It’s decision time for future spaceflight at NASA

In the beginning, it was said that all NASA Administrator James Webb had to do was take a couple of buckets up to the Hill, and Congress would fill them with money.

It certainly is not that easy today. The country cannot afford waste. A prudent NASA should take advantage of the $6.6 billion worth of spaceport facilities and flight hardware that it bought and paid for — facilities that are now growing grass in the Florida sun. 

NASA should be doing everything possible to launch American astronauts from their own Cape Canaveral pads.

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      NASA / ESA

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Instead, the agency is doing everything but. It’s been drifting, delaying and courting upstart aerospace companies to build what’s already been built, ignoring the days when America was clearly No. 1.

In the 1960s, the Cape, as it was simply called, was a sprawling gateway to the future.  It was the most vital and intensely exciting place on the planet, a 15,000-acre sandspit that had been reshaped into a port of blinding searchlights surrounding active launch pads.  It was a place where rows of rocket gantries and blockhouses and hangars and office buildings were lined up neatly behind a centuries-old lighthouse.

Only days after Alan Shepard became the first American in space in 1961, President John F. Kennedy decided that if America was to wrest the lead in space from the Russians, we would have to beat them in a race for national prestige to the moon. And if we were to do it, rocket scientist Wernher von Braun said, “We need a larger spaceport.”

Two launch pads for the Saturn 5 moon rockets were built on the northern leg of Cape Canaveral — extending the country’s famed rocket row. The government purchased 88,000 acres of land next door, on Merritt Island, for operational structures and safety zones.

The largest building east of the Mississippi River was built to assemble the huge rockets, and a wide and deep “crawler way” was dredged and filled to form a path from that Vehicle Assembly Building to the pads.  After JFK was felled by an assassin’s bullet, NASA named its sprawling new creation the Kennedy Space Center.

Within a period of four years, 24 Americans sailed through the vacuum from Earth to the moon. Some of them flew twice. Twelve out of those 24 rode their landers down to the lunar surface, walked and drove through the dust and rocks of the small world.

Had Russia sustained its early lead in power and technology, the number of humans going to the moon might have increased greatly.  It was a fierce competition, and the Russians went all-out in their desperate attempt to lead the human race to another world.  But after they reached Earth orbit, the Russians went through a series of devastating rocket explosions and costly failures.

Slow slide for spaceport

For the next four decades, America was the unquestioned leader in space.  Taxpayers invested $1 billion in 1960s dollars ($6.6 billion in 2012 dollars) to build their country’s sprawling launch and landing facilities. But when the space shuttles were grounded for good, that spaceport began a slow slide back to seed.

  1. Then and now

    Forty-three years ago, on July 17, 1969, the Apollo 11 spacecraft was making its way toward the moon for humanity’s first-ever visit to another celestial body.

    Thirty-seven years ago, on July 17, 1975, American and Soviet spacecraft linked up for the first time in history during the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, which blazed the trail for international cooperation in space.

    One year ago, on July 17, 2011, the crew of the space shuttle Atlantis finished up transferring cargo to and from the International Space Station — and prepared for the shuttle fleet’s final departure from the station.

NASA went with a different strategy to keep the International Space Station in business: Turn America’s space program over to a patchwork of private companies. Short-change America’s great rocket and spacecraft facilities. Ask the taxpayers and private businesses to rebuild it all again in California, Texas and Colorado in the name of commercialization.

When President George W. Bush decided to bring the space shuttle program to an end, on the advice of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, he put in place Project Constellation.

Constellation would have given America two sets of rockets with emergency abort systems to save its crews. The smaller one was called Ares 1. It took the most successful rocket in history, the solid rocket booster used by the space shuttles, and married it to a Boeing second stage with a human-rated J-2X engine. Engineers modified a corner of Kennedy Space Center’s giant assembly building for stacking the new creation and outfitted Launch Complex 39B to launch the Ares 1-X.

The early version lifted off in October 2009.  It worked as advertised.  But despite that successful flight, and the fact that Ares 1 offered the shortest and least costly route to keep American astronauts flying from America’s paid-for $6.6 billion master spaceport, it was canceled.

Hits and misses

Those speaking for the Obama administration like to point out that George W. Bush made the decision to cancel the space shuttle program. He did, but he left Constellation in place.  President Obama canceled Constellation, putting thousands of the best engineering and technical minds out of work. Most are still searching for a job today.

If NASA had given Ares 1 the attention and budget it deserved from the very beginning, the replacement rocket for the space shuttles could have been well on its way to flying astronauts to and from the space station, depending on spacecraft readiness.

But instead of following the course offered by Ares 1, NASA paralyzed itself with indecision. The agency ridded itself of experienced workers, hardware and facilities, replacing them with a patchwork of commercial facilities and rockets.

Only one of those commercial companies has gotten off the ground so far: California-based SpaceX, which was started up in 2002 with $100 million from its millionaire founder, Elon Musk. Since its founding, SpaceX has received $773 million from NASA.

On May 22 — 32 months later than originally planned — SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launched an unmanned Dragon capsule from the Cape to the International Space Station. During a virtually flawless mission, the Dragon was brought in for a berthing with the station, delivering a half-ton of supplies.

The capsule closed out its mission by parachuting into the Pacific, 500 miles off Mexico’s Baja California, bringing more than half a ton of space station hardware and experiments back down to Earth. It was the first time NASA had received a large load from the station since the space shuttles stopped flying.

The flight was called a first for a private company, but it certainly wasn’t a first for spaceflight.

Thirty-five years ago, on Jan. 22, 1978, Russia’s unmanned cargo space freighter Progress-1 automatically docked with the Salyut 6 space station, delivering 5,000 pounds of supplies.   Since then, hundreds of unmanned automated dockings have taken place in space, but the feat by the private company SpaceX represented NASA’s future of reinventing the wheel.

Ready to fly

President Barack Obama’s plan calls for turning over space deliveries in low Earth orbit to private businesses, so NASA can build the heavy-lift rockets and advanced spacecraft needed to send Americans into deep space.

Most space experts, even most of the plan’s critics, would say there’s nothing wrong with that. Mr. President, now you just need to select truly ready-to-fly rockets and spacecraft.  One hiccup with Russia’s Soyuz, as John Glenn says, and the International Space Station could be out of business. America would then stand silly before the world, with egg on its face.

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