House to Vote on Senate Bill Wednesday

So here it is, finally. After the new House rewrite failed to garner support with the commercial spaceflight advocates, it seems that august body has decided to give up messing with the bill and just vote on the Senate, under a suspension of the rules which limits debate and requires a 2/3 majority vote.

Despite the major backlash against the House’s proposal, Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN)–the one quoted in the above article–does have a point in a few cases. For one, the Senate’s ideas for the upcoming SDHLV does seem rather overly specific, going so far as to describe specific technological elements that should go into the vehicle. For another, if there’s no funding increase for the half-billion-dollar STS-135 launch, that money will have to come from other NASA programs, and then it’s the last ten years all over again.

But he might also be right that a flawed bill is better than no bill at all. It all sounds to me like a last-minute push to garner votes before the November elections, where all 435 House seats will be up for a vote.

But at least it’s a vote, and with an acceptable outcome if it passes. At the very least, passing is more acceptable than not passing, in which case we might be stuck with a continuing resolution, with NASA spending money and time on something it might have to throw away in the end. More or less.

EDIT: To clarify–with information I just recently found–the vote is for an authorization bill, which does not preclude a continuing resolution. The authorization bill merely says “The government has the authority to perform this action”, whereas an appropriations bill says “And here’s where they get the money to do it.” There’s a nice little discussion about it here, although I’m still not sure I entirely understand it.

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Alert Your Congressperson!

They say you can’t go anywhere with a blog if you’re not opinionated. I hope it’s come across that I have opinions, but if not, here’s some pretty solid evidence.

Go contact your Congressional Representative, right now, and tell them to vote against H.R. 5781, the atrociously underfunding NASA Authorization Bill coming out of the House.

For more details, go here.

Steps:

1) Call (202) 225-3121, which is the House Switchboard

2) Ask to be transferred to your Congressperson’s office.

3) Tell the office employee that you would like to leave a message regarding the NASA Authorization Bill H.R. 5781.

4) Politely tell them your opinion.

5) You will have to leave your name and address, but it’s your Congressperson: they probably can find out where you live anyway.

6) That’s it! Just five simple steps to a better future for space!

Because I Haven’t Used the “Interesting” Tag Often Enough

Because, as the title of this post states, I don’t use the “Interesting” tag nearly enough, here are some interesting things that don’t really warrant a full post.

First is this wonderful little comic debunking several “moon hoax” claims, although I imagine most of those who read this blog regularly are not in any particular need of it. Use it to explain to those who might not understand.

Less entertainingly is this from the Orlando Sentinel. As much as the Senate compromise bill has grown on me–the recently-released full text representing what Doug Messier informs us is an upwardly-revised version–this is something about which to be concerned. It’s one of the reasons I didn’t like the original Obama plan’s destinations: without a firm goal and destination, it’s just too easy to be canceled down the line. Same with this; it looks like a good compromise–although it’s still too self-serving for my taste, what with all the pressure to re-use Constellation and Shuttle components–but it might get the axe just like Constellation has from Obama.

At this point I’m wondering whether to give the inch and take a half a mile, or to stand firm and possibly lose it altogether. In other words, should I support the compromise bill or not? I’m doubting much upwards revision will take place from here; from what I see, it might end up that the House and Senate bills will rise and drop (respectively) to meet somewhere in the middle. Sounds good politically, I suppose, but practically? I bet it would stink.

“Acts of Congress” Indeed

So the text of the Senate bill is out, finally. Also down the pipe this week is a comparable House proposal. What does Congress seem to agree on? Yep: cutting commercial crew.

I’ve talked about this before. The Senate commercial crew cuts were opposed by Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, and the R&D cuts were opposed by Senator Barbara Boxer of California. I’m reading through the text now to see if their amendments passed (doesn’t look good: of the ~$4 billion set for “Exploration”, it seems that more than half of it is going to the civil launch system and capsule. Of what’s left, ~$600 million is set for commercial crew and cargo. Still, better than the House bill [see below]).

But the House bill is pretty clear: cut it to the quick! What I initially read as ~$4.5 billion for commercial crew–which I’d been excited about, as the Obama plan talks about $6 billion over five years–is really for “Exploration” in 2011, of which only ~$50 million or so is for commercial crew, at least for the first year.

