Opinion: The End of Human Spaceflight?

There are jobs and then there are jobs. As far as they go, I happen to have a great one; comfortably paid, good benefits, terrific projects and I work with the smartest, most dedicated team of people on or off the planet. I say off because I’m part of a team that does dangerous things to very expensive people. I help build intelligent spacesuits for NASA, ones that tell astronauts everything from how much life support they’ve got left to how fast they have to walk to get back to Base alive to when to eat and drink (yes they talk). But what happened February 1st was a sea change impacting my job and the extraordinary team that’s been at NASA since 1958. That was the day the President killed Project Constellation, the program that would have returned us to the Moon and taken us to Mars. There have been other initiatives like this of course, but none of them made it this far, to the point of “cutting metal”, as we say, and passing a landmark flight test (Ares 1-X, October 28, 2009). The reason given? “An unsustainable path without enough funding behind it”. That’s always the reason given for a succession of aborted programs that has Congress and the people wondering if human spaceflight isn’t a colossal waste. Cases in point:

    Apollo Moon Landing program: cancelled with 3 flights remaining due to Vietnam war

    Skylab: abandoned and left to burn up in orbit. (Skylab was as big as a large 3 bedroom house with many of the capabilities of today’s International Space Station (ISS)

    Space Shuttle: originally conceived with a space station that didn’t fly until 18 years later

    International Space Station: approved by President Reagan in 1984 at a projected cost of $8 billion (nearing completion 26 years later at a cost of over $100B.)

    Strategic Exploration Initiative (SEI): Lunar Mars program introduced with much fanfare in 1989 on the steps of The Smithsonian by G. H. W. Bush. Abandoned stillborn within 2 years

    DC-X: McDonnell-Douglas single stage to orbit project: canceled after 7 years and $1/2 billion after several successful test flights

    X-38 emergency crew return vehicle (CRV): Designed to bring back crews from ISS at a reduced cost, built by NASA employees and abandoned in 2002 after a successful test at a cost of $½ billion

    Constellation: cancelled after 5 years at a cost of $9 billion and the $2.5 billion in termination costs

Every one of these programs from 1972 to 2010 ran well over budget and schedule That’s what happens when money is only committed a year at a time in the annual budget squeeze, to which NASA is subjected. Think about it. Would you put your company through an excruciating budget review each year that plays havoc with your people, parts and orders and takes months to complete? It may work for HUD or DOT but not for an agency that builds big things like spacecraft. That’s why Russia, China and most major corporations do it in 3-5 years cycles instead of 1, to get traction and stability.

The one exception was Apollo. Why? Be it from Sputnik, the cold war, JFK’s sheer will, or a confluence of all these events which may never be repeated, Apollo had the commitment and funding all subsequent programs lacked.

When President Obama killed Project Constellation, he killed more than a budget overrun. Constellation represented many things. Rising from the ashes of the Columbia Shuttle accident like a Phoenix, it was a well thought out plan to explore the heavens in timely logical steps. Using the moon as jumping off point, it would have taken us to Mars by 2030, the only known planet where we can live self sufficiently if an asteroid perils Earth and far more inspiring to young and old alike than any other destination in our solar system (there have been more hits on the NASA Mars websites than people on Earth). But Constellation was far more than that; it was meant to reinvigorate a NASA team growing old and worn down by the promise of false starts. One of those people broke down and cried at an all-hands meeting called by the new Administrator Charlie Bolden to reassure us of the future. We all cried with her and it did exactly the opposite. Constellation was also meant to improve STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills at our schools by inspiring the youth of America with the dream of exploring the cosmos. Instead it has been replaced by in the words of one of those students, “a nebulous program of cloudy goals that will inspire no one and probably be cut anyway”.

Many of us at NASA worry that this so-called “flexible plan” will end up in the same graveyard as its predecessors; and that we’re abandoning the Space Shuttle at the apex of its evolution towards safety leaving us with no access to space or repairing large components of the ISS as it did the Hubble Space telescope. And most of all we ask why abandon the vision? If you don’t like the components, you fix or replace them. You don’t kill a Toyota because it has a bad gas pedal. Taken together, we fear human spaceflight itself is doomed, that the government tosses $800 billion bailouts around like Frisbees but treats $1 or $2 billion more to NASA like tossing manhole covers. NASA cost the American taxpayer about 0.48¢, less than half of one penny, of their tax dollars and the American public, Congress and the White House will soon have to decide if it’s worth it. It they decide it is not, we will be remembered by future generations not for our literature or our arts, but as the generation that walked upon the Moon, visited Saturn, then abandoned our Vision and turned our cathedrals of flight into amusement parks.

Lawrence H Kuznetz, Ph.D.
Senior Scientist
NASA Johnson Space Center

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1 comment to Opinion: The End of Human Spaceflight?

  • marc arnold

    Dr. Kuznetz has it right… a clear and lucid epitaph for our future. Cuts like this one are moving us away from the grandeur of civilization and down the evolutionary ladder.

    We can not budget cut our way into the future. This is a sad, sad day for humanity.