Chair Force Engineer

Thursday, March 20, 2008

It Could Always Be Worse

For ESAS critics such as myself, it's easy to lose perspective on things. While NASA's plan for returning to the moon is far from perfect, it could always be worse. Much worse, in fact.

Our biggest gripe lies not with the fact that NASA wants to put humans on the moon. That fact alone should excite us. But we've been here before with Space Exploration Initiative and other stillborn dreams of human spaceflight that NASA has peddled. The ESAS critics are afraid that the Vision for Space Exploration is unaffordable, and will soon be confined to the dustbin of history.

It would seem that, in some sectors, the response to Ares I vibration issues is almost gleeful. While I've never bought into Mike Griffin's absurd claims of the problem being a "mountain made out of a molehill," I could never accept that this problem would kill Ares I's development. It now appears that solutions have been identified, although they will cut into the vehicle's tight performance margins.

In the past I have been critical of forcing the Altair lander to perform the Lunar Orbit Insertion burn, and I have questioned the applicability of the ESAS architecture to a future lunar base. But now I stand with egg on my face, as I realize that the baseline Altair descent stage is totally appropriate for unmanned cargo landers to support a moonbase.

The Altair lander is different from Apollo, but Apollo wasn't perfect either. Contrast this with plans for an Apollo LM Shelter, LM Truck, and LM Taxi, which would require a redundant Apollo spacecraft to fly along and provide the LOI burn. The NASA team might not have a good way of explaining their plans to the public, but they have a plan nonetheless.

There can be no doubt that Ares I will be a lengthy and expensive development which offers little advantage over Heavy EELV's. But there are political reasons why government-funded manned spaceflight will not utilize them. As a libertarian believer in fiscal conservatism, I have no problem with laying off the majority of the shuttle employees as that program winds down. They are talented people who will have no problem finding work in space-related fields.

But in the real world, Ayn Rand's heroes could never win a popular election; the real world is run by incorrigible characters like Jim Taggart and Wesley Mouch. The thought of cutting NASA's overhead (the shuttle standing army) is political suicide for elected officials in Florida, Texas and Louisiana. As a federal jobs program, Ares I fills its role very nicely.

In theory, Ares I should be safer than a Heavy EELV. That could play a critical role in keeping Project Constellation going. Can you imagine the Congressional pressure to kill the program if a crew is lost? While the crew launch segment is but a small part of the total mission risk, every reduction in risk does help to forestall the day when Congress pulls the plug.

While I like the idea of coming up with a wide-bodied Atlas for human spaceflight, the idea will only come to fruition when there is a market demand for it. United Launch Alliance will have to convince investors like Bob Bigelow that money can be made off the relatively-modest investment that an evolved Atlas would require. If ULA goes to the government with their hats-in-hand asking for Project Constellation money, they will have become little better than the scoundrels at ATK.

ESAS is Mike Griffin, and ESAS will be the law of the land as long as Mike Griffin is calling the shots at NASA. While there are plenty of alternatives that are better than ESAS on both technical and budgetary grounds, I think the politics of the situation will force us into a choice between ESAS and Nothing At All.