Abandoning the High Frontier
By John D. Turner
25 Aug 2009

On the 20th of July, 2009 the United States celebrated the 40th anniversary of the lunar landing; the first time human beings set foot on alien soil. It was quite an achievement. From the launch of our first satellite orbiting the Earth until touchdown on the moon, a mere ten and a half years elapsed. And even though manned lunar exploration ended three years later and we have never returned, neither has anyone else, although multiple countries, including the United States, have announced plans to put their own astronauts on lunar soil by 2025 at the latest.

Now it appears, United States will not be one of those countries after all.

Back in 2004, President Bush announced a sweeping new space initiative, designed to put us back on the cutting edge of manned space exploration. The program called for a new manned spacecraft to replace the existing space shuttle, a new heavy-lift booster to put payloads into orbit, a return to the moon, and ultimately a manned expedition to Mars.

But the current administration has new ideas. And those ideas do not include anything that carries the “Bush” label.

Upon taking office in January, President Obama appointed a panel to review the status of the current manned space program. That panel has now made its findings known.

Going to Mars is apparently “too risky” a venture for the country that pioneered the first human landing on the Moon; a landing that one would have to think far more “risky” then than going to Mars today. For one thing, the technology was incredibly primitive by today’s standards. For another, we had little to no experience in space, and no experience at all with landing on another heavenly body. Many said it couldn’t be done. Nevertheless, we did it. Now it appears we are content with the t-shirt.

Going back to the moon? We can’t do that either according to the report. We just don’t have the money. According to the committee, funding would have to be increased approximately three billion dollars per year in order to replace the retiring shuttle fleet and build bigger rockets. Currently, NASA’s budget is around $18 billion, of which $10 billion is spent on human space flight.

So what’s the problem? According to John Logsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, the administration “inherited one of the many failed promises of the Bush administration”, setting out “a very good program without providing the resources to fund it.”

Well what do you know? Another “failed Bush policy.”

It’s the same MO the current administration has displayed since they took office in January. Any time there is a problem, its Bush’s fault. My question is, when everything that goes wrong ever stop being “Bush’s fault?” When will the current administration start accepting responsibility for their decisions and stop blaming Bush? It reminds me of the former Soviet Union. Every time a new premier took power, the first thing they did was vilify the previous premier and blame everything that went wrong on them.

Of course, in the FSU, the previous premier was not among the living to contest what was being said about him, and no one else dared to do so.

It simply is not possible for George Bush to be responsible what is or is not put into the FY 2010 budget. The last budget he was responsible for was the FY 2009 budget under which we are currently operating. And he is not responsible for any supplemental spending that took place after he left office.

If a program ends up requiring more money than previously anticipated, you don’t just throw up your hands and say “it cost more than projected; I guess this is just another failed Bush program” and dump it. I am sure that Social Security is going to cost more next year than projected as well. Does that mean the Obama administration will dump that too? I doubt it.

And it’s not as if we are talking about a trillion dollars here, or even $100 billion. We are talking about $3 billion extra per year. $3 billion. For want of $3 billion, the moon was lost.

How much is $3 billion exactly? Well, it seems like a lot to me, and it would be if it were mine, but to put it into perspective, it is, well, not very much. I admit, I have lost track of exactly what we have spent in FY09. I tried Googling it, and ended up even more confused, if that’s possible. My mind just doesn’t work with numbers that big. Most people’s don’t (unless they are astronomers).

However I do seem to remember that the GAO has estimated our budget deficit for this year to be around $1.8 trillion. So just looking at that, the $3 billion NASA is short is about 0.16% of the estimated deficit. The budget President Bush submitted for FY09, which was passed by Congress, was $3.1 trillion, which implies that we have spent in FY09 at least 4.9 trillion dollars. As a percentage of that number, $3 billion is 0.06% and change.

Don’t you find it interesting that we have $3 billion to spend on “Cash for Clunkers”, but we can’t seem to scrape together $3 billion for the manned space program? Particularly considering we are going to run a $1.8 trillion budget deficit this year, with trillion dollar deficits to come for at least the next few years? Particularly when you look at the stimulus the space program has provided to our economy in the past, and what continued funding will likely provide in the future. At a time when the president says that spending any money at all constitutes a stimulus, would not this be a worthy expenditure of taxpayer money?

