The Way Forward: Achieving a Consensus on America's Future in Space

07/19/2010 03:44 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It is widely known that I support the President's new space agenda for civil space. I was proud to stand beside the President at the recent Space Summit, and to endorse his bold vision for space -- a vision that I believe will enable us to maintain our pioneering leadership in this vitally important enterprise.

The President's approach supports many of the principles that I have long advocated, including -- the opening of space to the private sector, the development of a strong technical foundation in science and technology that will enable our continued leadership in space, while also encouraging truly international collaboration with our space faring partners who would embrace this future, the implementation of a Flexible Path that will afford us opportunities for exciting missions beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), enabling journeys to: libration points and orbits whose characteristics afford exceptional opportunities for new space science platforms to unlock the secrets of the universe; human missions to asteroids; and, on to Mars and its two moons; or, to other destinations that hold potential scientific or economic promise, such as the potential international commercial development of the moon -- should this become a priority. It is a rich vision that I would hope that we could all embrace.

A number of my former colleagues, and other critics, have expressed concerns about the plan, and in particular, they express grave reservations about 'the Gap' -- the end of the Space Shuttle Program, and the inability for the US to provide human access to space -- save for limited flight opportunities and capabilities with our Russian partners, pending the maturing of the commercial space transportation capabilities, or other future systems to meet these needs.

Perhaps it is less widely known, that I also share this concern, and I have long advocated a number of potential alternatives to try to address this issue: For the very near-term, I have proposed extending, or commercializing, the space shuttle system, which would preserve the opportunity for reduced manifest (one or two flights per year) support of the International Space Station, while also preserving the capability to develop a shuttle derived heavy lift launch vehicle to meet our future space exploration needs, and as importantly, maintain the critical technical workforce that supports our nations space transportation capabilities. A capability that we are in grave danger of losing in the few months ahead...

Some now claim that the Space Shuttle Program has been dismantled to the extent that this is no longer a viable option. It is difficult to accept that reestablishing this capability would be more difficult than the development of an entirely new replacement vehicle.

At the other end, we could close the Gap by pursuing the development of a human-rated EELV launch capability that would be paired with a reusable, runway-lander, crewed spacecraft, while NASA turns its attention to its longer-term space transportation requirements. The EELV has proven to be a reliable launcher, and NASA has spent many years developing candidate reusable runway-landers, including the HL-20 and the X-38, so these concepts are also quite mature. If made a national priority, I believe this capability could be developed quickly, and this system could help reduce the devastating effects of the Gap. While initially developed by the government to address the critical need to fill the Gap, in the longer term, this system might be spun off to the commercial sector for its continued operations.

We have already endured a gap in human access to space following the termination of Apollo, and the eventual first flight of Columbia, with STS-1 on April 12, 1981. During this period our astronauts were Earthbound, while the former Soviet Union embarked on a series of space stations that allowed them to set records for human activity in space -- many that still stand today. Our science program was also disrupted, as a many missions that were being designed for launch aboard Shuttle had to wait for its development and flight qualification.

We also faced two tragic gaps following the loss of Challenger and Columbia and their brave crews. We should learn from these experiences that it is essential to maintain US access to space, and I continue to be a fierce advocate for this need.

What should we do to address this urgent need? I believe that it is possible to find a compromise solution that might address the critical concern regarding the Gap: I would call upon the President to issue an Executive order - requiring that the USAF and NASA collaborate in the development of a launch capability to help fill the Gap. It would call for the USAF to work with NASA to human-rate the EELV, and to provide this launch capability to meet NASA's near-term human space access needs. It would direct NASA to undertake the rapid proto-flyte development of an HL-20 reusable, runway-lander that would be mated to this vehicle to meet its LEO requirements, including supporting the ISS, until an alternate capability has been developed and demonstrated the ability to meet this critical requirement.

I would also continue with the President's current plan to take advantage of the investment that we have already made in the Orion capsule, and use this capability as a lifeboat, or Crew Return Vehicle (CRV), for ISS, so we can fully man space station and exploit its magnificent capabilities. This would also preserve the option to develop future derivative Orion capsules for future human exploration missions beyond LEO, where the higher aero capture heating loads could benefit from this configuration.

I would also ask the President direct NASA to update its space station and logistics resupply requirements study (the so-called 'Blue Book', developed by NASA/LaRC and ISS), to fully understand the long-term requirements to maintain ISS through 2020, and potentially beyond, and to examine these requirements with our international partners to determine how -- collectively, we might meet these requirements. It is in our mutual interest to ensure that these requirements can be met, and to negotiate any agreements, or barters, to utilize internationally provided space transportation capabilities necessary to meet them.

Having addressed what I feel is probably the greatest area of concern for many of the critics who have spoken out about the new path for NASA -- the Gap -- I would call for my colleagues, and our nation, to get behind the new direction for NASA so we -- together with our international partners and the emerging new commercial space industry, can continue the greatest enterprise in the history of man -- the exploration of space for all mankind.