Throw dice in space and they won’t fall. That’s weightlessness at work. The future of international human spaceflight shouldn’t be as uncertain as the tumbling faces of floating dice, but this seems to be the case right now. There are too many unresolved questions concerning the future of the International Space Station, NASA’s human spaceflight options and the space programs of the international community at large. Some of these questions have been unresolved for years. If they remain unresolved for too much longer, serious problems will emerge. At best, this could lead to stagnation. At worst, it could produce chaos.
The most immediate concern is the future of the International Space Station. We seem to be fine for the near-term, with the next series of expeditions locked in. Soon, the station’s first year-long expedition will lift off. It’s vital to stage this long mission, and something like this should have been started a lot sooner. The station itself seems to be working fairly well, despite the inevitable technical glitches that appear with any large project. In fairness, that’s exactly why we need to operate the station. We are learning how to live and work in space. It’s better to make mistakes and have problems close to Earth than halfway to Mars.
NASA finally made a decision on its commercial crew program, and two new vehicles are under development. The recent decision by NASA to purchase even more seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft provides a safety net, in case these programs fail to live up to expectations in the short term. So far, so good. But what is the future of the station beyond 2020?
We really need all the partners in ISS to make some firm decisions on this. That deadline isn’t too far away. Concrete planning needs to happen soon. Decisions must be made on expeditions, experiments, crews, maintenance and logistics. We also need to work out who pays for everything, and what will happen if some groups pull out. We need a primary plan of action. We also need ways of dealing with contingencies.
The Future Beyond the ISS
This analyst is not privy to closed-door discussions within NASA or any other space agency. We don’t know if such plans have been quietly drawn and agreed upon by at least some of the partners. But the lack of open disclosure on this very big issue is concerning.
We also don’t really know what will happen in a post-ISS future. The Chinese have announced plans for their own space station, and it seems likely that those plans will come to fruition. China is beginning to gradually promote its station as an international venture. Russia is also discussing plans for a successor to ISS, which conspicuously excludes NASA. But who will dance with whom?
NASA is struggling to promote or even justify its proposed asteroid capture mission. The Orion capsule had a successful test launch but its development pace is slow. Nobody really knows where NASA is heading in the long-term. Nobody knows what sort of hardware they will really have. In any space venture, the nature of the mission and the spacecraft are interconnected. Having uncertainty on both fronts is the epitome of confusion.
Europe seems confused about building its own crew spacecraft or its long-term plans for astronaut launches. Ditto the Japanese. Both agencies could partner with others, but nobody really knows what will happen.
To be fair, it’s hard to lay down concrete long-term plans in this highly turbulent world. Economics, politics, international relations, technical glitches and general uncertainty all make it difficult to build solid foundations. But we can’t change the overall nature of the world. We need to accept this and work around it. That requires a lot of cunning and tenacity. It could also demand changes in the basic paradigms for managing spaceflight.
That’s easier said than done. Spaceflight is complex and expensive. It’s also very unforgiving in terms of performance and safety. But we need to consider if we can manage projects more effectively, and create plans that are more flexible in light of change.
This is a time of great challenge, but it’s also an opportunity to consider how to work around these problems. Necessity is the mother of invention. Right now, we could really use some new ideas.
– The opinion expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily correspond to those of the IAASS and ISSF.