The Future of Spaceflight

Author: Linda Thomas Terhune and Jennifer Whitson
As the shuttle program ends, Purdue research is paving the way for deep-space exploration

With the landing of Space Shuttle Atlantis in July, another chapter in United States space exploration, and one that introduced the world's first reusable spacecraft, came to a close. What lies ahead — or above — is a question as vast as the Cosmos and one that leaves many, including Purdue researchers long associated as collaborators with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), guessing.

"Even though the shuttle program has ended, I think there are good things ahead... We will be able to work on the change."
– Sarah St. Clair

In 2010, President Barack Obama cancelled NASA's Constellation program, which had focused on human spaceflight, and outlined a new direction concentrating on the design of new, heavy-lift-launch vehicles to send humans to an asteroid by 2025. Among the planned programs are construction of the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, based on the design for the Orion capsule and able to take four astronauts on 21-day missions; a launch of the Juno spacecraft to investigate Jupiter; and continuing work on the International Space Station (ISS). The Obama administration also funded new ventures, including the creation of the Office of the Chief Technologist to provide an agency-wide vision for technology policy and programs.

Steven Collicott, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Purdue since 1991, has direct interest in the space station. He is co-investigator for ongoing research aboard the Space Station that examines capillary flows and the flows of fluids. The results could improve current computer models used by designers of low gravity fluid systems and may improve fluid transfer systems on future spacecraft. The research, however, could be expanded with a small equipment upgrade, and he needs a way to get it to the space station. This is a challenge.

One downside to retiring the shuttle program, Collicott says, is that the shuttles were the "nation's only ride to space," and routinely carried research projects to the space station. Moving forward, NASA will need to find other rides for equipment, but the options currently available are much smaller physically and cannot carry the same weight as the shuttles. On the upside, the end of the shuttle program frees up money for new exploration, he says.

Impact of changing research directions

Though some of the designs and research undertaken during the shuttle and Constellation programs will be used, a fair amount of work has been halted. This has led to frustration on the part of researchers like Steven Schneider, a professor of aeronautical and astronautical engineering who conducts research on hypersonic thermodynamics and directs the Boeing/ AFOSR Mach 6 Quiet Tunnel at Purdue, the only quiet hypersonic wind tunnel in operation.

Schneider studies high-speed laminarturbulent airflows for hypersonic reconnaissance vehicles, thermal protection for re-entry vehicles, drag reduction on supersonic transports, and flow noise and heat transfer above IR windows on interceptor missiles. He says the impact of the federal government's decision to scrap the Constellation program can make researchers feel like a person designing a house, getting it halfway built, changing his mind, and having to start from scratch again and again.

"This is yet another time a big and sensible program was canceled and redirected. It wastes an enormous amount of money," Schneider says.

For those who were working on portions of the Constellation program, most NASA-funded research stopped. Daniel DeLaurentis, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics, was focusing on the infrastructure necessary to help NASA communicate on the moon and between Earth and the moon.

"The Constellation program was driving quite a bit of research, much inside NASA, but also for universities," DeLaurentis says. He was able to leverage his work into new funding with the Missile Defense Agency, but not all researchers will be that lucky.

"My own work has adapted to other application areas for now," he says. "But those doing research on human spaceflight — the rockets needed, the crew vehicles, the life support technologies — are really concerned because NASA has not decided on a vision and their technology investment ideas have found resistance in Congress."

Start-ups offer new opportunity

President Obama's plan for the future includes a focus on commercial companies launching and staffing routine human spaceflight. In the early years of the human spaceflight program, NASA designed, built, launched and staffed all human spaceflight. In the 1980s, that shifted to NASA coordinating all flights but sharing design-and-build duties with private sector companies. NASA will now focus on cutting-edge design and research and leave more routine spaceflight to the private sector.

"I think there will be more diversity in employers for future astronauts."
– Janice Voss

That means NASA may be hiring fewer people, an impact some have already seen.

"I've seen with my graduate students that NASA jobs are really hard to get," Schneider says. And, given the uncertainty in funding, many of the large NASA contractors aren't hiring either, he adds. But the students see options.

"Even though the shuttle program has ended, I think there are good things ahead," says Sarah St. Clair, a junior studying aeronautical engineering. "We will be able to work on the change."

Purdue graduates are heading to smaller start-ups that are competing to be the next wave of transport spacecraft for NASA. Among these is SpaceX, of Hawthorne, Calif., which won a $75 million NASA contract in April to develop a launch escape system that will enable its spacecraft to carry astronauts. Late last year, SpaceX launched the first demonstration flight under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program.

What these start-ups mean for many students, who once dreamed of becoming astronauts and imagined NASA as the main route to that goal, is that their options are widening. Many are heading to private-sector employers, and that trend likely will increase.

"I think there will be more diversity in employers for future astronauts," says Janice Voss (BS '75, Engineering Science), a NASA mission specialist and astronaut who has completed five space missions.

The main hurdle will be how much and how consistently Americans are willing to fund human spaceflight. For students and staff who care about human space exploration, that's the real sticking point, especially for a generation that grew up only knowing the shuttle program. Collin Weir, a senior in aeronautical and astronautical engineering, speaks for that generation.

"I think there's now less of a sense of space as being something new and revolutionary, and more of something we've already done," Weir says. "I'm not sure we really see the point of sending people into space, and I think that's a shame. Humans have always wanted to explore, learn more and explain the world around them. Putting people in space is an important part of that goal."