The US Space Program – An Update
There are some current events in space exploration and development that I would like to discuss. The first is the impact that the Russian invasion of the Ukraine will have on our space program, the second is the degree of advancement apparent in the commercial space market relative to NASA, and the third is the unsolved problem of space debris, and how it is starting to affect the space program and what we need to do to solve it.
The following is an article by Mark R. Whittington. “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sparked a rift in the American-Russian space partnership that has endured for almost 30 years. Russia has already canceled a launch of OneWeb satellites on a Russian rocket. Russia has also stopped the delivery of RD-180 rocket engines that have been used on American rockets such as the Atlas 5. Moscow has also suspended its participation at the ESA spaceport in French Guiana.
Note that the United Launch Alliance (ULA) already has enough RD-180 engines in its warehouse to complete its planned launches before the next generation Vulcan launch system powered by Jeff Bezo’s BE-4 engine comes on-line. If the BE-4 deliveries continue to slide, there could be a problem.
The crown jewel of Western-Russian space cooperation, the International Space Station (ISS), is now at risk. Russian Federation space corporation Roscosmos head Dimitry Rogozin has already threatened to pull out of the ISS and, in his view, cause the orbiting space laboratory to go into an uncontrolled deorbit “into the United States or Europe.” NASA would like to preserve the partnership with Russia but as the invasion of Ukraine grinds on, it is becoming increasingly tenuous.
It has becoming increasingly clear that the question is not if the Russians will leave the International Space Station but when. Even if the Ukraine invasion is stopped and Russian President Vladimir Putin deposed soon, Russia’s economy may be so damaged by the war and sanctions that it will be incapable of maintaining an independent space program for some time to come.
Ars Technica suggests that a few people are working on a commercial solution to a NASA-Russia ISS divorce. Commercial spacecraft such as the Cygnus, a modified SpaceX Dragon, and even the long-delayed Boeing Starliner could provide re-boost capabilities. A commercial module from Axiom due in 2024 could replace some of the capabilities that would leave with the Russians. It would behoove NASA and its commercial partners to get busy planning to save the ISS until commercial replacements come online, a process that should be hastened as quickly as possible.
I agree. It would take years for the ISS to descend to an altitude where it would uncontrolledly deorbit. Meanwhile the NASA, ESA, and Japanese Space Agency have numerous assets that could be modified to reboost it.
Recent developments suggest that the business-as-usual approach to civil space policy has become increasingly untenable. At the same time, commercial partnerships continue to pay dividends, saving NASA money and expanding its reach and capabilities.
In the meantime, according to Ars Technica, the NASA inspector general revealed in testimony to the House Science Committee that a single Artemis launch would cost $4.1 billion. The cost includes “$2.2 billion to build a single SLS rocket, $568 million for ground systems, $1 billion for an Orion spacecraft, and $300 million to the European Space Agency for Orion's Service Module.” The inspector general concluded that the cost was “unsustainable.” NASA cannot have a meaningful space exploration program for that cost. The conclusions buttress the view that the SLS is obsolete before it has ever flown.
This has been my position for years. The SLS (Senate Launch System) was conceived as a “make work” project for the NASA centers in order to maintain a technology base at Lockheed and Boeing Aerospace while Obama was in the White House and space was not of interest. It worked and now it is time to move on. The latest launch systems from SpaceX are two to three orders of magnitude cheaper than SLS which is using 1960s technologies. The problem is what to do with Johnson Spaceflight Center (JSC) and Marshal Spaceflight Center (MSFC)? For that I don’t have a good ready solution.
Clearly, the time for business as usual is long past. NASA needs to go all-in on the one area of human spaceflight that has been a complete success: commercial space.
The problem of the Orion/SLS is a lot tougher, at least politically. The logical solution would be to scrap it, write off the tens of billions that have been spent developing the moon rocket, and figure out a way to go to the moon using SpaceX’s Starship alone. However, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, who would have to make that decision and sell it to Congress and the Biden White House, was one of the originators of the Space Launch System. He would have to admit that he made a mistake that has cost the United States close to $100 billion.
The Orion is another make-work project whose time has passed. It is good solid 1960s technology with a few modern bells and whistles, but it will only work well with a conventional rocket stack using a small upper stage. That is not where SpaceX is headed and right now SpaceX owns the future. The Orion propulsion stage was not sized to rendezvous with a lander in Low Lunar Orbit (LLO) unlike Apollo, so it’s functionally useless for any future lunar surface missions unless we first launch and assemble the Gateway Station in high lunar polar orbit. This is a really dumb approach, but a decade ago NASA was looking a very small exploration budgets, so they seized upon Gateway as an interim step that was worthwhile even if they never returned to the lunar surface. Now, of course we have to beat the Chinese back to the moon.
The NASA Advisory Council, which recently met to provide reports to the space agency, has a number of committees covering areas such as Human Exploration and Operations, Science, and so on. Conspicuous in its absence was the Regulatory and Policy Committee, which during the tenure of former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine provided input into issues surrounding the burgeoning private space sector. The committee provided a conduit for commercial space companies to provide NASA with advice on policy matters affecting their industry. It helped to set policy for astronauts doing commercial work on the ISS and delved into the idea of commercial sponsorships for NASA missions and spacecraft.
