A giant leap backwards

In the 1960s the US manned space programme seemed to be well on the way to revealing the secrets of the universe. But since the end of the Cold War, NASA’s mismanagement and a change of economic policy have shattered that heroic dream.

The beginning of the end of manned space flight starts this month with an unheralded review of NASA programmes following many years of its own mismanagement.

The US space agency had hoped that its latest budget submission for 2003 would be approved in just a few weeks’ time. But it now faces a root and branch investigation lasting up to 180 days to decide its future.

That investigation and numerous other issues will conspire to make 2003 the year that manned space flight begins its slow but inexorable demise. There is the disagreement among the International Space Station (ISS) partners over the final configuration of the station (see sidebar); arguments over the station’s crew return vehicle (see sidebar) on which hinges the question of whether the station will ever be able to accommodate a viable crew complement; and financial problems at the Russian firm that supplies the existing escape pod, the Soyuz capsule.

NASA’s plans for a reusable launcher have also been drastically scaled back with its space shuttle replacement project, the Space Launch Initiative now a shadow of its former self. And to cap it all NASA’s budget request faces tough competition from the new US cabinet-level department of homeland security.

The situation looks bleak for a space agency whose budget has been under attack for many years. Veterans of the many NASA programmes are not confident about the future. Dennis Jenkins has worked for NASA subcontractors as a systems engineer on the shuttle programme for 25 years. In the 1970s he also worked on space station designs. An author of books on satellite launchers and the space shuttle, his view is that NASA’s manned space flight capability will end because of decisions being made today.

‘The decision [to end manned space flight] is by default because we’re not developing anything new. When the Space Station goes away, the shuttle disappears and somebody will look around and say ‘we can save several billions of dollars a year’. It won’t be a conscious decision, it will be a by-product of not having funded the programme.’

The lack of new developments is a symptom of the constant budget cuts NASA has suffered. But Jenkins does not point the finger at space-hostile US presidents. NASA, he says, has only itself to blame.

‘The agency really has no advocate in this administration and it has proven itself incapable of managing anything lately. The ISS and a host of other programmes are all over-budget and behind schedule.’

This recent history combined with the looming future costs of the half-built orbiting laboratory means even NASA’s friends in Congress are seeking major reforms. New York congressman Sherwood Boehlert is chair of the US Congress’ science committee and a member of its space and aeronautics sub-committee. Its primary concern is NASA, space exploration and the ISS. Boehlert agrees with Jenkins’s view that NASA has a lot to answer for.

‘NASA has been less than stellar in its performance in its budgeting and forecasting. Very few [in Congress] are prepared to write a blank cheque and say to NASA ‘spend what you need’. Those days are over. I would suggest that the first quarter of this year is going to be very significant in the direction which NASA will be allowed to proceed.’

The review will bring substantial change for NASA, far more than any other previous Congressional investigation. They too often just tinkered with its multi-billion dollar budget. Boehlert makes it clear that nothing is guaranteed.

‘It is going to be a difficult time. The war on terrorism and the new department of homeland security will use some resources in places we haven’t needed them before.

‘A lot of major decisions are going to be made in the next 120 to 180 days.’While Boehlert would not predict the outcome of that process, the implications for NASA’s manned space flight programmes are severe. The result will definitely have an impact on the space agency’s collaborative projects, which includes the centrepiece of its manned efforts, the ISS.

News of diversion of funds to the war on terror and a lengthy investigation, with its implications for a delayed budget, will infuriate the European Space Agency (ESA).

Jorg Feustel-Buechl, its director of manned space flight, was expecting to conclude negotiations for an agreement on the final shape of the ISS by this summer. He said that ESA had planned for a three-step process towards a final design agreement.

‘We expect a final station configuration would be presented in March, followed by a draft agreement on that by the summer – and by year’s end a legally binding agreement,’ he said.

