IAC2014 Day Four Opens with Diverse Views on the Post-ISS Future

IAC2014 Day Four Opens with Diverse Views on the Post-ISS Future

Bigelow Aerospace plans to make being an astronaut less special because there will be so many of them promised the company’s Washington representative Mike Gold.  Gold was one of the panelists at a session of the 2014 International Astronautical Congress (IAC2014) today (October 2) on what’s next after the International Space Station (ISS).

As has been typical at this IAC, top level representatives of Russia and China are not here to participate in plenary sessions because of visa issues, but others from those countries were able to attend to present papers in technical sessions.  In this case, Zhao Yuqi of China’s Manned Spaceflight Agency was absent from this post-ISS plenary.  Nonetheless, the panel provided a broad array of viewpoints, from Gold’s private sector perspective, to Bill Gerstenmaier from NASA, to Hansjörg Dittus from the German space agency DLR, to German former astronaut Ernst Messerschmid, currently a professor at the Universität Stuttgart.

If there was one message from all of them it was that the International Space Station (ISS), while an outstanding success with tremendous potential, will be one-of-a-kind.

Dittus made a case for a modular approach to future space facilities where the modules are not linked together as they are in ISS.  He advocates a separation of tasks in separate modules to avoid complex international agreements and technical interfaces.   He also thinks the modules should be equipped as observatories, especially for earth remote sensing, not as laboratories.

The panelists were asked if they were told to build a space station again, would they build another ISS.  Gerstenmaier, who heads NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, said that if someone gave him the money to build another low Earth orbit (LEO) space station “I’d give it back.”  His message was that NASA and its ISS partners are demonstrating that there is a reason for others – the private sector – to go there, but another government-sponsored LEO space station is “not what we need to do.”  Instead “we’re going to explore.”

Messerschmid outlined technologies that will enable exploration, advocating “To Mars, together.”

Gold, who can be counted on for pithy observations replete with references to Star Trek, did not disappoint.  Among his major messages was that just as countries need to work together, so do companies.  He argued against pitting “new space” against “old space” because “the pie is too small.”  Borrowing a quote from Benjamin Franklin, he said “if we don’t hang together, we will surely hang separately.”   Later, when questions turned to the appropriate degree of risk taking for human spaceflight programs, he quoted “a famous Canadian, William Shatner” who said in his role as Captain Kirk of the Federation Starship Enterprise “Risk?  It’s why we’re here.”  Gold went on to talk about financial risk, and noted that a Russian colleague ruefully commented to him that Russian billionaires buy yachts while American billionaires create space companies.

Regarding risk, Gerstenmaier explained the three-tier approach NASA is using to describe the steps away from Earth:  Earth Reliant in LEO where crews can return home in hours; Proving Ground in cis-lunar space where getting home requires many days; and Earth Independent when the tie to Earth is broken.  He said NASA was not ready from a risk standpoint to send crews to an asteroid in its native orbit (as President Obama initially directed), but the Asteroid Retrieval Mission, where the crews will be in the Proving Ground region, is the right step – not too much risk, nor too little.

In a philosophical moment, Gerstenmaier talked about how ISS crew members landing in Kazakhstan say they are “home” no matter where on Earth they are from.  “We have changed the definition of home,” he said, where “home” is Earth.   He said his vision is that someday LEO or cis-lunar space will be “home.”

In response to a question about whether there is a future for young people to be astronauts, Gold said “I want to see a day when being an astronaut is something you do to make a living,” not an elite profession.   Bigelow is committed to making astronauts “not special” because there will be so many of them and from all over the world.   He noted that right now there are six seats for ISS crews, three of which are occupied by Russians, two by Americans, and one by other countries.  “One seat for all the other countries?” Bigelow “is determined to change that,” he exclaimed.

Gerstenmaier took a different tack, stressing that one does not need to be an astronaut.  What is important is being part of a high performing team:  “If you’re lucky, you get to be at the pointy end of the rocket, but it is just as rewarding to be one of the engineers sitting in the back.”

The question of cooperating with China arose as it often does in these settings.  Gerstenmaier pointed out that under current law NASA cannot discuss human space cooperation with China, but expressed hope that the situation may change in the future.  Gold agreed that if mutual benefit can be shown, the China door may open, but for now China is the “third rail” of export control politics.  Although changes are being made to the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), they do not apply to China, he pointed out.

Editor’s note:  this is our final IAC2014 report.  The conference continues tomorrow, but we must depart.

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