The agency that could once do no wrong (that would be NASA — back in the glory days) has for a long time now been the agency that can barely put its sneakers on without tripping over the laces. The unmanned space program continues to be a bright spot, with smart, nimble, surprisingly affordable spacecraft dispatched all over the solar system. But the manned program? Well, let’s start with what manned program? Since the last shuttle was mothballed in 2011, we’ve had no way even to get our own astronauts up to our own International Space Station (ISS), relying instead on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Without our old space-race rivals, we’d be grounded.
NASA’s solution? Outsource, of course. If the government can’t get its own rockets off the ground, why not let the free market — with its vaunted invisible hand — sort things out? The prison system is doing it, military security is doing it. So how ’bout the space program?
If you’re thinking that there are about 12,000 things that can go wrong with a let-the-other-guys-handle-it plan like this, your suspicions seemed confirmed this week. The ISS is on the fritz, with a failed cooling loop forcing the astronauts to power down operations to just the essentials while NASA scrambles for a software fix. Meantime, astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Michael Hopkins are preparing for a space walk — always the least desirable and most dangerous option — in the event that they have to go outside and get under the hood themselves.
And while all that is happening, a resupply booster idles on the pad at the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, scheduled for an unmanned Dec. 19 run to the ISS, but only if the station is ready to receive it. The rocket, known as Antares, was designed and built by Virginia-based Orbital Sciences, one of the companies competing for NASA’s manned and unmanned business. Orbital has yet to prove it can even do this kind of work and was hoping to win some credibility with this mission, but if the station is busted, the booster stands down, and NASA once again fumbles on its own line of scrimmage. Meanwhile China, which has launched five manned missions since 2003 and this weekend successfully landed a rover on the surface of the moon, is rapidly establishing itself as the world’s leading space power.
But go beyond the headlines and it starts to look like NASA may be slowly finding its groove. First of all, the ISS was always going to be a bear to keep running. Assembled from more than a dozen different modules with as much habitable space as the interior of a 747 and a solar-panel array that could cover a football field, the station has required 132 rocket launches to build and maintain so far, not to mention 174 space walks spanning a collective 46 days. In a system that massive, stuff breaks down.
The vehicles built to shuttle back and forth to the station — whether they’re upright expendables like Antares or a reusable rocket plane like the shuttle — are not nearly as complex as the ISS but far less tolerant of error. When you’re moving fast and burning lots of fuel, stuff that’s breaking down can quickly turn into stuff that’s blowing up. Liftoffs have been plagued by delays and scrubs since the dawn of the space age and always will be. Trying to synchronize two complex systems — the station in the sky and the launch operation on the ground — so that both are ready to work together multiplies the complexity exponentially. So give NASA a pass on the current delay.
What’s more, assuming Antares does get where it’s going, it won’t be the first time Orbital has visited the ISS. In September, the company conducted a successful test flight, docking its Cygnus cargo vehicle with the ISS, a flight that earned it the shot at the pending mission. Its leading competitor, California-based SpaceX, run by master-of-most-everything-he-surveys Elon Musk, has already pulled off three such flights and has a fourth scheduled for February. So successful has SpaceX been that NASA is in negotiations with the company for leasing rights to its fabled pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, site of Apollo, Skylab and shuttle launchings for more than four decades.
That likely deal has at least one competitor fuming: Blue Origin, based in Kent, Wash., and owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, filed a protest, arguing that the bidding was uncompetitive, but the Government Accountability Office slapped him down. As Bezos has taught publishers, bookstore owners and no end of other competitors over the years, business ain’t beanbag, and in this case he’s the one learning that lesson.
Both Orbital and SpaceX are also in the running to launch astronauts to the station, and their ability to build and design pressurized modules (Cygnus, in the case of Orbital, and Dragon, in the case of SpaceX) positions them well — so far — to succeed. Other companies in the game include Houston-based Paragon Space Development, Nevada-based Sierra Nevada, Boeing and Blue Origin.
By no means does any of this truly qualify as private enterprise in the way NASA would like it to seem. SpaceX and Orbital Sciences snagged contracts with the space agency that together exceed $3 billion before they had proved they could do the work at all. The other companies are openly referred to by NASA as “partners” and development money has flowed to them under government contracts too.
Still, it’s safe to say that to the extent the space biz was ever a top-down, government-run operation, those days are gone. NASA is continuing to run the show with its deeper-space unmanned program — to the moon or an asteroid or elsewhere — though there’s no telling if those efforts will ever bear fruit. But for the rest of the space-travel biz, the pioneers these days are less John Glenn and Neil Armstrong than Adam Smith. At the moment at least, things are more bullish than not.