That timetable can now be written off and the budget delay throws other discussions, such as the status of the crew-return vehicle, into disarray. The return craft issue has been a long-standing bone of contention between the US and Europe, with ESA accusing NASA of failing to honour a commitment to build a dedicated CRV.

shuttle and Soyuz launches transport astronauts and cosmonauts to and from the station. But because of the need for an emergency route to Earth the number of astronauts the station can accommodate is limited to the capacity of its CRV ‘lifeboat’. At present a three-man, Russian-made Soyuz capsule is being used. But it can only last for six months in orbit and has to be replaced.

The problem with the three-people limit is that they can only give 20 hours a week to scientific experiments on board the station. This is because the ISS requires the equivalent of two and a half people to operate it. It means that effectively just half a crew member is available to carry out scientific research, and ensures the ISS could never realise its goals as a fully functional orbital laboratory.

Without an effective research programme the station will come to be seen as an expensive white elephant, undermining the whole argument of those who seek to continue the manned space programme.

To overcome this NASA has suggested using its new Orbital Space Plane for crew rescue. Planned to be available from 2010 it would carry up to 10 people. But it is an unapproved programme, whose proposal was the outcome of another earlier review of the Space Launch Initiative. That had originally aimed to develop technologies for a fully reusable Shuttle replacement. It has now been cut back drastically and apart from the space plane its only other objective is to ‘identify technologies’.

And all this is about to be reviewed. The only realistic solution to the crew problem is a second Soyuz capsule. But it is against US law for NASA to buy Russian equipment beyond the existing agreement, which ends in 2006. This is because of the 1999 Iran Non Proliferation Act, which was passed to stop Iran from obtaining weapons of mass destruction.

One space and aeronautics staff member explained that the US intelligence services had discovered that Russian space company Energia was ‘building Soyuz for NASA by day and building long range rockets for Iran by night’.

So even if the space plane project goes ahead there is at least a four-year gap when, conceivably, there would be no lifeboat and the station would have to be abandoned.An alternative is for ESA and the other international partners to buy the extra Soyuz vehicle needed. But because of the history of CRV problems, including NASA’s cancellation of its own research project, ESA wants an ironclad agreement before it does anything.

Feustel-Buechl says that there would have to be an unequivocal resolution between the agencies and that the non proliferation Act is still seen as a potential obstacle.’This is a very pessimistic scenario [resorting to ESA buying Soyuz] but it’s not mission impossible. We would have to have full compensation for the purchase of extra parts. [But] we will not do what NASA is not allowed to do. There must be a clear and unambiguous political situation.’

But with Iran a member of US president George Bush’s war on terror’s ‘axis of evil’ it is unlikely that the non proliferation law will be repealed. Boehlert would not comment on this and simply reiterated his view that the 120 to 180-day investigation ‘would be difficult’.

Even if the review does not kill off the Orbital Space Plane, or push any shuttle replacement out beyond the operational life of ISS, or reduce the station to an orbiting white elephant, Russian financial crises could still cause havoc.

Russia has to launch four Progress tankers for transporting supplies, and two Soyuz craft for the CRV role, to the ISS each year under its agreement.

However, there is only money to build two Progress vehicles in 2003. In addition, the supplier Energia has debts of £20m and has borrowed £39m to keep its production lines open, with the parts for 10 Soyuz and Progress craft in the assembly plant. The Russian space programme will get only £49m in 2003 to support its ISS obligations, which is half the cash required. Valeri Ryumin, an Energia executive, has even proposed that the ISS be temporarily shut down because of the Russian budget squeeze.

Meanwhile China has announced plans to send a human into orbit this year. However it is reliant on old Russian technology. Russia itself has only been able to put people into orbit, and its own shuttle programme was written off after just one unmanned flight.

While China may continue orbital flights to learn more about the physiology of weightlessness it will ultimately face the same obstacles as NASA. Without a permanent space station or the manned exploration of the planets, there is no long-term justification for the costs of launching people into orbit.

