Researchers and the new system’s development team often find themselves in competition for the selection and control of technologies to be used in new products, especially aerospace systems. During the last quarter century, this competition has been a major reason why the United States has not made any progress in improving human space access by deploying a fully-reusable space access system as a follow-on to the Space Shuttle. What transpired was that the new programs that were started or contemplated focused primarily on achieving technology breakthroughs without a real program priority of achieving a true improved operational capability. This is why when the Space Shuttle was retired after 30 years there was no better American capability ready to become operational. This failure of leadership did not need to happen.
Since the late 1980s, the U.S. aerospace industry has had the industrial capability to develop fully-reusable, two-stage, rocket-powered, airworthiness-certified space access systems capable of the routine transport of humans and payloads to/from low Earth orbit. Evaluation of this type of solution dates back to conceptual design work in the early 1960s. It became the original baseline for the Space Shuttle design in 1970 before the inadequate hybrid configuration was selected. The fully-reusable two-stage configuration arose again in the 1980s, the 1990s, and as late as the early 2000s when the military and NASA evaluated improved assured space access solutions. This approach was and remains the viable “third best” solution that should have been developed to replace the Space Shuttle, especially after the Challenger disaster in 1986. It was not pursued because priority was placed on the “first best” solution of single-stage systems (e.g., X-30 and X-33) and the “second-best” solution of rapid turn-around two-stage systems, respectively. Instead of focusing on achievable TRL 6-9 solutions aimed at fielding an operational system to replace the Space Shuttle in a timely manner, funding priorities were on TRL 3-5 technology maturation/demonstration programs that were not successful.
If America is to avoid this trap as the Spacefaring America Initiative is undertaken, the cause and a means of resolving this competition must be understood or it will be repeated leading to future program delays and failures.