On April 12, 1961, Russian Yuri Gagarin made the first human flight into space. His Vostok spacecraft completed one earth orbit, and was followed in May 1961 by the suborbital flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space, aboard his Mercury spacecraft, Freedom 7. The 50th anniversaries of the two flights this spring provides a good occasion, coinciding as it does with the retirement of the space shuttle, to think about the future of humans in space.
Last month, in “Goodbye to the Space Shuttle,” we evoked the shuttle’s historical place at the tail-end of a more heroic age; a spacecraft that never fully met its promise of making space flight routine, but which, in its role in missions like orbiting and repairing the Hubble telescope and constructing and ferrying crew to the International Space Station (ISS), had nevertheless removed space flight, at least in low earth orbit (LEO), somewhere beyond the purely experimental. The shuttle was never economic, and it remained dangerous, but it did real work in space.
What should we do now? Funding is short. Public enthusiasm is low. Should the gains of the last 50 years wither on the vine? The October 2009 report of the Augustine Commission on the human space flight future to the Administration Office of Science and Technology Policy and the NASA Administrator left Americans stuck in privately-run ISS ferries, with all trans-LEO exploration handled by robots, and recommended scrapping the return to the moon Constellation project. It may have made a lot of fiscal sense, but it was pretty dispiriting. The Obama Administration’s fiscal 2011 budget did scrap Constellation, later revising a decision to preserve Constellation’s Orion crew capsule in a limited role as an ISS lifeboat with a potential trans-LEO role.
With government so hard-pressed and unwilling to contemplate grand projects, the only solution for a human space future may come from the trail blazed in other domains by public-private partnerships and technology transfer arrangements, to take advantage of research and development and existing technology, intellectual property and legacy equipment that have already sunk public costs, and which might gather dust if unused by private players. This is not really what NASA currently imagines. In May, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden spoke to ABC News about the post-Shuttle era. According to Bolden, the division in access to space will break down into privately served LEO access, while trans-LEO, robotic access will remain NASA’s responsibility. NASA will no longer procure and operate vehicles for LEO activities, and while it will retain some oversight capability and responsibility, it will not micro-manage private providers either at the development or operational stages of their activities. Rather, said Bolden, NASA will prescribe some level of engineering, safety and capability parameters, and leave it to the providers to develop solutions that meet those parameters.
A future NASA without human crews engaged in strictly robotic activities (those also budget-starved), accompanied by a private sector engaged in LEO ferry activities for the ISS (whose own mission could be clearer) may fatally deglamorize space. Space, to draw our attention, and therefore our funding, must remain a domain of exciting new discoveries and humans placing themselves, potentially, in harm’s way in the cause of exploration and discovery. That is where the research and development that can subsequently be commercialized for less exciting activities occurs. That is where Congressional purse strings loosen.
If government can assign rights in existing intellectual property and technology as well as commercial exploitation rights, it may be possible to craft public/private partnerships that will restore NASA’s flagship interplanetary probe programs and trans-LEO human missions. What should be the goal? The Augustine Commission probably had that right: exploring the solar system is the human spaceflight future, for the foreseeable future, and Mars and its moons are the most natural target for that future. Missions to close-approach asteroids and comets might be a good intermediate step. The past-quarter century has brought not only increasing government deficits, but also an unprecedented creation of private wealth. There is no reason that some of that wealth cannot be incentivized by concessions and other prospective rights grants to develop manned trans-LEO capabilities and missions.
Owen D. Kurtin is a practicing attorney in New York City and a founder and principal of private investment firm The Vinland Group LLC. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.