For NASA wide-ranging reviews, no shuttle replacement, legal obstacles, disgruntled international partners, a long and costly global war on terror – the list is long on reasons why the US would not write any more cheques for NASA’s manned programmes.

The US began manned space exploration in 1961 with Alan Shepherd’s sub-orbital flight. That mission was followed by a manned moon-landing objective inaugurated by president Kennedy. Those heady days have been followed by a lack of direction and political fudge.

The result is that manned missions are set to wind down amid bickering and recriminations leading to an ignominious end to to the US endeavours.

Looking back on the history of space flight Douglas Millard, assistant curator of space technology at London’s Science Museum, thinks that the manned programmes were ultimately a political exercise brought about by the cold war.

‘What happened in the 1960s is unlikely to be repeated. It was an abnormal atypical situation, which happened to result in a particularly impressive feat [with the moon landing] but once the impetus behind that died down, then there was a question of what would maintain it.

‘You might say it is surprising it’s carried on as much as it has.’


Turbulent journey of space lifeboat

The crew return vehicle is the most critical element of the space station because it limits the number of people who can be onboard the ISS at any one time. This in turn restricts the amount of scientific research that can be carried out.

The design of the station has always included a CRV to act as a lifeboat in an emergency. The programme to develop such a craft saw many redesigns but was cancelled in 2001. The US and ESA started developing their own escape vehicles. The original ESA concept was as much a crew transportation vehicle as an escape capsule. The project got the go-ahead from ESA member states in 1995. Similar to an Apollo capsule, it would take astronauts to the station and back. It was a replacement for France’s Hermes space plane that was ditched by ESA in 1993. But the CTV was abandoned in 1996 when ESA decided to join NASA’s X-38 project. This co-operation lasted until president Bush decided not to fund the X-38 craft in 2001. The NASA crew return vehicle was based on a 1970s US Airforce X-plane, the X-24, which was used to test aerodynamics for the shuttle.

The X-38 was designed to carry seven people and fly for some distance through the atmosphere. It released a ‘drogue’ parachute to slow it down before deploying a parafoil with twice the surface area of a Boeing 747’s wings. It was designed to be delivered to the ISS by Shuttle or Ariane 5 rocket. An orbital test of the X-38 was set for 2005, with deployment in 2007. But a predicted overspend of $4bn (£2.5bn) in 2001 led to the project being cancelled. Axing station components such as the CRV reduced the overspend to around $500m (£311m). At the time NASA also announced its Space Launch Initiative. This was a $4.8bn (£2.9bn) six-year project to produce a reusable space plane demonstrator. It would have created the technologies for a fully reusable replacement vehicle for the shuttle after 2010 (the present shuttle uses an expendable main fuel tank).

But the end of 2002 saw a revision of the NASA budget and SLI programme. The new shuttle is now just a crew-only shuttle that will be launched on top of an expendable rocket by 2010. NASA is proposing that this becomes the CRV.

Sidebar: Space Station Alpha

International Space Station Alpha was the brainchild of US president Reagan. He announced his intention to build a station called Freedom in 1984. It was due to be completed by 1994 but was constantly undermined by budget cuts.

The project was re-launched and renamed by president Clinton. The 122m long Alpha would fly 250 miles above the Earth, have a mass of 417 tonnes.

Once completed it would be powered by two solar arrays with a combined area of 2,508m2.. More than 14,200m of cable would connect the power system, which would be controlled with other systems by 52 computers.

The orbit of the ISS would pass over 95 per cent of the world’s population and 85 per cent of the planet would be visible from its portholes. The international partners in the ISS inculde Canada, Brazil, Japan, Russia and all the ESA member states. The installation of the ISS in space would require 43 space flights over a five-year period, involving the space shuttle, ESA’s Ariane five launcher and Russia’s Soyuz and Proton rockets.

