What hath the Emperor wrought?
January 14, 2004 arrived with so much promise. For 23 years, our space program had been going in circles just outside our atmosphere. The President spoke with purpose, to give purpose again to our nation's space program. A conservative time table nonetheless challenged the talented group to fly out of the circle to more distant destinations.
The first steps would be back to familiar territory. A reconnaissance orbiter at the moon by 2008. Competing prototypes of the crew exploration vehicle would have flown this year demonstrably pointing the way. An unmanned lander scouting for resources would embark on its journey shortly thereafter. A means of transporting humans to and fro with a large step up in reliability and safety was mandated for 2014. Ten years seemed more than sufficient to recreate a capability we had almost 50 years prior.
The mantra. Soon, Simple, Safe.
Now that is all but a memory.
Now we are told that 10 years to design, develop, test, and fly the CEV, ostensibly drawing on 50 years of heritage, is not long enough. The prototypes were thrown overboard long ago. As if to preface the coming storm, the lunar orbiter grew in size and complexity and has been delayed right out of 2008. Plans for the robotic lander were discarded as resources became scarce chasing other problems. Despite ditching the precursors, the reinvigoration of exploration is still somewhere over the rainbow.
The launch vehicle, touted as a "no moving parts" replacement for the space shuttle, now resembles something more like a mummy with bling, wrapped in band aids bought with fool's gold. Tens of steering rockets keep it pointed in the right direction as it lifts off its pad. Springs, masses, dampers, batteries, and museum pieces for computers will, we are told, make it possible for our astronauts to endure the rigors of riding a wild bull. And this ride has to go for more than eight seconds.
The capsule resembles its Apollo brethern in shape only. Apollo was statically stable on re-entry. Only the batteries unleashing the top hat and parachutes needed to work to get the crew safely to the ground. The "improved" vehicle is unstable, suffering from an immature and misguided set of requirements, which places trust in the electrons, valves, switches, and software required to fire thrusters to keep the capsule upright as it enters the atmosphere.
We have lost the sense of urgency. We have lost our ability to design. We will lose crews if this system makes it to the pad. That only leaves us with Hope.
Hope is not a strategy.