Ground Control to Colonel Glenn

So the Next Big News in the space community this week–at least, so far–is that John Glenn himself, third American in space and the first to orbit the Earth, has come out in favor of continuing to fly the shuttle. As that Space Politics page says, what else is new? Colonel Glenn has been saying this since 2008.

What strikes me as odd is–you guessed it!–his opinions on a return to the Moon. Not odd in terms of his personality–I’m afraid I don’t know Colonel Glenn particularly well, personally–but rather, this statement (from Space Politics again):

“‘To establish a lunar base is extremely expensive and can wait, at least for now,’ he writes. ‘Other expenditures pale beside that one.'”

Oh? This is the same man who said that:

“Cost savings with Shuttle cancellation are minimal, if any, when all factors of Russian launch are considered, and with the charge per astronaut undoubtedly going higher and higher in subsequent years.”

I’ll leave it to Mr. Foust to explain (again from Space Politics):

“The claim in his letter retiring the shuttle would result in ‘minimal, if any’ cost savings don’t appear to add up, something overlooked in media accounts of his letter. The shuttle program currently costs NASA about $3 billion a year, according to NASA budget documents. Assuming an average of six NASA-purchased Soyuz seats a year (half those available on the four Soyuz flights to the ISS) at $55 million a seat the price starting in 2013, that’s $330 million a year. One can add to that cargo costs from the CRS contracts ($3.5 billion to Orbital and SpaceX through 2016), but that adds up to no more than about $700 million a year. Even if you’re able to reduce shuttle operations costs to about $2 billion a year, as some suggest, shuttle operations still appear significantly more expensive.”

(Emphasis mine.)

So, clearly, unless Colonel Glenn’s prophesied Soyuz seat cost increase is on the order of about five times their current price, retiring the Shuttle makes sense from a financial standpoint. Whether it makes sense from an occupational or technological standpoint is up for debate (oh boy is it ever).

I’d like to see which other expenditures pale beside the idea of constructing a lunar base. Or, perhaps more importantly, where the cost savings will come (there must be cost savings to reap if it’s worth ignoring a lunar base to get them). Will they come from the semi-accurate and meaningful preparation for deeper-space missions? Or will they come from the valuable resources we can use to build megastructures like Powersats? How about the long-term and permanent population expansion from the surface of the Earth? What about the scientific benefits we could reap?

Which projects are we working on, exactly, that will provide more benefits–in the long run and in the short run–to both this country and the world than a lunar base? It can’t be Space-Based Solar Power if we can’t even have a conference on it, and that’s about the only thing I can think of that I would put, at least in the short term, above a lunar base (not that I think the two are mutually exclusive or should even be approached separately).

Or could it be that the magnitude of the expenditures pales against those of a lunar base? It can’t be that, because that’s a good argument for pursuing a base on the Moon.

And I wonder at the logic of heading straight off to Mars with little knowledge or experience of the kind that is necessary to make the voyage, both physiologically and technologically. For example, long-duration space station missions are all well and good for studying the physiological aspects of living in space, but what about the psychological aspects? The Earth is forever in your window on the space station. On the far side of the Moon, you can get about as isolated as you’re going to get without actually going to Mars, which I imagine is rather important when planning and training for a Mars mission. Even the Mars520 Project is on the Earth. The normal gravity and innate knowledge of where you are (namely, on the Earth) might provide a psychological buffer that will not be there during actual missions.

I was going to post something about Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger’s (D-MD) visit to Huntsville (where he said some very reasonable things about the space policy shift, and promised to “promote [MSFC] as the future of space propulsion” [to quote the article]), but I think that might detract a little from the rest of the post.

So, in conclusion, I’m firmly convinced Colonel Glenn’s heart is in the right place–and much less so about his numbers.

Postscript and edit: I would like to add, of course, that I have nothing but the utmost respect for the men and women who have served our country, not only as astronauts but in the military as well, but that doesn’t mean I have to agree with them all the time. I don’t mean to imply that Colonel Glenn’s mental faculties are at question, but rather, I’d like to see where he got his numbers.

Another quick edit: Just to show that we’re all really on the same side here, this is from the end of the letter:

“There is another thing we’ve learned.  Whatever direction we take, appropriations must be made to do it right.  It cannot be done ‘on the cheap.’  Space travel is a perilous business at best and will become even more so the further we go from earth.

We are not alone in manned space flight plans.  The governments of China and India have declared their intention to develop robust and far-traveling manned spacecraft.  China has already accomplished manned space flight in low earth orbit.

While they have a considerable way to go to equal our current manned space abilities, they are dedicated, and are putting major resources into their programs.

In a lighter vein – but appropriate – the late astronaut Gus Grissom put it very succinctly many years ago during a discussion of funding adequacy for our first manned entry into space on Project Mercury:

‘No bucks, no Buck Rogers.’

He was right.”


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