Jeff Foust, Doug Messier and Clark Lindsey are on a panel discussing the Gagarin (fifty years on Tuesday), Dennis Tito (ten years) and Shuttle (thirty years on Tuesday) anniversaries, and where we’re going from here.
Doug Messier noting that Roscosmos will have a new director next week. The current one was fired about a week before the Gagarin anniversary.
Clark talking about Ice Age, Thaw, and New Spring. Need to get evolutionary process going, using example of early automotive age with lots of companies fighting with most efficient designs, but happens in an evolutionary manner. Plants need heat, technologies need funding. By Apollo 17, things had gotten frozen in space, including attitudes (space is expensive and always will be, and only government can do it).
Started to see attitudes thaw in the nineties, little projects started popping up to address the new markets of LEO comsats, then transitioned into tourism with the new century. Starting to see thriving diversity. Expects to see multiple competing designs that will prove out which is the best for which applications and who has the lowest operating cost. Will start to get feedback and change the public mindset about space, that will in turn help bring in investment. Sees hopeful next decade.
Institutions were frozen as well — had gotten locked into Big Project mode by Apollo. For military ELVs were good enough, same thing for comsats. Slow evolution, very little money going into vehicle developments, other than incremental improvements. Shuttle was worst of all worlds, because reduced budget, but increase requirements, so got a hybrid of a system that was horrifically expensive to operate.
Jeff Foust more pessimistic about the future of government human spaceflight. Current policy situation more discombobulated than at any time in the past fifty years. Always knew what next project was going to be, but don’t have that clear of a future right now, because don’t know what the Space Launch System is. Several factors — lost the impetus that drove it initially (Cold War), which ended two decades ago but had so much momentum that it has continued to shape policy since, but ISS is complete, Shuttle is retiring, and the momentum has dissipated. Attempts to turn China into the new nemesis haven’t worked out very well, because they’re not in any particular hurry. It’s been two and a half years since their most recent manned launch. Trying to come up with rationale for why do human spaceflight, and are some compelling reasons (Augustine panel tried to describe them) but hard to communicate to the public. Thinks that there is still a possibility of business as usual, except for the fiscal situation. We are going to see significant changes in space spending, recalling talk that Charles Miller gave a couple years ago about OMB cuts, even before TARP and bailouts. Federal spending across the board will be scrutinized, and non-defense discretionary will be a major target. All these factors lead to a closing window for any kind of recognizable government human spaceflight program, of not more than ten years. Will keep ISS operating until 2020, but if a lot will happen between now and then to cause us to reconsider any activities beyond that.
What does this mean for commercial?
It means it might be the only game in town. Suborbital ventures making steady but slow progress, but will see them develop and perhaps evolve into orbital. Moon and points beyond LEO out of reach of current commercial, but CCDev, COTS may be the shock needed for government encouragement of commercial LEO human spaceflight. Time to rethink how to get the government and commercial sectors to work together for affordable and sustainable infrastructure that can support both government and commercial users. Infrastructure not a sexy term, but a very necessary one, so if we can get it into place, we can get people to see sufficient value in human spaceflight to continue to fund it. Opportunity, but it won’t last long, but it will require innovative thinking and breaking old paradigms.
Messier more upbeat, thinks that these infrastructural items will come to pass. Looking back to the fifties, there were high entry costs into the field, with big investments in tech development and infrastructure. NASA has enormous infrastructure that’s costly to build, maintain, and we’re discovering now to repair. There is a model for doing this in the Middle East, in the United Arab Emirates. Branson has shown the way in Dubai, with a government investment house buying access to suborbital space. XCOR has similar deals going in other countries. Bigelow has similar ideas, including working with the emirates. Future will see commercial provision of training from NASTAR, launch on commercial vehicles, using commercial orbital facilities — will go where the money is. China is rising, India and Brazil could be launching next year in cooperation with the Ukraine, and will transition from billionaires with dreams to institutional investors. With reusable vehicles, we’ll be able to launch from almost anywhere, for suborbital first and eventually orbital. Sees a future with mix of traditional and new spaceports, at least during transition. We get there by starting to fly. A lot of projects and talk, but not a lot of flights. It’s been seven years since Scaled Composites first flew SS1 suborbital, and six and a half since the last time, and it’s taken longer than we hoped. Orbital projects are feasible, once we get the transportation. Have to get commercial orbital transportation to and from facilities, and then they’ll proceed accordingly.
Challenge: hubris — don’t over promise, and don’t try to go too far too fast. Leap from SpaceShipOne to SpaceShipTwo may have been too big. Same may apply from Falcon 9 to Falcon Heavy. Don’t know much about reliability of vehicle with only two flights under their belt. Potential for next ten to fifteen years is a complete change from the way we’ve done space since the Cold War and if so it will be very exciting.