NASA says it’s going places, that its plan to develop a new space capsule and rocket will take human astronauts places they’ve never been before – asteroids and eventually Mars. But many former NASA officials are deeply skeptical about the plan espoused by the space agency, at the direction of the Obama administration. Among the critics is the legendary Chris Kraft, NASA’s first manned spaceflight director, for whom Mission Control at Johnson Space Center is named.
He goes on to talk about the plans (at the time) for NASA’s Space Launch System, a massive undertaking for a huge cargo-lift capability that may not actually be needed *right now*. And, as those of us who have worked with some of these original NASA heroes know, Chris pulled no punches about the direction of the Agency and how the Administration leadership seems to have failed his beloved NASA.
Chris says what a lot of us are thinking about the Space Launch System (SLS) plans… they’re cool, but they’re too big for the current budgetary realities.
The problem with the SLS is that it’s so big that makes it very expensive. It’s very expensive to design, it’s very expensive to develop.
Even though the SLS team is making as much use of current technologies as possible, Chris is right. There are just a lot of things these days, some of them as a result of mistakes made in the past where design flaws resulted in catastrophic results, that are extremely expensive to design and develop, in order to make a space vehicle man-capable.
I’m sure the SpaceX team is realizing this, too, as they push forward with a man-ready Dragon capsule version, although they definitely seem to be doing it the “right way” by incrementally building upon their earlier successes.
What’s so magic about this being able to lift 120 tons? Why can’t you use what you’ve got and put your vehicles into space in pieces, like you did with the space station? That’s the right way to do it.
We have a number of heavy-lift vehicles currently in the launch stable, we have proven on-orbit assembly techniques, and have mastered ground-up rendezvous launch operations. It seems far more manageable to use more of what we have than to completely bust the ever-shrinking budget on a one-off launch vehicle that will have rather limited (large) payload opportunities.
Chris goes on to be bluntly honest about the current direction (or lack thereof) at NASA and why the agency is hemorrhaging some of its best and brightest:
Astronauts want to do something that has some excitement to it. The engineers that come to Johnson Space Center want to do something. You go talk to the guys who were doing Constellation (NASA’s now-scuttled plan to return to the moon), and the reason they came to NASA was to go back to the moon. They’re all leaving now. The leaders are leaving for a lot of other reasons also, but they’re leaving because there’s no future that they want to be involved in. And that’s unfortunate. You’ve got to have a reason for people to give you their lives, which is what I did. I gave NASA my life not because they asked me to, but because I wanted to. I had a reason. But I just don’t think that’s there now.
The bold bit in Chris’s quote above echoes my career at NASA as well.
I was there because I believed in it… I wanted to be a part of something grand.
When I left, NASA was still in the infancy of Space Station planning, but even at the end of the Mir program when I left, the grand plans for returning to the Moon and pressing on with manned Mars missions were fading rapidly. I feel for my friends still there… they believe, as I do, that we *CAN* do these things and that we *SHOULD* do these things.
Now all we need is the fiscal and concrete support to *DO* those things… and NASA can return to her former glory.
But, until then…
Epilogue: July 22, 2019.
Chris Kraft, the first Flight Director, passed away today at the age of 95.
I was lucky to have met him again, after our NASA careers, during his book tour for “Flight: My Life in Mission Control”.
His autograph and the brief chat we had are both part of my treasured collection.