But alas, the budget is simply too tight.

However it isn’t just Mars and the Moon we are abandoning.

The shuttle fleet is set to be retired next year, in 2010. At that point, we will have no capability here in the United States to get our astronauts to the International Space Station, which we built with taxpayer money, or return them back to Earth. We will have no capability to resupply the ISS, or make repairs should it become necessary. We will in essence, have abandoned it.

As part of President Bush’s space initiative, we were to have developed a new spacecraft and heavy launch booster to address this problem. Concern was raised that the new spacecraft and booster would not be ready to go until 2015, five years after the shuttle was retired.

But now, the committee reports, there is no money to finish development of the heavy-lift booster or the new space capsule, which is supposed to be tested for the first time next year. If that is the case, then how do we get back and forth to that very expensive taxpayer funded platform in the sky?

Well, the plan in place to bridge the gap between 2010 and 2015 was to hitch a ride with the Russians on their Soyuz spacecraft.

The Russian motto seems to be “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The Soyuz family of spacecraft has been in service since 1967. It has been upgraded of course, and is now in its fourth generation. It was scheduled to be replaced in 2011 by the new Kliper spacecraft; however the Kliper seems to have been indefinitely postponed due to lack of government funding, so Soyuz soldiers on, and will be receiving another upgrade to make it suitable for up to one year in space. So it will be available to shuttle our astronauts to and from the ISS – at a price of course.

And then there are the Chinese, who have also gotten into the manned spaceflight game with their Shenzhou spacecraft, based on the Soyuz design, but larger and with more capability. This vehicle has already flown four unmanned test flights, and three manned orbital missions.

Finally we have India, which also has a manned space program, although they are not expected to complete their first unmanned flight until 2013, making them a more long-term ride.

There are also various private companies hoping to start a space tourism industry. The most famous of these is Virgin Galactic which launched its test-bed SpaceShipOne in 2004. SpaceShipOne was not intended for commercial use however, and Virgin Galactic is presently working on SpaceShipTwo, which will carry paying commercial passengers. Both of these however are suborbital vehicles and could not reach the orbit of the ISS. Nor are they configured to dock with another spacecraft.

Virgin Galactic is by no means the only company engaged in private spacecraft ventures. However, none are currently launch ready, and it is anybody’s guess if any of them will actually become commercially viable. In order to be usable to transfer astronauts to and from the ISS, they would have to be capable of reaching low earth orbit (LEO), and be capable of docking with the ISS.

So for now, we will be relying on the Russians to get to and from our penthouse in the sky. Sure hope they don’t decide to play politics and hold our continued access hostage to whatever geopolitical desires they may have. Like removing our missile shield from Poland. Or letting them do as they please with Ukraine and Georgia and any other small Eastern European country that used to be part of the former Soviet Union or Warsaw Pact. Or even just jacking up the price for a ride to orbit to whatever the market will bear. They are the only game in town after all, at least until China comes more fully on line.

And what if the Russians decide not to play? Then what? Eventually we would have to abandon the ISS, using one of the escape modules, as the crew ran out of food, water, and air. Once the station was abandoned, could it then be claimed under international salvage laws by whomever gets there first? Again, Russia or China? Or perhaps we will just sell it to China, lock, stock, and barrel at pennies to the dollar in order to get them to keep lending us money? Or maybe they will just repossess it as payment for some of our gigantic debt we have with them?

Maybe we have already made that deal, and that is why we no longer need a spacecraft or heavy-lift vehicle.

In any event, if we abandon space we are well on the road to second world status. If an additional $3 billion per year to keep our hand in the game is too much, then we should just fold our cards and leave the table. We are no longer a player.

I find it interesting that with all Russia has gone through, with the fall of the Soviet Union, tremendous fiscal and social upheaval, and the almost total disintegration of their military forces, one thing they did not give up was their manned spaceflight program. It would have been easy for them to say “we simply can’t afford it,” but they did not.

We should not either.