Thoughts on NASA and the near future of space exploration
I posted the following reply in the NASA discussion group on LinkedIn. The original post was soliciting thoughts on the changes in priorities for NASA in response to the president's budget request.
The Constellation program was canceled because this administration was unwilling to continue investing many billions of dollars a year to develop a whole new launch capability that would not be ready for 7 to 10 years. For this investment, we would get two new rockets that would never have a very high flight rate, and thus would be extremely expensive to operate. That high cost of development was literally starving many innovative science and engineering efforts currently underway, or planned for the near future. The high cost of operations would mean that this situation would continue into the indefinite future. This was a bargain that this administration was no longer willing to make... not when there appeared to be a viable alternative.
This alternative has just as much of a chance of success as the Constellation program, but also requires much less investment and has the potential to offer much greater capacity and redundancy to the US spaceflight capability. NASA is getting a net increase in budget, and the freedom to spend it on actual innovative research and development projects. Some of this research will vastly improve our ability to carry out long duration spaceflight missions, while other research would dramatically improve our understanding of the Earth, and our environment.
As for science on the ISS: The president's budget actually extends the life of the station until at least 2020 - further improving the chances of doing useful science on the station. The SpaceX Dragon capsule is being designed to provide a significant amount of down mass capability for the ISS. Although the Cygnus transport will not initially be able to support this capability, Orbital has made some encouraging remarks regarding their plans to upgrade the Cygnus craft to have reentry capabilities. The ESA has also made similar comments about their ATV modules.
I agree that our backs are up against the wall with regards to the ability of the US to independently access space. But perhaps this sense of urgency will prompt more commercial providers to finally step up to the plate and start investing their own resources in developing this domestic capability - with an appropriate amount of assistance and investment from NASA. However, at the same time, NASA has to back off a little bit and let them develop these systems to the best of their abilities.
No one is suggesting that we immediately start putting astronauts on these new vehicles. (Not like they did for Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Shuttle, and what they were planning on doing for Orion.) From what I've heard, each new entrant and each new system will have to be proven out over a number of unmanned test flights and/or cargo flights before NASA will consider using them for human transport. This seems both fair and prudent.
Will it be dangerous? Yes. Will their be risk? Yes, of course. There always has been and their always will be. However, if it's an endeavor worth pursuing, then you do you best to mitigate the risk and to plan for all of the contingencies that you can imagine. In the end, though, you have to accept the whatever risks remain and just fly the vehicles that you have.
There will be failures, but we will learn from them. There will be deaths, but not by anyone who wasn't fully aware of the risks. They will choose to go, and when they fall, there will still be others lined up waiting to go. For them, it will be the chance to pursue a dream, and the opportunity to push back the boundaries of science and exploration. If you build it, they will most certainly come.