Shaping Up: The Future Of U.S. Space Transportation

Shaping Up: The Future Of U.S. Space Transportation



Falcon 9 ABS/Eutelsat launch

A time-lapse image of the March 1 launch of two communications satellites on a Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral. Commercial efforts like SpaceX have helped reshape, and strength, the domestic space transportation landscape recently. (credit: SpaceX)

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Surprisingly, in 2014 the US space transportation picture took shape in the sense that a viable way forward became clearer, although with no guarantee of ultimate success. As has been obvious since 2009, NASA is not going to directly replace the Space Shuttle. That horse left the barn and the door is closed. The earlier demise of the Ares launch system as part of the cancellation of the Constellation program made that reality clear. Therefore, the question becomes, what now?

What happened?

Since the mid-1990s, the US government has struggled over the question of its space launch capabilities. The game changer is the growth in a viable independent private commercial sector. The private sector, from the inception of the Space Age in the 1950s, has been dependent on government programs. Until recently, that dependence was total, but now the situation is more complex but also intriguing.

Since the mid-1990s, the US government has struggled over the question of its space launch capabilities. The game changer is the growth in a viable independent private commercial sector.

For example, the Department of Defense (DOD) in 1995 pursued its Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program to handle its needs. The Atlas V and Delta IV in various configurations provides what the DOD demanded, redundancy in the event of a flight failure, and reliability of operations. Both launch systems proved not as cost efficient as originally desired, but the costs are considered reasonable given national security priorities. Those cost parameters are being revisited in a renewed wave of development and competition, but the larger immediate question is the viability of the Atlas V given political upheaval between the US and Russia (discussed below). There is significant skepticism about the actual cost reductions to be acquired (See “EELV’s era of transition”, The Space Review, February 17, 2014).

Meanwhile, NASA struggled mightily in its pursuit of a shuttle replacement, a process that began in earnest after the Challenger accident in 1986. That pursuit, however, contained a large caveat: the proposed vehicles—including the X-33 and X-34 spaceplanes as well as other paper projects under consideration—were all low Earth orbit (LEO) in terms of capability, meaning duplicating to a large extent the shuttle but with less lift capacity. That limitation meant that space exploration for the United States would remain a goal, and not a reality, outside of the excellent robotic missions being flown to the planets and beyond.

The 2004 decisions by President George W. Bush opened the door for human space exploration over time beyond LEO to the Moon and elsewherem while scheduling the Space Shuttle’s retirement for 2010 after completion of the International Space Station (ISS). The Ares became the ticket to the future of US space exploration while the shuttle fleet focused on ISS construction. The long delay in instituting a space station program had obscured the fact that the shuttle’s original reason for being was to build and support an Earth-orbiting space station as a base camp for further exploration. The Bush Constellation program essentially abandoned the ISS and pushed for exploration essentially in a standalone mission profile similar to Apollo program. This meant the Orion spacecraft would carry crew outward with supply missions sent ahead, or as part of the spacecraft itself in a reconfigured mode once in orbit.

Several difficulties immediately arose primarily in the political sphere but were accentuated by delays in Ares development. The latter were, in principle, recoverable, but the former were not. No president or Congress since Lyndon Johnson has been committed to funding NASA to the extent required given the agency’s expensive ambitions. Even Johnson ultimately backed off as other budget priorities took precedence: a slowing economy, escalating Vietnam War costs, and the expenses for the Great Society. More telling, public support for the space program even during the Apollo era was never sufficiently overwhelming that Congress felt the program was truly an enduring national priority. Unlike military space activities, space exploration is considered by both the public and Congress a “nice to have” but not a national necessity despite occasional political rhetoric to the contrary. The Apollo program arose in the midst of singular historical circumstances not duplicated since that time despite several attempts, notably the 1989 Space Exploration Initiative, to generate similar excitement.

