House to Vote on Senate Bill Wednesday

So here it is, finally. After the new House rewrite failed to garner support with the commercial spaceflight advocates, it seems that august body has decided to give up messing with the bill and just vote on the Senate, under a suspension of the rules which limits debate and requires a 2/3 majority vote.

Despite the major backlash against the House’s proposal, Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN)–the one quoted in the above article–does have a point in a few cases. For one, the Senate’s ideas for the upcoming SDHLV does seem rather overly specific, going so far as to describe specific technological elements that should go into the vehicle. For another, if there’s no funding increase for the half-billion-dollar STS-135 launch, that money will have to come from other NASA programs, and then it’s the last ten years all over again.

But he might also be right that a flawed bill is better than no bill at all. It all sounds to me like a last-minute push to garner votes before the November elections, where all 435 House seats will be up for a vote.

But at least it’s a vote, and with an acceptable outcome if it passes. At the very least, passing is more acceptable than not passing, in which case we might be stuck with a continuing resolution, with NASA spending money and time on something it might have to throw away in the end. More or less.

EDIT: To clarify–with information I just recently found–the vote is for an authorization bill, which does not preclude a continuing resolution. The authorization bill merely says “The government has the authority to perform this action”, whereas an appropriations bill says “And here’s where they get the money to do it.” There’s a nice little discussion about it here, although I’m still not sure I entirely understand it.


The State of Things

In journalism, when one writes a regular column, one must have regular updates. In order to prevent boredom, these updates must have new topics, or at least new angles on old topics.

The problem with my “regular” column is that there are neither available to me at the moment–which is why this blog has gone for many weeks without an update. That and my personal life, but that being personal, it will remain off this blog.

So, the state of things. In a word: unchanged. NASA’s still working on the same old stuff it can’t afford anyhow, Congress is still split–even after the House’s new “compromise” bill, which is being summarily rejected by the commercial space advocates. I’m torn as well–take what we can get and at least start moving forward, or hold out for a better situation and risk losing it altogether?

At least I’m less sore now about Mars–or I would be, I suppose, if I was convinced we were actually going to do anything there long-term. Robert Zubrin’s late-90s books–The Case for Mars and Entering Space–have made a convert of me, but only if we actually do what’s important there–starting a full-time colony. A lunar base is a wonderful idea in its own right, of course, and something I think would be a perfect start to the “series of firsts”, but Dr. Zubrin is right: it’s not a place we can settle, not as a species, not the way we have to.

So, in short–something unusual for my posts here, I know–nothing has changed, really, and there’s not much else to say on what’s still there. In light of that, this may once again be the last post for many weeks. I suppose we’ll know by the midterm elections.

Alert Your Congressperson!

They say you can’t go anywhere with a blog if you’re not opinionated. I hope it’s come across that I have opinions, but if not, here’s some pretty solid evidence.

Go contact your Congressional Representative, right now, and tell them to vote against H.R. 5781, the atrociously underfunding NASA Authorization Bill coming out of the House.

For more details, go here.


1) Call (202) 225-3121, which is the House Switchboard

2) Ask to be transferred to your Congressperson’s office.

3) Tell the office employee that you would like to leave a message regarding the NASA Authorization Bill H.R. 5781.

4) Politely tell them your opinion.

5) You will have to leave your name and address, but it’s your Congressperson: they probably can find out where you live anyway.

6) That’s it! Just five simple steps to a better future for space!

More Interesting Things!

So since there really hasn’t been much more advancement regarding the two Congressional approaches to the FY2011+ budget for NASA, I’m going to keep posting interesting things I’ve found.

So the NewSpace 2010 conference happened last weekend, and Doug Messier over at Parabolic Arc has been running a series of summary articles–essentially notes from the various panels. Here are just a few articles that I think are interesting:

Making Money Mining the Moon

Interesting and alliterative! Basically, this article’s notes are rehashing everything I like to say about going to the moon and more: minerals are there, water is there, it’s easier and cheaper to develop, etc. Certainly worth a read…as much as this notation style is a “read” and not a “glance-over”.

Space Solar Power Discussion

Another of my favorite topics. Short story shorter: this article is talking about things like new technologies lowering launch costs, the effects of SBSP on the world (China is #1 exporter of resources–what does that mean for the US, I wonder, if we had SBSP?), the cost of power from a powersat, the effect of decentralized electrical power on property values, etc. Interestingly, there are apparently trillions of dollars of uninvested money just sitting around. Who knew?

Cheap, Reliable Access to Space

Certainly necessary. Commercial (read: SpaceX) is clearly able to develop and launch more cheaply than NASA, NASA is a public jobs program, low-volume problems solved by tourism (maybe) and SBSP (definitely), etc. Also, money solves all problems. True enough, I suppose, but where’s the money come from? Congress? Ha ha. Clearly not.

