Nasa Space Launch System

Where next for Nasa?

Image credit: Nasa

Nasa celebrates its 60th birthday this year. Can it look forward to bold new adventures in space or have times changed for the agency that sent men to the Moon?

Fifty years ago, the famous Saturn V rocket was unveiled ahead of the first human voyages to the Moon. The 1960s may have ended on a grim note for the USA, with the assassinations of Martin Luther King and senator Bobby Kennedy, the mire of the Vietnam war and social unease seemingly endemic, but Nasa’s Apollo project was a welcome spark of optimism. We still find it inspirational today.

This year marks another space anniversary: Nasa’s 60th birthday. In 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration opened for business as an emergency response to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik. Within a decade it evolved from a small research outfit launching monkeys into one of the greatest technological and managerial enterprises we have ever known. Can the venerable space agency relive its past glories, or is old age catching up with it?

The hallowed ground from where Apollo’s astronauts left the Earth is just an hour’s drive from the Disney World city of Orlando, Florida. Over 1.5 million people a year cross the Nasa Causeway connecting the Floridian mainland with Merritt Island and the Kennedy Space Center, Nasa’s main launch complex. Through the humid haze, a gigantic structure shimmers into solidity, rising from the flat terrain like a monolith. This is the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), where 10 crewed Saturn V rockets, five smaller Saturn 1B rockets with crews, a pioneering 1973 space station called Skylab, and 135 space shuttles were prepared between November 1967 and July 2011. On average, the VAB disgorged the machinery for a human spaceflight once every four months.

Nasa’s robotic systems have been perhaps even more impressive, exploring depths of space far beyond human reach, and for fractions of the budgets associated with astronaut adventures. The Cassini probe spent 13 years orbiting Saturn and occasionally skimming past some of its equally intriguing moons, before making a deliberate suicide dive into Saturn on 15 September 2017 to prevent accidental biological contamination of Enceledus or Titan, two Saturnian moons that might be capable of supporting primitive life. In September 2015, Cassini’s imaging team leader, Dr Carolyn Porco, said that Nasa had found on Enceladus at least one habitat “where, perhaps, a second genesis has taken hold. It is a possibility that can bewitch the mind and strike awe and exaltation in the most stolid of souls.”

The Jupiter probe Galileo was retired in a similar way in 2003 to protect Europa, a small Jovian moon whose icy surface hides a liquid water ocean apparently also teeming with organic chemicals.

Robotic exploration of Mars has made the Red Planet seem as familiar as our back yard. The Opportunity rover is still alive after 13 years of operations and its larger, younger cousin Curiosity, which arrived on Mars in 2012, is also in fine form. Another rover is scheduled for launch in 2020. The famous Hubble Space Telescope, placed into Earth orbit in 1990 and successfully serviced since then by five visiting space shuttle crews, is still returning data, while Nasa prepares a successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, one of whose tasks will be to gather direct evidence about planets orbiting other suns.

Of course there have been disruptions and occasional disasters. In January 1967, three Apollo astronauts died on the ground when their capsule caught fire during what should have been a routine systems test. The Apollo programme recovered, but the Challenger shuttle explosion in January 1986 and the loss of seven more astronauts suggested that something had gone wrong within Nasa’s management culture.

Astronauts who actually take the risks are always among the loudest champions defending Nasa in the wake of setbacks, because they know what everyone is up against in trying to accomplish any flight. Thomas Jones, a veteran of four shuttle missions, speaks for all his colleagues in saying: “An astronaut makes a conscious choice to repeatedly venture into a harsh environment to gain new knowledge. He or she must confront the fact that the risks of spaceflight are real and ever present.”

Even so, there comes a moment when everyone has to reconsider a flawed situation, and that crisis point was reached on 1 February 2003, when Columbia disintegrated during re-entry, and a second shuttle crew lost their lives.

An investigation concluded that a piece of thermal insulation had peeled away from Columbia’s external fuel tank during launch. It slammed into the leading edge of the shuttle’s left wing, making a small but ultimately fatal hole in the black carbon composite heat shield panels located there. This disaster, echoing the Challenger explosion two decades earlier, pushed the US into reconsidering its space programme. Evidently, the shuttle system, based on technology from the 1970s, was creaking at the seams. Nasa needed a different flagship and a fresh set of goals.

