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.

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