The United States in Space

Today's civil space program is the product of its history and its goals for the future. Over time,the basic character of the space program has undergone change, perhaps most notable being the evolution from brief "one- time" events to prolonged operations, including the continuing use of the Space Shuttle, the planned establishment and operation of the Space Station Freedom, and, in the President's words, "... back to the Moon ... this time back to stay." This trend has placed, and will continue to place, increasing demands on NASA as it pursues challenging new development projects -- if it does not shed at least some ongoing operational projects. The assignment of responsibility for operation of meteorological satellites to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is an excellent example of the needed approach.

A balanced assessment of today's civil space program is facilitated by a review of how we got to where we are, the challenges of space flight, the realities of risk taking and the overall objectives that should be met by any future space program -- especially within the realistic constraints of affordability. Each of these topics is addressed in this section.

Historical Perspective



The first American and Soviet space flight projects started only one day apart. On July 29 and 30, 1955, both Washington and Moscow announced plans to launch artificial satellites during the 1957 International Geophysical Year. But the Space Age birth date is clearly October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union launched its 184-pound Sputnik into orbit, the space equivalent of the Wright Brothers' Kitty Hawk flight just 54 years earlier on December 17, 1903.

What was the perspective of the entire history of aviation by the year 1940, the elapsed time corresponding to our 1990 view of the space program? One significant difference stands out: aviation emerged in a time of relative world peace while space was born amidst tensions brought about by the Cold War. In 1940, the world was poised on the edge of conflict. In 1990, most of the world is united to a degree few of us can recall, despite the adventures of an occasional renegade leader on the world political scene.

The launch of Sputnik shocked our nation, and the reaction was swift and far-reaching (Figure 5). Wernher von Braun's team at Redstone Arsenal was eventually given permission to launch a satellite on the Army's Jupiter C rocket. They succeeded, on January 31, 1958, in the launch of the 10-1/2-pound Explorer I, carrying into orbit two micrometeorite detectors, a Geiger counter, and associated telemetry. Despite its small size relative to Sputnik, these miniaturized instruments gave birth to space science by discovering and mapping what came to be known as the Van Allen radiation belts surrounding Earth.

progress chart by year indicating significant  aerospace accomplishments

Within a few months, on July 29, Congress passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, a far-reaching piece of legislation that created the civilian NASA and provided guidance to our national space program that still appears fresh today. NASA opened for business with a complement of nearly 8,000 employees transferred from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). By the end of 1960, NASA's personnel rolls nearly doubled with the addition of von Braun's Army Ballistic Missile Agency (later renamed the Marshall Space Flight Center); the new Goddard Space Flight Center, initially staffed from groups at the Naval Research Laboratory and the Naval Ordnance Laboratory; and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of the California Institute of Technology, then and now a university-operated facility.

But the Soviets were not standing still during those formative years. A month after the launch of Sputnik I, the six-ton Sputnik II rocketed into orbit. Its payload included a l,l2l-pound capsule containing the life-support equipment for the canine cosmonaut, Laika, whose presence clearly presaged human space flight. That expectation was fu1fi1led on April 12, 1961, when the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to achieve Earth orbit. His dramatic space flight captured the imagination of the world and challenged American technology and leadership. The Kennedy Administration resolved to gain the lead in space. After rejecting an orbiting space station as too easily within Soviet capabilities and an expedition to Mars as too difficult to accomplish in a decade, a landing on the Moon appeared to be an achievable project that would challenge NASA in all areas of space flight, and establish the U.S. as the preeminent spacefaring nation.

Thus, before any American had yet flown in orbit, President Kennedy, on May 25, 1961, asked Congress to direct NASA to land astronauts on the Moon and return them safely to Earth within the decade. The projected $2O billion cost of the first lunar landing ($94 billion in 1990 dollars) would boost NASA's budget to its peak in 1965, about 0.8 percent of the Gross National Product (GNP), but the alternative of surrendering space leadership appeared unthinkable.

The response was dramatic. The von Braun team initiated a fast-paced project to develop the essential heavy lift launch vehicle, the huge three- stage Saturn V that would lift 120 tons of payload into near-Earth orbit as the first step on the 240,000-mile voyage to the Moon. A giant new launch complex was built at Cape Canaveral; a new manned space flight center was constructed at Houston; a worldwide tracking and data network was established; and new industrial and university research facilities were created across the country. The precursor Mercury and Gemini programs were conducted to develop the necessary technologies for Apollo, and robotic missions were sent to characterize the lunar surface. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins flew the historic Apollo 11 mission that touched down on the lunar Sea of Tranquillity "for all mankind" -- on time and within budget.

