Following the August 24, 2011 failure and crash of a Russian Progress M-12M cargo vehicle destined for the International Space Staion (ISS), there has been a lot of alarmist rhetoric about the future of the ISS as well as American spaceflight capability in the wake of the retirement of the space shuttle fleet. Putting forth the option that the ISS might need to be de-crewed as early as November due to a variety of variables led to headlines forecasting that the ISS would be “evacuated” at that time. There has been a lot of predictable finger-pointing about the end of the shuttle program without having a successor ready to go. Let’s take a step back to look at the situation without a “sky is falling” mentality.
As a whole, the Soyuz class of rockets has been astonishingly reliable given that the original design was first used in 1966. Even so, being that it’s a machine, there is a lot of room for things to go wrong either at the human end or in the technology & materials end. From time-to-time, there will be a failure. That’s reality.
—A. Einstein (attrib)
One of the great advantages of using a well-established design is that it is also very well understood. As a result, modes of failure tend to reveal themselves quickly during an accident investigation. The design of the Soyuz is also aided by a philosophy long anecdotally projected onto Soviet and Russian designers that they are less apt to “over-design” a system than their American counterparts.
As a result, it’s not very surprising to me that a diagnosis of what doomed the Progress mission was announced before a full-scale accident investigation could recover and examine all of the rocket remains. In fact, it’s very familiar to someone who watched the space program in the 60s where the “we will fix it” attitude was very proactive and less hand-wringing when it came to rocket accidents.
NASA has been sending proposals for shuttle successors to Congress since the 80s, when it was clear that the shuttle wasn’t going to be the economical “space truck” the press releases and the agency were all too eager to advertise. I’ve seen proposal after proposal get shot down due to budget considerations, administration changes, committee leadership changes, SNAFUs at NASA, lack of vision, etc. It was clear to spaceflight watchers even in the 90s that there was going to be an American space accessibility gap if there wasn’t some serious leadership somewhere.
Perhaps the best thing that could have happened for American spaceflight is the ceding of the leadership from the government to private enterprise. I’m not saying that private enterprise can necessary do it better, cheaper, or whatever. Just having Congress out of the mix (at least in a direct way) will make the process more likely to reach planned goals. Still, I have my concerns.
I wonder if we would have ever gotten to the moon via private industry? NASA in the 60s was about meeting a presidential mandate, and Congress let them do it. The average age of the engineers at Houston’s mission control was 26 years. They didn’t know they shouldn’t be able to do it, they instead believed there was no reason why they couldn’t. The American space industry—public and private—has lost that.
But what are our options? It’s up to commercial enterprise, now. SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, and others are on track to build manned and unmanned launch systems for the ISS, in the short term, and for more ambitious missions in the future. I’ll focus on SpaceX, which currently seems to be the front-runner.
SpaceX is returning to the traditional design of a capsule sitting atop a rocket stack. It’s a system proven to work with a minimum of complications. The Falcon 9 rocket that is meant for both ISS resupply and future manned mission with the Dragon capsule was announced on September 2005. The first rocket was integrated as Cape Canaveral in 2008 with a planned launch in January 2010. Several postponements delayed the first launch to June 2010. A second (again, oft-postponed) flight in December 2010 also had the deployment of an operational Dragon capsule. The third mission, with the docking of a Dragon capsule with the ISS is scheduled for November 2011, but with the Progress failure is likely to be, yes, postponed.
There has been talk of speeding up the SpaceX timetable. Personally, I’d like to see SpaceX have a few more test and/or COTS (ISS resupply) flights under its belt first. However, as long as the Dragon capsule is reasonably human-rated, I don’t see any huge reason that the first manned missions couldn’t start in 2012. They might need a little more funding to build a bit faster, and they’d have to get a window in the launch schedule, but I think it’s doable. What’s the worst that could happen?
It could blow up, taking the crew with it.
—E. F. Schumacker
It could. So could Soyuz. So could the space shuttle. So could any rocket system. After all, airplanes crash. Cars and trucks have fatal accidents. It’s part of the game of transportation. We need to stop sounding death knells every time a space-transport accident happens. They’ve happened before and they will happen again. The keys are to accept this occasional risk as well as to be prudent and not push the technology needlessly—expecting more from it than it is ready to give.
So…what’s the soonest we can reasonably expect passengers on an American rocket back up in space? I’d say maybe the 3rd or 4th quarter of 2012 for a two- or three-man test crew, possibly for docking at the ISS. It will need the political will to do it as well as the requisite funding and an available launch window, but as long as the designers and engineers keep their eye on the ball, there’s no reason why it can’t be done.
Of course, SpaceX isn’t the only player in this game. There are many options coming up on the American side of the equation. That’s good. It’s like having the iPhone, Android, and Blackberry as options. A failure of one doesn’t shut down the entire industry.
For now, I think the plan should be to get Falcon 9 and its cousins up into space and establish their reliability—and allow some growing pains of these new systems. By giving them some launch priority to “earn their stripes” so to speak, then the gap between the shuttle and the next thing could be less than a year and a half.
Photo: Chris Thompson/SpaceX