SLS Block II illustration

The proposed Block II version of the SLS, capable of placing up to 130 metric tons into low Earth orbit. (credit: NASA)

Space Launch System

The new administration of President Barack Obama took a new look at the Constellation program in 2009 in the form of the Augustine Committee. The committee’s conclusion was that chronic underfunding to that point, and likely future funding shortfalls, made Constellation program success problematic. The Constellation program, despite congressional resistance, was terminated although several components, notably the Orion spacecraft, continued. The new program also called for development of a new heavy-lift launch vehicle, the Space Launch System (SLS). This new NASA launch vehicle, like the Ares, is explicitly designed to go beyond LEO orbit out into the solar system. The system has also been labeled by some the “Senate Launch System” given the strong push made by certain members of the Senate to get an Ares or shuttle replacement underway. The senators from Texas (Kay Bailey Hutchison) and Florida (Bill Nelson) pushing the SLS felt that not having any replacement vehicle underway was to permanently remove the US from human space exploration except at the sufferance of others, i.e. the Russians. Their judgment was that that Constellation was politically dead, so one needed to move on.

This fragmented reality signals the understanding that there exists no widespread strong congressional or public support for greatly expanded NASA funding for human space exploration.

The Russian option, however, was only for LEO operations related to the ISS. The SLS initiation personifies the political problem: the program came into existence in response to efforts by a small but intense faction in the Senate drawn from states with a significant NASA human spaceflight presence, another prime example of constituency politics in NASA affairs. Others resisted until it was clear the SLS was politically feasible while also protecting NASA workforces in their states. There was no intense congressional majority in favor of an expanded NASA human exploration effort. Instead, traditional “log-rolling” explained the SLS’s birth and continuation, plus a general notion among members that the US should continue to operate a human space exploration effort (see “The downhill slide of NASA’s ‘rocket to nowhere’”, The Space Review, August 25, 2014). That general notion reflects the inertia behind the US space program, insuring broader congressional support as long as costs are considered “reasonable”—whatever that means.

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Regardless, other members disagreed, including those who supported the Constellation program—especially Ares—because that program was already underway, while some sought an expanded opening for commercial space flight to replace the Space Shuttle. Others were opposed any significant funding for NASA because their preference was to divert the funding to other programs (non-space related) joined by those opposed to government funding of any non-essential programs. This fragmented reality signals the understanding that there exists no widespread strong congressional or public support for greatly expanded NASA funding for human space exploration. There is no “race” to or in space today, with the Chinese serving as the surrogate for the earlier Soviet Union in the 1960s, to drive or motivate expanded American government human space exploration endeavors. Larger budget concerns and a general movement away from government-funded programs translate into generally lean times for NASA. But, one should note that NASA’s budget to this point has not been decimated but instead moves in a pattern similar to general government spending.

The SLS moves forward under the same constraints as Ares, with its first launch after 2017. Its high cost is further exacerbated by a low projected launch rate, so each vehicle become a hand-tooled version equivalent to a Rolls Royce rather than a Ford or a Chevy coming off an active assembly line. Ironically, the Apollo-era Saturn V launch vehicle was deemed too expensive to continue, but the Space Shuttle, despite its obvious technical advances, proved to be neither cheaper nor more reliable compared to the Saturn. The low projected launch rate for the SLS reflects two factors: a lack of broader budget support and disputes over future goals for US human space exploration. Both are clearly interrelated but distinct but this translates into a slow-motion program, not one with a vision so compelling that it can overcome political inertia.

Budgets are the lifeblood of any space activity, crewed or robotic, because without funding, nothing is possible. Space activities are expensive since much of the costly hardware is lost during operations. This reality is not restricted to government space programs but true for all sectors. Space operations flounder if funding is not available or not continuous.

The bar is even higher for commercial space because profits are crucial for funding future operations and technology development. Lack of funding or investment explains why earlier commercial space ventures often failed: funding ran out in the absence of profits to fuel further work. Investors expect a return, and their time horizon is often shorter than that of the visionaries who develop the technologies and push the flight envelope.

By contrast, the SLS possesses no inherent commercial purpose, so government funding remains the entire ballgame. NASA funding, in the context of federal government budgeting, is considered discretionary. Being discretionary means not absolutely necessary so funding can, in principle, be eliminated. DOD funding is also considered discretionary yet also absolutely essential for national survival in a hostile world. There are debates over how much security to purchase given rapidly evolving threat perceptions. As a consequence, discretionary funding in the form of NASA is subject to attack from several directions.

