Nasa: what’s needed to put it on its feet? – special report
Walking along the factory floor feels disconcertingly like touring the industrial history galleries at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Gargantuan machines in pristine condition sit idle, waiting for work. Huge, half- finished, vaguely aerodynamic-looking structures lie wait- ing for someone to give them final form. The people who work here might be Smithsonian visitors, too — casually dressed, they pursue their business with an unhurried air. But this is no museum of American industry. It’s Rockwell’s Space Transportation Systems Division plant in suburban Los Angeles, America’s principal spaceship factory. And, like much of the rest of the civilian space program, it’s waiting for NASA to get moving again in the wake of the Challenger disaster.
It may have to wait a while. The accident, and the subsequent investigation by the Rogers Commission, left the space agency reeling. Once the proud embodiment of civilian presence in space, NASA today seems moribund. To be sure, the shuttle is being fixed, the agency is being reorganized, and there’s still brave talk of putting a space station aloft in the 1990s. But the space program lacks realistic long-term goals and the sense of initiative they could reawaken. Worse, it seems to lack the leadership needed to formulate such goals and sell them to those who control the money in Washington or to the American people.
If this situation persists, NASA is likely to find itself hobbling, not soaring, into the next century. ”What we have are the remnants of a pre-eminent space program,” says John Clark, a former director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center who now works for RCA’s Astro Space divi- sion. ”The objective [of exploring the universe] and the reality [of NASA’s weakened condition] are both pretty clear, but there isn’t much resemblance between the two.” Thomas Donahue, chairman of the space science board of the National Academy of Sciences, puts it even more bluntly: ”Extinction is the consequence of the present policy.”
Some critics, among them Clarke, who left Goddard in 1976 partlybecause he disagreed with then administrator James Fletcher’s policy of making the shuttle NASA’s only launcher, argue that it was overreliance on the shuttle — rather than the Challenger accident itself — that brought the program down. If this is so, it augurs ill for the future. Pres- ident Reagan has brought Fletcher back to NASA to lead it out of the quagmire, and the shuttle remains space priority Numer One.
Others blame what they characterize as the agency’s unrealistic expectation of public support. ”NASA and its scientific and industrial allies have never adjusted to the end of the lunar landing program,” says John Logsdon, a former space agency historian now at George Washington Universi- ty. ”They view the Apollo era, with its rapid budget build-up and a national mobilization to achieve a clearly defined, high- priority objective, as the norm, and everything since then as aberration. They don’t accept the reality — that Apollo was the exception.” Another reality is this: barring some extraordinary turnaround in NASA’s capabilities and public attitudes, for the foreseeable future Americans will go into space either on the military’s rich coattails or on a carpet of programs left over from bygone days.
How did the space program slide so far? What will it take to breathe life back into it, assum- ing that a vigorous civilian program is still a national goal?
The search for answers to these questions began with a tour of some of the nation’s space centers — from the Washington bureaucracy to the factory floor — which revealed a stiff-upper-lip optimism shaded by deep nostalgia. This mood was especially apparent during a visit to the Rockwell plant in Downey, Calif. The workers at this plant built the Apollo spacecraft in the 1960s and 1970s, and the current fleet of orbiters (the orbiter is the airplane-like part of the shuttle; the word shuttle, strictly speaking, should be applied only to the entire complex of orbiter, external fuel tank, and solid-fuel boosters). They’ll build the replacement for Challenger, too — so long as Congress, the White House, and the Pentagon can agree on how to pay for it.
The space industry is a reality in Downey, not some fantasy fromup the road in Hollywood or from a glossy NASA publication for school kids, and the billions of dollars deposited here by the agency over the years have created a hard-working community of people who love and need the space program.
