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It's decision time for future spaceflight at NASA

NASA should rely on tried-and-true rockets to get U.S. astronauts back into space aboard U.S. spacecraft. Second of five commentaries by NBC News' Jay Barbree.
Image: Atlantis moved into VAB
Technicians accompany space shuttle Atlantis as it is towed into the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida in late June. Atlantis, the last space shuttle to fly in space, is being prepared for its handover to the space center's visitor complex as a museum piece.Jim Grossmann / NASA file

In the beginning, it was said that all NASA Administrator James Webb had to do was take a couple of buckets up to the Hill, and Congress would fill them with money.

It certainly is not that easy today. The country cannot afford waste. A prudent NASA should take advantage of the $6.6 billion worth of spaceport facilities and flight hardware that it bought and paid for — facilities that are now growing grass in the Florida sun. 

NASA should be doing everything possible to launch American astronauts from their own Cape Canaveral pads.

Instead, the agency is doing everything but. It’s been drifting, delaying and courting upstart aerospace companies to build what’s already been built, ignoring the days when America was clearly No. 1.

In the 1960s, the Cape, as it was simply called, was a sprawling gateway to the future.  It was the most vital and intensely exciting place on the planet, a 15,000-acre sandspit that had been reshaped into a port of blinding searchlights surrounding active launch pads.  It was a place where rows of rocket gantries and blockhouses and hangars and office buildings were lined up neatly behind a centuries-old lighthouse.

Only days after Alan Shepard became the first American in space in 1961, President John F. Kennedy decided that if America was to wrest the lead in space from the Russians, we would have to beat them in a race for national prestige to the moon. And if we were to do it, rocket scientist Wernher von Braun said, “We need a larger spaceport.”

Two launch pads for the Saturn 5 moon rockets were built on the northern leg of Cape Canaveral — extending the country’s famed rocket row. The government purchased 88,000 acres of land next door, on Merritt Island, for operational structures and safety zones.

The largest building east of the Mississippi River was built to assemble the huge rockets, and a wide and deep “crawler way” was dredged and filled to form a path from that Vehicle Assembly Building to the pads.  After JFK was felled by an assassin's bullet, NASA named its sprawling new creation the Kennedy Space Center.

Within a period of four years, 24 Americans sailed through the vacuum from Earth to the moon. Some of them flew twice. Twelve out of those 24 rode their landers down to the lunar surface, walked and drove through the dust and rocks of the small world.

Had Russia sustained its early lead in power and technology, the number of humans going to the moon might have increased greatly.  It was a fierce competition, and the Russians went all-out in their desperate attempt to lead the human race to another world.  But after they reached Earth orbit, the Russians went through a series of devastating rocket explosions and costly failures.

Slow slide for spaceport
For the next four decades, America was the unquestioned leader in space.  Taxpayers invested $1 billion in 1960s dollars ($6.6 billion in 2012 dollars) to build their country’s sprawling launch and landing facilities. But when the space shuttles were grounded for good, that spaceport began a slow slide back to seed.

NASA went with a different strategy to keep the International Space Station in business: Turn America’s space program over to a patchwork of private companies. Short-change America’s great rocket and spacecraft facilities. Ask the taxpayers and private businesses to rebuild it all again in California, Texas and Colorado in the name of commercialization.

When President George W. Bush decided to bring the space shuttle program to an end, on the advice of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, he put in place Project Constellation.

Constellation would have given America two sets of rockets with emergency abort systems to save its crews. The smaller one was called Ares 1. It took the most successful rocket in history, the solid rocket booster used by the space shuttles, and married it to a Boeing second stage with a human-rated J-2X engine. Engineers modified a corner of Kennedy Space Center’s giant assembly building for stacking the new creation and outfitted Launch Complex 39B to launch the Ares 1-X.

The early version lifted off in October 2009.  It worked as advertised.  But despite that successful flight, and the fact that Ares 1 offered the shortest and least costly route to keep American astronauts flying from America’s paid-for $6.6 billion master spaceport, it was canceled.

Hits and misses
Those speaking for the Obama administration like to point out that George W. Bush made the decision to cancel the space shuttle program. He did, but he left Constellation in place.  President Obama canceled Constellation, putting thousands of the best engineering and technical minds out of work. Most are still searching for a job today.

If NASA had given Ares 1 the attention and budget it deserved from the very beginning, the replacement rocket for the space shuttles could have been well on its way to flying astronauts to and from the space station, depending on spacecraft readiness.

But instead of following the course offered by Ares 1, NASA paralyzed itself with indecision. The agency ridded itself of experienced workers, hardware and facilities, replacing them with a patchwork of commercial facilities and rockets.

Only one of those commercial companies has gotten off the ground so far: California-based SpaceX, which was started up in 2002 with $100 million from its millionaire founder, Elon Musk. Since its founding, SpaceX has received $773 million from NASA.

On May 22 — 32 months later than originally planned — SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launched an unmanned Dragon capsule from the Cape to the International Space Station. During a virtually flawless mission, the Dragon was brought in for a berthing with the station, delivering a half-ton of supplies.

The capsule closed out its mission by parachuting into the Pacific, 500 miles off Mexico’s Baja California, bringing more than half a ton of space station hardware and experiments back down to Earth. It was the first time NASA had received a large load from the station since the space shuttles stopped flying.

The flight was called a first for a private company, but it certainly wasn’t a first for spaceflight.

Thirty-five years ago, on Jan. 22, 1978, Russia’s unmanned cargo space freighter Progress-1 automatically docked with the Salyut 6 space station, delivering 5,000 pounds of supplies.   Since then, hundreds of unmanned automated dockings have taken place in space, but the feat by the private company SpaceX represented NASA’s future of reinventing the wheel.

Ready to fly
President Barack Obama's plan calls for turning over space deliveries in low Earth orbit to private businesses, so NASA can build the heavy-lift rockets and advanced spacecraft needed to send Americans into deep space.

Most space experts, even most of the plan's critics, would say there's nothing wrong with that. Mr. President, now you just need to select truly ready-to-fly rockets and spacecraft.  One hiccup with Russia’s Soyuz, as John Glenn says, and the International Space Station could be out of business. America would then stand silly before the world, with egg on its face.

What’s done is done, and after drifting across an indecisive sea, we can wait no longer for novices to build a space program from scratch. We already have the best flight hardware out there. We must put these veteran rockets on our launch pads and fly.

Only last week, Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf issued a message of greeting and felicitation to his Chinese counterpart, Wen Jiaboa, on the occasion of the successful launch of the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft. Ashraf said Pakistan desired to enhance its cooperation with China in the field of space technology.

“We are thankful to China for helping us build and launch the Paksat-IR satellite, and hopefully, with your support we would be able to launch a Pakistan remote sensing satellite soon,” he said.

Image: Barbree coverage
NBC News' Jay Barbree covers the last space shuttle launch in July 2011.

Only Russia and China launching astronauts?

India and Pakistan scrambling to get on board?

The United States self-grounded, despite rockets and spacecraft ready to fly for less money than NASA is paying Russia?

What else is needed other than our own flight hardware again?

The word is decision.

Just make it.

'Spaceflight in the 20-teens':

Cape Canaveral correspondent Jay Barbree is in his 55th year with NBC News. Barbree wrote the New York Times best-seller "Moon Shot" with Alan Shepard, and was a finalist to be the first journalist in space. His space team received an Emmy for broadcasting the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969.  Barbree broke the news about the cause of the 1986 Challenger shuttle accident on NBC Nightly News and is a recipient of NASA’s highest medal for public service. An updated version of published by Open Road Integrated Media, is available from , , ,   and .