In NASA’s case, the attacks are both general and specific. As mentioned above, some object on general grounds, as they want the resources presently committed for NASA human space exploration employed for other purposes, including funding other space programs (space science, for example), or for general budget reduction. Another group argues the private sector should conduct all such exploration beyond LEO, including exploiting the Moon and asteroids for natural resources. NASA, in this case, becomes restricted to space and Earth science. Many assume that needed technology will also come from the private sector in the future.

The more fundamental objection is that the SLS is a “ticket to nowhere.” This dispute appears in the context of where the first missions for the SLS should go: should that focus be on reaching the Moon as a precursor for future exploration of Mars? The Augustine Committee proposed a “flexible path” as the next step for US human space exploration. For example, the Orion vehicle could be sent to an asteroid as prelude to longer missions in space; a build-up to a multi-year mission to Mars. The space environment continues to provide surprises in terms of significant hazards, especially radiation in various forms. The goal of such missions would be assessing the crew’s ability to live and function away from LEO while testing the equipment that makes such long-duration missions possible. Constellation supporters reject this approach, feeling that NASA requires a well-defined program with clearly identified goals, such as returning to the Moon and then on to Mars. Lunar bases would become the testbed for technologies facilitating long-duration human operations in space and on hostile surfaces.

Private sector groups have proposed their own missions to the Moon and asteroids for purposes of mining resources found there. Usually, the effort begins with great publicity and enthusiasm but falters in the absence of funding or income generation.

This argument rests on the Apollo experience (clear objective) with the shuttle era presented as the antithesis (no immediate goal except sustaining human spaceflight). The latter is not insignificant but human space exploration, some argue, floundered as a result. The lack of such specificity becomes troubling for several reasons. The result has been a slow-motion political struggle in which the administration pushes its asteroid mission while Congress restricts or rejects that approach. Given the slowness of SLS development given its budget situation, resolution of this question will take time. The original proposed asteroid mission saw the Orion going out to the asteroid to conduct operations. The newer version, called the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), has shifted from Orion visiting an asteroid in its “native” orbit to a mission profile where an asteroid is captured and brought closer to Earth to be visited by an Orion spacecraft. Given the relative paucity of resources, nothing will happen quickly regardless of which mission profile is adopted.

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Private sector groups have proposed their own missions to the Moon and asteroids for purposes of mining resources found there. Such efforts are hampered by the high cost of operations and the question of profitability of any resources returned to Earth for use. Use of onsite materials to support a human installation still demands significant resources to support initial settlement efforts. More usually, the effort begins with great publicity and enthusiasm but falters in the absence of funding or income generation. Current examples include Mars One and Elon Musk’s plans for a Mars colonialization effort. Their prospects are all difficult to envision without significant government funding since few individuals possess the resources necessary for such an accomplishment. The business case is not clear at this point going forward.

Anatres liftoff

An Antares rocket lifts off from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia on July 13. The rocket placed a Cygnus cargo spacecraft into orbit. (credit: J. Foust)

LEO supply options

The other side of the question of US space transportation appears more positive. The Space Shuttle will not be replicated but its missions of transporting crew and supplies to the ISS are being assumed by NASA-funded commercial spacelift options. For all the criticism of NASA, the cargo portion of its effort, embodied in the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program, has worked despite some delays and the first in-flight loss of a supply mission. SpaceX and Orbital ATK have successful flown resupply missions until last October, when an Antares vehicle blew up seconds after liftoff. Early reports focused on the engines, the AJ26, a recycled 1960s-era Russian product known as the NK-33 that failed to launch the Soviet N-1 Moon rocket. Problems apparently had arisen previously, raising quality control issues which now have to be explicitly addressed.

There are indications that Orbital ATK is seriously considering another Russian engine, the RD-181, as the replacement for the AJ26. This decision illustrates a serious problem hindering development of American space transportation, dependence on Russian engines for critical launch vehicles. The RD-181, though, comes with the restriction of no use for national security payloads.