Rocco Petrone, the boss of the spaceship factory, might be theirspiritual father. Petrone, 60, who once served as director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, talks about ”my” orbiter and ”my” subcontractors as though shuttle- building were a family business like wine making. His problem at the moment is how to make a product he stopped manufacturing in April 1985, when the most recent orbiter, Atlantis, rolled off the assembly line. The production gap is even wider than chronology suggests, because the orbiter program — and its network of subcontractors — was held in place only by steady funding from Washington, and manufacturers had to look elsewhere when the big money stopped. Beech Aircraft, for example, which made the orbiter’s cryogenic tanks, is no longer in that business. Such defections prompted the National Research Council to warn in 1986 that an ”unutilized manufacturing base will vanish in a very short time,” and to recommend the production of at least one orbiter every four years. There’s no sign that Congress or the Presi- dent will go for such a proposal, however.
In the past, when NASA had trouble persuading Congress to buy anew shuttle, it did the next best thing: it commissioned the manufacture of ”structural spares” — major parts intended both as replacements in case of damage to the existing fleet, and as a means to encourage the reten- tion of important skills and tools. (Critics said the program was just a way to send Rockwell some business.) The decision now seems to have been a good one. The structural spares are giving Rockwell a head start on building the Challenger replacement. For example, the component with the longest lead time is a spidery titanium truss called a thrust frame that fits in the aft of the orbiter to absorb the force of the spacecraft’s main engines. About 67 months of work pass between the start of the truss and the completion of an orbiter. Fortunately, Petrone has an extra one on the shelf.
Even with the structural spares, it will take 45 months and as much as $3 billion to complete a new orbiter. Pe trone says he could speed that up considerably by borrowing various parts from the stockpile of ”operational” spare parts needed to keep the existing fleet flying. But even then, building a new orbiter could take three years. ”If Congress had started giving us money on October 1, we could’ve finished in July 1990,” Petrone says. ”But the longer we have to wait for the money, the more subcontractors we’ll lose, and the longer it will be before we finish the job. A delay to July 1987 would push us out to November 1991.” (As DISCOVER went to press, the dollars still weren’t flowing, because delays that stemmed from the Gramm-Rudman law.)
The point of reviewing these manufacturing matters is to show that the space program survives on the shop floor, where to a seasoned manager building a shuttle doesn’t look all that different from making tractors. When Washington officials talk about deploying a space station or Star Wars defense satellites by the 1990s, they may be unaware of how much time Petrone needs to build them a cargo hauler.
There’s also the question of how up to date that cargo hauler will be when it’s delivered. Though the factory can still produce a manned spaceship that’s unequaled, much of its production equipment was designed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the shuttle was conceived. Attrition and union seniority rules have also aged the work force: a Rockwell official says that the aver- age worker in the Downey plant is 50 years old.
Rockwell managers deny that their tools, or their vehicle, are outdated. The company has invested $25 million in the past five years to modernize and computerize its plant. As for the orbiter, Petrone says, ”I see no change in technology that would obsolete it in the next fifteen years.” Nevertheless, Rockwell still finds itself in the position of trying to revamp an aging spacecraft, rather than give birth to a new one. And since no new shuttle design is much past the conceptual stage, the year 2000 may come and go before Petrone’s successors get a chance to build the next generation of American spaceships.
In replacing Challenger, Rockwell plans for few major changes aside from modernizing the computers, improving the dangerous landing brakes, and perhaps adding an escape system. Even these modest adjustments can pose problems, though. ”The orbiter landing gear, tires, wheels, brakes, and nose-wheel steering, as a system, is experimental, designed to criteria outside any other ex- perience,” says a recent study by the House Science and Technology Committee. ”As a consequence, orbiter landings appear high risk even under ideal conditions, which seldom occur.”
Petrone says Rockwell is considering changing the braking surfaces to pure carbon, from the beryllium and carbon-lined beryllium in use today. This should provide more braking power and reduce the braking-surface damage that has occurred on 15 of the 24 shuttle landings so far. But carbon brakes may also subject tires and wheels to extremely high temperatures in an emergency stop, since carbon provides more efficient braking than beryllium precisely ecause it does a better job of translating the craft’s forward motion into heat. In addition, carbon-to-carbon brakes are hardly trouble-free: they have failed on some civilian airliners, for example.