ESA estimates that, with a 15-year lifespan, construction and operating costs would be £62bn. The US General Accounting Office has another figure of £72bn over 20 years, while NASA gives a cost of £17bn just for its design and terrestrial build.


1951 Former Nazi V2 rocket scientist Wernher von Braun claims a 250ft dia wheel-shaped space station that spins to create centrifugal ‘gravity’ could be in orbit by 1967.

1959 NASA looks at various space station designs that can use centrifugal gravity.

1961 cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and astronaut Alan Shepherd are first men in space.

1961 President JF Kennedy declares goal of manned landing on the Moon.

1962 NASA awards contract to study spinning wheel design for space station.

1963 NASA’s Manned Orbiting Research Laboratory study rejects spinning wheel design opting for weightless environment for human physiology studies.

1965 NASA considers turning a Saturn rocket fuel tank into an orbiting workshop.

1966 A NASA study concludes that a multi-disciplinary science station would have conflicting design needs. It proposes two stations with crews of nine each and a life time of five years.

1967 A NASA-funded Boeing study concludes that a Mars mission spacecraft could initially function as space station.

1967 Presidential commission report concludes that the first module of a ‘true space station’ should be launched by the mid-1970s.

1968 Apollo 8 orbits the Moon.

1968 Acting administrator Thomas Paine argues for a space station and NASA plans 12-man station to be completed by 1985.

1968 NASA considers a reusable space shuttle to replace expendable rockets to cut costs of supplying a space station.

1969 Apollo 11 lands on Moon. Neil Armstrong first man on the Moon.

1969 NASA plans multiple Earth orbit space stations, lunar bases, lunar space stations and manned Mars missions.

1970 NASA adopts Skylab as the name for its station that uses Apollo technology.

1970 The 453-tonne space station plan and manned Mars mission are rejected. Space shuttle gets presidential approval.

1970s Space shuttle is designed to carry space station modules.

1972 Apollo 17 is last of six manned Moon missions.

1972 Last of space station studies funded to tune of $15m (£9).

1973-4 Skylab in orbit with crew of three.

1974 Russian Salyut station in orbit.

1981 Shuttle Columbia first orbital mission.

1984 President Ronald Reagan announces decision to build $8bn (£5bn) space station Freedom.

1985 Original target date for space station completion.

1986 Original target date for US manned mission to Mars.

1986 Russians board Mir space station.

1986 Shuttle Challenger explodes 73 seconds into flight killing all seven crew.

1988 Shuttle launches resume with Discovery.

1988 First and only unpiloted flight of Russian shuttle Buran.

1988 Canada, ESA and Japan join space station project.

1989 President George Bush senior announces Space Exploration Initiative that includes return to the Moon.

1989 NASA estimates Freedom will cost $38bn (£23.7bn).

1991 Congress demands another redesign of Freedom. NASA announces new $30bn (£18.8bn) design.

1992 White House orders another redesign.

1993 Following the collapse of the Soviet Union president Bill Clinton brings Russians onboard and renames the station International Space Station Alpha.

1993 Another redesign of space station ordered.

1994 Original target date for assembly of Reagan’s Freedom station.

1998 NASA to date has spent $15.8bn (£10bn) on space station.

1998 First station module in orbit.

1999 ESA drops own crew return vehicle research to work with NASA on its CRV.

2000 First three-man crew on ISS.

2001 Russian Mir space station allowed to fall into Pacific ocean.

2001 President George Bush junior cancels NASA CRV project.

2001 Destiny laboratory module arrives at the ISS.

2002-3 Solar arrays are installed.

2004-2007 Build continues until last international module will arrive at the ISS.

2006 Agreement with Russians for Soyuz vehicles ends.

2010 Orbital Space Plane scheduled to arrive to operate as crew return vehicle.

2015 ISS reaches end of its certified life span.

2015 NASA to decide whether or not to continue operating space shuttle fleet.