President Has Firm Vision for Space

Posted June 4, 2004 at 12:08pm

We all remember when on Feb. 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia and her crew were lost during re-entry. In the intervening year, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, under the outstanding leadership of retired Adm. Hal Gehman, discovered the root causes of the accident — technical and otherwise. One of the major findings was the lack of a unifying, overarching goal for space exploration and research. The CAIB recommendation was something a lot of us in the space arena have desired — a national long-term set of objectives articulated by President Bush. On Jan. 14, 2004, the president did just that — he boldly pronounced a long-

term, sustainable, affordable and achievable vision for our nation’s space program.

The major components of the president’s vision:

1. Successful space shuttle operations to complete construction of the International Space Station and subsequent retirement of our venerable shuttle fleet.

2. Re-scoping and dedication of ISS research toward the myriad issues that concern long-term space flight for humans.

3. New robotic probes and missions to explore the moon, Mars and beyond.

4. New spacecraft to allow humans to fly into space in a safer, more robust fashion, allow for lunar missions and beyond.

5. The eventual establishment of lunar outpost and preparing for missions to Mars.

Each of these steps is critical to the success of the vision, so it is important to understand how these “stepping stone” objectives work together.

Space Shuttle

To reach such a goal, we will build upon a solid foundation. Fortunately, that foundation already exists. Since 1981, our space shuttles have logged over 800 million miles, carried more than three million pounds of payloads and made a positive impact on all of our lives. It is critically important that we take full advantage of this national resource.

The space shuttle, as the first step of the president’s vision, must complete the work on the ISS and fulfill our commitment to our 15 partner countries. The only vehicle capable of carrying out that mission is the space shuttle. Period.

NASA, and all the shuttle contractors are working to meet the “return to flight” requirements identified in the CAIB report. I am happy to report that steady progress is being made everyday toward a March 2005 launch date.

International Space Station

The International Space Station is a testament to precision engineering from all over the world. It is a unique outpost that has just started to pay dividends with respect to biomedical space research. As a physician I am cognizant of the perils the human body faces during a long duration space flight. Lack of gravity and high doses of radiation alone are challenges that research being done on ISS will help us overcome.

ISS also should be viewed as a nearby experiment in space logistics operations. Currently, ISS is only being serviced by Russian vehicles to carry crew and supplies. Once the shuttles return to flight, they will be carrying out major construction operations, some logistics and orbital re-boost. Next year we will see inaugural operations of the European ATV unmanned logistics vehicle, which will provide an even more robust operations tempo and crew support. Additionally, NASA is looking at entrepreneurial companies that could also support ISS. The experience gained with routine crew transport, support, research and multiple modes of operations has and will continue to add to our base of knowledge that will be critical for the next step.

Robotics

Unfortunately, there has been a feud in the space community, which posited a false choice — whether to use robotic systems alone for exploration or rely solely on human missions. This new vision finally decides the outcome — both humans and robots are essential for comprehensive exploration.

Robotic systems are the perfect trailblazers and initial investigators. They help reduce cost, risk and uncertainty. That said, they could never take the place of having humans directly in the loop and on the spot to analyze and make decisions. Right now world-famous Spirit and Opportunity rovers are working hard on the surface of Mars and have delivered incredible scientific data — but what one of those rovers can do in a month, a human explorer could do in less than a day.

Constellation

The Constellation program will result in the development of a new vehicle to carry people into orbit and, eventually, beyond Earth orbit. Constellation will be no-nonsense approach to spacecraft design and will build upon the wealth of knowledge we have gained from Apollo and the space shuttle. With the benefits of evolutionary system development and procurement, as well as block upgrades of the system, Constellation will eventually form the backbone of an infrastructure that will provide the United States with a robust exploration agenda outside of Earth orbit.

The Moon and Beyond

From the experience gained on ISS and a qualification of the Constellation system, we will then begin the process of establishing a human presence on the moon. This facility’s purpose will be to reduce the risk and hone the skills and technologies needed for long-term operations on the surface of another celestial body. Experience gained on the surface of the moon will make a Mars mission easier to undertake since the amount of “unknowns” will be reduced.

The president has said this new initiative is a journey, not a race. Its success will be based on meeting incremental milestones that build upon each other. Wherever possible, off-the-shelf hardware and existing techniques will be used. Our allies will be called upon to provide their unique assets and capabilities to ensure there will be no single-point failure in the development of a long-term sustainable space flight operation and exploration infrastructure. Where new technologies and capabilities are required, our best and brightest must rise to the occasion. Yet it will not be Apollo, where money was no object and where the mission was unsustainable and thus prematurely canceled in 1972.

While there have been few who have been stronger supporters of NASA and American aerospace than myself, I must issue a word of caution to NASA and the contractor community. We cannot have a situation where requirements are fluid, designs overly complex and needlessly expensive. Over the past decade, NASA and the contractor community does not have much to show for billions spent on new vehicles and systems. It is unfair to the taxpayer and emboldens our critics. That must change now because the American people and the Congress will not tolerate it.

With that said, I am heartened by the recently created Coalition for Space Exploration (www.spacecoalition.com). This coalition is made up of aerospace companies and organizations working together in support of the president’s vision. There has been seamless and fantastic coordination among the members of this coalition and with Congress.

As for Congress, we must work to support NASA’s fiscal ’05 budget request and the very modest increase it contains. American space expertise and capability must remain pre-eminent in order to secure our nation’s economic, military and overall strategic objectives.

Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.) is a member of the Appropriations Committee.