Another problematic improvement is the proposed crew escape system — an idea that was considered but discarded when the shuttle was originally designed because various systems either cost too much, didn’t reduce risks, or created hazards of their own. The only time during flight when escape is feasible is during controlled gliding — after an aborted ascent or during the landing phase. Conventional bail-out gear, like ejection seats, might work, but any such mechanism will add weight to the orbiter and hurt its performance. In the end, the odds of surviving a shuttle catastrophe may rest as much in the hands of the gods as in those of Petrone’s engineers.
Rocketdyne, the Rockwell division that manufactures the shuttle’s main engines, confronts similar difficulties. The orbiter’s liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen engines, designed more than a decade ago, are still probably the most advanced rocket engines in the world. However, although original plans called for them to be certified by now for ten to 15 flights each, they’re only good for five or six before they require an overhaul. (Eventually, the engines are supposed to fly 55 missions without major repair.) Before Challenger’s demise, Rocketdyne was trying to gear up to support 20 launches a year at its overhaul facility. But J.R. Johnson, 54, Rocketdyne’s assistant vice president for orbiter engines, says the prospect of even 15 proved ”overwhelming.”
The reason the engines can’t be certified for more flights is that their high-pressure turbo- pump blades have a tendency to crack, requiring expensive and frequent replacement. The blades go from room temperature to 1,000 F. and from zero r.p.m. to 28,000 r.p.m. in five seconds. Rocketdyne has come up with new vibration dampers that are supposed to be ready before flights resume, in February 1988. But NASA program managers recently decided to double the number of monthly tests required of the main engines. Should serious flaws become apparent during these tests, the 1988 date for resumption of shuttle operations could go out the window.
This kind of nursing care for the shuttle is expensive. Johnson says NASA has been paying Rocketdyne about $250 million a year just to service existing engines, $100 million to develop improvements, and at least $50 million for spare parts. These figures contrast starkly with the scant $8 million NASA budgeted in fiscal 1987 for research into new chemical- based space propulsion systems ($28 million more is devoted to general aeronautical propulsion technology). And the cost of refurbishing engines and other equipment may go up if the space agency is forced to tighten its acceptance criteria as a result of the Challenger accident. That could very well happen: a House inquiry recently found that ”NASA regularly violates its own certification requirements” for various components.
Despite these costs, the idea of sticking to the tried-and- truehas become a space industry credo. ”We’re now saying continuously, in program after program, ‘Don’t give us anything new, give us the old stuff, and we’ll keep on using it,’ ” says Edward Gibson, 50, a former astronaut who was part of the 1973 Skylab crew that holds the American record for time in orbit, and who’s now a space station projects manager at TRW.
The advantage of recycling a design, of course, is that it’s proved. Rocketdyne, which made the engines for such legendary U.S. missiles as Atlas, Jupiter, Thor, and Saturn, hasn’t built an Atlas engine from scratch in the last 25 years of the missile’s 30-year history, according to Bill Ezell, 56, head of the company’s expendable rocket program. ”Reliability is the key to keeping the old equipment,” Ezell says.
Sticking with old technology has some serious but unquantifiablehazards. For example, there’s the risk of stifling innovation that could turn a project in a fruitful new direction. There is also the danger of losing the excitement necessary to attract the brightest talent to an endeavor. This has already happened in the space program: the young engineers who sent men to the moon in the 1960s and 1970s have retired or become senior executives, and their shoes aren’t being filled by legions of eager newcomers. Donahue says he may begin advising students to avoid careers in space science if the money for the NASA budget does not improve. The average age of NASA employees is 44 — rather old for a cutting edge enterprise. The money and the excitement have gone elsewhere — to big weapons contracts, perhaps, or to Wall Street.
That deals a further blow to morale already damaged by the Challenger accident. Ezell hints at this when asked how he likes working in a field populated by aged technolo gies. ”It’s still a lot of fun, but not quite the same,” he says. ”It isn’t the same hectic pace as twenty years ago.”
