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.”
“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.