Chair Force Engineer

Friday, February 29, 2008

The Real Space Race

Recent advances in manned spaceflight (the Chinese manned program, the birth of commercial manned spaceflight, and NASA's challenge to travel to the moon and beyond) has prompted some observers to claim there is a new "space race" going on. President Bush, in unveiling his Vision for Space Exploration, likened it to a marathon rather than a sprint.

The question I pose to the people who use the term "space race" is whether this is a race between competitors, or merely an individual quest for personal achievement. This cannot be viewed as a Cold War analog of the USA versus China, because the Chinese program is plodding along at an even slower pace than the US program (and admittedly has much farther to go than the US program.)

The real race, in my estimation, is one of the US Government versus the US private sector. The dreams of lunar spaceflight probably have an even chance of being wiped out within the next year, depending on the way the political winds blow in Washington. But neither political party really wants to kill manned spaceflight (albeit one constrained to flight in earth orbit.) In the absence of a lunar goal, the scramble for funds will be a heated contest between NASA's Orion and SpaceX's Dragon.

SpaceX's current manifest calls for completion of their test series for their Commercial Orbital Transportation System to conclude by 2010. This does not include manned flights, but certainly sets the stage for them in the near future. I am not so naive as to believe that SpaceX's schedule will hold, and they will fly a human in space by 2010. But even a four-year delay is enough to beat NASA's current schedule for a manned Orion flight.

NASA's pacing item in the Ares-Orion development schedule is the development of the J-2X upper stage engine. What was supposed to be an Apollo-heritage engine has turned into a largely-new development that is forcing America to accept several years of making its astronauts ride on Russian rockets.

In a true competition for transporting astronauts to low earth orbit, NASA would be beaten hands-down by SpaceX at this stage in the game. SpaceX has a capsule with more astronauts (seven versus six,) a cheaper booster (Falcon 9 vs. Ares I,) and a faster schedule.

Imagine for a second that you're a Congress-critter. You can't get past the giggle-factor associated with landing a man on the moon, but you don't want to look like the Luddite who kept American astronauts grounded. So you've got to pick a system for sending your astronauts to the space station. Do you pick the privately-developed system which carries more astronauts, costs less to operate, and gets America back into orbit faster? Or do you keep shoveling money at the government-run program? The only thing NASA has going for itself right now, aside from the fading lunar dream, is the political implications of laying off the thousands of people whose jobs rely on NASA's manned spaceflight program.

If NASA is prohibited from flying to the moon, there will truly be a space race within the United States. And if NASA continues to fund COTS, it will be hoisted by its own petard.