Not all the dreamers are gone from the space program, however. Consider the report of the President’s National Commission on Space, delivered last May, four months after the Challenger explosion. This document, printed commercially with lavish sci-fi art work and sprinkled with archaic capital letters, painted a fanciful vision of the space program’s next fifty years:
”The Highway to Space between Earth and low Earth orbit starts with economical cargo and passenger transports, adding an orbit transfer vehicle for desti- nations beyond low Earth orbit. These three systems would be operational in conjunction with an orbital spaceport by the year 2000. Beyond low Earth orbit is the Bridge between Worlds to support initial robotic lunar surface operations, followed by outposts for human operations on the Moon starting about 2005. Extension of the Bridge between Worlds would initiate robotic exploration of Mars, followed by outposts to support human activities starting about 2015.”
The report seemed quaint on the day it was delivered; it seemed to take no cognizance of the economic and political realities. For one thing, the Challenger accident had already pushed all schedules back five years. Even assuming that NASA and Morton Thiokol rapidly fix the faulty joints in the solid rocket boosters that caused the disaster, the shuttle won’t fly again until 1988. (NASA engineers have tentatively settled on a fix for the joints that adds a third O-ring to the two that failed on Challenger and a metal flange to keep the joint they seal from opening.) That means it will be 1991 or so before NASA builds to pre-accident launch capability — if all goes well. Another accident could paralyze the shuttle program or kill it, and NASA will be extra cau- tious — as it should be — in the years ahead. That can only translate into delays.
For another thing, a battle is shaping up over who will set long-term space policy goals. The job now rests with a Reagan administration creation known as the Senior Interagency Group-Space (SIG-Space), composed of representatives of the departments of State, Treasury, Defense, Justice, Commerce, and Transportation, and the Office of Management and Budget, the CIA, the Joint Chiefs, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and NASA. Critics like Representative Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) argue that SIG-Space is too often log-jammed by the conflicting interests of its many members. Nelson, who heads the space science and applications subcommittee, succeeded in placing a provision in the 1987 NASA Authorization Act that would have resurrected the National Aeronautics and Space Council (NASC) — a policy-making group that was disbanded by Richard Nixon in 1972. But Reagan vetoed the bill, saying the council ”would constitute unacceptable interference with my discretion.” Now that the President faces a solidly Democratic Congress, he’ll confront more such interference in formulating America’s space goals.
If Nelson’s attempt to recreate the NASC, a relic of happier days, seems a nostalgic step, it was no more so than Reagan’s re-appointment of the 67-year-old Fletcher as NASA administrator. Fletcher, who headed the agency from 1971 to 1977, spent much of his earlier tenure arguing that the shuttle would pay for itself with numerous launches, contrary to analyses by the Office of Management and Budget, the Rand Corporation, and a panel of the President’s Science Advisory Committee. He later chaired a Pentagon committee that gave one of the first upbeat endorsements to Reagan’s dream of a space- based missile defense.
Asked if he feels chastened by his experiences of the past 15 years, Fletcher answers, ”You bet.” But that doesn’t dim his technological optimism. Just a week before the National Research Council (NRC) released a report concluding that a four-orbiter fleet could sustain an annual flight rate of only eleven to thirteen missions under perfect conditions, Fletcher said that he was counting on achieving 16. He also said that the proposed National Aerospace Plane — a former Pentagon project code- named Copper Canyon, now known wishfully as the Orient Express — will carry cargo into orbit at one-tenth the cost of the shuttle. That same NRC study found that ”technology [for the plane] is not yet in hand, and the size of the ve- hicle contemplated for the turn of the century is too small to handle shuttle-equivalent payloads.”
As for the future, Fletcher says the next five years are ”pretty much set”; NASA’s task will be to bring the shuttle back on line. That same message emerges from the agency’s 1987 budget. The biggest numbers are found in a category called ”Space flight, control and data communication,” which is substantially devoted to keeping the shuttle program afloat: $1.35 billion for ”space transportation operations,” for instance, $784 million for ”space shuttle production and operational capability.”
Even in the R&D category, one of the biggest sums, $516 million,is for ”Space trans portation capability development,” which includes shuttle- related programs like upper stages and Spacelab. Physics and astronomy, the top science fields, get $529 million, and planetary exploration gets $374 million. Far smaller amounts go to such important areas as life sciences ($74.3 million) and materials processing in space ($43.9 million).
