Sunday, September 27, 2009

The future of manned spaceflight?

A year ago this week, the Peoples Republic of China flew three taikonauts aboard Shenzhou 7. The mission was the third of the Chinese manned spaceflight program, their first flight with three passengers, and the first EVA conducted from a Chinese spacecraft.

The anniversary of this flight comes on the heels of some very sobering news for the US manned spaceflight program. The Augustine Commission reported that the US program is significantly underfunded and will be unable to achieve the goal of a manned lunar landing. The Space Shuttle will be retired in late 2010 or early 2011, and there is still debate as to whether the US should continue to develop the Orion launch vehicle or adapt the existing Delta IV booster to get crews into low Earth orbit. In my opinion, each month of debate further reduces the US's likelihood of getting anyone to the Moon in the next 15 years.

In fact, it has been noted that other than astronauts hitching rides aboard the Soyuz, the only near-term option available to the US for supporting the Space Station after retiring the Shuttle will be commercial vehicles like SpaceX's Falcon 9.

I am frustrated at the lack of direction, commitment, and willpower shown at present. A recent survey asked a random sample of Americans what percentage of the Federal budget went to the space program. The average guess was 24% - when it fact it's closer to 0.5%, and never exceeded 5% even during the Apollo program. As someone pointed out during Apollo, not one dollar of the NASA budget was spent on the Moon - it was all spent here on Earth, in employing over 400,000 engineers, scientists, plumbers, electricians, seamstresses, and other trades who were all vital to the success of the program. We have an opportunity to put a lot of people to work on something positive and inspiring, but we appear to lack the vision and leadership to make it happen.

I hope that the Shenzhou rocket (depicted in the souvenir pen shown in the illustration) won't be the first picture that comes to mind for our kids when they think about manned spaceflight.