|Saturday, October 15 2011 @ 09:33 AM MST
On August 31, 2011, NASA's Space Shuttle Program office closed its doors thirty-nine years after the shuttle program was born. The next day, the world didn't end. That shouldn't come as a surprise, although it most assuredly has to some people. In fact, despite the dire predictions and doom-saying form a segment of the space community, the end of the shuttle program doesn't herald the death of exploration.
The space shuttle was a magnificent, yet risky and costly, flying machine. Its accomplishments cannot be understated nor can its contributions to the progress of civilization during thirty years of service. However, the space shuttle was, in the end, just one of the many launch systems in the world. While it was only one of two vehicles capable of carrying humans, it was just one of the options for delivering payloads, large and small, to orbit.
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It seems a bit surprising that a number of elected leaders in Washington, D.C. and around the country decry a perceived ?end of human space exploration? when they are the ones who had seven years to prepare for August 30 and failed to do so. At times, it seemed they worked harder to sabotage post-shuttle planning than in taking action to ensure the United States would remain a leader in space exploration.
Even worse, at the most critical time for NASA's post-shuttle planning, during the 2006-2008 timeframe, they allowed partisan bickering and stalemate to consign the Constellation program to ultimate failure through inadequate funding and congressional oversight.
The failure of Constellation was not one of technical difficulties or a failure of engineering. It was, at its core, the result of a failure of political leadership in Washington, D.C.
At the same time, programs for workforce transition and retraining stumbled along for several years after former President Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration. By 2009, leaders around the country found themselves scrambling to ramp up the necessary workforce transition activities necessary to mitigate the effects of looming shuttle job losses. Many people hoped and expected that Constellation-related jobs to pick up the post-shuttle slack - and pick up their slack - so there wasn't a sense of urgency until it was almost too late. It wasn't until people could see the writing on the wall, in the form of the Augustine Commission, that workforce transition assistance efforts got pushed into panic mode.
Of course, by then, the global economy was in the process of melting down, which made the lost time even more damaging. I will maintain that the heart of the problem lay on Capitol Hill. While NASA didn't do a good enough job to defend itself and Constellation, it was ultimately the failure of Congress that led to the sense of panic that we've witnessed during the last two years.
However, in spite of dire predictions and botched leadership, the future of space exploration remains as bright as it's ever been. Actually, there are some who say it's more hopeful than ever. And they may be correct.
It's important to look beyond the difficult short-term issues surrounding the transition to the post-shuttle era. In life, everything changes and, as the cliche goes, ?this too shall pass?. Projects will wind down; offices will close; thousands of skilled workers have lost or soon will lose their jobs. Those are no longer merely predictions or worst-case scenarios. Today, they are simply facts of a new way of life that we must tackle.
So what does the future hold in the coming years? What will the landscape of space exploration look like toward the end of this decade?
First of all, the International Space Station will continue to be a unique world-class laboratory beyond 2020. It would be wise to ignore the doomsayers who claim ISS is going to be de-orbited in 2020. The fact is that ISS has been certified for operations until AT LEAST 2020 - and that's not the same as saying it's going to be operational ONLY until 2020. Discussions are ongoing regarding certifying the station until at least 2028.
Without the shuttle to service the space station, the door is wide open to private enterprise to provide resupply services. Through the Commercial Resupply Services efforts of NASA, several companies are developing the launch systems and spacecraft that will enable ISS to remain fully operational for the next decade. Additionally, the space agency is actively supporting development of new manned spacecraft to take over the duty of ferrying astronauts to low Earth orbit.
By 2020, we will be witnessing launches of SpaceX's Dragon, Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser, Orbital Science's Cygnus and Boeing's CST-100 on missions to carry cargo and astronauts to ISS.
Of course, there's also the secretive Blue Origin, the company created by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and currently flying its suborbital test vehicles. Virgin Galactic representatives have mentioned the possibility of flying their suborbital rocket planes from Kennedy Space Center for space tourism and carrying researchers with scientific payloads.
However, to borrow a line from television infomercials, ?but wait, there's more!? NASA's Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle continues to make progress toward the first flight-ready test vehicle. And, if Congress can get its leadership act together, the Space Launch System will bring a new Saturn V class heavy-lift launch vehicle to Kennedy Space Center sometime between 2017 and 2021. Freed from the cost, labor and infrastructure burdens of the space shuttle program, Orion and SLS will give NASA the system to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit for the first time since Gene Cernan and the Apollo 17 crew left the Moon in 1972. Meanwhile, ISS will continue providing scientific discoveries through the partnership of private enterprise and NASA.
Not to be left out is Alliant Techsystems and EADS Astrium's proposed Liberty Launch Vehicle, an innovative rocket consisting of ATK's five-segment shuttle-derived solid rocket booster topped by the first stage of the reliable Ariane 5 rocket. Being developed in-house, Liberty is not dependent upon NASA development contracts. However, it is being positioned as a potential option for launching crews and cargo to ISS, in addition to launching commercial spacecraft such as communications satellites. Once operational, it will fly from KSC's launch complex 39-B using the new Mobile Launcher built under the now-defunct Ares project.
Finally, there are numerous smaller entrepreneurial companies like Masten Space Systems who are planning or open to the possibility of operating out of Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center.
The sum total of all this is that, within ten years, Florida could be witness to a boom in launches and mission support services unlike anything we have seen since the 1960's Moon race. Perhaps six new launch vehicles will be lifting eight new manned and unmanned spacecraft on suborbital flights and missions to the space station and beyond.
This optimistic, yet realistic, outlook doesn't include aerospace, energy and high-technology companies who could be lured to the Space Coast to take advantage of the unique workforce and facilities the area offers. Already, several companies have announced plans to locate facilities on or near KSC, bringing hundreds and eventually thousands of new jobs to the area.
Having finished grieving over the end of the space shuttle program, it's clear to me that the future is anything but bleak. From where I sit, I know the sky isn't falling. In fact, the sky is just the beginning.
(The Spacearium / Zero-G News)