Overall, the NASA budget reflects what a suffocating burden the shuttle is. (In fact, the grounded shuttle is proving more expensive than a flying one: Congress has authorized $101 million for 1987 to cover any costs of fixing the shuttle that can’t be met by the money already allocated for the flights that won’t take place.) Critics charge that this concentration of resources per- petuates the mistake NASA made in the 1970s by putting all its eggs in the shuttle basket. ”The shuttle is sucking up every penny in the agency — first to build it, then to fly it, now to fix it,” says Earl Reese, director of finance and operations at Transpace Carriers, which had long negotiated with NASA for the right to market the Delta rocket to private business until the agency backed off last fall.
Reese and others argue that the Challenger accident underscored the folly of the one- vehicle space policy. ”Overnight, we learned that a policy of total national reliance on the space shuttle was ill-conceived,” says Lillian Trippett, counsel to the House subcommittee on space science. ”Literally overnight, a mixed-fleet philosophy was born.”
There were modest signs of that shift in thinking in the 1987 NASA Authorization Act that Reagan vetoed. It ordered NASA to develop a plan for buying expendable boosters — in effect, to revive the throwaway rockets that the shuttle was supposed to make obsolete.
The leading candidates to become America’s main expendable launch vehicle — the Delta, the Atlas, and the Titan — have all been around for a while. ”Believe it or not,
I worked on all three of those in 1954,” Fletcher says. The Delta, an outgrowth of the
Air Force’s Thor intermediate range ballistic missile, put its first payload into low earth or- bit in 1960. The Atlas, derived from a family of ICBMs developed in the late 1950s, carried John Glenn into orbit in 1962. (Aerospace industry wags used to call it the Civil Servant, because ”you couldn’t make it work, and you couldn’t fire it.”) The Titan I, which first flew in 1959, was for years a mainstay of the U.S. nuclear arsenal; it was armed with a nine-megaton warhead 700 times as powerful as the A- bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The current model, the Titan III, has a two-stage liquid core and side-mounted solid rockets that share some design features with the shuttle’s solid- fuel boosters. The existing number of these expendables is so small — under a dozen — that they won’t be carrying much besides Pentagon payloads until at least next year.
The administration began trying to cultivate a market for such expendables with the President’s commercial space policy directive of July 1984. There was little business interest at first, but since the Challenger explosion, these old boosters have become as crucial to the space program’s fu- ture as any exotic technology. Their manufacturers — Martin Marietta (Titan), General Dynamics (Atlas), and McDonnell Douglas (Delta) — are beginning to sound more enthusiastic about the vehicles’ com mercial possibilities than they have in years, and they predict there will be stiff competition for whatever new business arises. ”We wouldn’t expect three manufacturers of launch vehicles to be around in four or five years,” says Roger Chamberlain, manager of the commercial Titan program for Martin, which has a tentative agreement with Federal Express to launch a satellite in 1989.
Despite these good omens, R&D on the commercial uses of space received only $27 million in NASA’s 1987 budget. And the National Research Council concluded that ”the economic viability of commercial launch suppliers may not be decided for many years because of the long transition pe- riod from total shuttle dependence to some combination of foreign and speculative domestic suppliers.”
The revived interest in expendables has stimulated interest in developing a new booster. Billy Shelton, head of an advanced planning group at the Marshall Space Flight Center, says NASA and the Pentagon are jointly studying plans to build a heavy-lift cargo launcher by 2010. ”One f the major drivers,” Shelton says, ”is the SDI requirement for many 10,000- to 20,000-pound payloads. Several of them could be carried simultaneously by a 100,000- to 150,000- pound-capability vehicle for cost savings.” Although the shuttle was designed to carry 65,000 pounds per launch, it will be restricted to about 40,000 as a result of the Challenger accident.
