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.

Conflict Resolution…of a Sort.

So not a whole lot has happened in the space community this past week. Some asteroid flyby pictures which were pretty nifty, a bungled Progress docking attempt that snagged it on the second try…

Oh yeah: this. The whole “Muslim outreach” thing? Yeah, not news. Come on, people, you know what he really meant. Maybe the administrator of our nation’s space program has more important things to be doing than running on diplomatic missions, but this is hardly the scandal it’s set up to be.

And if you just have to be angry about it, read this. Why get angry about something that doesn’t matter when you can get angry about something that does matter? Namely, wasted time of the worst “journalistic” sort.

And if you just have to be angry at Administrator Bolden, read this. “The United States can’t do it”, eh? “Can’t” and “Would be easier if we had international help” are rather different concepts. Sure, let’s all go to Mars, but why not have each country build their own ship (Neil deGrasse Tyson gave me that idea, but I can’t for the life of me find the video)? That way we can get all the benefits of international cooperation with none of the big problems–like slow pacing, engineering conflicts, bickering over resource usage, etc.

To quote Dr. Spudis:

“It’s one thing to assert that the Unites States desires more international collaboration as a matter of policy for reasons of fostering alliances, developing new cultural ties, or even to promote world peace.  It’s an entirely different proposition to assert that the United States has lost the ability to reach for the stars, that America is incapable of exploring space alone.  Have we become comfortable with the idea that it’s politically incorrect to have pride in our nation’s abilities – past, present and future?”

Something to think about.

Okay, so, moving on. There are a pair of articles coming in from Florida this weekend talking about a new bill in the Senate that might help resolve this whole thing. Perhaps not resolved particularly well, but resolved nonetheless.

From Florida Today:

“A U.S. Senate committee is likely to approve a compromise authorization bill next week that would allow NASA to develop back-ups to commercial rockets by funding a government rocket and spacecraft, Sen. Bill Nelson said Friday.”

A tonally different take from the Orlando Sentinel:

“The Senate subcommittee charged with NASA oversight will present a $19 billion bill this week that kills President Barack Obama’s proposed shakeup of the agency’s human-spaceflight program, in the process cutting billions from commercial rocket and technology projects that supporters say would have benefited Kennedy Space Center.”

So what it looks like is happening is this: if this bill becomes law–which it probably won’t without some changes and committee debates–then NASA is forced to continue Orion and Ares I development (to have them ready to go by 2016). It also drastically cuts–by a few billion–the amount of money going into commercial crew and rocket development. It also drastically cuts R&D and robotic missions, although the latter doesn’t bother me quite as much (I’m sure it ticks off you scientist-types, though, so there you have it).

But what might be most troubling of all is this from the Sentinel article:

“The Senate bill, which if passed would lay out the direction of the space program for the next three years, would revive the fortunes of Utah’s solid-rocket maker, ATK, by requiring NASA to keep using its solid-rocket motors for a new heavy-lift rocket.”

And:

“It also orders NASA to ‘utilize existing contracts, investments, workforce, industrial base, and capabilities from the space shuttle and former Orion and Ares I projects.’ This could save billions in termination costs but force NASA to continue using ATK’s solid-rocket motors that the White House had hoped to scrap in favor of a liquid-fueled rocket, like the Saturn V that launched astronauts to the moon in 1969.”

Those two quotes reveal two things with a single root: politicians are trying to design rockets. In one case, the new bill would require NASA to “keep using [ATK’s] solid-rocket motors for a new heavy-lift rocket.”

Um. Let’s not do that, Senator Nelson and company. It’s blatant state favoritism, and while I can see why sending money to one’s constituents–although Sen. Nelson is from Florida, so what’s up with that?–is a good thing in terms of being a representative of the people, the national legislature also has to do what’s right for the country at large. If switching to an all-liquid rocket and pumping money into commercial launchers–which, by the way, will probably end up launching from KSC–is better for the nation and the country’s space efforts, then that’s what we should do.

By the same token, White House officials, hoping to “scrap” solids for an all-liquid bird isn’t any better. If solid rocket boosters are what’s right for the job, then that’s what we should do. If an immutable requirement of the booster is that it is more environmentally friendly, then we let science and engineering fix that problem. NOT politicians.

