The future of America's space program is at a critical point in time; decisions are being made that will affect our ability to successfully maintain our leadership in human space flight, our national security and our capability to successfully compete with the international community in the commercial use of space.
What does the future hold for U.S. human spaceflight? The United States had been the undisputed leader in space exploration for several decades, until recently.
With the completion of its last flight in July of 2011, the space shuttle has been arbitrarily retired. And today, Russia is the only partner in the International Space Station program that is able to transport astronauts and cosmonauts to and from low Earth orbit (LEO).
The space shuttle amassed an impressive record of achievement during its lifetime, culminating in the very successful assembly of the space station. It was a very versatile spacecraft that allowed the crews to perform extravehicular activities (EVAs), assemble structures in space, repair satellites and perform spacecraft retrieval missions.
In addition, the shuttle was also a superb research platform, especially when equipped with a Spacelab or Spacehab module. It could carry a cargo of 60,000 pounds (27,000 kilograms) to orbit or return a cargo of equal weight to Earth.
In its place the U.S. is developing Orion, referred to as a Multipurpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV). Orion returns the nation to flying capsules that return to Earth via parachutes using technology from the 1960s. It has no capability to carry cargo, support EVAs, do structural assembly in space, accomplish satellite repair or retrieval missions. It returns to Earth by parachute, landing in the water, as Orion is too heavy to be recovered on land.
The MPCV is supposedly being developed for exploration missions beyond Earth orbit but it provides no protection from space radiation for the crew. The first planned human flight is currently scheduled for 2021. That date is dependent upon the availability of a new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket that is yet to be developed.
Currently, only funds for research, development and risk mitigation have been awarded for SLS, which raises the question of whether or not the launch system will ever be developed at all.
NASA is also providing funding to three commercial space endeavors. Some impressive achievements have been made. Most notably SpaceX having succeeded in its first operational cargo delivery mission in October 2012. These commercial enterprises, with one exception, also employ 60s technology capsules returning by parachute to water landings. These programs at best are several years away from Initial Operational Capability (IOC) for manned flights. And they are all currently dependent on being funded by the government.
Thus, we can expect that "The Gap" in U.S. human spaceflight capability that started with the end of the last space shuttle mission in July 2011 will likely last another five years or longer. In the meantime, fortunately, Russia continues to fly and support the flights of American astronauts to space.
When considering the future direction of NASA one point is quite clear. The construction of the ISS is now complete and the United States should maximize the utilization of the station. Research aboard ISS will help answer the questions and provide solutions that will enable future long duration flights out of Earth orbit.
One of the primary reasons for bringing the Russians into the station program was the desire to have dual access to the station. The dual access provided by the space shuttle and the Russian Soyuz is the only reason we have a space station flying today. The shuttle was able to fulfill a need when Russia experienced launch vehicle problems, and the Soyuz, in a similar fashion, fulfilled a need when the space shuttle was unable to fly.
Dual access is critical to ensure the maximum utilization of the space station.
This year China demonstrated manned rendezvous and docking, flying a crew of three (which included China's first female astronaut) to their crew-tended Tiangong-1 orbital vehicle. China plans to launch the larger Tiangong-2 in 2013 and Tiangong-3, a Zvezda-class core module in 2020.
The U.S. is at a decision point. On its present course, the United States will lose at least the perceived leadership role in human space exploration. But there is an alternate path and one that would again provide for dual access to the space station.
The U.S. could lead the way to bring China into the ISS program, and lead the work to adapt the Shenzhou spacecraft to be compatible with the ISS. The U.S. would continue funding the three commercial space endeavors to supplement and support the logistic needs of the station.
This path would allow the U.S. to retain its leadership position in the current human spaceflight program (on the ISS) while it re-evaluates the real needs of an optimized exploration program. A program that would transition the ISS partnership, with all its capabilities, to a beyond-LEO program with the United States remaining as the lead partner.
Thomas Reiter of the European Space Agency has already stated that ESA plans to hold a series of meetings with the China National Space Administration and explore closer cooperation in the areas of astronaut training, spacecraft docking and developing life support systems. ESA would also like China to become a member of the ISS program if U.S. objections can be overcome.
When Canada hosted the ISS Heads of Agencies Meeting on March 1 in Quebec City, Canada, Jean-Jacques Dordain, director-general of the ESA, told reporters, "I am in favor of seeing how we can work together with China. It will take some steps, but it will come, I am sure."
Vladimir Popovkin, head of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, also said the day will come when China and India will work together with the five current partners — the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and the ESA. "We are not a closed club," he said. "Our doors are wide open."
A partnership with China could be developed along the same lines as was done with integrating the Russian space program into the ISS partnership. Using this model, no military-sensitive technology would be transferred. China's economy would allow for it to fully fund its own efforts. Thus there would be little increased expense to the United States for developing this advantageous relationship.
As Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College and author of numerous books on space, including "Heavenly Ambitions: America's Quest to Dominate Space" (University of Pennsylvania Press), told CNN on June 20, prohibiting NASA by law from working with China makes no sense:
"If one believes that China and the United States are not inherently enemies, then working together on space projects — with technology transfer controls — will benefit both countries. If one believes that China is inherently a threat to the United States, then the adage "keep your friends close and your enemies closer" comes to mind. The script for U.S.-China relations — and space relations in particular — is constantly evolving. The United States can influence the direction, but only if we engage and persuade the Chinese to engage with us. It's one way of preventing a scenario of a galactic Wild West in which China has become the world's leader in space."
It is clear the United States' international partners see the benefits of working with the Chinese on the space station; it is time for the United States to provide the leadership to make it a reality.
George W.S. Abbey is the Baker Botts Senior Fellow in Space Policy at the Baker Institute, at Rice University. From 1996 to 2001, he served as the director of NASA Johnson Space Center. His NASA career spanned the US human spaceflight program from Gemini and Apollo, through the space shuttle and International Space Station programs.
Dr. Leroy Chiao is a former NASA astronaut and ISS commander. He served as a member of the 2009 Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, and is the special adviser for human spaceflight to the Space Foundation. He holds appointments at Baylor College of Medicine and Rice University.