Misconceptions about the Future of Human Spaceflight

This week, someone stumbled across this blog while searching for an answer to this question: “will jaxa houston operation close after the last shuttle retirement?”

Two weeks ago, I read a comment on my favorite tech blog, Gizmodo, asking why NASA still needed an astronaut corps if the NASA human spaceflight program had been cancelled.

Before that, I was told about this exchange from a friend of mine:

Waitress – Where do you work?

Friend – JSC.

Waitress – Oh, you mean the credit union?

Friend – No, the space center.

Waitress – Oh, I thought that place had been shut down.

Sigh.

Everyone here recognizes we are not about to enter the golden age of NASA human spaceflight programs.  There’s even the depressing possibility that those days are long behind us and we will never again achieve the high points of the past.  The future right now is far from certain and there are a number of possibilities in the years ahead.

First and foremost, NASA will be operating the International Space Station for at least the next ten years.  This means that, with any luck, there will be a NASA astronaut in space every day for the next ten years.  Not only will there be one, but there could be as many as three, while part of a larger crew of six or seven people.  Humans have lived in space aboard the space station for the past ten years and will continue to do so for the next ten years or more.

Twenty years of continuous human presence in space will be quite an achievement if we can pull it off.  We’ll definitely need a lot of luck in addition to the hard work, determination, and expertise of every astronaut, flight controller, or instructor.

For the next 3-4 years, the only ride to ISS will be aboard the Russian-built Soyuz spacecraft, a stalwart capsule that has been in service for 50+ years.  Once we hit 2015 or 2016, things look a little more unclear and different possibilities emerge.  Currently four U.S. companies, SpaceX, Sierra Nevada Corp., Blue Origin, and Boeing, are building possible crewed vehicles capable of launching into low Earth orbit and rendezvousing with the space station.  In addition to these companies, several others are also still developing potential crew vehicles.

Once one or two of those companies succeed, we will no longer be dependent on the Soyuz to get to orbit.  The successful commercial companies will secure government contracts that will require them to fly a couple of times per year to the space station. At that point, NASA will likely be the only customer in town, though it’s possible a company like Bigelow Aerospace will have the first commercial space station in orbit at that time.

If those companies do not succeed, NASA is developing its own vehicle, the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV).  The MPCV is a capsule that is intended to be able to go to ISS and beyond.

What people often miss is that many of the previous NASA human spaceflight vehicles were built by private contractors.  The Space Shuttle and Apollo capsules were built by private companies and turned over to NASA for operation.  The difference here would be in the operation of the vehicle.  These companies could operate the vehicles themselves or partner with NASA to do it, but either way, they would ultimately be coming to the space station and working with NASA to successfully complete missions.

Before the next vehicle becomes operational, my hope is that we will have settled on what our next human spaceflight goal will be.  The possibilities include a return to the Moon, a rendezvous with a near-Earth asteroid, or even a mission to one of Mars’ moons.  If we’re going to take advantage of the development of a new vehicle, either MPCV or otherwise, to go to another destination then we will need to start planning within the next couple of years.

In order for our future programs to be successful, we cannot approach these projects as a means to leave footprints on the ground.  We have to approach them to leave an infrastructure in place that will allow for continued expansion of commercial companies into the solar system.

In my opinion, the government will always need to be out in front, laying down the infrastructure that will allow commercial companies to be profitable.  If ISS didn’t exist, the only market for services would be for millionaire space tourists.  NASA is defraying the development costs of the commercial companies to encourage their participation.  Take that away and take ISS as a destination away and do all of these companies continue to make the progress they do?

I’m not sure of that.  I wouldn’t put it beyond one of the Über-rich space enthusiasts to try this without assistance, but their will be a lot of risk and the cost of failure will be very high.

Beyond the ISS, NASA will take the burden of doing the initial forays to an asteroid and learning what it’s like to live and work there before opening up the future markets for asteroid mining.  This is probably the next profitable endeavor in space beyond tourism.

All of that, though, is a pipe dream until a vehicle gets built.  So we will continue to work to use the ISS to the fullest of its capabilities, but my hope is that once we get a vehicle in place, then we will really take off (pun absolutely intended).

Hopefully the next time someone searches about the demise of human spaceflight, they’ll stumble across this and see that while the future is uncertain, there is reason for hope in the long run.  NASA will continue to send humans into space.  NASA will continue to operate the space station.  Someday, humans will live on other worlds in the Solar System and I firmly believe NASA will be a key part of it.  Of course I believe that,  I plan to push that direction as hard as I can.

The Blind Date That Almost Never Happened

I felt a little like this by the end of this saga.

Ten years ago today, in the midst of the hellacious Tropical Storm Allison, my wife and I got married; however, our little adventure came very close to never happening.  I had been on blind dates before and wasn’t exactly one to turn up my nose at a chance at a night out.  So a coworker and cubemate of mine, took it upon herself to set me up on a blind date with an old high school friend of hers.