The Apollo program dominated the public perception of NASA during the decade of the 1960s and beyond, through the launch of Apollo 17 in 1972. But there was also a "silent" civil space program of considerable magnitude underway during this same period, one whose legacy may be even more lasting. During the Apollo period seven successful missions were launched to other planets of our solar system, giving rise to the new field of planetary science. Following the success of Explorer I, more than 70 scientific satellites were launched, each success accruing new discoveries in space physics. Nine successful solar and astronomical observatories were launched, permitting, for the first time , observations of the solar system and beyond from outside our atmosphere.

Science was not the only beneficiary of America's space program. A space applications effort was born on April 1, 1960, when Tiros I, the first meteorology satellite, was launched. Twenty-nine more such satellites were launched during the Apollo period, and the meteorology program became fully operational when the responsibility for operational meteorology satellites was assumed by NOAA and its predecessor agencies in the mid- 1960s.

The first passive communications satellite, Echo I, was placed into orbit on August 12, 1960, and the first successful synchronous communications satellite (Syncom II) was orbited on July 26, 1963. A host of other communications payloads gave birth to the communications satellite industry, now generating $2.5 billion annually in the U.S. and $3.7 billion worldwide.

Other satellites were launched to monitor Earth's atmosphere and observe the ocean. The first Earth Resources Technology Satellite (now known as Landsat) was launched in 1972, providing repetitive coverage of the entire Earth (except the Polar regions) every 18 days. James Fletcher, NASA Administrator in 1975, said: "If I had to pick one spacecraft, one space development to save the world, I would pick ERTS (Landsat) and the satellites which I believe will be evolved from it late in this decade."

In retrospect, NASA's accomplishments of the Apollo period provide an historical guidepost for the attributes of the Space Program which America should seek to maintain in the future; one that is capable of providing an impressive stream of scientific information to help us understand the physical order of the universe in ways that can aid this and future generations; and one that insures that the opportunities we open for operating in space can be applied to practical problems here on Earth. A lesson that history offers is that the space program seems to work best, to provide these scientific and practical benefits, when there is an overreaching goal that can generate public support and focus the technological infrastructure on tangible objectives. We believe this to be an important observation.

The Apollo program was an enormous technological achievement, and its momentum carried the NASA manned programs forward into the 1970s. In 1973, Apollo components were modified to launch the l2O-ton Skylab prototype space station. The last Saturn rocket launched an Apollo Command Service Module for the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Project.

But the transient motive behind the Apollo program -- and the rapid mobilization of funds and personnel that made success possible -- eventually impeded the gradual evolution of a stable and broad public consensus about the nation's purpose in space. Thus, Vice President Agnew, in 1969, appointed a Space Task Group to explore post- Apollo manned space flight alternatives. Proposed programs included a Large orbiting space station, a reusable Space Shuttle, continuing lunar exploration, and a mission to Mars. Of these, President Nixon selected to pursue the Space Shuttle. The "Moon race" was won, and national attention turned elsewhere. Saturn V production was terminated, and the space program's budget slumped back to one-third of its 1960s peak in terms of constant dollars.

Nonetheless, impressive space science achievements continued, including the Pioneer 10 Jupiter fly by in 1973, the Mariner 10 Mercury fly by in 1974, the Viking 1 and 2 in-situ analyses of Martian materials in 1976, and the Pioneer 11 Saturn fly by in 1979. However, during this period funding for space research and technology dropped more than 80 percent from its peak in 1965. The applications effort also had its unique problems. Despite the successes of meteorology, communications, and Earth observations, government policy increasingly became, in essence: "If there is a user, either private or public, NASA's role should be confined to initial technological demonstration of feasibility. Thereafter, the user should pick up both the cost of, and responsibility for, further development, demonstration and operations." Thus, for example, it was expected that all research and development supporting space communications would be assumed by industry, despite substantial evidence of industry's inability and unwillingness to assume this responsibility. This prompted the ritual lasting several years whereby the Administration would strike all funds for the Advanced Communications Technology Satellite (ACTS ), and Congress would reinstate them (Figure 6). Other examples include the transfer of Landsat to NOAA with the stipulation that Earth surveillance activities enter the private domain, despite the fact that the principal customers of Landsat data are government agencies who are loath to commit to any long-term funding for data products, and researchers who generally have government grants insufficient in size to purchase commercial products. Even today the successful meteorological satellite system may suffer unless funding is provided to undertake the development of new instrumentation, either directly to NASA or through inclusion in the NOAA budget and subsequent transfer to NASA.