It’s the worst kind of political design-by-committee bullpucky and we don’t need it. Some argue (it may even be true, but I don’t have the hard facts to back it up, so I’m coaching it in general terms) that the current design of the Space Shuttle–flaws and all–is a product of this sort of politicking. (See comments section below)

So if this passes, we’ll have our space program on the move again. No longer a “zombie program”–continuing to develop and test technologies that might ultimately end up scrapped–but not really alive, either. It’s a sort of “worst-of-all-worlds” limbo program. It doesn’t have a strong commercial emphasis to start pushing human spaceflight into the mainstream. It doesn’t have a strong NASA emphasis to begin expansion into near-Earth space–or any space, for that matter. It doesn’t have a strong R&D emphasis that, though potentially delaying human expansion into space (beyond the ISS, I mean), might in five or ten years allow for incredible and fast-paced expansion.

It’s a “jack of all trades, master of none” scenario, without the added benefit of not having to do all of those tasks particularly well as a normal jack might. It’s pretty obvious–to repeat myself–that it’s political pandering instead of real expansionism and progress. It doesn’t even help to close the gap, as SpaceX or Orbital or Orion on a ULA rocket might have.

The safety argument doesn’t even seem valid. SpaceX has already designed their rocket to meet human-rating specifications, and it’s not like there wouldn’t have been rigorous NASA-held safety checks before any NASA employees set foot in a commercial rocket.

Sentinel: “In general comments last week, Nelson described the bill as a ‘compromise’ that preserves some White House priorities — like more funding for Earth sciences — and retains some money for commercial rocket and technology development.”

If the “compromise” of this bill includes more money for Earth science, that’s just another straw on the pile. NASA doing Earth science is like NOAA launching Space Shuttles–it just doesn’t make sense to me. Oh, I can see where they’re coming from–NASA is the “space place” after all–but still.

It doesn’t even change the part of the Obama plan I like the least–the “Flexible Path” to nowhere specific. We’re still going to an asteroid first, and then to Mars. Personally, if we just went somewhere with the intent of building a permanent settlement and base for human expansion into space, I’d be happy with it. My advocacy of the Moon is mostly based on the fact that building a settlement there first would be, comparatively, pretty easy.

Now, all that being said, there are one or two good points. From the Florida Today article:

“Faster development of a heavy-lift launch vehicle to begin in 2011 instead of 2015.While saying it was not the committee’s place to design rockets, Nelson said the giant launcher–capable of lifting at least 75 metric tons–should be largely derived from shuttle systems and likely would use solid rocket boosters, like the Constellation program’s Ares I and Ares V rockets.”

An interesting concession, there, when they’re clearly trying to design a rocket. The point of my quoting this is thus: if heavy-lift is what we need–and it makes a certain amount of sense–sooner is better than later. I don’t know where they get that 75-ton figure either, but whatever.

“Nearly $2 billion to make KSC a ’21st Century launch complex.’ The bill would preserve funding proposed to modernize KSC facilities so they could process and launch various kinds of vehicles.”

This was one of the things I liked best about the Obama plan: KSC needs to be a real, modern spaceport. Eventually, I want to fly down to KSC, hop a rocket to a space station, and catch my lunar ferry to the polar base. We can’t do that if we’re working with fifty-year-old technology at the time. Hopefully just fifty years, anyway…

There are a couple of other interesting things: finish Orion (a capsule with its own LES, life support, and logistics systems is just a launcher away from operational capabilities), extend the Shuttle (the Atlantis LON [STS-335] turning into STS-135), etc, but mostly my thoughts are as above: fingers in too many pies, butter spread too thinly, insert appropriate adage here…

If the point is getting into space sustainably and permanently, I don’t think this is the way to do it. I don’t think Obama’s plan is either, but it’s a heck of a lot closer than this.

To quote Dr. Spudis once again:

“Occasionally, I’m asked why I stay in the space business.  I do so because I believe in the mission of space exploration and in the importance of moving humanity into the Solar System.  Every now and then, an opportunity arises outside the boundaries of normal business to do something productive and create a lasting legacy – a time when the stars align and a leader refuses to follow the established rules or to unimaginatively subscribe to the conventional wisdom.”

If that time isn’t now, I hope it comes soon.

New Space Policy–Future or Failure?

So I was going to talk about the New New Obama Space Policy that came out this week (while, of course, I was on vacation), and I still am, but not as I usually might.

What I’m not going to do is talk about what’s in the policy at length. I assume anyone reading my blog–all six of you or so–is already familiar with it. If not, click that link at the top of the post. I’ll wait.

Anyway, what I am going to do is talk a little about what I think the plan has done correctly, and what I think needs to be changed. As if I’m the only one, right?

Commercial: Do it, of course. Commercializing LEO for human habitation and utilization is a great idea. It gets people into space who aren’t part of this elite corps of astronauts and cosmonauts and taikonauts and whatever the Europeans call their space travelers (also astronauts, I believe). We need to do for space what the microchip did for personal computers in the 70’s.