I knew absolutely nothing about the girl I was being set up with; my friend refused to show me her picture, thinking that I would judge her just by her looks.  I was told she was a school librarian.  I thought this was a strange coincidence as the last blind date I had been on was also with a school librarian.  This blind date, arranged by the commander of the Naval outpost where I worked, was with a quiet, mousey, stereotypical school librarian.  She was perfectly nice, but fairly bland, and when my car broke down in the middle of the date and I had to have us taken home by a tow truck driver, I decided that there wasn’t going to be a second date.

Back to this situation and I didn’t have too high of hopes.  But, as I often do, I said what the hell and went for it.  The girl I was to go out on a date with lived in Dallas (another black mark given my Philadelphia roots) and would be visiting her family for Thanksgiving.  My friend arranged for us to go out the Friday after Thanksgiving.  She gave me her phone number and I was supposed to call her before Friday to confirm that we were on for that night.  My friend who set us up was also going out-of-town for the week, spending time in Florida with her family.

So I call the number I was given on the Sunday before Thanksgiving.  Their phone rings and an answering machine picks up.  A woman’s voice is on the recording saying that “they” weren’t home right now.  The woman answering does not say what her name is on the recording.  I leave a message, but something seems strange about the whole situation.  I have a feeling that I didn’t call the right number.  There was something about how the woman said “they” that made me think she wasn’t talking about a roommate.  I dialed again and got the same message.  I don’t leave a message, but hang up when the same answering machine picks up.

Then, I wait.

Monday passes.

Tuesday passes.

It’s the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.  I call the number I was given one more time.  The same answering machine picks up.  I leave another short message.  Again, I feel like something is not right with this situation.  At this point, I talk about the situation with my roommate, an old fraternity brother of mine, and we both agree that it’s fairly unusual to get stood up on a blind date like this, though it was definitely within the realm of possibility.  Again, the friend who set me up was out-of-town and this was before the cellphone was ubiquitous.  I had no way to get in touch with her.  The only information I had beengiven was my date’s first and last name and the town she lived in.  I didn’t have an address.

So my roommate and I did the only thing we could do, we pulled out the phone book and starting looking up her last name.  Unfortunately, since this girl I’m being setup with lived in Dallas, I didn’t know if she’d be listed or if her parents were listed.  The other unfortunate part is that her last name was Magee.  Now that’s not Jones or Smith, but it’s not exactly uncommon.  As we’re flipping through the phone book, I remark to my roommate that this is pretty desperate, isn’t it?  He shrugs, gives me a what’ve you got to lose remark, and we picked out the first number in the list that has the right last name and is in the right Houston suburb.

The phone rings, I ask for the woman I’m supposed to go out with and, lo and behold, we called the right house.  My friend from work had given me the wrong number.  The number in the phonebook was a second line in the house that her father had not yet bothered to shut off.  Victory!  Almost.  She gave me her address, directions to her house, and of course the right phone number.

Friday rolls around.  I head out in my sporty, leased Toyota Corolla.  At this point, I’ve lived in the area for six months, and I’m driving through a neighborhood I’ve never been in.  My directions say to take a left right after the fire station.  I pass a municipal building and wonder, was that it?  I turn, I take another right and then another left and I’m lost.  Again, I have no cell phone and I don’t know where I am.  I pull over and an old couple pulls up to the house where I had parked.  I do something completely out of character and ask if I can borrow their phone.  They let me and I call and get directions, again.

I do finally find the house, we do finally go out on a date, and we buck tradition and decide to go out again the next night.  Three months later, we were engaged.  Eighteen months later, we were married and ten years after that, we have three little girls who are very glad my roommate and I decided to flip through a phone book and take an extra step for a chance to go on a blind date.

For the record, my friend from work accidentally gave me her sister’s phone number, who was married, hence the “they” in the message, and who was with her on vacation in Florida.

My kids will probably think this picture was taken before the advent of color photography.

Sharing a Post Flight Tradition

I thought I’d share a glimpse of a tradition that the general public doesn’t normally get to see.  At the conclusion of every human spaceflight mission, the training teams take the opportunity to have a little fun with the crew, flight control teams, and even themselves.  Before the crew arrives back in Houston, the training team sorts through dozen of pictures and pages of notes for anything interesting or funny that happened either in training or during the actual mission.  If there’s little to be found, they’ll happily make stuff up through photo captions or Photoshop jobs. It’s the NASA equivalent of Lolcats, call it Lol Astronauts, and it’s a chance to have a little fun with the high stress, highly complicated things we do.

