Beyond Tomorrowland

Realistic, useful alternatives to NASA's grandiose space station


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.

None of this means that the space station is in imminent peril of crashing to earth. After all, NASA has had its heart set on such a project for more than 20 years. Originally, the space station and shuttle were pitched as interrelated parts of a single system, but Congress killed that scheme, allowing only the shuttle to go forward. Then in 1981, with Ronald Reagan's election, James Beggs took office as the new NASA administrator. A former senior executive at General Dynamics, he was lobbying for a space-station program even before he came to Washington. Beggs was quite frank about its purpose: to give NASA's centers new work after they got the shuttle flying. Former White House aide Douglas Pewitt, who observed Reagan's 1984 approval of the space station at close quarters, stated at the time that NASA was "looking for something to do instead of having something to do," and that "the idea of a space station is driven principally by NASA's requirements to feed their client institutions, aerospace companies and their labs."

Today, with President Bush announcing his hopes of building bases on the moon and sending astronauts to Mars, the picture is complete. NASA, like the kings of France, has learned nothing and forgotten nothing. It is still pursuing the agenda of Disneyland. It is doing so piecemeal, one project at a time, rather than trying to grab everything in one swoop; but its pursuit of this agenda is unmistakeable. Equally unmistakeable is the reason, as an old NASA catchphrase has it, "No bucks without Buck Rogers." Astronauts bring in federal dollars Donald Trump never dreamed of.

Nevertheless, one may indulge in a space fantasy. What if we had a space program that truly were to serve public interest, rather than NASA's own interest? What if it were to pursue something other than the technological counterpart of agricultural programs, in which designers are paid not to do good engineering much as farmers are paid not to grow crops? What alternatives might be pursued in lieu of NASA's present follies?

In advancing such a vision, the beginning of wisdom would lie in contrasting the hope of manned flight with its reality. The hope has consumed oceans of rocket fuel and ink in the name of the astronaut as hero. Yet a simple fact remains: In 30 years of effort, the science and technology stemming from manned flight has been miniscule.

A proper approach to astronautics would begin by considering, in a humble spirit and without recourse to the ideas of science fiction, just what astronauts might be able to do usefully in space. The experience of three decades suggests two activities:

  • They can tend spacecraft, which ordinarily operate unmanned but benefit from occasional visits. An example is the planned 1993 flight to the Hubble telescope, in which an astronaut is to install a new lens to correct its faulty vision.
  • Some specialized problems in science, including issues in molecular biology and materials science, can benefit from orbital research. The goal, though, is not to find what the rocket scientist Krafft Ehricke called "a beautiful cure for cancer." Rather, it's to prepare small samples of particular substances, such as protein crystals, which then can be studied on earth.

An appropriate program of manned flight, then, would not aim at building the biggest possible array of pork-barrel projects. Instead it would serve the needs of scientists and other technical people tending spacecraft and conducting orbital research. These needs would include the opportunity to build an experiment, fly it, modify it, and fly it again—all within the space of a year or so.

After all, this sequence of undramatic steps is the way science is done. It's how graduate students get their Ph.D.s and how working professionals develop their understanding. But it contrasts sharply with the current practice, which is focused on major space projects that can be hailed as breakthroughs. These look impressive on the nightly news, but they are nightmares to the scientists involved. They often demand a decade or more out of a scientist's career, as delays multiply and costs escalate. To participate in such an effort is to cast your fate to the wind, because the opportunities to fly an experiment are so rare and uncertain.

Consider the experience of James Westphal, a planetary science professor at Caltech. NASA hired Westphal to develop the wide-field planetary camera, designed to take sharp pictures of planets, galaxies, and galactic clusters, for the Hubble telescope. As part of the arrangement, Westphal was guaranteed time on the telescope for his own research. After waiting some 20 years to get a crack at Hubble, he now has to wait several more years for the telescope to be fixed, so the camera can produce the clear pictures he wants.

From the perspective of scientists such as Westphal, there are several activities that the space community might pursue in lieu of the space station. The first would be to fly more Spacelab missions. Spacelab is a made-in-Europe program that has built small laboratories and equipment that fit within a shuttle payload bay. These depend on the shuttle for electrical power and other services but nevertheless are quite versatile. Working scientists have used them, wearing shirtsleeves rather than pressure suits, to carry out various kinds of research. These have included studies of weightlessness with several species, astronomical observations from telescopes, and the growing of specialized crystals in orbit.

NASA has neglected Spacelab, with only five flights to date. This may be changing, however; 13 more are scheduled during the next four years. A renewed commitment to Spacelab would show that NASA is serious about pursuing research in space, using means that are already at hand. And it would test NASA's ability to keep to a planned schedule of shuttle launches, even though that schedule would be far less demanding than the one proposed for support of the space station.  

A second alternative course would be to develop an autonomous version of Spacelab, able to operate on its own in orbit with occasional visits by astronauts. Just such an effort, called the Columbus Free Flying Laboratory, is a centerpiece of Europe's space program. Columbus is to feature an enclosed compartment the size of two Spacelab chambers, along with solar panels for power and small rocket engines to keep it from tumbling. It is to carry two tons of lab equipment initially, with this payload growing to five tons eventually. Columbus then will be able to carry out long-term studies in several areas: the slow growth of crystals in weightlessness, the behavior of fluids, the physiology of animals that spend their entire lives in space.

