The Debate Rages On…

Okay, fellow space geeks, there’s quite a bit to cover today!

First, Space News has an interesting summary article (from Eric Sterner, who has served as NASA’s Associate Deputy Administrator for Policy and Planning), clearly written from the point of view of someone who actually understands the engineering process.

Writing about the 2015 HLV decision:

“NASA cannot design mission requirements in any disciplined way (something NASA already has extraordinary difficulty doing) if it doesn’t know what will be demanded of the hardware. Without requirements, it cannot design a system and without a system, the country isn’t going anywhere.”

Agreed.

“[The Administration’s] initiatives may be worthy of a great space program, but in eliminating the focus of returning to the Moon and going on to Mars—as well as the political consensus behind it — the administration has robbed the nation of a great space program.”

Also agreed. I–and others–have expounded upon the benefits of a return to (and the exploitation of) the lunar surface, even as we continue to Mars, so I won’t go into them here.

Next up, it’s The Planetary Society. I have a lot of trouble relating to TPS sometimes. Space operations can generally be distributed into two groups: human and nonhuman operations (AKA, robotic probes and such). Those of us–like myself–who advocate for human operations in space as the primary motivator and goal of the space program can be further broken down: the Moon first (myself, Dr. Spudis), Mars first (Dr. Robert Zubrin and The Mars Society), and somewhere like an asteroid (President Obama, and [so it seems] The Planetary Society).

Now, the phrase that I see most often in that TPS link–appearing, in fact, at least three times on that page alone–is “beyond the Moon”. This bugs me, and I often tire of repeating myself: why, oh why, do we ignore the Moon? TPS and I share the same goal: human beings living and working in space in perpetuity. However, we differ about the way in which we should go about accomplishing that goal. The TPS article talks about the problems with the new plan, not really in the plan itself, but rather in the way the Administration presented the plan.

Although I personally felt a little stunned by the sudden and extreme shift in NASA policy when the new plan was first introduced, I’ve had plenty of time to get over it. Now, the problems aren’t with the presentation, but with the plan itself. TPS did note that the plan has yet to be adequately explained as well, but I don’t see that as being much of a real issue either. Rather, instead of believing in some as-yet unprovided detail that exists in the plan, I–and, I think, many others–see this confusion as an artifact of a mere skeleton of a plan.

Now, honestly, I think I could go all-in on the new plan if not for that shocking statement: “We’ve already been there.” I’ve mentioned this before.

In fact, that’s a big problem, come to think of it: I’ve mentioned all of this, and more, before: the non-return to the Moon, the unnecessary labeling of SpaceX as a proxy for the plan as a whole (not just the commercial aspect of it, of which I now approve), the vagueness of the new plan and its potential for allowing interest to wane in the coming years post-Obama…

To be honest I’m sick of it. Not sick enough to give up the argument of returning to the Moon, but sick of all this nothing that appears to be “happening”.

And now Congress is requesting documents from NASA regarding the creation and details of the new policy. I hardly can imagine any kind of conspiracy, what knowledge do they seek to gain? What progress will they make, and to what goal? Where are we going in space? What are we doing? Where do we want to go? I feel like I’m as knowledgeable as most non-industry and non-government people in the space community, and I don’t know anything about what’s going on!

Have I even talked about what I really want for the space program, except a return to the Moon? Let’s do it anyway:

1) Commercial takes over ISS and LEO operations. I’ve been advocating this for years, and it’s a wonderful idea (especially if we go with the ULA fuel depot route, or something similar).

2) Develop the technologies to support specific missions, to Lagrangian points, Mars, asteroids, and the lunar surface all at once. VASIMR, fuel depots, what have you, just get it done!

3) Earth-observing programs should, where applicable, be assigned to NOAA instead of NASA. Why get NASA to do it? It really isn’t NASA’s job, or if it is, why have NOAA?

4) Maybe offer a tax break or something to companies which can provably demonstrate utilization of space resources and contribute to the development of a space economy. Companies could start with JAXA’s Hayabusa as a demonstration of technology that can accomplish this–ion engines, sample return, etc–for returning resources to the Earth from an asteroid. It’s already proven technologically, so just scale it up.

A holistic approach to space exploration is really the only way we’re going to get anything done in the long term, and encouraging private industry to invest in space is the only way it’s going to be long term at all.