But a new unmanned rocket isn’t likely to give NASA what it needs most — projects that will fire the public’s imagination and mobilize support in the White House, in Congress, and in the federal bureaucracy. For this, the agency seems to have pinned its hopes on the manned space station, which will be NASA’s next big undertaking after the shuttle is fixed. Agency officials like to quote Reagan’s 1984 State of the Union address, in which he invoked the ghost of John Ken- nedy when he ordered the agency to launch the space station within a decade. ”We can follow our dreams to distant stars, living and working in space for peaceful, economic, and scientific gain,” Reagan declared.
But it’s far from clear that the space station has either the pizzazz or the utility to stir NASA to life. For one thing, even Fletcher worries about the financial and practical obstacles to getting it into orbit. ”I’m still a little nervous about the cost of the space station [estimated at $8 billion in 1984 dollars] and whether we can maintain the eight-per-year shuttle flight rate dedicated to building it,” the NASA administrator says. ”We really haven’t gone through all the logistics.”
Some businessmen are skeptical of claims that the space station will pay its way with research into space-based manufacturing. ”No one I know has come up with a brand new product that you can make only in space,” says Louis Hemmerdinger, a semiconductor manufacturing expert at the Grumman Corporation. ”We’re talking about enhancement of products that can be made on the ground.” Such enhancement is potentially profitable, but the risk is severe, he adds. Growing high- quality gallium arsenide crystals in space, for example, could multiply the yield from the manufacture of semiconductor chips more than six times, he estimates, but reaping those profits depends on getting into orbit cheaply and soon, because ground-based crystal-growing techniques are improving rapidly.
In fact, says Marc Vaucher, a consultant at the Center for SpacePolicy Inc., ”many firms have decided to shelve their materials-processing-in-space programs since Challenger.”
Even companies that remain interested in the field are having trouble finding partners. McDonnell Douglas and Johnson & Johnson formed a joint venture in 1978 to try making erythropoietin — a kidney hormone that controls the production of red blood cells — aboard the shuttle. But in 1984 Johnson & Johnson opted out. McDonnell Douglas went on to fly developmental hardware on the shuttle seven times with mixed results. Charles Walker, the astronaut- scientist who tended the ex- periments, says the production technology is workable, but as yet McDonnell Douglas hasn’t found a new co-sponsor for the venture. One reason, Walker says, is that ”NASA is no longer master of its own destiny. It has to stand up to votes by the White House, the CIA, the Pentagon, the Transportation Department, et cetera. Everybody has a piece of the action.” And that makes the future too unpredictable for many firms.
The chief hope for materials processing in space is that important new processes will be found that can’t be matched on earth. Myron Weinberg, an expert on the pharmaceutical industry, cites two possibilities: nearly flawless glass-like linings for artificial hearts that would prevent clotting, and membranes coated with antibodies that could filter an AIDS victim’s blood.
Space station proponents argue that, even if there’s no hope of an immediate payoff, the station should be built, because there will be unforeseeable benefits later. ”It’s true that we don’t know how to live and work in that environment,” says David Black, chief scientist for the project, ”but the space station program has been far more responsive to the needs of potential users, especially scientists, than Apollo or the shuttle ever were.” To buttress his point, he adds that those projects didn’t even have a position called chief scientist.
But other observers doubt that the space station will catalyze the support NASA needs. ”NASA management may have ‘bet the company’ on the successful outcome of a campaign to obtain approval for one more large, new, high- technology, publicly funded civilian space program,” said a November 1984 report by Congress’s Office of Technology Assessment. ”Unfortunately, even if approval is received, such a program could foreclose, perhaps for five to ten years, the possibility of NASA’s undertaking other, more desirable options or its effecting any fundamental changes either in its major program mix or in the way it acquires space technology.”
Even some long-time space enthusiasts — like Klaus Heiss, an economist for Econ Inc., who helped NASA develop the optimistic early projections of shuttle flights — are glum about the space station. ”I’m much more pessimistic about American interests in space than ten years ago,” Heiss says. ”Europe and Japan are in better shape.” He says too much of NASA’s budget is tied up in operations, rather than science or advanced concepts. ”A lot of NASA is burned out,” he concludes.