Bob Clarebrough at The Space Review has an interesting follow-up to an article he posted back at the beginning of July. The topic of the day is, of course, commercial vs. government–with non-NASA examples to back it up. A brief skim shows me an article that, in some respects, is perhaps slightly optimistic with respect to the efficacy of commercial over government, but it counters that nicely with a description of how NASA could be repurposed (read: made human-centric) to be more effective at what it does: getting human beings into space.

Favorite quote so far:

“Without a vision-driven, sustained space effort, the focus has been blurred. The space program must become human-centric. For decades, NASA has probed, roved, orbited, observed, surveyed, photographed, and mapped, but in the last 40 years, apart from the Moon, not one boot print has been made anywhere and not one rock has been picked up by a human hand off the Earth and closely inspected by human eyes. While robots can help to scout the way, exploration cannot truly be said to have been done until humans do it. It has been said that no photographs taken or words written can prepare you for your first sight of the Grand Canyon. I know that to be true. So, don’t give me grainy snapshots of Olympus Mons—take me there!”

Very true, I think.

Another article from The Space Review talks about the Congressional approaches to commercial space: specifically, how deficient the House funding is, and why. Having browsed through the Representative’s quotations–especially committee chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN), who said:

“I believe the bill before us today provides the nation with a productive future for its human spaceflight program, one that can be sustained even in the midst of budgetary uncertainty[.]”

Alan Grayson (D-FL) said, in what smacks of Wall Street bailout reactions:

“Why hand $500 million of federal resources to companies that don’t need it, haven’t asked for it, don’t want it, and in all likelihood will provide nothing for it?”

I could go into what I think is wrong with both of those statements (brief summary: productive future? Not at those rates, buddy. And: But they probably need it, they certainly would ask for it, they likely want it, and have already started providing things for it) but I won’t…not in detail, at least.

Next is this article from Aviation Week, talking about what the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), an independent think-tank, thinks about the Obama space plan. Short version: not good. Longer short version: non-government market is sparse at best, the budget doesn’t provide a way to achieve “laudable goals”, national security is at risk through commercial satellite…something (apparently commercial bandwidth makes up 80% of the Pentagon’s space communication usage, and that somehow moving the emphasis to commercial flights will make that coverage unreliable. I’m not sure what that means, since ULA has the rockets and the government can launch their own satellites through ULA, but whatever), etc.

Finally, NASA Watch has an interesting look at what many people seem to have forgotten: the R&D cuts in the new budget proposals–both of them. Worth a read, especially for a look at just what the new budget proposals won’t be funding.

Here’s waiting for more policy news, as agonizing and frustrating as it is.

Because I Haven’t Used the “Interesting” Tag Often Enough

Because, as the title of this post states, I don’t use the “Interesting” tag nearly enough, here are some interesting things that don’t really warrant a full post.

First is this wonderful little comic debunking several “moon hoax” claims, although I imagine most of those who read this blog regularly are not in any particular need of it. Use it to explain to those who might not understand.

Less entertainingly is this from the Orlando Sentinel. As much as the Senate compromise bill has grown on me–the recently-released full text representing what Doug Messier informs us is an upwardly-revised version–this is something about which to be concerned. It’s one of the reasons I didn’t like the original Obama plan’s destinations: without a firm goal and destination, it’s just too easy to be canceled down the line. Same with this; it looks like a good compromise–although it’s still too self-serving for my taste, what with all the pressure to re-use Constellation and Shuttle components–but it might get the axe just like Constellation has from Obama.

At this point I’m wondering whether to give the inch and take a half a mile, or to stand firm and possibly lose it altogether. In other words, should I support the compromise bill or not? I’m doubting much upwards revision will take place from here; from what I see, it might end up that the House and Senate bills will rise and drop (respectively) to meet somewhere in the middle. Sounds good politically, I suppose, but practically? I bet it would stink.

“Acts of Congress” Indeed

So the text of the Senate bill is out, finally. Also down the pipe this week is a comparable House proposal. What does Congress seem to agree on? Yep: cutting commercial crew.

I’ve talked about this before. The Senate commercial crew cuts were opposed by Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, and the R&D cuts were opposed by Senator Barbara Boxer of California. I’m reading through the text now to see if their amendments passed (doesn’t look good: of the ~$4 billion set for “Exploration”, it seems that more than half of it is going to the civil launch system and capsule. Of what’s left, ~$600 million is set for commercial crew and cargo. Still, better than the House bill [see below]).

