The Space Review: The Rebirth of NASA

NASA is finally close to the first flight of the Space Launch System, the rocket the agency says it needs to get humans back to the moon, but its development suggests NASA could better outsource launch operations to the private sector. (credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky)


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NASA is in the midst of a renaissance: a return to the agency’s origins as a research and development agency rather than a systems operator. This change positions NASA to have a continued impact on US and, by extension, global space programs. Two ongoing events herald this impending change: the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the Space Launch System (SLS), both at critical stages of development and operation. Both have struggled with delays and funding issues created by slow progress toward operational status.

JWST represents a situation where the agency can finally bow for performance, although the end has come much later than most people initially thought.

The reason these two programs signal a change is in the trajectory of the programs. JWST has, after a long development process, reached the desired location and received the first light. The first images he produced open new avenues of exploration, expanding human understanding of the universe. You could say all will be forgiven as JWST steps into its role as the best view humans have of the cosmic past. In a sense, JWST will enjoy the prestige and stature of the Hubble Space Telescope, which had to survive the debacle of an improperly rectified mirror: myopic given pre-launch expectations. Fortunately, a repair flight in 1993 corrected the error. The rest, as they say, is history: a series of pioneering images from across the universe, such as the Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula.

JWST, at this point, has not encountered any equivalent post-launch issues, which is fortunate as it is located beyond current capability to be reached for repair or simply resupply. What’s happening is another opportunity for NASA to reach out beyond the usual suspects who support the space program and the agency. NASA’s holy grail is to reclaim the public support it thought was supporting the agency via Apollo – a more complicated situation than mere adoration because much of the public was supportive in the abstract and more skeptical when asked him to rank space as a priority over other countries. Needs. Either way, JWST represents a situation where the agency can finally bow down for performance, though the end has come much later than most initially thought. The technical challenges were overcome and the plan of operations was finally executed despite some hiccups in terms of timing and cost. This ultimate success stands in contrast to the SLS’s continued struggles to gain ground and get into orbit.

SLS is on a slow and tortuous course to its first test flight, hopefully followed by crewed missions both as test flights and future lunar surface missions. Like the Space Shuttle, SLS will be declared operational shortly after a few flights rather than a rigorous multiple flight schedule. The reason is the same in both cases: cost and time. SLS is extremely expensive (like JWST) and late, but the reality is that its cost means that its use will be limited to possibly two flights per year. Ironically, the working Saturn V was deemed too expensive, so the Space Shuttle was built. The shuttle proved to be too expensive and fragile, so it was canceled in the hope that the Constellation program would produce a successor to the shuttle. Instead, the Ares I was canceled and replaced by the SLS and, more importantly, vehicles developed under NASA’s commercial cargo and crew programs.

NASA wants to control its future, but its fixation on operational launch systems is a path to long-term irrelevance.

The arrival of commercial vehicles was essential for the United States to resume service of the ISS without being totally dependent on Russia or other foreign partners. This same approach has been applied to crew movement to and from the ISS under the Commercial Crew Program. Thanks to SpaceX initially, and possibly soon to Boeing, the United States now provides full service to the ISS for NASA missions. This has become a central pillar in establishing what is known as a “low Earth orbit economy”. It relies on commercial options to develop future human landing systems to arrive on the lunar surface. What is happening is a sea change in the makeup of the US human spaceflight program: commercial options are appearing in the exploration matrix in increasing numbers and locations.

SLS is clearly lagging behind in terms of development, with the possibility of becoming useless in terms of future US human space exploration. Several commercial companies, including SpaceX and Blue Origin, are pursuing the development of heavy-lift vehicles that could, in principle, replace the SLS as the workhorse for US human space exploration efforts. Unless the SLS becomes operational within a reasonable time frame, it becomes a failed option, especially if development difficulties persist in the operational phase of its activities. The most recent public display of SLS performance has been testing the vehicle on the launch pad. A first round of testing in April was cut short while the second in June was incomplete, but the announcement was that things are on schedule.

The reason this is important is that it reinforces the idea that NASA should stop being the one that makes operational systems like launchers. This should be granted to the commercial sector while the agency works on the development of science and technology. NASA began to move away from the operational end of spaceflight in the 1990s with the X-33 program, which was canceled in 2001. This eventually returned the agency to the thicket of being a developer and operator of operational systems, a task that consumes resources. , in particular human resources which are scarce if you want high-flying talent to work for the agency. NASA wants to control its future, but its fixation on operational launch systems is a path to long-term irrelevance. The commercial sector replaces NASA in LEO as planned and desired once the shuttle program is completed in 2011. The SLS has become the last breath of the old order (which was born out of the Apollo era with its relatively larger budgets) and it fails the relevance test. Artemis I will likely fly, but if other options become available, the vehicle could end up in a dead end. The high cost and apparent fragility ultimately make the SLS unattractive for a robust exploration effort.

NASA faces a moment of truth as science and technology development (both space and aerospace) will become its future, a future that relies on the talents and expertise of its workforce. . Human exploration may continue to be a core mission of the agency, but the technology to get there will become more of a private sector than a government program. Providing incentives for the development of new transportation technologies to move around the solar system is becoming the wave of the future. The US Space Force is hiding on the sidelines for now, but it will become a partner for some of these missions, resurrecting the expeditionary model that explored the North American continent in the early republic. For NASA, the choice may not be that of the agency but rather one imposed from outside, just as the agency was imposed on the US military in 1958 despite their expectations that space would be dominated and led by the military.


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