Chair Force Engineer

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Space Program We Can Afford

Reactions to the "Obama Space Plan" across the industry have been extremely polarized indeed. The debate has drawn in odd defenders of the president and some even stranger opponents. When Newt Gingrich is defending an Obama policy from the attacks of Charles Krauthammer, you know the world has been turned on its ear.

My brief take on the new space policy is that it's the only option our nation can possibly afford at this time. Every day I fret that America is going broke, and sliding into a debt oblivion before anybody realizes it's too late to claw our way back from the brink. Can we really afford "Apollo on Steroids" right now? We certainly can't give the former Constellation program the extra $3 billion per year that it needs simply to meet its baseline schedule. So what we get instead is no system to replace the shuttle when it's retired, an ISS extension to 2020 or later, continued American flights on Soyuz, and a "heavy lift research program."

The reliance on commercial spacecraft is one based in convenience and necessity. It's the most controversial aspect of the new policy and the linchpin of any future plans to travel down the "flexible path." I'm trying to temper my enthusiasm for a commercial spaceflight industry with a realistic outlook on the ability of these companies to deliver a safe and reliable manned spacecraft program. SpaceX and Boeing likely have the experience and knowledge to pull it off, although their schedules are anybody's guess. The other vendors I'm more skeptical towards.

Supporters of the new space policy are asking the White House to set some concrete goals. I'm reminded of Newt Gingrich's idea from the early 90's to create massive cash prizes for private firms who could successfully put a human on the Moon or Mars. Maybe such a scheme could work after one of the aforementioned firms can successfully launched a manned spaceflight mission. But I'm skeptical that the money even exists to create such prizes.

Rather than a NASA that has concrete exploration goals, I predict that the new space policy will make NASA less and less relevant towards achieving national goals in space. Example: The Bigelow vision is space tourism, utilizing space hotels and eventually outposts on the moon. Exploration beyond earth will eventually happen, but it will support commercial goals rather than nationalist ones. NASA will continue to lead in the fields of robotic exploration and pathfinding research & development, but it's hard to see NASA sending humans beyond earth orbit once it surrenders its manned spaceflight capability.

The most befuddling aspect of the new policy, in my eyes, is the need for heavy-lift "research." Wasn't the industry doing heavy-lift research in the 50's and 60's that lead to the Saturn V? If the nation needs heavy-lift, we don't need additional research to do it. A NASA-operated heavy-lifter could even use leftover shuttle SRB's, ET's and main engines for an early demo flight. But until we get more specifics on the new space policy, I'm not confident that's in the cards.

When President Bush first announced his Vision for Space Exploration in January 2004, I originally thought it was a fitting tribute to the fallen astronauts of Columbia. If NASA is putting its astronauts in harm's way, it should do so in support of bold objectives rather than the routine science missions of the space shuttle. But the affordable "marathon, not a sprint" that President Bush called for eventually turned into "Apollo on Steroids." It just wasn't possible to give the Constellation program the massive up-front development budget it needed while still operating the shuttle and space station. (I had been told by a congressional staffer that VP Dick Cheney's staff wanted to retire the shuttles after the Columbia disaster and not return-to-flight until the Crew Exploration Vehicle was ready. Maybe that approach could have saved "Apollo on Steroids.")

Sometimes I think that this new, commercial path is a more fitting tribute to the crews of our lost space shuttles. People will buy their way into space, rather than being selected by NASA to take their chances on a vehicle that was designed by committee. At least the shuttle's days are ending, much to the amazement of virtually everybody who's followed the program since it first flew (they would have expected it to be replaced with a better system much sooner than 2010.)

So do I think the new space program is a good thing, or a bad thing? It's both, and it's neither. It's an acknowledgment that the US Government as a whole is running on empty, and the future is in the hands of the private sector. The plan has even odds of spectacular success or embarrassing failure. That's why SpaceX, Boeing/Bigelow and the others deserve the moral support of the nation. Their success ensures prestige and continued technical competitiveness for the United States. Their failure effectively cedes control of the spacefaring future to Russia and China.