Traveling by Smoke, and Other Lessons From Papua
The natives of Papua, New Guinea, believe that the nighttime stars are the eyes of sleeping people and animals. Their eyes go up into the heavens to keep watch over them while they rest.
Have we been asleep? Who has been watching over the U.S. human spaceflight (HSF) program?
The first and most fundamental point of the 2009 report from the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee was that the U.S. must not repeat the mistakes of the past by trying to do too much with inadequate funding. Unfortunately, those who make the decisions started out of the chocks doing exactly that, and have not looked back.
The message was simple: Commit the resources for beyond-low-Earth-orbit (beyond-LEO) exploration, or put those plans on hold and continue to robustly support the International Space Station (ISS) and Space Shuttle. Neither happened. The Shuttles have been decommissioned and the exploration program has been inadequately funded.
So, where does that leave the United States? We are continuing to develop the Orion crew exploration vehicle (although renamed Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, or MPCV), and some development funds have been approved for the Space Launch System (SLS) family of rockets. Similarly, some funding has been approved and distributed to the commercial crew development program. However, funding for the last two are inadequate to achieve Initial Operational Capability (IOC) in a reasonable time period.
At this point, what should be done?
We need to retake the leadership position in HSF. To do that, we should do the following:
- Define and announce specific missions and milestones. The definition of at least the first Design Reference Mission (DRM) would go a long way in providing guidance and a big-picture view of where we intend to go.
- Commit to fully funding commercial crew development. This program deserves a chance to succeed, and only through full funding will it have that chance. We need to determine if a commercial solution to LEO is viable.
- Commit to human rating the Delta IV-H launch vehicle. This is an existing rocket with a proven track record. We need something upon which to fly the Orion spacecraft sooner, rather than later, and it would be wise to have a parallel path for success. The Atlas V is in the process of being human rated for use with lighter commercial vehicles, and human rating the Delta IV-H would be complementary to SLS.
- If the additional funding for items 2 and 3 cannot be provided in the near term, then deferring or extending SLS funding, while unpopular in some quarters, may be the best option. We are going to need a heavy-lift vehicle sometime in the future for serious beyond-LEO exploration, but the funding committed so far is inadequate to deliver one to IOC in a reasonable amount of time. Better to put it off until later, and get back in the game more quickly (unless of course, we continue without a DRM and associated milestones, in which case "if you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there").
Certain Papuan chiefs are able to travel by smoke. To do so, these individuals must learn the secrets, passed down from generations, and properly apply them. Not all who try are successful, only a few. The United States was only one of three powers able to send astronauts to and from space. We abdicated our position and by definition, gave up the lead in human spaceflight. I hope that's temporary. It is high time to re-work our HSF program and the budget into something that is compatible with each other. Only then, can we endeavor to re-learn how to travel by smoke.
Astronaut Leroy Chiao is the special advisor - human spaceflight to the Space Foundation. He served as a member of the 2009 Review of Human Spaceflight Plans Committee. Chiao recently visited Papua and compared notes on flying in the heavens with the chiefs of the Serkasi and Meine tribes.