Our friend and astronaut blogger Leroy Chiao sat on the human spaceflight advisory committee which released its report last week. Since news stories about it were hazy at best, we asked him to explain what it really said...
It is not surprising, but it is dispiriting, to realise how little the general public knows (or cares?) about space exploration. We seem to take for granted, that America is the leader in human spaceflight. Will it always be so?
Remember high school history? Remember Portugal? They dominated the seas way back when, and thus, dominated the known world. Then what happened? Did they get lazy? Rest on their laurels? Sure, they still are the only ones who make port wine (at least any that's worth anything), but WTF, over? How about Rome? OK, maybe they just got too decadent. I never did see the X-rated movie Caligula, but it probably wasn't too far off the mark. They got too full of themselves, and that was that.
So, what's it going to take to get America enthralled again about space exploration? This was one of the questions we considered, on the Review of US Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, also known as the Augustine Committee, after our chairman, respected aerospace veteran, Norm Augustine. What do we have to do? Do we have to go chase imaginary aliens to get your attention?
The media generally missed the mark on understanding our report. How is this possible? Maybe I'm too close to it. I suppose I shouldn't over-think this. I should give ‘em what they want. Alright then, here are the report highlights, from my perspective:
• The space program needs more money. NASA has been trying to do too much with too little for too long. Let's either spend more money, or scale back our expectations.
• The Space Shuttle has been a magnificent, beautiful flying machine, but it is more fragile than we thought, and it is too expensive to operate. There is a case to be made to keep flying the Shuttle for a few more years, but only if we are going to base the next heavy launch vehicle on its technology.
• The International Space Station has been a great success, in that an international framework for cooperation has evolved. This is the future, not only in space exploration. In addition, there have been relevant, significant scientific results from research conducted onboard. The US should use this framework, to move exploration forward beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
• The Constellation Program was a reasonable path, five years ago, when the Vision for Space Exploration was first formulated. Since then, budget shortfalls have caused significant delays. Moreover, the goals evolved into a focus on getting astronauts back to the Moon, to the development of the Ares family of rockets and the Orion spacecraft. The public generally is bored with going back to the Moon, since we already did this forty years ago.
• Commercial crew access to LEO should be considered. Traditional aerospace companies can do this, and who knows? Maybe the startups can too, more efficiently. At any rate, the technology has existed for almost fifty years, it's time to give it a try.
• Heavy Lift Vehicle: Let's choose one, then, do it. Be it Ares-V, Ares-V Lite, Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, or Shuttle Derived. Pick one.
Clear as mud? For a more detailed (yet, still very high-level) explanation, check out my blog.
Leroy Chiao, Ph.D. served as a NASA astronaut from 1990-2005. During his 15-year career, he flew four missions into space, three times on Space Shuttles and once as the co-pilot of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station. On that flight, he served as the commander of Expedition 10, a six-and-a-half month mission. Dr. Chiao has performed six spacewalks, in both US and Russian spacesuits, and has logged nearly 230 days in space.
Dr. Chiao is Gizmodo's official astronaut (and "astroblogger"). On occasion, he still ponders strategies to hunt for imaginary aliens.