The above image was put up last week as we continue to move closer to the retirement of the shuttle program.  The words on the banner are a reference to three of the main functions that the Mission Operations Directorate provides for each human spaceflight mission – we plan the missions, train the missions, and with the crew, we fly those missions.  This tradition will continue after shuttle retirement as we also do this for the end of every ISS mission, but this is another bittersweet reminder, that the end of an era is upon us.

After normal working hours, the team comes in and decorates the first floor hallway of a building that houses the astronaut corps as well as many flight controllers and instructors.  You’ll see many people, crew members, team members, visitors, slowly walking through the hallway taking it all in.  These are just a few of the images that currently line the hallway, showing that we’re not afraid to poke a little fun and have a little laugh at the expense of ourselves.

SPDM Photobomb Collection

Caption reads "Try some of this...I didn't do anything to it...Really..."

Diplomacy Through Space Station Construction

This past weekend, Shuttle Commander Mark Kelly declared International Space Station assembly to be complete.  With that, I thought it would be appropriate to share some of my experiences working on the ISS for the past 12 years.

One thing that I would love for more people to understand is how international in nature this project has been.  This is truly a global achievement!  Just from my little arena in spaceflight training, we’ve worked intensively with the Japanese, Russians, Europeans, and Canadians.

We at NASA are considered the integrators for the space station program.  From a training perspective, that means we review and approve all astronaut training requirements and make sure that everyone has the opportunity to fulfill those requirements.

This amount of collaboration requires painstaking attention to detail, thorough documentation, and, given that we all speak different languages, lots and lots of communication.  Lots.

When I was 25, I took my first trip to the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia.  At that point, I had never traveled outside of the country with the exception of a couple of quick trips to Canada.  But there I was with all of two years experience, meeting with my life support system counterparts.  These were men who had 30 to 40 years of experience in their field.  They had been teaching longer than I was alive and they were hosting me as an equal.

Now, I didn’t go into these discussions alone.  I was there with a couple of other colleagues, but none of us had the same experience they did.  We were there to start building a relationship, to learn how they trained things, and, most importantly, to learn something about their systems.

In the early days of the program, getting technical information from our Russian counterparts was notoriously difficult.  There was a lot of ingrained mistrust between the United States and Russia that needed to be overcome.  To overcome that, we had to get beyond stereotypes, language barriers, and cultural differences in order to do the job we needed to do.  It also helped to share a shot of vodka on occasion as a celebration of a day’s hard work.

Over the years, the relationships at the working level have improved greatly.  As we show that we’re willing to listen and discuss and not just posture and entrench, we’ve made progress.  Over that time, GCTC has also changed from a government institution to a privately run organization.

This change has also been accompanied by some military retirements and a wave of new, younger engineers on the Russian side. These younger engineers don’t carry the same ingrained mistrusts as their older compatriots do and as a result, the ability to collaborate with them has improved.

Just a couple of years after this first meeting, I was put in a leadership position on a project that required us to review detailed training requirements for all space station systems: electrical, computer, guidance, thermal, life support, communications, etc.  The intent of the project was to eliminate as much unnecessary training content as possible.  Essentially, we had to identify where we were being inefficient or rather, where their training was wrong.

We were told by many of our US coworkers, that we would never be successful, that the Europeans and Japanese had invested too much into their training to make changes, and that the Russians just wouldn’t do it.

So we gathered our first meeting, with several of us from NASA, a couple of Germans representing ESA, a couple of Japanese representatives, and a handful of Russians.

Communication was our first concern.  English and Russian are the two languages used by the program.  The Germans spoke eloquent British English and spoke with a mastery of the language that many Americans don’t have.  The Japanese had been small players in the program to this point and hadn’t had as much language training.  Communication between us was challenging.  We and the Russians had members with varying levels of understanding of each of our languages, but we would be supported by interpreters to assist there.

If you’ve ever had experience with interpretation, you know that words and terms in different languages don’t always mean the same thing.  Misunderstandings develop easily.  We had to spend some time in each meeting just coming to agreement on the definitions of certain words and picking the specific words we would use to describe things, just so we could learn to talk to each other.

The Japanese were at a greater disadvantage.  They were expected to know English and they largely did it without interpretation.  Culturally, they also had an ingrained tendency to nod yes.  To many of us that gesture meant ‘they understood and agreed’, when to them, it meant ‘they heard us’.  Extra time had to be taken to make sure that our counterparts there not only heard us but also understood.

Eventually though, we’ve been able to move beyond language and cultural barriers and have completed one of the most challenging engineering projects in history.  In so doing, we’ve learned a lot of lessons along the way of how to communicate and work together.  My hope is that this will not be the last opportunity for us to do this.

For future exploration missions, I hope we can not only work with our friends at ESA, JAXA, CSA, and RSA, but also with other space agencies around the globe.  It will make things take longer and will ultimately make the project more expensive, but it would be something people around the world could take pride in.

She may not look like much, but she's got it where it counts