In principle, a truly globalized economy means that one purchases necessary materials and technologies from whoever has the best product at the best price. The problem is not the technology but rather the dependability of the supplier, in this case, Russia. Since the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and resulting US and EU sanctions, Russian officials have threatened to cut off or reduce the delivery of rocket engines for the Atlas V, and now the Antares is being placed in a similar situation. The US government has lagged in terms of new engine development since the 1970s and now confronts the necessity to reinvigorate that sector for government payloads. The US private sector until recently relied on government contracts if there was to be any effort at developing new engines. The Russians continue to deliver engines but the vulnerability continues subject to the political decisions made outside the control of the companies. United Launch Alliance (ULA) has an agreement with Blue Origin to develop a new engine, the BE-4, and Congress has appropriated money for new engines while also banning use of RD-180 engines for national security payloads in 2019. SpaceX has long worked on developing its own engines, which is the backbone of the company’s ability to fly more cheaply than competitors.

In a related matter, SpaceX is aggressively pursuing US Air Force contracts for launching national security payloads. To this point, ULA has had a series of sole source contracts to launch such payloads on either the Delta IV or Atlas V. With SpaceX’s entry into the competition, the Air Force acquires even more launch redundancy and expected cheaper launches. In any case, SpaceX becomes a central player across the spectrum of US space transportation, government and private.

In the 100th anniversary of its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NASA returns to its roots as a facilitator of technology development without operating the system.

The Antares accident had the immediate effect of leaving NASA with only one domestic flight option to resupply the ISS. Since the Challenger accident, NASA has been forced by circumstances to accept the early Air Force’s position that you need, if possible, two launch options, and thus no single-point failures. That dispute first arose in the late 1970s and early 1980s when NASA convinced President Carter to require all US payloads to fly on the shuttle. The expendable launch vehicles (ELVs) of the day were government owned, meaning government choices determined how and when US payloads would be launched.

After Challenger, the US was effectively out of the space launch business for a time as the existing ELVs also encountered flight failures. The Challenger accident signaled the end of that requirement and the restart of the Air Force expendable launch fleet, ultimately leading to the EELV program. Furthermore, after Challenger, the Air Force transferred its ELV fleet to the private contractors operating the launch systems. The other result of the Challenger accident was the liberation of NASA space science payloads from flying on the shuttle, reducing costs dramatically since there no longer was a requirement for rating the payloads for crew safety.

SpaceX resupply missions have been successful, albeit with launch delays, while their recent efforts have begun to focus on establishing reusability of Falcon boosters. This involves landing the booster on a ship at sea, eventually moving to a return to a land base; Launch Complex 13 is being leased as a possible landing site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Success would mean that reusability might be achievable and a cost game-changer. The shuttle, for example, was only partly reusable, as the external fuel tank was lost. The key question, though, is whether the Falcon 9 boosters can be refurbished for reflight economically while maintaining reliability of operations. That will not be known until successful recovery occurs several times, providing a larger experience base for determining costs and reliability since those factors will drive reuse. The potential is obviously exciting but reality may be more problematic than claimed.

Orbital ATK was successful in its early resupply missions until the 2014 launch failure. If Orbital ATK is able to re-engine the Antares while keeping it cost competitive, the US will be in a stronger position regarding ISS resupply. Having both systems operational translates into redundancy, which is critical for space operations. Otherwise, the customer gets locked into single point failure if a launch system fails. For NASA in the long term, the optimal situation would involve development of other launch options so that it does not become locked into only one or two suppliers.

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NASA has shown that it can continue to help build the US commercial space launch industry through adroit use of its contracts. In the 100th anniversary of its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NASA returns to its roots as a facilitator of technology development without operating the system.

Musk and Dragon V2

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk poses with the Dragon V2 spacecraft the company unveiled at an event at the company’s California headquarters in May 2014. (credit: J. Foust)

LEO options for crew

With resupply operations under way at least through 2020, NASA is focused on the question of moving crew to the ISS on US flag carriers. Through a series of competitions, NASA selected Boeing and SpaceX to provide rides for crew to the ISS using their new vehicles, the CST-100 and the Dragon V2, respectively. A protest by Sierra Nevada delayed final approval but the protest was denied in January, so progress should be seen fairly quickly. The plan is for flights in 2017 although slippage will likely occur given the vehicles must be safety rated for humans. Again, NASA opted for redundancy for reasons discussed above.

