The old TV program “Disneyland,” through which both Davy Crockett and rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun gained widespread attention, once presented an episode called “Man in Space.” In it, Disney’s artists vividly and dramatically depicted Von Braun’s vision of the future. The show featured rockets larger than the Saturn V that would eventually send astronauts to the moon. These behemoths launched winged space shuttles, which built an enormous space station in the shape of a wheel, permanently crewed and orbiting high above the earth. It was never clear what exactly the station itself would be used for, but one purpose was plain: It would serve as the jumping-off point for an expedition to the moon.
All this was very much in keeping with the grand ideas of astronautics. These had developed largely during the 1920s and 30s, in an era when aviation was rapidly advancing and electronics was primitive. The vision of spaceships was a straightforward projection of experience with aircraft, which for decades remained inexpensive even as their speeds and altitudes increased with no limits in sight. The expectation that spacecraft would carry astronauts as pilots was also quite reasonable, since the technology necessary for computer guidance still lay decades in the future.
Cut now to 1991. The United States for several years has been pursuing a vision astonishingly similar to Von Braun’s. Here, too, the goal has been a space station, hundreds of feet in dimensions and permanently crewed. Here, too, the space shuttle has been the intended means of construction. And to top things off, in 1989 President Bush announced a “Space Exploration Initiative” in which that orbiting station is to serve as a base for a return to the moon and for flights to Mars.
But this project is rapidly evolving into something that is all too common in Washington: a program that promises to consume funds without limit, while never reaching completion or delivering useful services to the taxpayer. Between 1984 and 1990, its cost estimate (merely for construction and not for operations) went from $8 billion to $37 billion. That is a sum exceeding the total of the endowments of Harvard, Yale, Berkeley, Princeton, MIT, and Caltech.
But whereas these great research universities have been in operation for generations, there is good reason to doubt that a functioning space station could be built at all under NASA’s current plans. It is past time to consider alternatives to the space station, projects driven by consumer demand rather than grandiose ambitions disconnected from the real needs of science and business. While the goals suggested by a dispassionate analysis may seem uninspiring when compared with NASA’s vision, they have the distinct advantages of feasibility and cost-effectiveness.
After six years of studies and the expenditure of $4 billion, NASA still has no space-station design worthy of the name. The magazine Science quotes a program insider: “The work that’s been done to date is crap. It’s not even good engineering.”
Reliance on the shuttle has constrained design possibilities. Under NASA’s plans, the space station would be built from payloads carried in a succession of shuttle flights and then assembled in orbit. But the shuttle cannot transport components wider than 15 feet. Nor can it lift the station to its ideal orbit of about 400 miles, where erosion caused by monatomic oxygen is minimized and solar-energy potential is maximized. NASA’s latest plans call for 23 shuttle flights just for construction of the station; at the same time, the shuttle would continue to carry payloads for other projects. This compares with a total of 38 flights, for all purposes, since 1981.
Astronauts would have to do a lot of work to assemble the station and maintain it prior to completion. The most extensive instance of such work so far occurred in 1973, when a crew of three astronauts unfurled an umbrella-like sunshade over the Skylab space facility. No one has ever performed so basic an exercise as joining two shuttle payloads to build a functioning spacecraft.
The work would involve thousands of hours of spacewalks. Yet America’s total experience to date in this area amounts to about 200 hours of extravehicular activity, spread over the past quarter century. NASA tried to duck this issue until the New York Times publicized it last year. In March 1990, the Times reported that NASA had estimated it would take 2,200 extravehicular hours a year to maintain the space station.
As shocking as that figure was, NASA later raised it by 75 percent, to 3,800 hours. This would be in addition to the estimated 7,000 extravehicular hours needed to assemble the station. “You can’t do it as currently designed,” an anonymous NASA engineer told the Times. “You have to build a different station.” NASA is looking for ways to reduce the need for spacewalks to a realistic level.
NASA cannot be trusted to recognize and fix such problems on its own. In the course of developing the space shuttle, it adopted a peculiar sort of intellectual dishonesty called “success-oriented management.” A layman would call it blind optimism. It has amounted to a belief that NASA’s designs are bound to succeed, so why worry? This attitude resulted in the loss of the Challenger: Knowledgeable managers were ignored when they tried to warn that it was unsafe to launch in cold weather. More recently, overconfidence led to the nearsightedness of the Hubble telescope. Again, there were managers who knew the telescope’s main mirror had problems, but they could find no one who would listen.
“They have always oversold and overpromised,” says John Pike, an analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, “Their management clearly expected that the shuttle was going to be wildly more capable than it turned out to be. They’ve had an attitude like Winston Churchill’s, back in about 1943, when his generals were telling him why something wasn’t going to work. Churchill said, ‘Gentlemen, just tell me how you are going to do it. The problems will suggest themselves.’ ”
Indeed, NASA’s main response to criticism of the space station has been to trot out clichés about Man the Explorer, while running to Congress for more money. But members of Congress have begun to balk. In its 1991 appropriation, Congress cut $550 million from NASA’s request of $2.45 billion. It also sliced out President Bush’s request for start-up funds for his Space Exploration Initiative. And criticism of the station has come from no less a figure than Thomas Paine, NASA administrator at the time of the lunar landings. In September 1990 he wrote that “the current space station program is no longer endorsed by most scientists and is delaying, not advancing, the President’s goals.”
In answer to such criticism, NASA has begun to budge, but only slightly. Responding to a direct order from Congress, the agency in March released the latest in a continuing series of designs. It shrinks the length of the space station from 508 feet to about 300, cuts out two of eight solar panels, eliminates two crew modules while shrinking two others, and reduces the crew from eight to four. But the station’s intended purposes still place heavy emphasis on long-term studies of astronauts in weightlessness, which only make sense as a prelude to a manned Mars mission.
Hardly had the new design been released when critics began to gather anew. Robert M. Walker, a space scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, questioned whether NASA will ever get its space-station act together. “It’s the most totally mismanaged program I’ve ever been associated with,” he told the New York Times.