International Cooperation: I don’t think anything’s going to come out of this that we expected to get. James Oberg (NBC’s space analyst) talks a lot in this post about the real benefits of this kind of cooperation: technological ones. Namely, the semi-slapdash construction of the space station ended up allowing for greater redundancy and flexibility than a single-contributor system might have done.

According to Mr. Oberg, what we don’t usually get from international cooperation in space are what we most desire from it: peace and price reduction. The ISS hasn’t really been cheaper–if at all–since the inclusion of the Russians back in the 1990’s, and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project didn’t reduce international tensions. Rather, they were both examples of two countries whose tensions were already decreasing declaring to the world their intent to work together peacefully.

Also, the benefits of such cooperation (page 7, by the way) don’t list one of the most important ones: space-based solar power. Space nuclear power, sure, but nothing that, you know, has the potential to solve our energy problems…or, to take a slightly more realistic approach, at least help ameliorate some of them.

Overall: Okay, I know those two categories don’t cover the entirety of the plan, but most of the rest (defense, commercial contracts for satellite launch, etc) don’t concern me overmuch (except that bit about only developing a space “public option” when a commercial launcher is unavailable, which strikes me as backwards engineering [namely, you don’t develop technology later when you see a potential need for it today]).

So overall, not a lot changed. I don’t feel like he listened to the community much in the months since the Tax Day Speech. I also don’t think an asteroid is an appropriate or necessary destination for crewed missions right now (maybe when we’ve mined one out enough to live in it, but why until then? The science of it notwithstanding, of course), but you probably already knew that if you’ve ready pretty much any of my other blog posts.

I also don’t feel like the new plan says a whole lot. Basically, it’s “let’s buy stuff instead of making it ourselves” (which is usually a good idea for the government) and “let’s get all lovey-dovey with our international partners” (which, while certainly a good PR move, doesn’t strike me as particularly decisive, or as something that’s necessarily going to advance our civilization into space permanently). It’s a lot of Earth-benefit stuff, which–while important–isn’t really my point. I think most of the space enthusiasts are with me on this when I say, where’s our space hotel? Where’s our American Moon base? Where’s our Pan Am shuttle making regular flights to Station V (which, I will grant, Wikipedia tells me is international)?

I repeat myself once again, and in doing so, repeat myself. It’s hardly worth debating anymore, since it never seems to go anywhere. Mostly I’m just waiting to see what the next President might say, or what Congress will do in the meantime (especially with the coming midterm elections). Some are still harping on Constellation, which I see as silly. It’s dead, let it be buried with dignity. Maybe some parts will come back in the HLV, or maybe not.

Some still harp on jobs. It’s regrettable, and I wish I knew what to do about it, but jobs will be lost no matter what since we’re cutting out the Shuttle.

Little discussion is going into the destination or SBSP–though the grassroots movement for the latter is rather persistent, for which I applaud them–which I think is a shame. All this talk about going further and faster and cheaper…but not back to the Moon, because we’ve already been there. Well, Buzz has, not you and me.

But it’s just a plan, of course. Another plan. Congress has yet to budge–or do much of anything except bicker. I do like the idea of a strong American space program, but I don’t really see why we can’t let other countries help. It’s not like we won’t have a strong space program. We still spend more than anyone else on our civil space program (or is that “than anyone else combined“? I’m never sure), and with any luck the new budget will help boost our commercial programs into more worldwide dominance.

So what is a poor blogger to do? It’s no good writing news pieces; if you’re reading me you’ve already seen it. The same opinions over and over again simply seem repetitive and unnecessary. If you want to know my opinions, read most of my other posts. They say about the same things and it saves me the time typing.

For those of you skipping to the end: plan’s okay–as always, some good, some bad. I’m generally repeating myself and have thus become a little disaffected by the constant lack of progress in the debate. We’re not going to the Moon and that bugs me (especially after we found more water).

Just have to wait and see, I suppose. Back to gluing my eyes to my RSS feed reader, hoping for more news. Like I’ve been hoping for almost three months.

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.”

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.

A Few Deficient Acts

Okay, so the big news nowadays in the space world seems to be that NASA has invoked the Anti-Deficiency Act (31 U.S.C. § 1341), which places restrictions on the ability of government agencies to enter into contracts. Now, the ADA is specifically targeted (as far as I can tell) against government institutions, but NASA is leveraging the Act to try and exert influence against the private companies that are building Constellation while the debate rages on in Congress.

