A Space-Policy-Problem Primer

For those who are not in the know, the United States’ Space Program is facing a period of emotional and political unrest. It is torn between the visionary goals of tomorrow, the practicalities of today, and the fragile hearts of thousands upon thousands (millions, really) of people.

Not all people, of course. The private space industry–the Commercial Spaceflight Federation and its member companies, for starters–are understandably ecstatic. You see, America is ceding Low Earth Orbit and the International Space Station to the private industry, and many people are worried about that.

Instead, we’re going to Mars by way of the asteroid belt–a bit like going to Atlanta with a stopover in Miami–Earth-crossing asteroids (thanks for the update [see comments below]) for an eventual permanent Mars landing…in about 2035. Between now and then are a bevy of technological innovations, a touchdown on an asteroid, and a loop around Mars a la Apollo 8 (about 2030).

The big Moon rockets that NASA has spent the last six years and $9 billion developing to get us back to the Moon in 2020 are gone, and in some ways good riddance to them. They’ve been plagued by cost and schedule overruns ever since the Vision for Space Exploration laid down by the Bush Administration in 2004, where the President told NASA to go back to the Moon within its budget of about $18.7 billion per year. That represents about 0.5 % of the federal budget, about one-tenth of the percentage that NASA used to get us to the Moon back in the 1960’s. Seeing the problem already?

So, Obama–the fixer-upper of America that he is–scrapped the under-funded, over-budget, behind-schedule Constellation program in favor of this new initiative to maybe get us to Mars in 2035-ish. Sound a little familiar to some of you older people? It should; George H. W. Bush said something similar about getting us to Mars in 2019, way back in 1990. It was 29 years then, and it’s 25 years now, until the completion of either Mars goal. The President can say what he likes.

The difference is, this President is doing something that bothers a whole lot of people: shutting down America’s access to space. You see, one of the few things Obama didn’t cut from the Bush space plan was the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2010/2011. With just three flights schedule, and with the production of new parts necessary to get a Shuttle into space already shut down, it’s definitely curtains for the ol’ flying bricks. That means that, for about two years minimum by some estimates, the United States will be flying exclusively on Russian rockets until the American private industry can take up the slack. The layoffs and loss of knowledge (the “brain drain”, as it is called) from NASA will not be small or insignificant in any fashion.

This has happened before: the loss of Challenger and Columbia, and the period between Apollo and the Shuttle, left us for a few years with no access to space. With Columbia, we even had astronauts flying on Russian rockets to the International Space Station. But now, there’s nothing in the wings, no accident from which to recover and start flying again. The U.S. will never launch another spacecraft from the surface of the Earth again.

But we won’t stop exploring, of course. We’re going to Mars, remember? Twenty-five years of technological development, with no timetable of milestones and little in the way of engineering requirements. At least now we have a destination. It was a few months between the initial announcement of the new plan and Obama’s more recent attempts to curry favor with the space community by changing his tone just a little.

So let’s review:

1) no more bloated moon rockets, taking up space (ha ha…) and money.

2) the private industry is finally given a chance–so to speak–at earning its wings in space.

3) we’re not going back to the Moon (to quote the President, “We’ve been there before.”), but rather on to Mars and the asteroid belt, the most resource-heavy place in the solar system (asteroids), and the place where we are most likely to create a life-sustaining world on which to live (Mars).

So why might I have a problem with any of those things? Well, we’re also supposed to get a heavy-lift launch vehicle (the design for which–just the design–is due by sometime in 2015) for hauling up the huge pieces of equipment necessary to build our Mars ships and…other stuff, presumably. However, we already have plans for that. Ares V, which looks like what might happen if you took bits from the Space Shuttle and stuck them together in a different pattern (which, of course, is exactly what they did), has a lift capacity of 350,000 lbs, about 44 tons more than the previous heavy-lift vehicle, the Saturn V moon rocket. That’s what they mean by “heavy lift”.

But apparently that isn’t good enough. The rocket has plenty of design problems, sure, but its problems with budget and scheduling are not indicative of its own worthlessness, but rather the ignorant planning of the previous administration. Continuing to do business as usual, while at the same time developing completely new rocket systems, was a mistake that any casual observer should have noticed.

In any case, Ares V is gone, as well as its crew-bearing compatriot Ares I (basically, a big fiery stick with people on top), and we’re getting…something. Nobody’s quite sure yet, but then again, the budget hasn’t passed, and a law passed last year (the 2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act) prevents NASA from shutting down the Constellation program without Congressional approval), so nobody can even start the work until this is resolved.

Now, what about the private industry? Kudos to them, I say, and a necessary move, except that I don’t think that it’s going to be that easy. It worked for planes back in 1925 (the Kelly Act of 1925, also known as the Airmail Act), when the U.S. government began issuing mail-carrying contracts to bolster the then-fledgling private air cargo industry, but there are several key differences. First, as Mr. Charles Homans’ excellent article from Washington Monthly explains, the planes could go between two places where people lived, and the need was necessary and obvious. Also, the industry was fledgling–implying, correctly in this case, that they had just begun to fly, and were just in need of contracts. In contrast, the current rocket industry has no commercial contracts to carry humans into space or any cargo to the International Space Station, but they are carrying satellites. Boeing and Lockheed Martin have been carrying cargo into space for many years, and they are certainly part of the private industry.

