For the last two years, one of the most common questions I’ve gotten from people that know I worked at NASA as a postdoc has been something along these lines:
How does it feel to work at NASA when it’s being killed?
I would calmly explain to them that NASA wasn’t dying, and that the only thing coming to a close was the shuttle program. I would then explain that this didn’t really touch the science side of NASA at all, and it didn’t even mean the end of human spaceflight. Instead, it just meant that human spaceflight at NASA was just going through a transitional period. Well, yesterday was a major moment in that transition. I’m sure those interested enough in space to read this blog have heard the news about SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, and its successful docking with the International Space Station.
This was a big day for NASA, and for the future of human spaceflight. It was also a very good day for the future of space sciences, and I think we should all be pulling for the private spaceflight companies like SpaceX to succeed, even if all we care about is the “science side” of NASA. Why? Simply put, bigger rockets are a good thing, and their success will enable those rockets, one way or another.
You see, STEP ONE in the current plan for the future of human spaceflight at NASA (somewhat outlined in the Augustine commission report) is for private companies like SpaceX to take over routine spaceflight operations in lower Earth orbit. (Quick aside: I’m marveled at the juxtaposition of the words “routine” and “spaceflight.”) That will then free up resources at NASA to build the rockets, spacecraft, and infrastructure necessary to push our horizons out past lower Earth orbit. This will allow us to go back to the Moon, onto asteroids, and eventually to Mars.
It is the development of those things – in particular those big rockets – that could enable greater capabilities for research at NASA. The new rocket NASA is developing for human spaceflight beyond lower Earth orbit is called the Space Launch System (SLS). Take a quick look at its specs, compared to that of the heavy lift vehicles we currently have. Simply put, we can put bigger, heavier things into space if SLS (or something similar) exists.
For example, one could launch a larger rover (or fleet or rovers) to the Martian surface; potentially enabling a Mars Sample Return mission on a single launch. The multi-flagship nature of Mars sample return is one of the things I suspect caused issues with the Office of Management and Budget as well as with “non-Martians” in the planetary sciences community, so doing things in one launch could potentially help it get over political and budgetary hurdles.
A larger rocket could also enable a better science return. One of the other flagship missions astrobiologists want desperately is a telescope that would directly image and characterize Earth-sized planets around other stars. A general rule of astronomy is the bigger the telescope, the better the image. While you can fold up a telescope to get it to fit inside a rocket, there are technical challenges and performance trade-offs that come with doing that. A more ideal solution for your bigger mirror is to put it inside a bigger rocket. But if that bigger rocket doesn’t exist, that solution is not on the table.
The point is this: human spaceflight wants to throw a lot of large, heavy objects at other planets. If they do that, it’ll allow the scientific community to do the same thing. And whether that capability is provided by SLS or by private companies (for example, the as yet on-paper-only Falcon X series of rockets), the development of these bigger rockets is only going to happen if private companies can first take over operations at lower Earth orbit. If they fail in that endeavor, they won’t be able to develop their own larger rockets, and NASA’s plan to do so would likely be re-examined.
So I think we should all cheer for SpaceX, as well as the other companies that will make similar attempts in the future. If they’re successful, it will enable greater missions for the scientific community.