires for the time being.
Programs and destinations shifting and fading – that has been the NASA of the past two years. Objectives, spacecraft and personnel coming – and going. So, what does the future hold? At this point, it is anyone’s guess.
This much is clear; there is a severe lack of confidence in the direction that NASA is currently on. The layoffs within the space industry and the rumors regarding the possible departure of the international partners from the ISS highlight this. Perhaps, if the messages coming from NASA were consistent – then there would be more confidence. But there isn’t and anyone who suggests other wise should expect the same results that Dick Morris got…