This strikes me as interesting–and, perhaps, a little underhanded, especially (though not necessarily implying of anything; I admit I know nothing of the man’s efforts or accomplishments in the PoR) with the removal of Constellation Program Manager Jeff Hanley from his position. Why would NASA be leveraging such an inapplicable law, especially at such a time? Not only will the law not do anything–given that the companies themselves cannot be in noncompliance of a law that doesn’t target them–but the very fact that NASA is trying to exert this kind of shutdown influence speaks volumes about either a) NASA’s true motives in this particular debate or b) NASA’s utter lack of cognizance of public perception and/or knowledge of the laws of the United States, something that comes as a surprise for such a bureaucratic agency.

Now, I will say that there’s a line or two in that Write Stuff article regarding the lunar lander and such things that are supposedly in the works for that $9 billion we’ve already spent on Constellation. As any avid reader of the space blogs knows, about the only thing we’ve received for our money and trouble is a single potshot launch of the Ares I-X demonstrator, which we aren’t really sure actually demonstrated much of anything. Well, that’s not strictly true: we’ve also got an Orion mock-up and functioning LES tower, both of which are likely to be useful if Orion ever gets further off the ground than its abort motor test launch (not that we didn’t already have an Orion Launch Escape System developed…).

Anyway, so, what we have here is an agency with its hands tied behind its back, facing pretty massive job losses, caught between a rock and a hard place, trying–or so it seems–to wield a little power again, to, perhaps, try to insert a little normalcy into the chaos of the past few months. Understandable, I suppose.

But let’s talk about Elon Musk for a bit. On the June 6 edition of This Week in Space, Miles O’Brien interviewed him regarding all the hubbub surrounding his mostly-successful launch of the Falcon 9 rocket.

Musk is understandably enthusiastic about the Obama plan, calling it “the only strategy that has any chance of working.” Now, having given this particular interview a lot of thought, I have this to say: yes, and also no.

The Obama plan was plagued from the start–despite what many see as a halfhearted attempt at placation–from a, shall we say, “lack of vision,” in more ways than one. The Constellation program is scrapped–mostly a correct decision, I think–but so was a return to the Moon–mostly an incorrect decision, I think–in favor of a manned mission to an asteroid and then on to Mars.

My problem with this is as follows: it’s not going to make us any money. I’m a wholehearted believer in space exploration, but not for its own sake (human expansionism and colonization don’t count, to me), and not–at least for now–for the sake of science. We need a space economy, something we can use to make lots of money. That’s the only way sustainable space exploration is going to be available to us. It’s the only reason there were colonies in the New World, and it’s the only reason we’ll have colonies on the Moon. Going to an asteroid might be exciting for a little while, but will it ultimately lead us down the path to permanent and self-sustaining offworld human habitation? I don’t think so. The work that would be done on an asteroid right now can be accomplished with robot miners and an automated package-launching system, the same technology that will likely be used to divert asteroids en-route to Earth.

Mars is a little more appealing, but I’m not convinced we have the technology or the know-how to begin putting people on the planet for the long term, and without a reliable source of income, sustaining that colony is rather unlikely. An asteroid might be a good platform for human habitation, once it’s all mined out, but the impetus for that mining operation has yet to make itself really known, and it’s a little far away to spark the imaginations–and open the wallets–of investors.

The Moon, however, is a “proven” ground, so to speak. We’ve demonstrated that it’s technically possible to go there and to return, we’ve found the materials necessary for human habitation with a minimum of fuss (even organics, which would make growing plants there much easier), and we already have some of the sort of oft-touted “emerging technologies” that will allow us to begin manufacturing macro-scale structures in space, such as Space-Based Solar Power satellites, manufactured on and launched from the the lunar surface for a fraction of the cost of doing the same from Earth’s immensely deep gravity well.

So NASA’s swinging, Congress is bickering, SpaceX is celebrating, and the rest of us…are just waiting. What’s to be done? Where’s the middle ground?

How about we all work together instead of bickering all the time? Maybe that would be a nice start.

Addendum: Now, it occurs to me that the means by which NASA seeks to invoke the ADA could simply be that, due to their own impending noncompliance, they are requesting that the companies in question modify their own businesses to create the necessary compliance. This would explain the agency’s supposed lack of knowledge about the law in question, but if this is the case, the language used in the articles I’ve browsed–possibly all quoting from the same flawed source–is misleading. It makes the most sense that the agency is really saying that the contractors are managing their government contracts improperly, especially given this line from the Write Stuff blog article:

“New NASA calculations say contractors are $991 million short of what they must withhold – and the agency has ordered the companies to find that money from the roughly $3.5 billion they’re budgeted to get for Constellation projects this year.”

But as I said, the language is misleading, hence this addendum to the above post. So please, before ripping me a new one for my misunderstanding of the situation, read the above addendum to see my full thoughts on the matter.

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 Examiner.com (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.