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Triumph and Tragedy in Space

The last week of January contains a number of notable space anniversaries.

This year, the most prominent one is the fiftieth anniversary of the first satellite launched by the United States, Explorer I, starting our own nation's space age. Most of us don't remember that time, half a century ago, but the nation had been shocked four months earlier when the Soviet Union was the first to launch an object into orbit. Most hadn't even been aware that there was a space race, but suddenly we were losing it. This was compounded on December 6th, 1957 when, in an attempt to catch up, the spectacular failure of the Vanguard rocket on the pad was televised to many all over the world.

So it was a great national relief when, on January 31st of the new year, we had a successful launch on a Juno rocket, despite the fact that our satellite was much smaller than Sputnik. But it punched well above its weight. Unlike the Sputnik, which was just a demonstration of the capability to loft mass into orbit (its larger size was a consequence of the Russian inability to miniaturize their atomic weapons, necessitating larger missiles with which to deliver them), Explorer I was a scientific satellite. It not only confirmed the previously speculated existence of the Van Allen belts, but it demonstrated that we didn't understand as much as we thought about how objects would behave in a vacuum and in weightlessness. But most importantly, it demonstrated that our rockets didn't "always blow up," and that we too could put objects into earth orbit. It gave us the confidence to move forward with the more ambitious projects that culminated in a man walking on the moon a little over a decade later, though not without long-term negative policy consequences.

The other late January anniversaries are less uplifting (so to speak, and to say the least). Sunday, January 27th, was the forty-first anniversary of the Apollo I fire, in which three astronauts died in a ground test on the launch pad in Florida, as horrified technicians watched helplessly. This tragedy resulted in a major redesign of the vehicle and reorganization of the program that resulted in a successful lunar mission two and a half years later.

Nineteen years and one day after that event (and twenty-two years ago this past Monday), the Space Shuttle Challenger was lost in a spectacular fireball, on January 28th, 1986, with millions of the nation's schoolchildren watching the launch of the first "teacher in space." For many of that young generation, it became a defining traumatic event of their lives. Though many didn't realize it at the time, in the rush to honor the fallen, replace the lost vehicle and "continue on" (which it would do for at least another two decades) it was in a sense the beginning of the end of the program. NASA was harshly criticized for inattention to safe practices, but the program went on after a delay of almost three years.

But the final nails in the Shuttle program coffin were placed five years ago today. On February 1st, 2003, a sunny Saturday, the orbiter Columbia was torn to pieces over the bright morning skies of Texas, killing all aboard. It had been destroyed (with a delayed reaction) by a seemingly harmless piece of foam that had broken off of the Shuttle external tank and hit the leading edge of the left wing during launch. Unknown to NASA at the time, the damage was such that it reached orbit successfully, and the mission was completed, but when it reentered, the resulting hole allowed hot plasma to enter the wing. This weakened the structure, enlarging the breach, and finally caused the fragile vehicle to lose control and break up in the hypersonic hurricane of atmospheric entry.

As in the case of the Challenger loss, an accident investigation was performed, and NASA was again harshly criticized for ignoring obvious danger signals. Unlike the case of the Challenger, the vehicle was not replaced, not only because the production capability to do so had long since been abandoned, but because it was finally recognized that the Shuttle program was never going to meet its original objectives of routine, low-cost safe transportation to orbit. For the first time in almost three decades, since the initial decision to build the Shuttle in 1972, a major change in national space policy was clearly needed.

As a result, a little over four years ago (another January space anniversary, though not late January), on January 14th, 2004, President George W. Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE). This was a major shift in policy from the previous one, in which the US would once again send humans beyond low earth orbit, back to the moon, out to Mars, and beyond. Another commission was formed to determine how to best carry out the vision. It concluded that the program should not only send humans out into the solar system, but also enhance national security. Furthermore, it should fully engage private enterprise in the task, beyond the traditional NASA procurements of cost-plus contracts to the traditional contractors.

Unfortunately, while the vision was bold, NASA's response to it was timid, and politicized, and seemingly ignored the Aldridge recommendations. Rather than take it as an opportunity to harness the free market and take advantage of what made this nation so successful and wealthy, it instead decided to spend the money returning to the sixties, starting to develop a new expendable launch vehicle for its own use, with a capsule on top. Moreover, because of NASA's refusal to use existing commercial launch vehicles such as the Boeing Delta and Lockheed Martin Atlas, which would have spread the fixed costs of maintaining those systems over a larger number of flights, the costs to the Department of Defense for satellite launches will go up. This seems to be not just ignoring, but perverting the requirement to support national security with the new program. To date, no one at NASA has been asked by Congress to explain how their chosen implementation of the VSE (called ESAS) supports the recommendations of the commission.

Beyond that, there are reportedly serious technical issues with NASA's chosen approach, from an overweight crew module, to an underperforming launch system that may shake itself and the crew module apart. There is only one year left of the term of the president who laid out the vision, and the NASA administrator he appointed is unlikely to be in place much past that time. With threats to delay the program from one of the presidential contenders, or perhaps a relook by the incoming president and a demand that NASA take a more market-oriented approach more consonant with national security, as the Aldridge Commission recommended, it may be that in a few years, we will look back and see in January another anniversary--of the time that the NASA human spaceflight program finally foundered. But as a successful Apollo arose from the ashes of Apollo 1 fire, perhaps, over time, it will be eclipsed by a government/private partnership that finally opens the high frontier not just for a few NASA astronauts, but for the rest of us, with much more vast opportunities for not only tragedy, but glory.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his weblog,<Transterrestrial Musings.