Tracking the progress of NASA’s Crew Exploration Vehicle and the Vision for Space Exploration
by James Burk
The new Vision for Space Exploration, announced by President Bush on January 14th, 2004, represents a sea-change for the United States space program led by NASA. But that announcement arrived during the context of many other recent and significant advancements in the space arena. Together many experts feel this signals the beginning of a new “space race” much like the 1960’s race to the Moon between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The Rising Dragon
Last year, the nation of China became only the third nation in history to launch one of its citizens into space with a domestic launch vehicle and spacecraft. While this feat was accomplished over 40 years ago by the United States & Russia, nobody would consider China 40 years behind those nations in space technology. China has grand plans to build space stations, launch missions to the moon, and land on Mars. Their space program is conducted in secrecy, with periodic announcements of plans & capabilities that sometimes conflict with one another (one could even classify some official statements as disinformation.)
Nobody should underestimate China as a competitor in reaching the Moon and going to Mars. Broad international cooperation with China, given the challenging foreign policy aspect, is unlikely.
India, Japan, and Brazil
These three nations have active space agencies and are planning missions that are both short-term and long-term. India is well on the way to building & launching its first moon probe later this decade. Japan has long-term plans to develop lunar resources and build a reusable launch vehicle which may go online by the end of this decade. Brazil possesses an excellent equatorial launch site and has been steadily developing its native launch technology.
All three of these nations will likely make excellent partners for the United States’ journey back to the Moon and on to Mars.
The European Space Agency has for decades been a second-tier organization compared to NASA and the Russian space program. While they have sent astronauts into space for decades, Europe has never possessed a native manned launch vehicle and has conducted relatively few unmanned exploration missions.
However, this is changing rapidly. The Mars Express mission, now in orbit around the Red Planet, will continue to be a visible success for ESA, and their new Aurora program to bolster human exploration of the solar system was formed prior to the U.S. space vision. Europe will continue to be an important partner for the United States, and now it is creating the capability to go beyond America in some areas.
A New Space Industry
This week, a remarkable milestone was achieved which signals the beginning of a new era of private-sector involvement in space activities: the suborbital flight of SpaceShipOne successfully reached the 100km barrier of space, granting the pilot the first-ever set of astronaut wings issued by the FAA. This amazing achievement was even more remarkable given the fact that it was done for around $20 million dollars, the same amount of money that NASA gave to the University of Colorado last week to study Noctilucent clouds over Kustavi, Finland.
While certainly the cloud study has some importance, the difference in overall value between it and SpaceShipOne’s construction (AND everything else it needs to launch & operate) is startling. Hopefully, this represents an example of how efficient the private sector can be compared to the existing NASA bureaucracy when undertaking space projects.
Private sector involvement in space has long been touted as the way for exponential advancements to be made, yet many fledging space companies have failed in the past due to a lack of investment and/or cooperation by NASA and the U.S. government. It is apparent that both of those concerns are being assuaged; SpaceShipOne’s success will surely bring in a new windfall of capital for space companies, and NASA has now been formally directed by the Aldridge Commission to assist the private sector any way it can. Hopefully gone are the days when NASA can stop space investment activities cold with a single press release. (An example of this would be the announcement in 2000 of a new unmanned moon mission which caused investments in companies planning private moonshots like LunaCorp and Transorbital to dry up.)
We seem to be in the midst of a perfect storm for private sector involvement, which may kick off the robust space industry that many have been hoping for all along.
NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe took office on December 21, 2001, and immediately began a fundamental transformation of the agency which has made many improvements. With his “One NASA” philosophy, no longer are teams & organization within NASA working “in a vacuum”. While the Columbia accident was a tragedy which for which NASA management shared some responsibility, it has also galvanized the agency to accelerate its transformation.
Since the end of the Apollo era, NASA lacked a long-term vision for what to do next. President Nixon rejected the plan to continue lunar exploration and send humans to Mars, and NASA stagnated for over 30 years. With President Bush’s announcement of the new space vision in January, NASA finally has a new direction.
The report of the Moon-Mars commission released last week provides a strategic plan for the agency which will take some time to implement. Already a new Exploration Systems organization has been formed to build the hardware needed for the new space vision, and the other NASA “enterprises” are being streamlined around the new mission for the agency.
Overall, it seems that NASA is finally on the right trajectory for success.
The New Race to the Moon
NASA’s mandate is to return to the Moon with humans by 2020, but more likely around 2015, once the CEV is operational. An unmanned precursor mission is being developed by JPL for launch in 2008. It will coincide with India’s 2008 Chandrayan Pratham (“Moonshot One”) mission and a Chinese mission (which could even take the form of a manned circumlunar flight) rumored to be launched by 2008. Japan also hopes to launch its SELENE lunar mission in 2005. This flotilla of probes will surely achieve some success, and will galvanize the next step of lunar exploration.
The Moon is an important target for space exploration, and steady progress will culminate in the first human landings since Apollo. Again, I would underestimate China’s potential to leapflog America in this effort, as their timetable of development in both spacecraft and heavy-lift launch vehicles seems to indicate. It is important for national prestige and technological innovation that America maintain its lead in space by reaching the Moon first.
Once simple lunar landings are achieved, they will likely be followed by an effort to build a lunar base. It will be used as a base for surface exploration, to test Mars hardware, and will become the first permanent settlement on another world. This step must be achieved, or the lunar program will not exceed Apollo in capability or significance.
Asteroids, Mars, and Beyond
After reaching the Moon, further human exploration will be conducted. Of course, the next big target is Mars, but asteroidal “stepping-stone” missions may also be undertaken.
Reaching a near-earth asteroid will be an exciting and relatively easy accomplishment. Building a permanent station on an asteroid could also support further exploration. This is an area where private sector involvement could be significant. One average nickel-metal asteroid has, conservatively, $1 trillion in precious metals waiting to be mined and returned to Earth for sale. Once the costs of reaching these resources is cheap enough, this activity will surely galvanize the space industry further.
Conclusion: Space is Wide Open
As I wrote in a previous article, 2004 is turning out to be a banner year for the exploration of space, and the future is wide open. While many people think of the 1960’s as the “golden age of space”, I hope that we are just at the beginning of a new age which will dwarf the achievements of the 60’s.
We have collected artwork from NASA and its contractors which shows, sometimes in vivid detail, the concepts in development for the Crew Exploration Vehicle and visions of the Moon and Mars exploration that will be conducted by the CEV. Click on one of the left-side links to view the artwork.
You can comment and upload artwork by creating an account; all that is required is a valid email address. To get an account, use this Contact Me link.
You can also use the Contact link to send your comments, questions, or report problems.
For more NASA Lune concept artwork, visit the Vision For Space Exploration Gallery on NASA’s website.