Money a problem? Tough, I think. Quibble over NASA or give the funding for, say, unpopular wars to an organization that likely holds the keys to fast economic recovery and prosperity, eco-friendly energy sources, the safeguarding of humanity against external threats–either by direct intervention or offworld colonization, the enhancement of the prestige and power of the United States in the world…? I think the choice is an easy one, personally.

If this were a LiveJournal entry, I would be “mood: frustrated”.

At this point, I would move on to an interesting proposal by Roscosmos head Anatoly Perminov about using the ISS as a base to build exploration vehicles, but in reviewing my notes for this post I’ve reread this letter from the President to the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. Specifically, this part:

Moreover, provided for your consideration is a FY 2011 Budget amendment for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). This request would fund an initiative to develop a plan to spur regional economic growth and job creation along the Florida Space Coast and other affected regions in furtherance of my Administration’s bold new course for human space flight, which revitalizes NASA and transitions to new opportunities in the space industry and beyond.”

It’s not the contents of the amendment that annoy me, it’s the tone, a tone that I have become all too used to in my recent dive into the politics of spaceflight: smug.

“…bold, new course…which revitalizes NASA and transitions to new opportunities…” A brilliant orator he may be, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get annoyed.

Mr. President, many aspects of your plan are good and necessary, but a total acceptance of your proposal does not, in the opinions of many, fulfill the necessary requirements that will keep us on that path to a real space economy, and some of your concessions–Orion-Lite, specifically–feel like patronization (and I don’t even have a vested interest in keeping Orion alive. How do you think its creators might feel?).

As for the heavy-lift rocket, why not this? There’s even a crew option, and studies have already been done showing that a standard LES tower assembly can be made not to impinge upon the ET or any volatile aspect of the spacecraft. Foam falling off? Not to worry! The LES has a BPC, OK? But 2015? Really?

To quote Mr. Sterner:

“This is silly. It’s like deciding you’re going to begin studying the internal combustion engine so you can make an informed decision about whether or not to purchase a car five years from now with the expectation that you might then use the car to go someplace interesting, without committing enough resources to complete your studies.”

Some have argued that a non-SDLV HLV is preferable. I have no opinion one way or the other, really, except the sidemount HLV solution provides a way to retain many of those jobs that people are all upset about.

So that’s my rant for today. I wonder if I can compare what’s going on today to my earlier post and notice much of a change? More than a month has gone by, but somehow, I’m not optimistic.

Note: Thank you to anyone who has read through this post and put up with my ranting. Just a wee bit frustrated and confused (another thing TPS and I agree on).

EDIT: Although, as for the SDHLV, preliminary lift capacity ideas–well, from the 90’s, anyway–aren’t particularly promising. Just a thought.

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3 Responses to The Debate Rages On…

  1. Paul Spudis says:

    Great rant! I would only make one comment in regard to Shuttle-derived systems. The arguments that have been used against them in the press are largely specious. One can decide now whether heavy lift (i.e., payloads greater than 60-80 mT to LEO) are needed for human missions beyond LEO or not. If they are, then SDHL provides an available system that needs no technology “study” or research, just a commitment to build it.

    In contrast, the new path discards that capability for “study” for 5 years, then “a decision” on which heavy lift to build. It is this shell game of a space program that some of us object to. That and the irrational discarding of the Moon from the critical path.

    But keep in mind that all this chaos suits some very well. No policy is a guarantee for no product. And with no product, the space program can be safely and legitimately de-funded forever.

  2. Thanks! It felt good to get some of this frustration off my chest.

    If the purposeful introduction of chaos is what some are really after, hopefully a change of personnel in Congress and/or the Presidential Administration will rectify that. Elections are coming up, after all.

    As for whether we need a HLV, I’m rather fond of that ULA proposal from back in late 2009, talking about propellant depots and common propulsion systems. It’s made me really interested in getting something like that going, although I don’t know if that’s something NASA will have to be in on (probably, given the monetary scales in question) or if it can be done mostly privately.

    But you’re right, an HLV decision by 2015 is…well, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. We’ve been talking HLV for years, and we have the know-how to start working on a lifter now, so why wait?

    By the way, I’m a big fan! Thank you for taking the time to read my blog.

  3. Pingback: New Space Policy–Future or Failure? « The Space Geek

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