The dangers inherent for access to space, as well as the security of crew members already there in the period between the retirement of the space shuttle and the arrival of next-generation systems not yet cleared for regular operations, were highlighted when the latest International Space Station (ISS) replacement crew launched Nov. 14 aboard a Soyuz-FG launch vehicle. The crew replacement mission had been delayed since September when the third stage of a Progress resupply mission to the ISS using a similar — but cargo rated — Soyuz-U booster failed on Aug. 24. The cargo resupply replacement mission took place, successfully, on Nov. 2. As we have noted in the past, the United States and other participating countries are now completely reliant on Russia for ISS crew replacement, crew recovery and resupply. As much as the Soyuz has generally been a reliable workhorse for both crew and cargo flight, what would happen if a major event grounded the Russian Soyuz launch fleet for an extended period is not known.
Is it feasible, or too dangerous, to wait for the next-generation systems to come on-line? Is there an alternative in any case? Private commercial and public alternatives are on the board. Four U.S. commercial companies, Boeing, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX, have received Space Act funding to develop alternatives under NASA’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev 2) program and are in various stages of testing and demonstration. All except SpaceX, which plans to use its own Falcon 9 launch vehicle, intend to launch their crew vehicles aboard existing, but yet to be man-rated, launch vehicles. In addition, SpaceX’s fellow commercial orbital transportation system (COTS) awardee, Orbital Systems, is developing its Taurus 2 launch vehicle and Cygnus ISS cargo resupply vehicle. SpaceX has flown the Falcon 9 twice and its Dragon cargo-configuration capsule once under COTS; the Taurus 2 has yet to make its inaugural flight. Both SpaceX and Orbital have experienced delays, with planned 2011 demonstration launches pushed into early 2012; the other CCDev 2 awardees, with the possible exception of Boeing, are further behind.
The U.S. public sector is also reemerging. The NASA-directed, Lockheed Martin-led Constellation program, intended both for ISS service and a manned return to the moon, was cancelled by the Obama administration in its fiscal year 2011 budget, but re-animated to a limited — but uncertain — extent by Congress in NASA’s 2010 Authorization Act. This directed NASA to use what could be salvaged of the program to develop the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle as, at least, an ISS “lifeboat” and a trans-low Earth orbit heavy lift launch vehicle capability, which is now scheduled for flight test in 2014 and to come on-line in 2017. The reemergence of Constellation, the full outlines of which are not necessarily apparent, has been spurred by intense Congressional pressure amid lobbying focused on the strategic dangers of total reliance on Russian launch vehicles and the shuttering of the U.S. aerospace industry, the short history and unproven viability of private commercial systems and political dismay at the United States finding itself, for the first time since it entered the Space Race (with limited exceptions after fatal accidents) without the capability to send humans into space and dependent on other nations to ferry American astronauts.
My prediction is that those political currents will only grow, and will do so in spite of continued economic recession or near-recession on the ground. For one thing, human space access capability has always been a source of national pride, albeit one often taken for granted while it existed, and now newly appreciated again. For another, the aerospace industry has been, and can be, a significant employer, and one well adapted to the doling out of political favors to different regions that happen to have high unemployment and overlap with the districts of members of Congress holding important committee appointments. Finally, as much press as the private commercial efforts of the COTS and CCDev 2 award winners have been given, and as impressive as their efforts have been to date, their ultimate success is still an unknown quantity, and U.S. human access to space was put entirely up to them against the background of the 2008-2009 recession and the uninspiring, if pragmatic, Augustine Commission Report on the future of manned space flight. Constellation was abandoned in something of a panic. Under clearer-eyed reassessment, it may live again.
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 email@example.com.