‘You’ve got to have a reason for people to give Nasa their working lives, which is what I did. Not because they asked me to, but because I wanted to.’

Chris Kraft, Nasa veteran

In January 2004, President George W Bush announced a plan “to explore space and extend a human presence across our solar system”. A new spacecraft, the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), would carry astronauts beyond Earth orbit for the first time since 1972 to “undertake extended human missions to the Moon as early as 2015, with the goal of living and working there”. Not long after, Bush suggested Nasa would be ready for “human missions to Mars and to worlds beyond”.

Although this seemed a logical plan, Nasa’s design for the CEV, known as Orion, had a public relations problem. Judging by surface appearances, the wingless, cone-​shaped craft looked like a leap backwards. Robert Seamans, a former Nasa deputy administrator from the Apollo era, was among several veterans who “served on what they called the Greybeard Committee, all these old hands who knew how we’d reached the Moon the first time around. Astronaut John Young was there, and he’d flown in Gemini, plus two Apollo missions, and he commanded the first shuttle flight in 1981. We didn’t fool around. What we came up with is very similar to what we did with Apollo.”

No matter what the media might think, capsules were the right way to go in the 1960s, and they are appropriate for deep space missions today. Winged shuttles cope with a modest 28,000km/h re-entry after decelerating from low-Earth orbit, but a CEV coming home from the Moon, or barrelling back toward Earth from Mars, will slam into the atmosphere at a staggering 40,000km/h. A capsule is better suited to this extreme homecoming than a ship with wings. The secret is in the bow shock, the boundary layer of air that protects a spacecraft from the friction of re-entry. Fat, blunt capsules such as Apollo and Orion create thicker shocks than winged space planes.

One drawback with the wingless Orion is that it cannot be steered to a shuttle-style runway landing, and has to be recovered at sea. On the other hand, wings are useless dead weight for most of a deep space mission, so why carry them all the way to the Moon or Mars and back if they are not necessary? Also on the plus side for Orion, it can serve as a crew escape pod if anything goes wrong during launch. No such option was available in the shuttle, so it looked as if Nasa had good reasons to build a 21st-century capsule. Yet the public just saw Orion as another version of Apollo, and this seems to have weakened civilian support for it. More than a decade after Orion was first announced, US astronauts still have no spacecraft to fly, and no likelihood of climbing aboard one for at least the next four years. What has happened?

Part of the problem is that Nasa’s political masters in Washington have shown uncertainty when it comes to the big question. What should be the next target in space? Most of what Bush proposed in 2004 was disposed of six years later when President Obama told the agency to forget the Moon because America had already “been there, done that”. Obama’s team claimed that Nasa’s ideas were “over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation”. Instead, Nasa was ordered to think about sending humans to Mars, and not in 2015, but merely by some vague date in the 2030s.

Obama was responding to the 2008 economic downturn. He allowed that a Mars mission was something that Nasa could study and prepare for, but there was no budget assigned for actually sending an Orion there. In a bid to justify using Orion sooner than the 2030s, Nasa devised interim schemes including a mission to rendezvous with a passing asteroid, and a small space station positioned in a special region where gravitational fields of the Earth and the Moon cancel each other. Neither of these plans won favour.

October 2017 heralded another turnaround, as Nasa scrapped the asteroid mission and Donald Trump’s vice president Mike Pence put the Moon back on the agenda, “not only to leave behind footprints and flags, but to build the foundation we need to send Americans to Mars and beyond”.

Throughout these disruptions, Nasa’s engineers and contractors have kept their focus on basic hardware elements. Orion is designed for a range of missions, so long as it is beefed up with relevant additions, such as a living module adapted from existing space station technology, or a rear service and propulsion module built by the European Space Agency, again based on familiar cargo systems. Orion’s carrier vehicle, Nasa’s huge Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, will accommodate a range of payloads, crewed and robotic, although all this depends on adequate funding.

Nasa’s annual budget is $19bn, and this sounds like a lot of cash until one thinks about how wide the agency’s responsibilities are, from civil aviation research to avionics, planetary exploration, astronomy programmes, Earth observation, and continuing commitments to the International Space Station. On top of all this, it has to develop the Orion and SLS. Around $2bn a year is available now that the shuttles are retired. The snag is that the new vehicles and rockets need at least $18bn for completion, and no one knows where that cash is coming from.

