Thursday, Rand Simberg, a space blogging who is ever vigilant at finding outrageous things percolating in the aerospace world, has stumbled upon a draft proposal from the National Advisory Council concerning low Earth orbit operations after the International Space Station has reached the end of its life. NASA has mulled the idea of being a customer on a commercial space station after the 2024 expiration date of the ISS, but thus far the idea has not gotten anywhere. NASA plans to conduct operations in cis-lunar space for its “Road to Mars” program in the 2020s.
The passage that got Simberg exercised concerns commercial access to space in the post-ISS era.
“Even after a shift of focus to cis-lunar space and beyond has occurred, NASA may need to maintain some capability to get astronauts into low Earth orbit. If the Agency concludes that such a capability is necessary, it would be unwise to assume the existence of commercial demand for human access to LEO that may or may not materialize. Taking steps to encourage commercial activity in LEO may not be adequate to guarantee a successful transition.”
By 2024, commercial spacecraft, paid for by NASA and operated by SpaceX and Boeing, will have been taking astronauts to and from the ISS for several years. Presumably, both companies will find ways to create more private markets for the Dragon and the CST-100 Starliner by that time, if nothing else, taking the well-heeled and adventurous on orbital jaunts.
Simberg believes he has found something nefarious or at least odd in the NAC recommendations.
“Even in the very unlikely event that no commercial demand emerges, that capability will remain in place for as long as NASA wants to use it, at a much lower cost than NASA has ever gotten anyone into space. So can someone on the NAC explain to me what this word salad means? What are they proposing? Because if they’re proposing SLS/Orion, that’s economically insane.”
Some members of Congress has floated the idea of launching an Orion on board the space launch system as a public option to the commercial crew spacecraft. The idea has not gotten anywhere because not only Simberg is right that the economics are outrageous, but that the SLS is overpowered for LEO operations. The SLS is designed and is being built for deep space missions period.
In any event, any recommendation made now for the 2020s is, by necessity, written in sand. The next administration is very likely to alter the current policy considerably. What the direction, the leadership, and funding levels that will exist at NASA from 2017 on are impossible to predict.