E&T reports from the International Space Development Conference (ISDC) held in Chicago 27-31 May.
US President Obama's decision to cancel Nasa's Constellation Moon/Mars programme and replace its mission-oriented architecture with a vaguer technology-development programme has sparked broad dissent among the American space community. While industry pauses to assess how best to shut down its Constellation contracts and redeploy its workforce, politicians rail against the threatened loss of jobs in their respective states.
More recently, Obama has back-pedalled as far as allowing Nasa's Orion capsule to serve as a space station 'lifeboat', but the Agency will still be reliant on Russia's Soyuz to launch its astronauts in the first place. And while a possible manned mission to a near-Earth asteroid has been mentioned, the specific target, spacecraft and launch vehicle hardware and budget required remain undecided.
This year's International Space Development Conference, organised by the National Space Society (NSS), saw Nasa critics out in force and, thanks to Obama, primed with ammunition. One of the most outspoken was Bob Zubrin, long-time exploration advocate and author of 'The Case for Mars'. 'The American space programme needs a goal, and that goal is Mars,' he said, but even under the original Obama programme 'the Mars goal was so far in the future that it didn't form a goal at all'.
Lambasting the new plan as 'a random assortment of technology developments that don't lead anywhere', Zubrin contrasted the approach with what he called Nasa's 'Apollo Mode'. 'In the 1960s, not only did we do the missions, we developed the technology,' he said. Moreover, he asked, since the first President Bush announced his Space Exploration Initiative in 1989, 'what new technologies have been developed by the undirected Nasa? In what way are we better prepared to fly to the Moon?'
Roped in by the NSS to represent the government side in its 'Great Debate', former Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart returned an air of diplomacy to the proceedings. 'Bob always has lots of things with which one can differ,' he said stoically, but affirmed that his own 'top goal' was human exploration of the solar system. A manned mission to an asteroid could 'save $35-40bn in times of a tight budget', he proclaimed. Of the four segments required for a lunar mission - heavy-lift launcher, capsule, lander and surface infrastructure - 'you only need the first two for an asteroid mission,' he said. 'But we need to hold the President's feet to the fire on the commitments he's made.'
Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute, George Washington University, was less than optimistic about Nasa's future commitment to exploration. As a percentage of its total budget, he calculates that exploration scored 64 per cent during the Apollo era, but had fallen to 39 per cent by 2008. 'The projection for the period 2011-15 is now just 18 per cent,' he said. And since Pace was formerly a Nasa associate administrator for program analysis and evaluation, one assumes he has a reasonable handle on the figures.
Perhaps even more importantly, he added: 'In the last 20 years, Nasa has spent at least $21bn on cancelled space transportation programmes [rocket systems], which is 7 per cent of its budget over that period.'
At that point, Nasa deputy administrator Lori Garver breezed into the auditorium, cheerfully ousting Pace from the podium with the tongue-in-cheek plea of 'Stop torturing Nasa, Scott Pace!'. Defending the new technology-focused approach, she highlighted in-orbit fuel depots and inflatable module technologies as 'things we know we need' to go back to the Moon and beyond in a sustainable way'.
The question is, she suggested, 'when does the government need to start stepping back' in terms of delivering crews to orbit? Under its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) programme, Nasa is currently subsidising two companies developing manned capsules to deliver crews to the International Space Station (ISS) and return them to Earth. Referring to the fact that Nasa already uses commercial rockets to launch some of its planetary science missions, Garver said: 'We count on the commercial space transportation industry and have done so for a decade'.
However, Pace remained unconvinced: 'Some think we can go to commercial manned spaceflight now,' he said. 'I don't' and ISS partners are not convinced about this either.' But Nasa's Garver remained upbeat, maintaining that 'the private sector will not have the confidence to invest if we have a back-up plan'.
Whatever the arguments, and however Nasa's stars line up in the future, the change in the Agency's attitude towards the commercial entities of 'newspace' is manifest, according to Chirinjeev Kathuria. As co-founder of Mircorp, a company created in 1999 to commercialise the Russian space station Mir, he reminded his audience that the first 'space tourist', Dennis Tito, originally bought a ticket to Mir, but was reassigned to the ISS when Mir was deorbited (largely due to American pressure). At the time of Tito's mission, in 2001, 'the Nasa administrator refused to shake his hand', said Kathuria. 'Now we have COTS.'
So, while Nasa may not know where it's going, at least it knows it won't be going alone.