And then there’s this. Depressing, a bit, especially so soon after celebrating the 41st anniversary of Apollo 11. Really? 41 years? What the hell, guys? I’m part of the generation your generation was supposed to make the world a better place for. Sure, you ended the Cold War, but what’s with this?

Okay, so here’s what they say about us:

United States

The U.S. remains the clear global leader, but the county’s position has eroded in each of the past three years. The formulation of a new national space policy is a step in the right direction, but as Futron CEO Joe Fuller notes, ‘To retain its leadership position, the U.S. must leverage its secret space weapon—American industry—and align it with strategy, policy, and budget.'”

Yep. So, why aren’t we doing that? Oh yeah, because nobody’s paying for it. Good job, Congress. Instead we get political pandering and home-state dollar-winning–except for Nelson, for some reason. Oh sure, mitigating the job loss at KSC and elsewhere is good for Florida, but is it as good as it could be? The Commercial Spaceflight Federation doesn’t think so.

So just when I was starting to like the Obama plan, Congress goes and screws with it. And then the White House praises the Senate legislation as a compromise bill? Okay, it is a compromise, and it does hit all the salient points that Obama wanted, but it doesn’t do what needs to be done: fostering a vibrant American commercial space industry, fleshing out all the wasted R&D years (finally), and putting us somewhere significant and permanent in space (which, admittedly, nobody is doing right now).

So I’m dejected, just a bit. I’m not sure what to think since all the legislation has to run through appropriations and markups and this and that and nothing’s really definite right now…

More waiting, I guess. If the end result is much like the initial efforts, I doubt I’ll like it.

Postscript: Actually, after reviewing the original FY 2011 proposal by the White House, it seems that commercial crew and cargo would get a combined $812 million for the first year under the proposed plan. Not that bad for the Senate, then, if I’m parsing that right. House still sucks, though. What got cut in the Senate, I wonder…

It goes on: ~$250 million for FY2011 from the Senate for “Exploration Technology Development”, which might be the same as the $559 million set aside for “Heavy-Lift and Propulsion R&D” in the original Obama plan, although the difference error is smaller in 2012 ($437 million Senate vs $594 million Obama).

I’m confused, then. So what, really, got cut? A couple hundred million here and there–a lot, sure, but compare to the House! Where’s all this money for the Space Launch System coming from? Granted, I’m not reading the entire bill, but the Senate one, at least, seems…tolerable. Maybe. With, as the CSF says, some work.

Although, if Congress would spend maybe a little of the time they usually spend messing around with silly things and put it towards making nice, more easily-followed documents like the Obama plan’s, I’d be more willing to slog through all the details and numbers at almost 1 o’clock in the morning.

Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution…

This is basically a brief update on the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 that left committee earlier this week (which some like, and others don’t). Specifically, the Boxer and Warner Amendments. The summaries below are from the NSS and are not my words.

Warner Amendment:

“This amendment proposed by Senator Warner of Virginia would close the gap by fully reversing cuts to commercial crew development funding and by removing arbitrary restrictions preventing a commercial crew competition from beginning in 2011. The amendment would boost commercial crew funding to the level recommended by the President, adding $2.1 billion over three years, a nearly threefold boost. This will close the gap and ensure U.S. access to the International Space Station.”

Bam! That’s half the battle right there! Restoring one of the best parts of the FY2011 budget by getting funding back to commercial crew. The only way to make space really mainstream is to let people make some freakin’ money off of it!

Boxer Amendment:

“This amendment proposed by Senator Barbara Boxer of California would restore cuts to robotic precursor missions, advanced technologies like fuel depots, in-space propulsion, and radiation shielding, and university research. In FY11, the amendment boosts Robotic Precursors by 130%, Exploration Technology Demonstrations by 230%, and the Space Technology Program by 55%, for a total of $356 million more for technology and robotics in FY11.”

Now, I’m not sure how much this reverses the cuts proposed by Senator Nelson, but any level of reversal is desirable over no level of reversal. Critics are completely correct in saying that the lack of R&D at NASA over the past few decades is terrible. We should be going farther, faster, cheaper, and instead we’re going nowhere (choice of destinations aside).

There’s also the Udall Amendment, which is mostly about commercial suborbital science funding. While certainly useful, it does not really fall under my purview, which is more HSF-oriented.

So the main reason I’m waiting for the full text is to determine whether or not the first two amendments–Warner’s and Boxer’s–have been adopted. If so, the proposed bill will likely get my stamp of approval. If not, well

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.

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.