The future of space exploration in the United States is at a crossroads. The situation is urgent, and time is running out. Constellation was cancelled on Feb. 1, 2010, and a year and a half later, we still don’t know what future space will be. There was a six year gap between the last Apollo launch in 1975 and the first Shuttle launch in 1981. But the Shuttle program was started in 1972, so there was a three-year overlap in work for the industry. And even though the NASA budget for going forward with the Shuttle was much less than its budget for Apollo in the 60s, everybody knew what that budget was going to be and could adjust to it, and to the future. Even though the adjustment was hard, everybody knew it could be done, and did it. The situation we’re in now is that the Shuttle is ending and we still don’t know what the future holds. We don’t know what we’re going to be working on, and we don’t know when. It’s no longer just a gap in getting to space, it’s a gap in planning what we’re going to be working on to get to space. If we don’t get together on a common plan, years will go by and the gap will only get bigger. It is imperative that NASA and the administration decide right now what future space will be before the space industrial base spirals further into crisis.
The space industrial base is in a crisis. We are losing critical skills and intellectual capital that the space industry—civil and military—developed through the past 50 years. We face significant loss of capability in our industry that we may not be able to regain. Rebuilding the capability could take a long time and come at great expense. So we are at a very, very critical point in time. We are in a high-risk position in terms of losing some of our critical capabilities. We need to decide right now how we want to get into space and what we want to do there. It is a matter of months, not years, before we have to do something.
There has been a lot of talk about the role commercial space will play in the future. NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) Program represents a clear commitment on the part of the administration to pursue commercial space options. Commercial flights to low-earth orbit, especially of commercial cargo flights to the space station should be a relatively easy and cost-effective way to take cargo to space, and then ultimately to adapt it to crew transportation too. Using commercial options to low-earth orbit also frees up federal resources and allows NASA to focus its best and brightest on the innovative kinds of things—space exploration and science missions—that NASA was really created to do. The fundamental issue here is not the commercial vs. traditional space model itself, it is the manner in which, and the time frame in which, that model is being executed. We are seeing a very strong focus and priority on commercial. There must be thoughtful consideration about to the risks associated with employing an approach that is still in its infancy and can have national security implications. A balanced view toward risk and reward needs to drive future planning and technology development.