In August 2013 another expert Nasa veteran, Chis Kraft, the man who defined what we know today as Mission Control, warned the Houston Chronicle newspaper that SLS is so large, “the operating costs will eat Nasa alive, and they’re not going to be able to fly it more than once a year”. He wondered, too, about Nasa’s obsession with sheer size. “What’s so magic about SLS being able to lift 120 [US] tonnes? Why can’t you use what you’ve got and put your vehicles into space in pieces, like you did with the space station? That’s the right way to do it.”

Existing rockets, such as the Delta IV Heavy, operated jointly by Lockheed and Boeing, and capable of lifting up to 29 tonnes, could make the SLS unnecessary. Likewise, the private company SpaceX is developing the Falcon Heavy, with a 64t payload capacity.

Whatever the best candidate for Nasa’s launch vacancy turns out to be, the truth about the agency’s budgetary drain on the taxpayer would surprise many people. In the mid 1960s, it briefly enjoyed over 4 per cent of the US budget, but that peak lasted barely two years, at a time of perceived Cold War crisis. Today, the agency absorbs 0.5 per cent of federal spending, around $19bn a year.

Roger Launius, formerly Nasa’s chief historian, has studied popular perception of this budget issue. “The public has always accorded Nasa a quite favourable rating,” he says. “This is unusual for most federal agencies.” However, many of those same people imagine that Nasa spends at least 10 per cent of the nation’s entire budget. “If that were true, its annual budget would be $380bn.” The irony is that additional cash for an agency that most Americans seem to approve of, and which is vastly cheaper than they imagine, is not a political priority right now. “Turning around those false perceptions of funding is perhaps the most serious challenge facing those who wish to gain greater public support for space exploration,” Launius concludes.

All Nasa really needs is a firm set of instructions and some extra cash, but Chris Kraft cautions the decision makers to get a grip on America’s future in space, and fast. “You’ve got to have a reason for people to give Nasa their working lives, which is what I did. Not because they asked me to, but because I wanted to. I had a reason. But I just don’t think that’s there now.”

How do we choose the right target?

Moon and Mars

Two obvious landing sites present themselves as technically feasible for Nasa within the coming generation: basically, the Moon and Mars. Which one should we go for?

Modest robotic missions to the Moon in recent years have charted the total time its surface is illuminated by the Sun during the lunar day (which lasts two terrestrial weeks). A few small regions never get dark. One of these magic spots is on the rim of Peary crater, close to the lunar north pole. The Sun sits eternally low on the horizon, but unlike the wan winter sun on Earth, its warmth never diminishes because the Moon lacks an atmosphere to impede solar radiation. A lunar base at Peary Crater would be assured of no interruptions to its power supply.

Permanently shadowed regions are just as intriguing. Some deep craters harbour water ice, shielded from evaporation because sunlight never reaches those locations. The ice could be mined for drinking water, and the rest broken down by solar-powered electrolysis into oxygen for life support and hydrogen for fuel. Although this may be a challenge too far, there are compelling reasons for taking a closer look. Comets may have furnished the Earth with organic precursors of life, and perhaps, most of our sea water. Fragile comets hitting the Earth long ago disintegrated into their constituent molecules, so it is impossible to find pristine materials except on the very rare occasions when we despatch probes to sample them as they drift through space. Lunar ice may contain valuable remnants.

Some studies suggest that lunar helium-3, deposited in the topsoil by charged particles in the solar wind, could be refined for fusion reactors. No one knows if this can be collected without shifting thousands of tonnes of surface soil. Perhaps it is worth finding out? Current space policies emerging from the Trump administration say that the Moon is indeed worth another look, while Mars can wait. Other international space agencies are eying the Moon and the White House wants Nasa to lead the pack.

Experts disagree on what purpose a Moon base might serve, but many space insiders believe that one should be constructed soon, perhaps as early as the 2020s and perhaps by commercial companies seeking mineral riches or tourist pay checks. However, this does not have to mean abandoning our hopes for reaching the Red Planet.

According to John Logsdon, founder of the Space Policy Institute in Washington DC and an expert space advisor to multiple White House administrations: “The Moon versus Mars choice is a false dichotomy. Mars is the most desirable place to send humans eventually, because it is a more interesting location to explore. But the Moon is Earth’s offshore island, and a strategy that gets people to Mars with excursions to the Moon along the way seems to me to be the most desirable path.”

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