Feb 07 2010
This week the Obama administration proposed the termination of NASA’s Constellation program that targeted a return to the Moon for U.S. astronauts by 2020. After Shuttle retirement later this year (or next), crew transportation to ISS would be provided by hitching rides on Russian Soyuz launch vehicles, and eventually by developing the manned launch capabilities of American space companies — not of NASA.
Obama’s NASA boss, Charles Bolden, has already announced several grants to private space companies, including $ 20 M to to Sierra Nevada Corp. for development of its Dream Chaser crew module (launched on an Atlas V); See “For 2010 — A Dream Chaser Come True?” And $ 6.7 M to United Launch Alliance for an emergency sensing system for Atlas V and Delta IV rockets.
Our purpose here is not to debate the attributes of this paradigm shift — Not surprisingly the traditional NASA types and Congressional reps, especially in Florida and Texas (where unemployment will increase), believe the U.S. is abandoning world leadership in space, while the space commercialism folks receiving subsidies think it’s a victory for the future of space. They both are partly right; time will tell just how much, assuming Obama’s NASA plans are approved by Congress.
But a particularly striking aspect of this future NASA trajectory is the way it supports forecasts made here (and previously) based on long waves in the economy, and associated patterns in technology development and geopolitics. See: “Forecasting the Next 20 Years in Space — State of the Wave, Friday 9/12/08.”
For example, in 1996 I forecasted that 2015 to 2025 would be the next major thrust into space:
The decade from 2015 to 2025 will be the analog of the 1960s; i.e., it will involve major activities in technology, engineering, and human exploration. There is every reason to believe that the focus will be on large-scale human operations in space and that they will be spectacular.
And in 2006, I identified 2014 as the likely timeframe when NASA would undergo a significant transformation.
Energy cycle timing and NASA’s birth date (1958) allow us to forecast that the new, international space organization will take shape by 2014 …
The transformation of NASA apparently beginning now is scheduled to culminate by 2016 — near the opening of the 2015 Maslow Window — when a non-NASA, commercial crew vehicle may begin regular deliveries of astronauts to ISS.
In recent statements, Bolden has described a new style of international cooperation where the U.S. treats its international space partners as “equals” and with “respect.”
Roger Handberg (University of Central Florida) recently compared the multi-year gap between retirement of the Shuttle and onset of commercial crew launchers to the 6-year gap starting in 1975.
The full end of the Apollo program in the form of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975 left the United States grounded until the space shuttle flew in 1981. However, any anxiety about that gap was minimized by awareness that the shuttle was coming, albeit slowly…
Handberg’s recent take on the looming post-Shuttle gap concludes that,
The United States at least temporarily moves from the position of dominant partner to that of dependent. This status will be uncomfortable but doable as a stopgap … one approach may be for the United States to fully opt into international partnerships led by a consortium of states with the US as one partner among others.
What this means is that the US must become comfortable with such close cooperation, as unilateral decisions with no prior consultation with partners will end … a new political arrangement needs to be developed.
Our model for a “new political arrangement” was proposed in 1992 (Cordell, 1992). Interspace is a global organization with ESA-like management structures featuring “equality” among the major international partners and the opportunity for other nations to participate according to their financial and technical capabilities.
In 1996, I forecasted that as we approach the 2015 Maslow Window, “increased parity among space-faring nations might trigger the formation of an international space agency in which the major space powers — USA, ESA, Japan, Russia — share power equally in the planning and management …”
THE PARADIGM SHIFT TRIGGER
Probably the fastest way to produce these profound transformations in U.S. space policy — extensive international cooperation, equality among partners, stimulation of the commercial space launch industry — is to remove NASA from the launch vehicle business, which apparently is Obama’s strategy.
THE WILD CARD
Until recently, most of the world expected the United States to lead an international manned assault on the Moon, which apparently is no longer in the cards with the cancellation of Constellation. Although Bolden assures us (FloridaToday.com, 2/2/10) that “We’re not abandoning human spaceflight by any stretch of the imagination.” He’s referring to Earth-to-LEO human spaceflight, not the Moon. Currently NASA has no specific goals or timetables beyond LEO, although Bolden enthuses that, “What’s exciting is that we’re now going to have a national debate about where we need to be going in terms of space exploration.” — something we’ve been doing repeatedly since the 1980s, and now we’ll do it again!
Removal of NASA from its traditional role as the launcher of astronauts to low Earth orbit and beyond is reminiscent of the mid-1950s, about one long wave ago, during the Cold War before the U.S. achieved dominance in manned space exploration during the 1960s Apollo Maslow Window.
And currently it’s possible to imagine at least 2 scenarios:
I) It’s Sputnik All Over Again — Although the U.S. has been grounded before in its space history (e.g., 1975-81), it has never happened during a crucial time in the run-up to a global Maslow Window as it will now. It’s possible this will encourage another Sputnik-style moment within the next few years when competitors of the U.S. decide to make dramatic, coordinated moves in areas like space energy, lunar colonization, and/or human spaceflight to Mars.
2) A Grand Alliance for Space — The totally new experience of truly close, equal cooperation among international space partners — including the United States — may trigger a “Grand Alliance for Space” as the world moves toward an Interspace/ESA-style global space organization.
Although we always hope and strive for the most productive, global approach to settlement of the solar system (e.g., Option 2), human history does not support such optimism. The events of the Cold War that gave birth to the 1960s space race plus the story of the international race to the South Pole (during the Peary/Panama Maslow Window), suggest that — when the stakes are high — humans may deceive and seek strategic advantage over a perceived competitor.