But the House bill is pretty clear: cut it to the quick! What I initially read as ~$4.5 billion for commercial crew–which I’d been excited about, as the Obama plan talks about $6 billion over five years–is really for “Exploration” in 2011, of which only ~$50 million or so is for commercial crew, at least for the first year.

And then there’s this. Depressing, a bit, especially so soon after celebrating the 41st anniversary of Apollo 11. Really? 41 years? What the hell, guys? I’m part of the generation your generation was supposed to make the world a better place for. Sure, you ended the Cold War, but what’s with this?

Okay, so here’s what they say about us:

United States

The U.S. remains the clear global leader, but the county’s position has eroded in each of the past three years. The formulation of a new national space policy is a step in the right direction, but as Futron CEO Joe Fuller notes, ‘To retain its leadership position, the U.S. must leverage its secret space weapon—American industry—and align it with strategy, policy, and budget.'”

Yep. So, why aren’t we doing that? Oh yeah, because nobody’s paying for it. Good job, Congress. Instead we get political pandering and home-state dollar-winning–except for Nelson, for some reason. Oh sure, mitigating the job loss at KSC and elsewhere is good for Florida, but is it as good as it could be? The Commercial Spaceflight Federation doesn’t think so.

So just when I was starting to like the Obama plan, Congress goes and screws with it. And then the White House praises the Senate legislation as a compromise bill? Okay, it is a compromise, and it does hit all the salient points that Obama wanted, but it doesn’t do what needs to be done: fostering a vibrant American commercial space industry, fleshing out all the wasted R&D years (finally), and putting us somewhere significant and permanent in space (which, admittedly, nobody is doing right now).

So I’m dejected, just a bit. I’m not sure what to think since all the legislation has to run through appropriations and markups and this and that and nothing’s really definite right now…

More waiting, I guess. If the end result is much like the initial efforts, I doubt I’ll like it.

Postscript: Actually, after reviewing the original FY 2011 proposal by the White House, it seems that commercial crew and cargo would get a combined $812 million for the first year under the proposed plan. Not that bad for the Senate, then, if I’m parsing that right. House still sucks, though. What got cut in the Senate, I wonder…

It goes on: ~$250 million for FY2011 from the Senate for “Exploration Technology Development”, which might be the same as the $559 million set aside for “Heavy-Lift and Propulsion R&D” in the original Obama plan, although the difference error is smaller in 2012 ($437 million Senate vs $594 million Obama).

I’m confused, then. So what, really, got cut? A couple hundred million here and there–a lot, sure, but compare to the House! Where’s all this money for the Space Launch System coming from? Granted, I’m not reading the entire bill, but the Senate one, at least, seems…tolerable. Maybe. With, as the CSF says, some work.

Although, if Congress would spend maybe a little of the time they usually spend messing around with silly things and put it towards making nice, more easily-followed documents like the Obama plan’s, I’d be more willing to slog through all the details and numbers at almost 1 o’clock in the morning.

Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution…

This is basically a brief update on the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 that left committee earlier this week (which some like, and others don’t). Specifically, the Boxer and Warner Amendments. The summaries below are from the NSS and are not my words.

Warner Amendment:

“This amendment proposed by Senator Warner of Virginia would close the gap by fully reversing cuts to commercial crew development funding and by removing arbitrary restrictions preventing a commercial crew competition from beginning in 2011. The amendment would boost commercial crew funding to the level recommended by the President, adding $2.1 billion over three years, a nearly threefold boost. This will close the gap and ensure U.S. access to the International Space Station.”

Bam! That’s half the battle right there! Restoring one of the best parts of the FY2011 budget by getting funding back to commercial crew. The only way to make space really mainstream is to let people make some freakin’ money off of it!

Boxer Amendment:

“This amendment proposed by Senator Barbara Boxer of California would restore cuts to robotic precursor missions, advanced technologies like fuel depots, in-space propulsion, and radiation shielding, and university research. In FY11, the amendment boosts Robotic Precursors by 130%, Exploration Technology Demonstrations by 230%, and the Space Technology Program by 55%, for a total of $356 million more for technology and robotics in FY11.”

Now, I’m not sure how much this reverses the cuts proposed by Senator Nelson, but any level of reversal is desirable over no level of reversal. Critics are completely correct in saying that the lack of R&D at NASA over the past few decades is terrible. We should be going farther, faster, cheaper, and instead we’re going nowhere (choice of destinations aside).

There’s also the Udall Amendment, which is mostly about commercial suborbital science funding. While certainly useful, it does not really fall under my purview, which is more HSF-oriented.

So the main reason I’m waiting for the full text is to determine whether or not the first two amendments–Warner’s and Boxer’s–have been adopted. If so, the proposed bill will likely get my stamp of approval. If not, well