My point here is that the government is the only market for humans in space at the moment, and while it may make sense to support that market in the near-term, it has to get bigger and stand on its own. Take satellite launches: NASA was clearly the principle customer for many years, but repeated purchases (using the notoriously difficult and costly cost-plus strategy, wherein there is little to no incentive to innovate or save money or time) eventually opened a market for companies such as DirecTV or Iridium. The hope is that this will happen for human spaceflight, but while the need and use for satellites is obvious–at least with the wonderful twenty-twenty of hindsight–the need for people in space is less so. In fact, it is hotly contested. As Mr. Homans says, the NewSpace companies (as they have come to be called) must not only fulfill a market niche, they must essentially create one if they are to prosper independently.

Finally, returning to the Moon versus continuing on to Mars. The one thing everybody seems to agree on in this issue is that Mars is the short-term–relatively speaking–ultimate destination for human exploration. It is the only planetoid except for the Earth that we think we can make capable of supporting human life on its surface (with the possible exception of Titan, which is a moon of Saturn that contains water ice and rock), and it will one day be a necessary human colony. But that day is not today.

The recent discovery of large quantities water on the lunar poles, something that would have been of immense value back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, went largely unnoticed by the general populace. For the first time, the extremely heavy and expensive task of launching potable water and fuel (in this case, the same hydrogen and oxygen that powers the Space Shuttle, trapped in the form of water and hydroxyl [OH]) to the Moon is practically nonexistent (some estimates claim that a single robot working for a few months could prepare enough water to support the initial colony), and the United States is…ignoring it. The President says, “We’ve already been there.”

Well, what if Columbus’ backers, the monarchy of Spain, had said, “Well, you’ve already been to the New World, Columbus. You’ve found some interesting things, but there’s not much point in going back.” You and I might not be here right now–wherever you, dear reader, may be living. Of course, it took a few years to get the job done in the first place, but we’ve already passed that point.

Lunar material–the top part of the surface known as “regolith”, the part that you and I can see from the Earth–can be processed (using, among other things, water [in some methods]) into a hardy material that can be used to build structures on the Moon and will protect against solar and cosmic radiation. In addition, the lunar regolith can be made into beams and other structures, launched (very cheaply given the Moon’s low gravity) into orbit around the Earth, and used to build megastructures such as space colonies, huge interplanetary spaceships capable of taking huge amounts of cargo and passengers to Mars, or Space Solar Power Satellites, which can produce all the world’s electricity without a single spurt of carbon dioxide, especially when being built on the Moon and literally thrown to Earth.

In addition, the far side of the Moon is perfect for a radio telescope, shielded as it would be from all the noise of the Earth’s electrical infrastructure. It could also play home to Mars-mission training grounds, providing an isolated spot that is nonetheless only a few days’ travel from the Earth. Missions to Mars would have a much easier time leaving the Moon’s gravity than the much stronger gravity of the Earth, reducing fuel costs and/or increasing payload capacity.

In addition, as my earlier post will tell you (go read it; I’ll still be here), the Moon is an incredibly valuable military and political symbol. A base on the Moon–even one that is entirely non-military–will have enormous militaristic applications and implications, especially in a time of great need. After all, there isn’t much difference between a scientific research base and a military one.

So, in conclusion, while there is a lot to like about the space program, the new plan is by no means perfect, or even (in many ways) acceptably compromising. The President’s remarks regarding our return to the lunar surface are particularly cringe-worthy. The future of space exploration is not set in stone, nor is it likely to be entirely on America’s terms. But with a little dialogue–something else that is missing from an Administration that is supposedly trying to make the governmental process more transparent–and a lot of hard work, this country can lead the way: back to the Moon for all the benefits it brings; using space for clean energy; on to asteroids which will one day support colonies and entire planets with their resources; to Mars which will provide a safe haven for humanity if ever something should befall Earth; and, eventually, to the stars, to spread life and mind across the cosmos, as some have postulated is the purpose of humanity in an empty, lonely Universe.

I hope my primer here has helped to alleviate any confusion–or to get your creative juices flowing, as Mr. Homans’ article did for me (although, it must be noted, I do not agree with his implications about human spaceflight, as right as he is about the accomplishments of robotic spacecraft). At the least, I hope you’ve started thinking a little more about what space travel means to the future of humanity, and of this country.

It’s very important, everyone. More important than anything we’ve ever done.

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3 Responses to A Space-Policy-Problem Primer

  1. mike shupp says:

    We are not going to the asteroid belt, actually, with Obama’s plan. We’re going to one or perhaps several asteroids with highly eccentric orbits of the sun that cut across earth’s. There are dozens if not hundreds of these “Apollo asteroids”, mostly with 3-30 mile diameters; a couple get with several million miles of earth most years.

  2. Ah. Thanks for the correction. I suppose that does make more sense than shooting past Mars on our way to it.

  3. Pingback: The Debate Rages On… « The Space Geek

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