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Going In Circles

We need to see more of this.

The Space Frontier Foundation is spot-on in their criticism. I know my first thought when I heard “OSP” was: Yeah, right — another paper spacecraft.

While I hope to be pleasantly surprised with a manned spacecraft project that actually produces and puts into operation real hardware, I’m not going to hold my breath this time around, either. If 2004 comes and OSP and the rump of SLI have both been canned, I will not be one bit surprised — it will fit the pattern of billions of dollars spent with no discernable progress being made towards a new vehicle, resulting in the same bold assurances that the agency has really learned from its mistakes this time around, and just needs a little more money to develop new enabling technologies , as it starts from a blank sheet on the next abortive “Shuttle replacement” exercise.

As I see it, there are two ways out of this cycle of failure.

First, NASA throws its hands in the air and officially decides to stick with the Shuttle indefinitely, even beyond the currently-discussed 2020 date. This may involve shifting OSP/SLI funds to serious Shuttle upgrades (such as uprated SRBs, expendable or fly-back liquid-propellant boosters, advanced/durable TPS materials, etc.), or just flying the things as-is, with minimal enhancements to the system. As NASA would then be out of the running for building a new manned vehicle, the way would be clear for startups to develop a small Shuttle alternative. While it may seem a bit far-fetched at the moment to expect any of these small companies to somehow summon forth a “new Shuttle”, a lot can change in seventeen years, and those small companies making small steps towards orbit today could get there sooner than most people expect.

And who says that a new manned vehicle has to be a “new Shuttle”? Hopefully, any new vehicle will be much less complex, cheaper to operate, and better tailored to a specific task (i.e.: crew transportation) than the old Shuttle, and not just duplicate its “everything to everybody” capabilities at an incremental improvement in cost and performance.

The other way involves some external factor giving NASA and/or Congress a shock, prompting a dramatic restructuring of the agency and a sharp focusing of its priorities. This external factor could be something good, like serious competition in space from the Chinese or the Indians…or even the Russians…prodding Congress to support a revamped space program with specific goals, adequate and stable funding to support it, and something like a consistent year-to-year policy direction. Or, it could be a upswing in public interest in (or antagonism to) human spaceflight, which prompts the agency to be more serious about making realistic promises and then delivering on them (in this case, in the form of flight hardware ready for operations, with the promised capabilities and within the promised schedule and budget), lest it lose whatever credibility (and funding) it still has as a result of the public discovering the depths of its ineptitude.

Or, the external factor could be someting very, very bad. Such as the loss of another Orbiter. While the tooling still exists to assemble new Orbiters to replace any losses in the fleet (as occurred with Endeavour), NASA would have a hard time justifying the expenditure of $2-3B to build another copy of a long-obsolete and hideously-expensive vehicle when that money could be better spent on a successor. With the loss of another Orbiter, and lacking a realistic justification for the manufacture of yet another one to replace it, the agency would be forced to take seriously any efforts to design and build a successor, and to ensure that these efforts bore fruit in the near term — before the loss of yet another aging Orbiter and the resultant crippling of our human space access capability.

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