Nelson could reestablish the Regulatory and Policy Committee to deal with commercial space issues. He has become a born-again supporter of commercial space, something he was skeptical of when he was a United States senator. The reestablishment of this committee devoted to commercial space would signal that the change in attitude is real. The growing importance of private space’s capacity to provide a measure of stability and vigor in NASA programs such as the ISS and Artemis through public/private partnerships, and to create an independent space economy demands nothing less.”
Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.
Op-ed | Congress must act now to avert a catastrophe in space
by Dan Dumbacher — March 13, 2022
More than 1,500. That’s the additional pieces of debris now floating around in low Earth orbit because of the reckless and irreversible Russian anti-satellite test last November.
Another 13,000 small satellites will be added by the Chinese when they deploy a large constellation to provide internet services.
Then consider the U.S.-licensed companies that have already launched more than 2,000 satellites of a planned tens of thousands of satellites over the next decade.
All of this must be added to the approximately 40,000 objects currently being tracked by U.S. Space Command. As an engineer, I can do math all day. I enjoy it. What’s not so fun is facing the urgent problem that tens of thousands of objects traveling at roughly 17,500 mph in low Earth orbit threaten launch vehicles, space assets, and human lives.
It was just over a decade ago when the Iridium 33 and the derelict Russian military Kosmos 2251 communications satellites collided, creating thousands of new pieces of debris and an ongoing headache for the crews onboard the International Space Station (ISS). Since then, astronauts aboard the ISS have witnessed a significant number of near misses. It’s only a matter of time before the next catastrophic event takes place – one in which lives, or key national security and commercial assets, are lost. How many more misses will it take before Congress acts? Do we have to wait for that catastrophe? For all our sake, I sure hope not.
It is not melodramatic to state that this is a four-alarm fire. We in the space sector smell the smoke and see the flames. The executive branch recognizes the emergency as well. Two successive U.S. presidential administrations have affirmed the need for the United States to develop a national space traffic management (STM) function. Space Policy Directive-3 (SPD3) charged the Department of Commerce (DOC) with making space safety data and services available to the public, while the Department of Defense maintains the authoritative catalog of space objects. The Office of Space Commerce (OSC) would be the civil agency to perform the STM tasks outlined in SPD-3, and this position was reaffirmed by a congressionally directed National Academy of Public Administration study. While the DOC has taken a few initial steps, including establishing an open architecture data repository, critical elements remain unresolved, which hinder U.S. industry’s ability to anticipate what will be required for the responsible use of space. This is an unacceptable situation only Congress can solve.
That is why the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) is leading an effort to advance the STM issue. We have assembled major stakeholders from the space industry, as well as the insurance, finance, international, legal, and technical sectors, all of whom have emphasized the urgency of this issue with key congressional staff.
Our positions and recommendations are straightforward:
• We strongly back full implementation of SPD-3.
• We call for Congress to authorize OSC as the government office responsible for civilian STM responsibilities.
• In addition, OSC should be elevated to be a direct report to the Deputy Secretary of Commerce.
• OSC should be appropriated adequate funding to hire the necessary staff resources and to establish the required data systems.
• OSC should also eventually become a small bureau within the department and be led by an assistant secretary.
Such actions will give OSC the gravitas and agility to work at the highest levels of the department and across government agencies to coordinate and establish a domestic civil STM function, as well as authoritatively engage in multilateral discussions abroad.
I should acknowledge that the U.S. Senate has passed the SPACE Act, which codifies elements of SPD-3 by formally assigning civil space situational awareness responsibilities to the DOC. This is encouraging; however, more must be done. Time is running short. We can’t afford to wait for a catastrophic event before proper steps are taken to address this matter.
The space community is unanimous: Congress needs to act now on space traffic management to provide stability and certainty, so the commercial sector can continue to innovate and invest in new ventures that continue building a robust space economy.
Dan managed several of my research contracts back in the old days, is a good friend, and quite knowledgeable. He is very aware of the debris problem and is trying to get our government to address the problem before it becomes catastrophic. I totally agree but would like to add a few appropriate comments. First, we don’t need to remove all 40,000 objects to be on the path to safety. The smaller objects have a drag to mass ratio that will cause them to deorbit in a reasonable time. It’s the large objects that need to be removed to a safe location (orbital junkyard) so they don’t collide with each other and create thousands of new debris.
The problem is they are all in different orbits travelling in different directions. Hence, an enormous delta velocity is required to rendezvous with and then move a heavy object to the junkyard. Fortunately, we are experimenting with Electrodynamic Tether thrusters that generate thrust interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field thereby allowing orbit change without the use of propellant. See figure 1 below.
Figure 1 – Electrodynamic Tether Thruster (Payload attached to center of Tether)
I think it is obvious there is no profit in moving space debris around, but this would be a great project for NASA to build and operate some ED Tethers to demonstrate meaningful debris removal. Debris removal is akin to cleaning up the commons so if will have to be a government function.
Thanks for Reading and Stay Safe,