Heiss’s comment is substantiated by the fact that, for the next few years at least, NASA’s only ground-breaking scientific research will come from projects begun long ago, some of which have been waiting years to be launched. The Hubble Space Telescope, for example, which Fletcher calls ”one of the most important in- struments ever to be put in- to space,” is scheduled for launching from the orbiter in November 1988, a scant nine months after the shuttle’s first post-accident flight. The bill for storage of the telescope in the meantime is about $8 million a month.
The Magellan probe, which will map Venus with high-resolution radar, is slated for an April 1989 launch. Galileo, which will make the first comprehensive survey of Jupiter and its moons, and Ulysses, which will study the sun’s northern polar regions, are to receive launch assignments next year. But the Mars Observer program, which hopes to place instruments in orbit around the Red Planet sometime in the early 1990s, appears vulnerable to delays.
Still another highly publicized program, the Comet Rendezvous Asteroid Flyby (CRAF), is in limbo, at least partly because of uncertainty about how to launch it. CRAF was to have ridden out of earth orbit aboard the upper stage of a Centaur launched from the shuttle’s cargo bay. But the liquid-fueled Centaur was canceled after the Challenger disaster because officials came to fear carrying a load of potentially explosive rocket fuel on the orbiter.
Galileo provides a case study of NASA’s space science frustrations. If the probe had been launched in May 1986 with a shuttle-Centaur combination, as originally planned, it could have flown unassisted to Jupiter in a little more than two years. But, says project manager John Casani, the ltest itinerary calls for Galileo to fly a labyrinthine path that will take it first around Venus for a gravity-assisted boost in speed, and then twice past Earth before it will finally be flung toward its distant tar- get. The travel time, assuming a November 1989 launch, would be three times that of the original schedule. And scientists must outfit the craft with shades, shields, and exter- nal blankets to protect it from the sun’s heat on the Venus leg of the trip.
Some NASA officials argue that the hiatus in space science and basic research is only tem- porary, and that steps are already being taken to set such projects going again. ”I think it’s probably true that we’ve been living off the investments we made in technology years ago,” says Sally Ride, the young astronaut who became highly visible in the agency’s management after serving as a member of the Rogers Commission. ”We’ve recognized this in the last year, and realized the need for NASA to start investing again in basic R&D. The ‘civil space technology initiative’ in our fiscal 1988 budget submission [it’s a $100 million item] covers basic work on propulsion, infor- mation systems, and sensors.”
Other observers wonder whether Star Wars will replace space exploration as the government’s principal means for funneling tax dollars into technology. ”The role of government is to build technological infrastructures, which should be flexible at the leading edge,” says Jerome Simonoff, a Citicorp vice president who specializes in aerospace investment. He hypothesizes that no one, except maybe the President, believes SDI will actually work. But he says it represents the only consensus on how to underwrite expensive high- tech science.
The question of the military’s role in space is itself a matter of hot debate. Critics have argued that the present ratio of funding is tipped too heavily in favor of the armed services (which outspend NASA about two to one on space). But although the 1987 budget transfers some Penta- gon money to NASA to help pay for a replacement orbiter, Richard Johnson, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, insists there will be ”no major adjustment of the military-civilian budget ratio in the near future.”
And that points up one of the principal obstacles to revitalizing the space program: almost any conceivable course of action beyond the one already set would require more cash. The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, for example, has advocated doubling NASA’s $7.8 billion budget — a recommendation that has been echoed by other observers frustrated by the pres ent doldrums. ”If space pre- eminence is a national objective,” the institute says, ”the choice is not simply to select among the fixed-budget alternatives of replacing the Challenger, re-establishing expendable launch vehicle capability, developing a next-generation launch system, or deploying the space station, but to commit the funding needed to proceed with all the necessary actions at a pace commensurate with the national objective.”
But the chances of doubling any federal agency’s budget in the 1980s seem remote. Even Star Wars research and development has been slowed down by Congress. And the public appears reluctant to dig deeper into its pockets: a Harris poll in September found 60 per cent of respondents opposed to such a budget increase for NASA.
