Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Politics of NASA - What History Has Taught Us

Every political season brings the same old ideas about what government should do and how it should operate. This election brings a decision between operating government like a business and the discipline it requires, or operating it as an entity that transcends the typical rules of budgeting, balancing, and funding for the greater good of the people.  Many have tried over the years to hybrid the two and reinvent government by instilling some sense of discipline to balance revenue and spending. It has rarely worked.  I have always found it fascinating that the candidates who often run on a platform of reforming government are the same one that  have been in office term after term and nothing has changed. This may explain NASA’s predicament.  Since Richard Nixon transformed NASA from a deep-pocketed, goal oriented agency to a limited budget, keep the lights on, do something is better than nothing approach, NASA has struggled to find its way.  
Often a political football, its mission and funding are dangled in front of voters in key states important to the space program.  Over the past forty years, politicians never seem to get it right.  NASA is one of those agencies where politicians wave the flag and point to the achievements of the past while paying lip service to the future. It is no wonder that NASA or the public isn’t clear on a future direction. At any given time, those that control NASA’s funding and those that control NASA’s leadership will give different opinions and answers.  Moon or Mars? NASA built or Commercial Transport?  Robotic or Human Spaceflight?  NASA incurs costs and delays every change in Presidential or Congressional Leadership.  Current plans or work must stop and new plans must be developed only to be changed because they cannot be completed before the next change. 
In retrospect, with the constant churn in NASA’s focus what is amazing is that anything could be accomplished at all.  Let’s take a step back and briefly look at what has transpired since Apollo 11.  
  • 1969 - Nixon elected President, NASA budget at 4% of total federal budget
  • 1969 - Kennedy challenge fulfilled. America lands humans on the moon and returns them safely to Earth.
  • 1970 - Nixon rejects post Apollo strategy for space stations. moon, and Mars. Cancels remaining Apollo lunar missions. Nixon considers an end to human spaceflight in lieu of robotic missions. He rejects Vice President Agnew's recommendation for a manned Mars mission. He finally accepts limited human spaceflight. He states NASA will be "bold, but balanced".
  • 1972 -  The Space Shuttle program approved by Nixon presidential order. Approved Shuttle is a cost compromise and meets no one’s specifications. NASA’s budget capped @ $3b per year
  • 1972 - Last Apollo mission to the moon. Two built and flight ready Lunar Modules go unused. Three unused Saturn Vs are left unprotected to rot before eventually being salvaged and restored for museum display decades later
  • 1973 - Skylab I launched. Skylab architecture is built for multiple lab launches. A "use and discard" approach that assumed when it was designed in the 60's, the availability of the Saturn V.  Each Skylab is not built for resupply missions. 
  • 1973 - Skylab II program cancelled. NASA elects not to launch completed Skylab II due to costs of launch and to divert funds to Space Shuttle Development. 
  • 1974 - Fourth Skylab I Mission Cancelled. Nixon directs last use of Saturn 1B for Apollo-Soyuz Test program as part of his Soviet outreach of detente. NASA concerned over technology transfer to Soviets.
  • 1974 - Third and final Skylab mission ends. Total Skylab development and operational costs $2b.
  • 1974 - NASA dismisses talk of a future role for Skylab due to budget choices, Skylab architecture, and Shuttle development funding needs.
  • 1974 - Nixon resigns, NASA budget at 1% of total federal budget
  • 1974 - Ford Assumes the Presidency
  • 1975 - Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. Last flight of Apollo hardware. 
  • 1976 - Carter elected. First President during the space age where America does not launch a human into space. 
  • 1975-1981 For the first time since the Mercury program, America has no access for humans to space.
  • 1978 - NASA study shows Skylab is safe for crews. With Space Shuttle planned to be operational in 1979, a Skylab rescue is planned.  It will be a risky early test of the Space Shuttle and spacewalking astronauts to save Skylab. Skylab/Space Shuttle seen as building capability for working and repairing a structure in space as well as gaining access to a space station in an era of constrained budget.
  • 1978 - Apollo 13 Astronaut Fred Haise trains for 1979 Space Shuttle Skylab rescue program. Haise is projected to be the mission commander. 
  • 1979 - Planned Space Shuttle delivery late.  Skylab rescue program abandoned
  • 1979 - Carter considers canceling Space Shuttle, but elects to cut the construction of five orbiters to four. 
  • 1979 - Skylab crashes back to Earth
  • 1981 - Reagan becomes President. 
  • 1981 - Space Shuttle era begins and launches with no destination. Nixon cancellation of post-Apollo strategy has Shuttle performing as the “Swiss Army Knife” of spaceflight.
  • 1982 - After early success of the Space Shuttle, Reagan declares it is "operational" after just four flights. Reagan orders that the shuttle carry all government payloads, that all payloads be compatible with the shuttle,  and that the Department of Defense have priority access on the shuttle's manifest. Other agencies will use expendable launch vehicles until a transition to the shuttle is completed. Original shuttle economics drive the phase-out of expendable launch vehicles over the frequent, reusable shuttle.     
  • 1984 - In the State of the union speech, Reagan directs NASA “to develop a permanently manned space station and to do it within a decade”. Space Station Freedom is born, at least on the drawing board. 
  • 1986 - Challenger Disaster occurs on the 25th launch of the Space Shuttle program and stands down the Space Shuttle program for two years. Earlier directive to move payloads to the shuttle and problems/phase out of  expendable launch vehicles cripples US access to space in any capacity. American reliance on a single platform created a gap in the event of failure. Review of Shuttle program points out NASA organizational flaws, but also find major deficiencies and safety issues with the Space Shuttle. Vehicle deficiencies attributed to design and costs constraints.
  • 1988 - Reagan's revised space policy raises commercial space to the level of civil, defense, and national security sectors.  Policy backs off of shuttle as a single solution and directs the return of expendable launch vehicles to supplement the shuttle. The shuttle program loses its largest paying customer, the Department of Defense.
  • 1989 - George W Bush becomes president. 
  • 1989 - On the 20th Anniversary of Apollo 11’s lunar landing, Bush proposes the Space Exploration Initiative. The SEI includes the building of Space Station Freedom, a return to the moon, and a mission to Mars. 
  • 1989 - Space Station Freedom redesigned, budget cut. 
  • 1990 - Congress demands another redesign of Space Station Freedom
  • 1990 - Augustine Commission Review of NASA commissioned by the White House states “NASA is currently overcommitted in terms of program obligations relative to resources available – in short, it is trying to do too much." 
  • 1991 - NASA unveils new Space Station design. Expects to launch in 1995 and construction completed by 1998. New NASA design would now require 23 shuttle flights and 3000 hours of EVA time
  • 1991- Shuttle’s planned 10 year life expectancy milestone passes with just 39 of originally planned 400 flights achieved. Shuttle program continues with no planned end or replacement strategy in place. Once a week shuttle launches never materialize.
  • 1991 - Space Station Freedom cancelled. NASA had spent 10 years and 11 billion dollars on the station without a single piece of flight ready hardware for the effort. Over the 10 years the Space Station proposal underwent seven major redesigns to accommodate the President, Congress, costs, scale, and weight. 
  • 1993 - Bush leaves office and the Space Exploration Initiative is dead having garnered little support. 
  • 1993 - Bill Clinton becomes President
  • 1993 - Space Station Freedom gets a reprieve. Clinton requests three designs from NASA; good, better, best model, with the least expensive costing $5 billion, and the most expensive option not to exceed $9 billion.  Clinton selected the least expensive option and modified the cost to not exceed $6 billion. In a cruel twist for NASA, the option selected by Clinton was close to the original design of Space Station Freedom. Ten years had been spent and wasted on redesigning the station, only to come back to square one. 
  • 1993 - Clinton determines all space station options are too costly. Proposal to cancel the Space Station goes to Congress and survives by 1 vote.  Elects to form US-Russia space station partnership. 
  • 1994 - Reagan’s original NASA directive to build a space station in a decade passes and America still does not have a manned orbiting outpost. 
  • 1994 - Shuttle docks with the Russian MIR Space Station
  • 1998 - Last Shuttle-MIR mission
  • 1998 - First ISS module launched
  • 2001 - George H. W. Bush becomes President
  • 2003 - Columbia Disaster stands down manned spaceflight for the second time.
  • 2004 - President George Bush mandates Shuttle retirement and proposes the Vision for Space Exploration that includes two new launch vehicles under the Constellation program (ARES-1, ARES V) and a return to the moon by 2015 and Mars by 2020. Bush Propose an extra $1billion for NASA and diversion of dollars from existing NASA programs to fund development. 
  • 2005, NASA unveils the Constellation program launch vehicles and spacecraft, they include the Ares I launcher, Orion crew capsule, Ares V heavy-lift rocket and Altair lunar lander.
  • 2009 - Barack Obama becomes President
  • 2009 - Obama appointed Augustine Commission reviews current U.S. Space Policy and produces final report. Commission finds that NASA likely cannot meet the 2015 launch of astronauts to the ISS using the ARES-1 and cannot meet a 2020 return to the moon.  Report states exploration beyond low-earth orbit is not viable with current budget, but achievable with an additional $3 billion per year. 
  • ARES-1X test flight flies with dummy upper stage. Flight conducted to test Solid Rocket Booster (although it flies with a 4 and not a 5 segment booster as planned), rocket stability, and collect flight data. Flight deemed successful. Cost to development one and only test flight. $445 million. 
  • 2010 - President Obama cancels Constellation Program including ARES-1, ARES-V, and Altair. Over $10b in development and procurement commitments had already been made on the program. Obama proposes funding for extension of ISS through 2020. Upholds planned Shuttle retirement and abandons return to the moon as a “been there, done that”.  Supports commercial companies to ferry American astronauts to low Earth orbit.
  • 2011 - Space Shuttle era comes to an end after 135 flights with the launch and safe return of Atlantis. 
  • 2011 - International Space Station is completed at a cost of $100 billion dollars and the involvement of 16 nations.
  • 2011 - Russia raises costs of flying on Soyuz/TMA to $63 million dollars a seat. Shuttle costs were estimated at $500 million to $1 billion per flight. 7 astronauts x $63 million = $441 million, not counting the cargo the Space Shuttle could deliver that the Russians could not or would require a separate cargo launch. Russian cost increase finally starts to make the shuttle economics realistic. 
  • 2011 - NASA announces design for the next generation of heavy lift U.S. launch system, the Shuttle “derived” Space Launch System (alternative to the Constellation program's ARES-V), capable of cargo and capsule lift. The Orion capsule continues from the Constellation program as the NASA capsule of choice for use beyond low-Earth orbit. 
  • 2012 - America has no access to fly humans into space and will not have a capability until at least 2015. 
  • 2012 - NASA budget at 6/10 of 1% of the total federal budget. 
Many argue that NASA has wasted its money over the past decades.  Well, there is an element of truth to that and it is certainly true of any other government agency. Yet no agency has been asked to do so much with so little or asked to change directions so many times. One of the more telling comments about the space program came from the 2009 Augustine Report, it stated: 

"the greatest contributor to risk in the space program, both human and financial, is seeking to accomplish extraordinarily difficult tasks with resources inconsistent with the demands of those tasks" 

To the general public, human spaceflight is the face of NASA.  When numbers are tossed around that NASA’s budget is sixteen billion a year many assume that it is all for human spaceflight. It is not. Manned space takes a little more than a third of NASA’s operating budget.  Within that budget NASA has to operate the present infrastructure while constantly planning a new one. That takes resources and money. 

Those who follow space and the current Presidential candidates lament at the lack of an American launch vehicle. The current Administration can point to former President George Bush as the one who set a date for the end of the Shuttle program. While it could have been extended, a once or twice a year schedule would have been expensive and risky. Retiring the shuttle was probably the right thing to do, but not having a replacement on the drawing board at least a decade ago is inexcusable. However, it was the only option NASA had available given its constraints. The Romney plan calls for reshuffling the current pieces, no increase in funding, and magically it turns out better.  It is true that NASA has lacked a clear mission, but this type of plan should worry every space follower.  The approach that NASA can transform into the world leader in human spaceflight without additional funding shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the problem.  One thing Presidential leadership has shown us with the space program is that NASA is the girl everyone wants to take to out on a date, but never thinks about calling again the morning after. The only way a Romney plan works is if everything else goes. While we focus on human spaceflight, let’s not forget that America is THE undisputed leader in robotic exploration of the solar system.  It’s not even close. I for one am not ready to concede that leadership position.  It cannot be an either or choice. American space leadership requires continued human and robotic exploration. 
I was a little skeptical at first of the Obama plan for the reliance of commercial vehicles to get American astronauts to low Earth orbit, but it is the right approach.  The important things in human space exploration will take place beyond low Earth orbit so let’s put our resources there and built a heavy lift vehicle and buy seats off the shelf to get us to the things we will build in space.  NASA needs more funding, but the approach needs to be different.  First, we need to recognize and reward NASA for its success. Robotic missions like the Mars Rovers and Cassini are delivering extended value and need to be allocated increased funding rather than be cut to reallocate their dollars.  Second, the way NASA is budgeted doesn’t make sense today. It isn’t run like a typical government agency or a business.  If the Defense Department needs a new fighter it is funded separately as a project. We don’t cut troop strength or mothball a Carrier to fund it.  
NASA is unique in its mission, but the approach to managing it is akin to fitting a square peg into a round hole. It doesn’t work, it hasn’t worked and it work won’t no matter how persistent we are at trying to make it work.  Think of it like this, you work in a factory, but the owners say they need to expand and build a new factory to replace the old outdated one.  They can’t afford to do both so they layoff every person at the factory to have the money to build a new one. Does that make sense? Of course not, that’s bad business and the fault of the owners for not planning for capital improvements. The owners would typically set aside capital funding over time to build the new plant without disruption to the business and do it so that the transition was seamless. NASA can’t do that, so it must have the government equivalent of a capital funding plan. What’s happened to NASA is that the government is closing the factory every few years. This is inefficient, wasteful, and the agency loses key intellectual talent and highly complex skills that it must continually rebuild. 
The right approach is for the President and Congressional leaders to fund a separate “above and beyond” budget designed specifically for infrastructure and launch platform design. This budget would allow NASA to strategically plan for future launch platforms without having to pick and choose which existing programs to cut.  A billion dollar a year set aside would keep America always on the leading edge of space with top notch resources, facilities and vehicles to maintain our leadership in space.  We need a creative, sustainable and different approach to NASA. In looking at each candidate’s plans, the Nixon curse of focus on expense and not goals still seems to be the norm. What has history taught about support and a vision for NASA?  It is all about timing. The grandest visions of Presidents for NASA and space exploration rarely pan out. Not since 1961 after Kennedy's moon speech have both parties been united on a common NASA goal. Nixon arrived at a point in history of transition and weakness in support for space and his actions have proved the most lasting and damaging. Several President have tried to turn it around, but failed. From Reagan, Bush Sr, and Bush their visions never left the drawing boards of Earth. For this election, given history and the way NASA is funded, it is equally important to find out where your local Congressional leadership and candidates stand on the future of NASA. Turning NASA around and back to being focused on goals won’t happen on NASA’s existing shoestring budget no matter how the pieces are rearranged. The election of 2012 does not feel like a Kennedy or Nixon moment in history where the President, Congress, and the public's support converge to set a bold new course for America in space. Rather, it sounds a lot more like the status quo of the past 43 years, It’s going to take all of us motivating our leaders to support NASA to have a chance of seeing Americans set foot again on another celestial body. 

Friday, August 24, 2012

Liberty for All

International Space Station
Much public attention has been given to America’s lack of a capability to launch astronauts into space. When the space shuttle touched down for the last time the die had already been cast for our near term future in space. America would become dependent on Russian resources to fly astronauts to its one hundred billion dollar investment in the ISS. Decisions by George Bush and Barack Obama to end the program laid the groundwork for the gap in U.S. manned spaceflight. Actually, neither can solely be blamed for America’s lack of manned launch capability. The foundation for the gap was laid long ago. Despite, the interim pain and embarrassment the country’s space program has suffered, it may actually turn out in the long term to be the right decision. President’s Nixon’s through Obama and their Congressional counterparts all must accept some responsibility for the length of the gap. The manned space program has always been paid lip service and with the exception of Apollo never given its due. As Americans were stepping on the moon, the program was transitioning from a goal-driven to an cost-driven model. From 1970 on, the program would be given just enough to stay afloat, but never enough to adequately support its current initiatives while simultaneously planning for the next generation of human exploration. Almost overnight it had become acceptable for America to step back from a leadership role in space for the sake of saving pennies on the dollar from the U.S. budget. 

Atlantis Overhaul in Palmdale, California
The space shuttle was a unique platform and presented equally unique strategy problems for NASA. The shuttle’s economics never materialized due to design compromises, budget constraints, and political ambivalence towards space exploration following Apollo. If all would have gone as planned the shuttles would be flying every two weeks.  Over a span of just ten years their life expectancy would have been exhausted. The complexity of the vehicle, two tragic accidents, and delays in building a space station drastically cut the missions. NASA’s vision called for the shuttles to provide frequent “shirt sleeve” access to low Earth orbit. Flying that ambitious schedule, the four original space shuttles in NASA’s fleet should have exited service in the early 90’s. It would have meant that as soon as the Shuttle started flying a replacement design should have been on the drawing board or at least in discussion. Design, approval, funding, construction and testing would have been a decade long process perhaps longer. It would take two accidents and nearly 25 years before a President would give serious consideration to replace the shuttle. It would turn out that the shuttle’s ten year life expectancy would be tripled, but they would never come close to using up their 100 roundtrip flights each. This extended life greatly increased risk due to other unknowns about the vehicle.  These unknowns included corrosion of the airframe due to continued exposure to the salt-laden sea air at the Kennedy Space Center. Another notable risk included cracks in the casings of the miles of wiring buried deep within the shuttle that were impossible to inspect or detect. The extension also meant that the shuttle’s 1970’s era technology would need to be replaced during lengthy overhauls where the shuttle was sent back to the factory from seven to twenty-four months. Despite performance, cost and safety criteria that were never met, the shuttle program continued with no successor on the drawing board. When the program came to an end after 30 years, America would be left without a method to fly to and from low Earth orbit and a replacement vehicle still another five years away. 

Now it appears we are on the verge of an embarrassment of riches. Multiple companies and alliances are competing to put Americans in space. America may go from no launch platform for putting Americans in orbit to at least three. SpaceX, Sierra Nevada, and Boeing were the winners of additional funding while ATK’s Liberty, Blue Origin, and Orbital have apparently lost out for now. The homegrown SpaceX has the clear advantage, built entirely in the U.S. by an immigrant turned American entrepreneur, it is a story made for the stars. Sierra Nevada’s design heavily leverages NASA’s work on the HL-20. Sierra Nevada’s entrant, the Dream Chaser is loved by those want to see a lifting body, shuttle-like contender while Boeing is developing its own capsule to ferry astronauts. The SpaceX booster is an original design, while Sierra Nevada and Boeing with rely on the proven Atlas V. The Atlas V, which is remarkably reliable, does not have a 100% American pedigree or a man rating as of yet. Its booster relies on the Russian RD-80 engine. 

ATK's Liberty
However, Liberty should not be counted out yet. Their design is based largely on the NASA ARES-1 program and leverages proven technologies, while the capsule and first stage are American built, the second stage is the same used on the Arianne V. Liberty could fill a gap in the American launch program should the other’s falter, but there is another potentially lucrative market awaiting Liberty, the international market. Liberty is perfectly positioned to be the platform of choice for the non-US/Russian partners of the International Space Station. Launching astronauts into space is a sign of national prestige, the method of launch was important to the US, Russia, and China, but many other nations have flown their own astronauts on the shuttle or Soyuz/TMA. If Liberty can achieve its operating projections, then it makes sense for ESA, Japan, India, Korea, Canada to brand a version of Liberty and use it as its manned space platform.  This model has benefits for all. First, ATK and Ariannespace benefit from having a solid and sustainable customer base to keep production and build technical, assembly and integration expertise. NASA gains a backup launch platform and potential customers for its Kennedy launch complex while the international customers gain independent access to space and the opportunity to deepen their own agendas in space.  Liberty may yet be a symbol of the future on manned space where a multinational rocket takes humankind and not just one nation's citizen into space. It is likely that American hubris played a role in Liberty's absence from the initial contract providers to NASA.  Americans just cannot yet reconcile flying on a rocket that is not 100% American engineered and manufactured, but times may change.  In a way they already have. American's flying on Russian rockets seems quite acceptable despite the occasional voices of discontent. If we objected so much to flying on foreign hardware, Americans would have insisted on an alternative sooner. 

Bigelow's Space Habitat
Lastly, Liberty would greatly benefit from an alliance with Bigelow Aerospace. Bigelow’s inflatable space “habitats” combined with the Liberty capsule would give each participant nation a "turnkey" solution and true independence in space. SpaceX and Boeing have already inked deals with Bigelow to send passengers via their vehicles to these inflatable habitats. Much like the lesson learned with the shuttle and the Russian Mir space station, the future and a backup plan should always be on the drawing board.  NASA has already planned on a 2020 decommission of the ISS and there is talk of salvaging some modules for a deep space mission. The ISS can’t last forever. It is possible that a life extension beyond 2020 is possible, but another three-five years maximum before a Mir type situation would be at hand. While these nations could use Liberty to deliver crew to the ISS, a partnership with Bigelow could provide a low-cost “space station” for extended stays, research, and experiments. The ultimate goal is not to become independent from the ISS partnership, but provide a system with multiple providers are reliably providing access to space and more countries are simultaneously developing expertise. It moves us one step closer to truly becoming a spacefaring people.  

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Ultimate Seven Minutes of Terror - Riding the MOOSE

In the early morning hours of August 6, 2012, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory also known as the Mars rover Curiosity will begin a harrowing descent through the thin martian atmosphere.  For seven minutes, the fate of the $2.5 billion dollar rover will depend on a flawless performance by largely untested systems. Curiosity will plunge through the atmosphere protected first by its heat shield, then depend on the largest supersonic parachute ever used, and finally hope that landing sensors and radar, rockets, gyros, and a sky crane will all perform with precision to lower the small car sized rover to the surface.  Getting something large to the surface of Mars is a challenge. On Earth, our thick atmosphere requires a robust heat shield and a proper trajectory to survive. Once you’ve made it through the frictional heat of reentry you can deploy a parachute and drift gently to the surface. On Mars, the thin atmosphere and high entry velocity require a different tactic.  You could parachute to Mars, but the greater the mass, the more challenging getting to the surface becomes in its thin air. Eventually, a parachute or inflatable bags just won’t work any longer. So the Mars Science Laboratory will require a combinations of technologies to make a successful touchdown.  Launch and reentry have always been the most critical part of a spaceflight. It doesn’t matter where it occurs, the Moon, Mars, Titan, or Earth. Each planet or moon has it own nuances and all are dangerous. One thing we know for sure, that in the history of spaceflight, this moves to the top of the list for ambitious and dangerous reentries.  However, back in the early day of the space program, there is a little remembered idea that involved sending an astronaut plunging back to earth in an emergency inflatable escape suit called MOOSE. It would have been the ultimate seven minutes of terror.
In the alphabet soup of acronyms used by the military and NASA, MOOSE originally stood for Man Out of Spacecraft Easiest, but later became Manned Orbital Operations Safety Equipment. MOOSE was one of many inflatable heat shield concepts floated by the Air Force and NASA in the 60‘s. MOOSE was developed by General Electric, part of the early space program's rapid evolution of ideas for developing lightweight reentry capabilities. This particular concept was designed as an escape system for astronauts to free fall from a crippled spacecraft back to Earth. You heard right. It would have been the thrill ride of the space program, but high risk and incredibly dangerous. The idea started with the Air Force and its fledgling space program. It appeared that safety and the uncertain reliability of spaceflight required looking at creative options and the Air Force was looking for ways that stranded astronauts could leave a crippled spacecraft and return to Earth. There were concepts for multi-person inflatable lifeboats and then there was MOOSE. A single person rescue idea that fell out of favor as the space program matured and the Air Force’s own manned space program was abandoned. The nature of capsule spaceflight seemed to negate the need for a lifeboat. 
The cancellation of the Air Force MOL (Manned Orbiting Laboratory) and the absence of a NASA space station put the idea on the back burner. The MOOSE concept called for having a 200lb suitcase sized rescue package on board that would contain the inflatable lifeboat. The astronaut would suit up, inflate the escape pod using a cylinder of polyurethane foam and abandon ship. The foam is the same material you can buy at any home improvement store to use as insulation. After injection, the foam would harden on the interior on the heat shield and create a “form fitting” cavity for the astronaut. The pod contained small rockets that the astronaut would use to orient his makeshift reentry vehicle and begin the trek home. Once through the atmosphere a parachute would carry the astronaut gently to the ground. The MOOSE assembly carried signal equipment for tracking and dye packs for a water landing. The craft could land or ground or water.   Imagine an astronaut retuning from space separated only by an inflatable heat shield, a spacesuit, and some poly foam. As the Air Force’s need dissipated for a rescue craft, NASA never seriously considered picking up the concept. Tight budgets and an uncertain future for human spaceflight post Apollo doomed the inflated reentry vehicles. It is interesting to consider the “what ifs” of MOOSE. Skylab, being only a temporary outpost never needed an emergency escape system. Coming out of the gate the space shuttle was to usher in the routine airline, “shirt sleeve” service to and from low earth orbit. In hindsight, NASA took a Titanic approach to the shuttle, in an emergency the shuttle WAS the lifeboat. The shuttle could stay on orbit and the next shuttle in the pipeline was likely already on the pad and could conduct a rescue. That assumed a shuttle flying every two weeks which matched the shuttle’s max on orbit time. 
The shuttle would never fly on its original turnaround schedule and space shuttles on standby ready to fly would turn out to be just a dream. By the time the shuttle’s flew, the original idea for inflatable rescue craft was long forgotten. In the American space program, accidents just didn’t happen, but it turned out they did. The idea of a shuttle crew abandoning ship was as foreign in 1981 as lifeboats were on the Titanic in 1912. An accident on ascent, like Challenger, had no options, but Columbia did.  Unfortunately, the failure to research the foam strike led to a compromised thermal protection system and the eventual loss of the vehicle and the crew. It is easy to speculate that MOOSE on the shuttle might have saved the crew. MOOSE would have been the absolute option of last resort with no guarantee of success and a terrifying ride for each astronaut. Facing space as they fell back to Earth and aside from their spacesuit, the astronaut would have witnessed the harshness of a fiery reentry up close. Inflatable reentry vehicles weren’t just a far-fetched idea, but a concept that had been vetted and deemed feasible, but maybe not practical for human use unless there were no other options available. The current record for free fall is 102,800ft set by Air Force pilot Joseph Kittinger in 1960. Adventurer and skydiver Felix Baumgartner took another step towards jumping from space by plunging from an altitude of 18 miles over New Mexico in preparation from his planned free fall from 23 miles to break Kittinger’s record. Hardly space, which  officially begins at about 60 miles, If successful, Baumgartner would succeed where others have failed and would have braved -70 degree temperatures and breaking the sound barrier with only his pressurized suit to protect him. Skydiving from space in a MOOSE type configuration could one day become the next private space flight adventure. 

While MOOSE never made it to space, the idea of ballutes, inflatable heat shields, aerobraking, would see a resurgence. Just last week, NASA successfully tested its Inflatable Reentry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE-3) from the Wallops Flight Facility. The aeroshell was packed into a 22 wide Black Brant rocket and upon separation was inflated with nitrogen to 10ft.  The IRVE-3 survived speeds of 7600mph and landed in the Atlantic off the North Carolina coast. NASA believes it will be the method of choice for taking humans in a craft from Mars orbit to the planet’s surface. NASA invested $17m on the IRVE-3 development and test. In the early sixties, the Air Force had seeded its program with more than a million dollars, enough to spur competition, but it would go wasted for decades.  Now, what’s old is new again and a variation of the idea that was way ahead of its time fifty years ago may yet take human from space to the surface of a planet. That planet just might be Mars. 

Read more about the original MOOSE and other space rescue concepts in this August, 1970 Technical Report contracted by NASA on "Guidance and control aspects of abort from manned spacecraft".