Columbus, however, is a project of European governments, and like most government programs it will take a long time to get started. Its first flight is not expected until 1998. The United States could beat Columbus into orbit with the Industrial Space Facility, designed by the Houston firm Space Industries International. The ISF is a shuttle-tended spacecraft that resembles Columbus but offers more internal room and greater electrical power. The current shuttle schedule calls for launching two of them in 1994.

The combination of Spacelab and the ISF would offer the prospect of an ongoing program that could explore in detail just what can be accomplished through man-tended research. Spacelab flights would carry out initial tests with new equipment, as scientists hover close by. Then, if longer experiments appear to be warranted, the ISF (and, later, Columbus) could carry the equipment, with astronauts installing the apparatus and making sure that it works properly. It would then be left alone for six months or even longer, until a subsequent visit reaped its fruits.

Such operations, proceeding on a regular schedule, could build a community of researchers who see spaceflight as an ongoing theme within their working lives. The growth of such a community would build a base of experience, making it possible to assess with increasing realism the desirability of building new and expanded space laboratories.

The ISF could serve as a basis for such orbiting labs, for it offers the ability to link several components to create an expanded facility. The ISF's basic design comes in two parts, the facility module and the auxiliary module. The first of these stays in orbit and carries out the work. The second can be detached for a round trip to earth, to exchange raw materials for harvested products. Also, two facility modules could be linked together, with as many as four auxiliary modules attached.

This would offer a gradual approach to a true space station, in which expansion would be driven by emerging demand for its services rather than by NASA's need to pursue a full-employment program. Some of these modules could be equipped with accommodations for astronauts, allowing them to stay in orbit for weeks or months. A transition from a man-tended facility to one that is crewed for long periods could be accomplished without a sharp break. It would merely be a matter of installing the needed crew support within the facility's standardized components.

In 1985 Oliver Harwood, then an engineer with Rockwell International, proposed just such a design. (After his article appeared in The Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, Rockwell, a leading NASA contractor, reprimanded him; he retired a short time later.) Harwood's modules would each fill a shuttle payload bay and could be linked at their ends to form a three-dimensional array. They would be joined at 60-degree angles, forming a triangle, then a tetrahedron, and so on to more complex shapes. An initial version, Harwood asserts, could be made operational with as few as four shuttle launches.

These four initiatives—Spacelab, Columbus, the Industrial Space Facility, and the Harwood space station—break sharply with NASA's plans by offering a step-by-step approach rather than attempting a leap to the top. And while they fall far short of NASA's $37-billion ambitions, in important respects they already hold out the prospect of projects more advanced than we could justify pursuing today.

For example, despite much talk of manufacturing products in space, the only such product made so far is a modest quantity of microscopic spheres used for calibrating electron microscopes, with a value less than a single scientist's annual salary. The only significant industrial effort in space manufacturing was a project studied at Johnson & Johnson in the early 1980s, and it was abandoned even before the loss of the Challenger. The would-be builders of the ISF have had considerable difficulty in finding experiments to fly on their spacecraft. The gap between current demand and the capabilities that would be offered by even a small Harwood station shows how far a less grandiose approach than NASA's could carry us into the future.

In addition, such an approach would offer private industry an opportunity to explore and develop the promise of research in space. This would be entirely in keeping with its recent success in pursuing another major opportunity: that of building commercial launch vehicles. Such rockets include the Atlas built by General Dynamics, McDonnell Douglas's Delta, and Martin Marietta's Titan III.

These were developed during the 1960s as government projects and were mainstays of our space efforts in pre-shuttle days. With the coming of the shuttle, however, NASA and the Air Force stopped placing orders for these rockets. In addition, NASA pursued pricing policies that granted subsidies to shuttle users, undercutting the alternatives. By 1985 their builders were getting ready to abandon them altogether and break up their supporting technical teams, which would have meant losing these launchers beyond recall.

Then came Challenger. In the wake of the accident, President Reagan announced a new space policy, under which the shuttle would no longer carry communications satellites or other commercial payloads. This furnished Atlas, Delta, and Titan III with the market opportunities their builders had needed. Today all three are flourishing. What's more, General Dynamics has shown its confidence in the future by announcing plans to build 62 Atlases in a single production run, even though it doesn't yet have the customers who will use them.

This enterprising spirit among the aerospace companies is especially striking in comparison with the stick-in-the-mud stodginess of NASA. The agency now faces a problem that the science-fiction writers never dealt with: loss of credibility, brought about by a consistent record of overpromising and underperfoming. We see this in widespread press attention to fuel leaks and cracked hinges in the shuttle, with the implication that these are no more than the tip of the iceberg. We see it when Congress rejects out of hand the president's space plans. And it's also apparent when criticism of NASA's plans focuses not only on the value of the projects but on NASA's integrity in proposing them and its competence in carrying them out.

The agency has reached its present state by pursuing what might be called the Mae West approach to space flight, summed up by the saying, "I gotta have a man." That is why it continues to pursue such glamorous goals as the largest possible space station, along with manned missions to the moon and Mars. But there is another way to pursue a space program: to focus on providing real services to users. Such services can benefit from the presence of astronauts, who can carry out research and tend spacecraft. And these initiatives, pursued as alternatives to the space station, can offer the means whereby we on earth will truly reap the benefits of manned spaceflight.

Contributing Editor T.A. Heppenheimer is an associate fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.