If people were willing to pay more, it’s still unlikely they’d reach any consensus on what to do with that money. When the National Space Society conducted a survey of the public’s priorities for space two years ago, the top five answers, in order of popularity, were disposal of toxic wastes, space tourism, an earth-orbiting university or space think-tank, space hospitals, and space prisons. ”There is not a high level of public awareness of current and near-term projects,” the society observed dryly.
Indeed, the results of the survey — improbable as they seem — illustrate a weak point in NASA’s thinking, namely the notion that any single proj ect can galvanize popular support the way the moon landing did. Apollo, as Logsdon argues, may have been an aberration. There’s talk of a joint mission to Mars with the Soviets, but that won’t happen for at least ten years. In the nearer term, NASA’s single-minded pursuit of the space station seems flawed, as the shuttle program was, by a tendency to ”bet the company” on a single massive effort. A wiser course, critics suggest, would be to pursue a broader set of goals at a slower pace. These might include a strong emphasis
on space science, unmanned probes, expendable boosters, and forward-looking R&D.
For now, despite heady talk from Fletcher about pushing back thefrontiers of space, NASA’s real goals will remain more modest — and properly so. ”There are a lot of open issues,” says one congressional space committee staffer, ”but before we can talk sensibly about anything new, it would be nice just to get a firm schedule for what we have.” The translation: the patient is still in bad shape. Resuscitation must go on, and it may take a long time. Only when it’s done can NASA hope to regain its old vigor.
SPACE STATION HOW ELABORATE WILL IT BE
Since the early 1950s, when Wernher von Braun dreamed of an orbiting space station on the scale of Ezekiel’s Wheel, engineers have sobered considerably about what America’s first permanent home in space may look like. No longer do scientists have visions of huge spoked structures that spin grandly through space to the tune of the Blue Danube waltz. Today’s proposed space stations are spindly trusses that would afford only spartan accommodations.
Even since January 1984, when President Reagan called upon NASA to develop a permanently manned station within the next decade, ambitions have been tempered. The agency was then working on a so-called dual keel configuration, in which a huge rectangular frame, hung at one end with earth-sensing gear, at the other with equipment to study space, sat astride a 503-foot transverse boom that supplied power But several factors combined to modify that plan. Among them was the amount of extravehicular work required to construct it, which would have taken all of the 48 man-hours allotted per shuttle mission. Another was a reduction in the shuttle’s cargo capacity, from 65,000 pounds per launch to about 40,000, as a result of Challenger.
NASA still intends to build the dual keel station eventually, but it will begin by constructing a more modest station onto which the larger design can be piggybacked. The backbone of this simpler station remains the transverse boom. This will hold the solar power panels and new thermal dynamic generators (they use the umbrella-like sunlight collectors shown at either end of the arm in the two bottom dia grams at right) that can produce a combined 87 kilowatts of electricity. Living and working quarters will consist of habitation and laboratory modules, each about the size of a large bus, ferried up on shuttle flights and connected by interlocking passageways. A crew of four will occupy the station beginning after the eleventh flight, now scheduled for 1994. It would take another 21 flights after that to complete the full dual keel station. If something goes wrong while people are living there, the station is supposed to provide a safe haven until a shuttle rescue mission can be mounted. In the future, NASA may add a ”lifeboat,” or emergency escape vehicle, that could fly them home.
In this new design, NASA has tried to accommodate the wishes of the many companies and nations — including those of the European Space Agency, Canada, and Japan — that will use the station. But the agency may have gone too far. Astronaut Gordon Fullerton complained in June that by trying to satisfy so many conflicting interests, NASA risked satisfying no one. ”People do not believe in this station,” he said in a presentation to the agency. ”There’s great concern that NASA is misrepresenting what we can do, to the Congress and the public.”
Congress, too, is worried about some aspects of the design. The House voted last fall to prohibit NASA from spending $160 million of the $420 million allocated for 1987 until it makes design changes that permit manned scientific work to begin at the station while it’s still being assembled.
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