Boeing is launching its CST-100 on the well-established Atlas V. That, however, raises the issue of feasibility given Russian threats to cut off shipments of RD-180 engines in response to US sanctions after the Ukrainian invasion. The threatened Russian embargo referenced only national security payloads, but that would affect NASA launches as well. In a crunch, DOD takes precedence over NASA payloads in order to preserve the capability to launch national security payloads. Development of a replacement engine will take time, which may not be quick enough to minimize all Russian impact on flight availability. Recent statements indicate the new engine would come in 2019 at the earliest; moreover, as noted above, Congress prohibits use of RD-180 engines for national security payloads around that time, adding even more impetus to the effort. But, one must note, the US just signed for more Soyuz rides for astronauts to the ISS in 2018 so, in theory, there is no pressure if the two systems are slower to develop and test than now thought possible.

Assuming both flights options materialize as projected, NASA immediately solves its problem of sustainable reliable crew access to the LEO. More broadly, the possibilities for commercial human spaceflight proliferate. Space access will remain expensive but now the prospects for space tourism become more realistic. If Bigelow Aerospace’s proposed habitats work, the possibilities become dramatically greater for humans living in outer space for some interval.

SLS moves slowly, but there exists no alternative if NASA is to pursue deep space exploration with a crew. Any momentum from the shuttle era has evaporated, encapsulated in IMAX films and museum displays.

Government is effectively stepping aside as long as NASA’s essential launch needs are met. This tracks what was done in the early days of aviation. Then, mail contracts beginning in 1925 were the vehicle for developing the aviation industry. Now launches to the ISS become the means by which an industry, now freed from government control, grows in capability and sophistication. Congress still holds to the older model with its continued insistence that the SLS and Orion be configured as a backup to the commercial vendors. At some point, you have to make the break and let NASA be NASA in space technology development, space science, and space exploration. The agency did its stint as the trucking company to LEO and the ISS, now NASA needs to move outward.

Human spaceflight can only benefit, but such opportunities contain the potential for failures. Commercial space has experienced several booms and busts. What supports the possibility for success now is that the ultimate stumbling block, reliable and less costly launch, may be finally at hand. Further efficiencies may occur if reusable spaceflight truly becomes a possibility. This was the original vision for the Space Shuttle: building cheap, reliable transportation to LEO, as the stepping-stone to the solar system. That effort, unfortunately, was taken by NASA as license to funnel all payloads to the space shuttle, effectively damaging the prospects for commercial alternatives until 1986.


SLS moves slowly, but there exists no alternative if NASA is to pursue deep space exploration with a crew. Any momentum from the shuttle era has evaporated, encapsulated in IMAX films and museum displays. Of course, given American politics, SLS could also be dumped as Constellation was in 2009–2010. However, two consecutive failed major NASA launch startups—Ares and SLS—raises the danger of totally dissipating all serious political interest in human space exploration.

Come 2017, a new presidential administration could address once again the SLS mission profile. The Moon may become the immediate objective but one must remember the other states, especially China, are also moving their space programs forward at the same time. This raises the possibility for joint missions, or else a slow motion competition or withdrawal. Given the political situation regarding US human space exploration, the latter is not excluded as a possible future. Recapturing momentum does not require another Moon race because such politically hyped competitions lack staying power. Better is the path driven by success combined with a sense of urgency to reach the next level. Creating the latter cannot be done through hype: the attention of the political elite wanders too quickly to other matters.

A more fundamental problem that must be addressed is the issue of US rocket engine development: reaching out to the Russians for recycled 1960s–1970s technologies is not the path to a sustainable future. SpaceX again shows the way, while others such as Blue Origin suggest other alternatives. Congress has appropriated money for an RD-180 replacement but for a sustainable commercial launch industry, one cannot proclaim your superiority over government and then wait around for another government program to build your tools. The legacy launch companies are accustomed to that model but NewSpace advocates suggest there is another way. Now is the time to walk the walk, not the talk.


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  • Rand Simberg

    “SLS moves slowly, but there exists no alternative if NASA is to pursue deep space exploration with a crew.”

    Roger, this is simply untrue. There are many alternatives, and much better ones, to do deep-space human spaceflight, than SLS.