By Shelby G. Spires
Times Aerospace Writer
The American space program has no set goals, faces changing priorities and has axed multi-billion dollar projects every few years.
A few examples: NASA spent $4 billion on an advanced solid rocket motor, but killed the program in 1994. The X-33 space plane concept cost $2 billion and disappeared from the drawing board in 2001. The Aerospike engine cost $1 billion but was also spiked in 2001. The RS-84 engine development project sputtered out in 2004 after $100 million was spent. Plans for the Orbital Space Plane, a shuttle replacement, were permanently docked in 2004 after spending $2 billion.
This drift wastes money and time - resources that may be in short supply for NASA in the future, experts say. Think of it as a multi-billion dollar circle of canceled dreams due to a lack of advanced technology, a retired NASA engineer told The Times last week.
"NASA really has that problem of no follow-up these days," said Don Nelson, who worked for more than 35 years for the space agency at Johnson Space Center in Houston, and closely with Marshall Space Flight Center on space shuttle projects. "The military is not quite as bad. They have their own special technology lab - Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) - that goes in and develops technology and the Pentagon uses it.
"NASA just doesn't have that."
It comes down to almost a rudderless ship "or a runaway rocket," joked Huntsville attorney and space expert Mark McDaniel. "Congress, the president and the American people have to decide if we want to have a space program in the 21st century. I think most polls show the American people have decided they want a space program, but they don't know what it should do. Go back to the moon? Go to an asteroid? Go on to Mars?
"That's where leadership steps in and sets the course. NASA needs a set course and it needs the political support to stick to it, or we might as well just spend the money elsewhere."
Over the past two decades, NASA has continuously tried to either update or replace the more than 30-year-old reusable space shuttle through a series of programs. Yet the shuttle still flies. Even though a retirement date of May 2010 has been set, an independent review panel has seriously considered continuing it to at least 2011 - and maybe 2015.
Meanwhile, NASA continues to work on the Ares rockets, intended to replace the shuttle and loft astronauts to the International Space Station and the moon. More than $3 billion and four years have gone into the Ares program.
Last week, during a speech in Huntsville, new NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told a gathering of defense and aerospace leaders that he did not see a drastic change in the American space program. However, he did underscore that the three top priorities handed down to him by President Barack Obama were environmental research, technology innovation and space exploration, in that order.
Bolden said nothing about the Marshall-managed Ares rocket program.
In many ways schedules and lack of money drive the White House, NASA or Congress to shut down a project, said Sherm Seltzer, who worked on the Saturn rockets and Skylab as an engineer and project manager at Marshall.
"I've been very fortunate in that most of the projects I've worked on have flown and performed well. There are frustrations when it takes years to get off the ground and a program is slashed, but generally NASA salvages something from that," said Seltzer, who now runs a cattle farm in Madison County but still consults on aerospace projects.
Success hinges on a live testing program, Seltzer said, "and not just sitting there believing in a computer model. I see that more and more, where a computer simulation will drive a project. You have to use testing and actually see if something works or not, and then go out and take that information to fix any problems.
"A lot of the projects that have fallen behind failed because technology wasn't fully matured through testing."
Nelson agreed and pointed out the X-33 VentureStar space plane program as a prime example.
"NASA got into the X-33 and found out there were a load of technology development problems related to (lightweight) materials and (rocket) engines, and the management found they didn't have any idea how much this thing was going to cost because the technology simply wasn't there," Nelson said. "They kept going back and asking for money ... eventually Congress just pulled the plug on it."
Fuel tanks for the X-33 failed tests, rupturing, and that was one of the chief reasons the program was canceled in 2001. "Thank God that didn't happen on a manned launch," Nelson said.
Upgrading the shuttle for the human space program is no solution either, Nelson said. For the most part, the shuttle is the same vehicle that first launched in 1981, he said. "It's just too involved to update the shuttle. It was not built to be upgraded. Make one change and it affects so many other systems on the shuttle that it takes money and time to fix all those falling dominoes," he said.
Nelson said NASA should focus on developing technology to lower launch costs and develop the vehicle the shuttle was originally thought to be - "a vehicle that can be used over and over and over again and not thrown away. It has to be simple to use and launch. That's the only way."
An independent review panel, headed by former Lockheed CEO Norman Augustine, has been wrestling with similar suggestions for the past two months. A list of recommendations is slated to be sent to the president by the end of this month.
Whatever course is set for NASA over the next few months, the space experts agree on one item: Be prepared to pay for it and be prepared to wait for it.
"Space flight is a hard business," Seltzer said. "It takes time, commitment to test and retest, and to see that there is no such thing as a failure but an opportunity to learn."