So What’s With These Reactions?

As anyone who reads my blog (all six of you, on average!) knows, I find myself a constant skeptic. The back-and-forth in the culture these days constantly flips between extremes: it’s either all Cx or all commercial. The answer, I often find in situations like this, is usually somewhere in the middle.

But just because I don’t think that all of our program’s expectations should be heaped on the shoulders of, say, SpaceX, doesn’t mean I’m not proud of them for their accomplishment, if for no other reason than that competition is what’s going to make access to space safer and more affordable.

So I don’t understand the reactions of Senators Kay Hutchison (R-TX) and Richard Shelby (R-AL). The inspiration for this post is from Dr. Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog, so I will be quoting him at some point, I’m sure.

From Sen. Hutchison’s Commerce page:

“Make no mistake, even this modest success is more than a year behind schedule, and the project deadlines of other private space companies continue to slip as well.  This test does not change the fact that commercial space programs are not ready to close the gap in human spaceflight if the space shuttle is retired this year with no proven replacement capability and the Constellation program is simultaneously cancelled as the President proposes.”

A little harsh, isn’t it? Elon musk famously lamented the fact that a  Republican from Texas is so against a private Texan company.

Straight from (the first place I found on Google so I could get a citation):

“’I don’t understand why she’s trying to hurt a Texas company,’ he said[.”]

As I said. Much has been made about the backwardsness of the partisan reactions to the new program, of course, but this is getting ridiculous. I’m tired of all this sniping at one another. The “trench warfare” analogy is apt.

Here’s how I see it, and I’m sure I’ve covered these points before:

SpaceX’s accomplishment is laudable, of course, but to say:

“What they have done is amazing and important. They’re the first to do this, but there are several more companies close behind.”

as Dr. Plait has, is, well, weird to me. First to do what? The rocket can’t carry as much as existing ULA rockets, although it was funded and designed by a single entity instead of through NASA, and it’s also a fully reusable two-stage rocket. These are great accomplishments, but I agree with Elon Musk:

“‘The Falcon 9 launch…should not be a verdict on commercial space.”

By the same token, its successes should not be an overall indicator of the viability of the Obama plan (to which I think I will be in permanent opposition of its holistic adoption until he reverses his Moon stance).

So my point here is, on the one side, the SpaceX-bashing is unnecessary and unfounded–they have clearly done a good job, and deserve to enjoy their success–but accepting a single successful launch as evidence of a viable policy, much less a viable launch system, is likewise unnecessary and unfounded. The problem with rocketry is that every flight is a test flight in aerospace terms. Aircraft take dozens or hundreds of test flights before they are declared viable for regular use. There are perhaps a half a dozen rockets in existence that satisfy the usual standards (the Soyuz launcher comes to mind, as does the Space Shuttle–if only barely). I don’t think even the current EELV fleet counts under the usual standards.

So again, congratulations to SpaceX, but we’re not out of the woods yet. I’m not sure we’ve even begun to cut through the thick part of the underbrush, but we’ll see. I’m still holding out for a more comprehensive plan.

On a side note, though Dr. Plait and I do not agree on everything (for example, I think NOAA should take care of climate research, not NASA), we each have reservations about the Obama plan (check out #4, especially). I also think that Orion is a good project, although I think the dumbed-down Orion-Lite CRV is a little unnecessary.


2 Responses to So What’s With These Reactions?

  1. mike shupp says:

    Well… being charitable, suppose you’re a Republican senator or representative with a deep interest in space policy and you feel concern about President Obama’s plans for NASA. There’s not much you can do to affect the administration unless perhaps you can stir up large numbers of constituents and the blunt fact is this isn’t going to work except in places with large numbers of space-related jobs. Sorry about that, but there are other issues on the national plate, and for most Congressmen trying to keep the voters in line on health care and the recession and Mideast wars and global warming and banking regulation has a higher priority than space. So types like Hutchinson and Shelby have to bear the load.

    Also, being charitable, their power to bestir the voters is limited because (a) the voters have other issues to worry about, and (b) the voters aren’t well informed on space issues, so appeals to them have to be based on very simple terms. “A change is coming. It’s going to hurt. People will lose their jobs! Unless you rise up and demand that change does not come!”

    Still being charitable, I’ll point out that there’s very little economic reward for most people in becoming knowledgable on space issues, so there’s no great reason to expect them to be well informed. And even if they wanted to be knowledgable about space matters, there are few decent sources of knowledge — TV news, magazines, and newspapers don’t devote much coverage to current space issues, let alone supply the sort of historical context needed for creating informed viewpoints. Even the internet is pretty crappy. And if you don’t start off with a deep well of prior knowledge — if you aren’t a college prof or engineering student or someone working in the space business — it’s hard to tell reasonably sensible sources of information (Keith Cowling, say) from fruit cakes. So it’s understandable that the voters are — charitably! — dumb.

    And so the usual senatorial sorts end up making the usual stupid jobs pitch to the usual ignorant voters, securing the usual ineffectual results. Sad, but that’s how politics works these days.

    Being charitable.


    Of course we might sit around a few hours sipping bourbon and chit-chatting about this and that and we both might find some uncharitable things to think about….

  2. Haha, that we might.

    I hadn’t thought about that first angle. You make a good point. I’d like to see more voters knowledgeable about, well, much of anything regarding current affairs, but as that seems unlikely, I can probably stash my hopes about voters being knowledgeable about space, too. I’ve had many people I’ve talked to–friends and colleagues, mostly–comment on how awful it is that they’re shutting down the space program, which leads me to make the usual, “well, it’s not really being shut down, here’s how it is,” explanations, which, given the right–or wrong, depending on how you see it–audience, can be a trifle tiring.

    But I have this blog to keep me company, at least. Thank you for your comments. It’s always nice to discuss these things with interested parties.

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