U.S. Human Spaceflight Beyond 2014

It’s time for the United States to strengthen its space program and regain control of exploration beyond Earth.

The Delta IV heavy rocket will carry NASA's Orion spacecraft during a test flight scheduled for early December 2014. (AP/NASA)
The Delta IV heavy rocket will carry NASA's Orion spacecraft during a test flight scheduled for early December 2014. (AP/NASA)

July 2014 marked the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11, humanity’s first voyage to another world. As time passes, this achievement has become more and more remarkable given that the astronauts, scientists, and engineers who carried out these missions lacked the sort of advanced computer systems we take for granted today. Fundamentally, the Apollo program represented a confidence in humanity’s ability to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to explore new frontiers; it also highlighted America’s central role in these achievements. The Apollo program produced a vigorous exploration plan and spurred unprecedented research, development, and science education efforts. However, in the decades since the last Moon landing in 1972, our horizons have shrunk and withered. Human spaceflight remains a core American success, but it has lost direction and, since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, basic capability.

Today, the United States relies on Russia to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, or ISS. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, pays Moscow $70.7 million per astronaut for seats on the Soyuz spacecraft at a time when relations between the United States and Russia are progressively deteriorating. Moreover, a key U.S. heavy-lift rocket—which launches everything from spy and GPS satellites to planetary explorers such as the New Horizons mission to Pluto—depends on Russian-manufactured engines to deliver satellites and other payloads to orbit. Loose talk from Russian politicians about a ban on new engine exports has yet to be realized, but Gen. William L. Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, told Congress in July that a loss or interruption in Russian engine production “would have significant impact on our ability to reliably launch” the current schedule of national security payloads.

In short, the United States no longer leads humanity in exploring what President John F. Kennedy called “this new ocean,” nor does it control its own fate in space. Restoring assured American access to space, both for human spaceflight and for satellite launches, must be a national priority.

Manned spaceflight

NASA and Lockheed Martin are currently developing the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, which is intended to serve as the primary means of transport for a journey to Mars in the mid-2030s. Orion is slated to have its first uncrewed test later this year, and its first crewed flight atop the heavy-lift Space Launch System is scheduled for 2021. Moreover, private company SpaceX is developing its Falcon series of rockets to launch payloads into orbit.

In the meantime, NASA hopes to buy flights to the ISS through its Commercial Crew Program. NASA plans to certify Boeing’s CST-100 and SpaceX’s Dragon capsules for flights to the ISS by 2017 at a combined cost of $6.8 billion.

NASA is also taking the lead on conducting the basic systems research needed to move beyond Earth orbit and toward a crewed mission to Mars. Its Advanced Exploration Systems program works on solutions to critical problems such as radiation exposure in deep space, reliable life support systems, and advanced propulsion—all difficulties humans will face on their way to Mars or other destinations beyond the Moon. These are pilot projects designed to pioneer new concepts and technologies, not produce them for use in space.

But even if the United States assures its orbit access with Orion and the Commercial Crew Program, it will still need an organizing objective to provide its efforts purpose and direction—what President Kennedy called a goal that “serve[s] to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” Unfortunately, over the past decade, the U.S. space program has been buffeted by competing objectives. After the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, President George W. Bush announced the goal of returning Americans to the Moon by 2020. By the time President Barack Obama took office, however, this program had gone over budget and had begun to eat away at other NASA programs. After a panel of independent expert review, the return to the Moon was cancelled, and President Obama announced plans for missions beyond Earth orbit up to the 2030s.

These shifting objectives and an unwillingness to commit the funding necessary to meet them have left questions about the focus of America’s space program. Nonetheless, it appears clear that despite these limitations, there is a desire to move America’s human spaceflight program beyond Earth orbit—to the Moon, to Mars, or to an asteroid. However, without international cooperation, these goals likely will remain out of budgetary reach.

Lessons from the International Space Station

The ISS can serve as a model going forward. NASA began working on the space station in 1982 and brought European partners, Canada, and Japan into the program in its conceptual stage. Three years later, these partners formally committed to the U.S. space station, christened Freedom by then-President Ronald Reagan. After the end of the Cold War, the United States and its international partners brought Russia into the program, and the International Space Station was born. By 1998, these countries had signed an agreement that outlined their roles and responsibilities in the ISS project. The first module of the station—the Russian-built Zarya—launched later that year.

Since the first astronauts took up residence on the ISS in 2000, 214 people have traveled to the station, and it has made more than 57,000 orbits around the Earth. Throughout the stationain/ont, the United States has played a critical role in organizing the unprecedented international partnership that designed, built, and operates it. America can play a similar role with both existing and potential international partners in order to send humans beyond low Earth orbit, which is only 220 miles above the Earth’s surface.

U.S. human spaceflight priorities

The U.S. human spaceflight program should focus on three priorities going forward.

First, America needs to control its own access to Earth orbit. This means keeping both the Orion spacecraft and the Commercial Crew Program projects on schedule. American astronauts should not have to rely on Russian spacecraft to go to and from the ISS or any other destination in orbit. NASA has taken the first steps by awarding contracts to Boeing and SpaceX for this purpose, and Orion’s first uncrewed test later this year will mark another milestone.

Second, the United States cannot continue to rely on Russian rocket engines to deliver payloads—including sensitive national security satellites—into orbit. While the use of Russian rocket engines once served a worthy, useful purpose as a symbol of post-Cold War technological cooperation, changing geopolitical circumstances make it critical for the United States to have its own rocket systems. The U.S. military is already exploring its options, and, as noted above, SpaceX is developing the Falcon series of rockets.

Third, as the United States moves toward destinations beyond Earth orbit, it will require steady cooperation with international partners and the private sector. Already, NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems division is pioneering the technologies and methods needed for deep space exploration, and the Commercial Crew Program is helping develop America’s private space capabilities. The United States and India have signed an agreement establishing a joint Mars working group to plot out future exploration of the Red Planet. Now is the right time to further open the door of cooperation with Europe and Japan—and even China, if Beijing proves interested. The relationships forged during the creation of the ISS could provide an example for these efforts.

To be sure, technological and physiological challenges remain, such as developing new propulsion systems and shielding astronauts from radiation. Terrestrial political obstacles, including disputes between Russia and the United States, may also prove daunting. However, it is time for the United States to once again lead humanity “on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”

Peter Juul is a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress. Rudy deLeon is a Senior Fellow at the Center.

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Peter Juul

Former Senior Policy Analyst

Rudy deLeon

Senior Fellow