Advanced Communications Technology Satellite Launch Readiness Date vs Calendar Year

To continue manned space flight, the reusable Space Shuttle development program was initiated in 1972, the two principal goals being increased access to space and a substantial reduction in the cost of orbital flight. Unfortunately, budget cuts, technical problems and continuing stretch-outs forced design compromises that led to performance shortfalls. The resultant schedule delays and cost overruns also severely impacted NASA's science and exploration programs. NASA's own Advisory Council began preparation of a report with the descriptive title "The Crisis in Space and Earth Science," which outlined the serious difficulties caused by fewer and fewer flight opportunities. The Shuttle is a great technical achievement, but a failure at reducing costs. Nevertheless, these problems were beginning to be forgotten in the early 1980s as 24 Shuttles were successfully flown, and the nation viewed such spectacular achievements as huge satellites being deployed in space and astronauts capturing and repairing malfunctioning satellites and performing in- space experiments. Many took success largely for granted -- until January 28, 1986, when the nation was stunned by the Challenger failure.

The immediate consequence was that part of the U.S. civil space program that depends on the Space Shuttle was essentially put "on hold" for over 2-l/2 years. An earlier national decision to maximize the economy of the Shuttle by scrapping virtually all expendable launch vehicles, coupled with flight failures among those expendable vehicles that did remain, made it a virtual certainty that nothing could be launched. After decades of success and approbation, NASA felt the wrath of even its friends. The science community found large fractions of their careers "on hold" and the problems outlined by the "Crisis" report were exacerbated. It was a difficult period for the men and women who had built their careers in the space agency.

Even after space flight was re-established in September 1988, considerable disenchantment lingered -- encouraged by some parts of the media that by this time had turned "NASA-bashing" into a journalistic art. Criticism for a lack of "goals" was inflicted, even though many parts of the agency had recently improved their strategic planning and established rather specific goals.

Earlier, and to supply needed direction to the manned program, President Reagan initiated, in 1984, the Space Station Freedom program as "the next step in space" that would provide for a "permanent human presence." Its goals were not considered sufficiently specific by the Congress, however, which in turn created the Presidential National Commission on Space to look "beyond the next step" and to recommend long-range goals for the United States civil space program. Unfortunately, the timing of the Commission's report coincided with the Challenger accident, postponing any prospects for implementation.

Thirteen successful Shuttle flights have occurred since operations were resumed in September 1988. Significant Shuttle successes include the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, the Magellan mission to map Venus, the Galileo mission to Jupiter, and Europe's Ulysses tour around Jupiter and back to the Sun's polar regions. Yet, while there have been significant management changes within NASA and exciting missions are being planned and flown there remain valid concerns.

Such is the environment as we enter the 1990s.

The Ideal Space Program

The United States has progressed a long way in space since the initial shock of Sputnik. A broad space program has evolved over time, and a space organization structure has emerged which includes governmental, industrial and academic segments. All of these elements were created, modified and adapted to political, economic and international factors which have undergone significant change since the early days of the NASA space program.

We are thus at an appropriate time to step back and view where we are going and what is the best way to get there. Among the most needed ingredients of America's space program is a consensus of support for its goals and its resource needs -- whatever they may be. Only with such a commitment on an enduring basis can our nation hope to undertake the challenging, long-term missions that comprise any space program worthy of pursuit. It is instructive to ask the question what an "ideal" space program and organization might look like and what would be its attributes. We would characterize the "ideal" space program as comprising:

The President has proposed to the nation a challenging set of space missions but the Congress has not yet appropriated the resources needed to carry them out. There appears to be strong support from the American people for a national space effort, but disagreement on its elements. The United States has a far more capable space organization than is generally appreciated -- but one that is not, in our opinion, satisfactorily structured to accomplish its current goals and that, without help, is not likely to be able to acquire and retain the talent needed to carry out these goals over the long-term.

Excellence and Risk Taking

The most fundamental ingredient of a successful space program, aside from the people who participate in it, is the culture or work environment in which it is conducted. There is no more important task for managers at all levels of NASA and its contractors than to nurture a culture of excellence; of complete dedication to product quality and safety; and to total teamwork in achieving that goal. Space is a very unforgiving place. It is highly intolerant of human failings or benign neglect -- even of the type that might be considered minor under less stressing circumstances. Space activities demand the utmost of everyone in any way associated with them. In short, there can be no acceptable objective among those who would challenge the vastness of space other than perfection.

Unfortunately, this is an objective not readily met by humans, even though it remains the goal. But perfection can most closely be approached in an organization whose ethos is one of excellence and where this ethos permeates everything it does. Such an organization must insist upon great personal dedication, encourage unwavering self-scrutiny and self-discipline, and promote constructive questioning. It must be clear to all that, in this culture, excellence is more important than schedule and more important than cost -- even though these too are important -- and that management at all levels can be reliably counted upon to act with this as its set of values.

