Wither Manned Space Flight
There’s no doubt that we’re in a golden age of space exploration. There’s a fleet of orbiting satellites on Mars and two working rovers as well, spacecraft at Venus and on the way to Mercury, already successful at Jupiter and Saturn and even one heading to Pluto. Manned spaceflight, by comparison, is stuck in low earth orbit with no obvious goal or rational (Mars and even the Moon seem more than a little out of reach). With the recent near-disaster of the Russian Soyuz, the only back-up to the shuttle for manned space flight, even LEO may be out of reach.
NASA is actually considering abandoning ISS until they can resolve the safety issues surrounding the Soyuz currently docked there (and in general).
This whole fiasco reveals a fundamental design (in fact conceptual) flaw of the station from the beginning (one that was shared by the Shuttle)–a lack of redundancy and resiliency. NASA had the hubris to think that they could design and build a single vehicle type that could not only have the flexibility to satisfy all of the nation’s (and much of the world’s) needs for transport to and from space, but do so with confidence that it would never have cause to shut down (and remove our ability to access LEO). They learned the foolishness of this notion in 1986, with the Challenger loss.
Similarly, they decided to build a manned space station, that would be all things to all people–microgravity researchers, earth observations, transportation node, hotel–because they didn’t think that they could afford more than one, and so they have no resiliency in their orbital facilities, either. If something goes wrong with the station, everyone has to abandon it, with nowhere to go except back to earth.
The next question is, will the shuttle replacement be able to get us back? He doesn’t think so. There is, he notes, a common conceptual design flaw in all three (the shuttle, the ISS and the shuttle replacement).
NASA doesn’t seem to have learned the lesson of Shuttle and ISS, because Constellation has exactly the same problem–a single vehicle type for each phase of the mission. If Altair is grounded, we can’t land on the moon. If the EDS has problems, we can’t get into a trans-lunar orbit. If something goes wrong with Orion, or Ares, the program is grounded.
He’s right, but doesn’t state that the problems are not engineering problems or even managerial problems so much as political. The shuttle was designed with one (count ’em, one) mission in mind, the Hubble Space Telescope. It worked because that permitted politically the infusion of military money into NASA – HST was physically identical to a number of spy satellites, and the shuttle could support their launch. The ISS came much later.
Does the shuttle replacement have such a mission? Even one? I haven’t heard of it, yet.