Five Years Later and Looking Back Again

KSC Director Robert Cabana Addresses the Media on the “21st Century Spaceport”

Addressing the concerns of his audience at the Kennedy Space Center on April 15th  2010,  President Obama sought to assure NASA and contract employees that the changes his administration was about to institute; cancelling Project Constellation, maintaining ISS, greenlighting Commercial Crew, and setting NASA’s sights on an asteroid, would result in a re-energized space agency.

“But we can also see it in other ways: in the reluctance of those who hold office to set clear, achievable objectives; to provide the resources to meet those objectives; and to justify not just these plans but the larger purpose of space exploration in the 21st century.”

For those who lost their jobs as part of the restructuring, the words were no doubt thin comfort. Today, in the area around KSC, particularly Titusville, the signs of a cutback which was already well underway, are obvious. Many of the businesses along US-1 are shuttered, and for sale signs dot the landscape as frequently as palm trees.

At the same time however, profound changes are underway at the Kennedy Space Center, and as KSC Director Bob Cabana mused to a group of reporters gathered to cover the SpaceX CRS-6 launch, in many ways the center is well ahead of schedule in becoming a “21st century spaceport.”

In addition to the traditional work going on in support of the Shuttle legacy in SLS/Orion, SpaceX has famously leased Shuttle launch complex 39A. Set to host the inaugural launch of Falcon Heavy as well as multiple launches of Falcon 9, NASA’s most famous launch pad will soon be making history again. In some ways, Boeing has gone even further, leasing all three Shuttle Orbiter Processing Facilities; OPF 1 & 2 for the X-37B space plane, and OPF 3 for building its CST-100 crew capsule. In coming years Paul Allen’s massive Stratolaunch carrier aircraft will be taking off from the Shuttle Landing Facility, and it seems quite likely that Blue Origin will ultimately find a home at KSC as well. According to officials at the Cape, KSC is in the process of adding at least three new launch pads to its inventory. One would come from the combination of Pads C & D, which were proposed but never developed, while another would be added between 39A and the border of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. A third would be added as an adjunct to 39B, which will be home to the infrequent launches of SLS.

crs6 222Falcon Heavy Assembly Building Under Construction at 39A

Speaking of CCAFS, SpaceX is establishing a landing facility at SLC-13 and Moon Express is testing its automated commercial lunar lander at SLC-36.  The transformation of KSC it seems, is well underway. And that leads to a question which effectively frames the conclusion to a review of President Obama’s address.

At its core, Obama’s speech was about breaking, or at least reconsidering, NASA’s tie to the last 30 years of operating the various components of the Shuttle system.  As events unfolded, and the Space Launch Systen was unveiled, that clearly did not happen. The question raised by the surprising progress at the Kennedy Space Center over the last five years, and by the even more spectacular advances of the CRS program is this:

Should a new president, of either party, decide to take a serious look at the chaos which has enveloped the American space program in recent years, has enough evidence accumulated to suggest that, as many believe, it is time for NASA to get out of the business of designing and operating launch vehicles, and instead focus its skilled but limited resources on the challenges of operating in space, and on planetary surfaces?

Over the summer of 2009, the presidentially appointed Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans Committee, informally known as the Augustine Committee, conducted hearings and ultimately made the recommendations that led to the April 15th speech. The Committee’s report made some very interesting, and ultimately flawed observations regarding the prospects for affordable heavy lift boosters and reusable launch systems. Both are likely to become reality before SLS lifts off for the first time, and it is increasingly difficult to picture a scenario in which both are not facts of life before SLS ever lifts off with a crew onboard.

What conclusions might a similarly constituted committee reach two years from now?


Posted in: NASA, NewSpace, SpaceX

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