To sustain such an environment necessitates team-building; the success of the mission is more important than the immediate role of a given individual, center, or contractor. It requires as participants, people who are knowledgeable enough to recognize even the hint of an emerging problem, who are motivated enough to care, and who are courageous enough to do something about it.

For its part, management at all levels must create a culture in which people are actively encouraged to disclose even minor anomalies, to put problems squarely on the table. Equally important, it must be clear that management and workers alike will not for a moment tolerate those who would intentionally undermine this culture of excellence, since to do so is to nourish an organizational cancer.

Such a culture is not easily created. Fortunately, among NASA's strengths over the years has been the focus on mission success, and this focus needs to be continually reinforced. There is no more important responsibility for NASA's management.

But NASA's mission is a difficult one, probably more difficult than that of any other organization in the world. Each Voyager spacecraft has the electronic circuitry of over 2,000 color television sets, yet is required to work for 12 years while traveling from Earth to Neptune. The two Voyager spacecraft schedules were absolutely unforgiving, the planets in their paths aligning themselves only once every 176 years. Yet, by the time Voyager 2 reached Neptune, 4.4 billion miles away and 12 years later, the spacecraft was a mere 22 miles off its charted course and only one second off its updated fly by time. Mechanical challenges are equally impressive. Each Space Shuttle contains some 300 miles of electrical wiring, over 3,000 feet of welds, and over 2.5 million lines of software code. Its pump propel 65,000 gallons (the capacity of a large swimming pool) through its engines each minute. The power turbine on the Shuttle operates at a temperature of 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit. Just 4 feet away, the pump turbine operates at minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

The opportunities for human error are thus formidable. At its peak, Viking involved some 13,000 people, Skylab 32,000, Space Shuttle 52,000, and Apollo 180,000. The Hubble Space Telescope involved a total of over 40 million hours of work. To process a Space Shuttle for flight requires that 1.2 million separate procedures be accomplished.

Furthermore, NASA must do all that it does in the public spotlight -- which is, of course, as it should be. But this leads to magnifying any errors. We doubt, however, that any large institution in America, public or private, would present a much better image over the long-term than does NASA, if subjected to similar visibility while pursuing such imposing tasks.

But even with an objective of perfection, such challenging undertakings entail risk. Every person encounters some degree of risk daily. The chances of being killed in an automobile accident are about one in every 100 million miles driven. If we fly to some distant city, the chances are reduced to about one per billion miles.

Risk has been a companion to aIl great human adventures. Today, astronauts routinely circumnavigate the Earth in 90 minutes. In 1519, Ferdinand Magellan's quest to circumnavigate the globe began with five vessels and a crew of approximately 280. Only one ship and 34 crewmen returned, three years later. Magellan himself did not survive the voyage. In more contemporary circumstances, test pilots in the 1950s had a fatality rate of about one in four as they pushed the barriers of supersonic flight.

In a very real sense, the space program is analogous to the exploration and settlement of the New World. In this view, risk and sacrifice are seen to be constant features of the American experience. There is a national heritage of risk taking handed down from early explorers, immigrants, settlers, and adventurers. It is this element of our national character that is the wellspring of the U.S. space program.

Yet, today there seems to be the danger that the spark of adventure is flickering. As a nation, we are becoming risk averse. We demand only perfection, not as a goal -- which we should -- but as a reality, though none of us is perfect. We insist on cost benefit analyses although, as Daniel Boorstin, Librarian of Congress Emeritus, has pointed out, "the most wonderful things in life are not cost-effective -- like love and children." Success should be sought, and prized when achieved, but not always expected. If it is expected, people will stop taking chances, and if people stop taking chances, nothing great will be accomplished.

NASA has the critical responsibility of doing everything it can to minimize the human risk involved in meeting the nation's space goals, a responsibility that we believe it has now firmly embraced. This requires that NASA's engineers be selected from the best the nation has to offer, that they employ resilient designs, use the best technology available, be meticulous in quality control and impervious to diversionary influences.

Our Committee believes that, as in the past, we as a nation must be prepared to accept the consequences of undertaking endeavors that are worth- while but present some risk of failure. We should insist on perfection as a very real goal but should not make it more advantageous to avoid failures than to achieve successes. We should not be reckless, nor should we demur from all things entailing the risk of failure. Thus, the Committee believes that the Administration, Congress and the American people must be prepared for the eventuality that NASA will one day -- perhaps not too far in the future -- suffer another major accident. That is the reality.

As President Kennedy once said: "We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard."