Of all the objections to suborbital spaceflight, this might be the silliest.
In 2010, the National Academy of Sciences produced a report entitled Revitalizing NASA’s Suborbital Program: Advancing Science, Driving Innovation, and Developing Workforce. (A free copy of the report can be read online or downloaded here.)
Despite the title, the report largely ignored the development of commercial suborbital spacecraft. Most of the 87 pages were devoted to sounding rockets, high-altitude balloons, and an assortment of NASA aircraft including the WB-57, the ER-2, the 747-based SOFIA astronomical observatory – even the DC-8. Suffice it to say, the report stretched the definition of “suborbital” as much as it could be, and then some.
The report did devote a scant four pages to the emerging suborbital spaceflight industry, however. It did not directly mention or endorse NASA’s Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research (CRuSR) program but did recommend that NASA “continue to monitor commercial suborbital space developments” – better than nothing, but not much better than nothing.
The report acknowledged that “Low-cost, frequent flights could expand opportunities for hands-on learning, participatory research, and eventually personal experience in spaceflight that are critical to developing technical and scientific competence.” At the same time, however, it worried that commercial suborbital spacecraft might make spaceflight too “simple.”
Opportunities abound for educators and the general public to participate in inspirational projects. However, the committee noted that while opportunities do exist for entry-level education and public outreach activities, outsourcing to commercial suborbital companies does little in the way of training the next generation of systems engineers and contributing to viable workforce development. A hallmark of the planned commercial suborbital program is the simple, easy access to micro-gravity environment requiring only minimal consideration of the larger challenges of spaceflight – the hard part has already been done; the environment is so benign that many of the challenges of spaceflight do not apply (e.g., autonomous execution, thermal stress, radiation, high-g launch environments, high reliability, and so on) and the process for gaining access to space could become so straightforward that the applicability of the educational experience to the NASA way of doing business will be diffused.
We’re reminded of an old computer-science professor who sees the emergence of the early microcomputera. He sees that opportunities exist for entry-level education and public outreach, but at the same time, he fears that “outsourcing” to Apple and Microsoft does little to train the next generation of computer scientists and develop a trained workforce. The hallmark of microcomputers is simple, easy access. Many challenges of traditional computing (batch processing, punchcard machines, and waiting on line at the computer center) no longer apply. He worries that gaining access to computers could become so straightforward that the applicability of the educational experience to the mainframe way of doing business will be diffused.
Believe it or not, we once knew professors who thought that way.
There is only one way to answer this concern.
“Professor, that’s not a bug. It’s a feature!”