Spacelift Washington: We’re Still Here: Good-bye to 2001

By frank_sietzen
December 28, 2001
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Spacelift Washington

Spacelift Washington Archive

WASHINGTON Ð Dec. 28 Ð In Arthur C. Clarke’s novel “2001: A Space Odyssey” this was to be a year of wonders in space. Instead, as the real 2001 comes to a close, the wonder is that we are all still here. After September 11th, we are constantly told, nothing will ever be the same again. In space issues, that is also true-but not because of the threat of terrorists. But because change can only be held at bay for so long. And in the New Year ahead, change will be coming with a vengeance.

The real 2001 will be forever remembered, as far as space issues are concerned, as the year when space tourism became a fact from fictional tales. That the tourist rode a 40-year old space capsule atop a modified ballistic missile, and that the U.S. government fought his flight at every step says as much about this new era of millionaire tourists as it does about the state of U.S. space policy as it existed in the spring of 2001.

Tito forged change, though, in the sense that his flight moved all of the parties into a more cooperative, deliberative framework for space tourism to the ISS. Mark Shuttleworth will be the first test of that new framework when he flies next year. But in a larger sense it will take more substantive policy changes to help foster that struggling industry, such as more funding for RLV work inside and outside SLI, and possible legislative fixes for entrepreneurial activity such as tax-free bonds.

But those are issues for 2002.

For this year, while the expedition and shuttle astronauts continued to work away as constructing the orbiting outpost, its management and budget became the focus of major attempts at change within the space agency itself. A. Thomas Young’s panel set out a framework for solving some of the station’s problems. And the end of the Goldin era at NASA set out the rest of the change that is needed.

Not because the station’s troubles are all Goldin’s fault. To be sure, his leadership of the civil space agency brought forward progress as well as problems. But Goldin’s nine years at the helm of NASA had in the last months left an atmosphere of fear and distrust within much of the agency. Removing George Abbey in the spring of 2001 was not the solution to the station’s problems, nor was any other part of the traditional blame game. After serving longer than anyone else as NASA’s leader, longer than presidents get to serve, much of the issues surrounding NASA centered around Goldin himself. To many, he had become NASA.

So when the Bush administration finally selected Sean O’Keefe as Goldin’s replacement, the change O’Keefe represented seemed if not just uncertain, overdue.

Of course, no one can tell from this place in the calendar if O’Keefe will be an effective leader for space, or will have the access to the Bush administration that it seems he will have. But his coming marks at least an opportunity for constructive change that comes rarely but when it does, it brings hope that things will get better.

His plate will be a full one: will SLI get the funding it needs? Can the space station budget be structured to allow for a full six-person crew someday? Will the long-delayed and largely rewritten commercial space plan get installed and even started in an election year? Will the change he brings to NASA forge a consensus on space policy and cooperation among other agencies with space interests?

And, lastly, will space ever be fun again?

Beyond O’Keefe’s reach remains the prospect that commercial space will face more contraction as the market for satellite services cools, and as space launch service providers remain flush with excess vehicles. The New Year will bring one good development for the U.S. commercial interests, though. The age of the EELV will begin next year, testing the intent of Gen. Moorman’s study nearly a decade ago to see if the throw-away rocket still has the potential to reduce launch costs and better compete with providers abroad. Even if the Delta IV and Atlas V stables reduce costs 25 to 50 percent from today’s levels, another round of ELV technology may be in the cards, an EELV II that could sport a reusable element such as a booster.

And, lastly, beyond all of these issues remain the question of the viability of the industry itself. The U.S. Aerospace Commission should deliver its report next fall. That could serve as a roadmap out of today’s troubles to a time when government policy and industry investments come together to revitalize U.S. space interests.

Or it can prove to be yet another Washington report.

It was, after all, former Air Force Secretary Shelia Widnall that once said it best.
“The Earth is covered by two thirds water,” she said, “and one third launch studies…”

Ahead for 2002 is the prospect that change will sweep over the agency and the industry in productive ways, clearing the field for new players, new achievements, and new hope. Hope that with all we have at our disposal, space will remain and become even more relevant to the future of freedom.

From this vantage point a year ago, no one could have predicted the fate that awaited America in that fabled year of 2001. But what we have as the year closes is not only each other, but hope within uncertainty and the survival of our questing, nurturing, exploring spirit.

That spirit can never be killed by any terrorist’s weapon. Only our own cynicism can do that.
Such is the prospect of our time, marking an untidy process of renewal and change nearly as old as the idea of spaceflight itself.

Happy New 2002

The information contained herein are the authors own and are not affiliated with any other society, organization, or institution. Publication does not constitute endorsement of either editorial content or sponsoring web site. Have information about space transportation? Email the editor at sietzen@erols.com