Chair Force Engineer

Friday, July 25, 2008

Getting a Good Buzz

When you look at the "NASA vs. DIRECT" arguments, they typically boil down to the following:

NASA: Trust us when we say that DIRECT will never work. We're f**king NASA, bitches!
DIRECT: Nuh-uh. You're fudging the numbers. It's because you're in bed with ATK, aren't you?

At this point it's clear that Mike Griffin's NASA will not accept anything other than the current strategy, insisting on an Apollo-sized rocket in spite of not having an Apollo-sized budget. The proponents of the DIRECT proposal approached NASA from a position of weakness, outside the agency itself. It appeared that there wouldn't be an independent and unbiased authority to arbitrate between the two sides in the debate. But now Buzz Aldrin wants a say in the matter. (Hat tip to Clark Lindsey)

Within the space business and also from an outsider's perspective, few space commentators and visionaries enjoy the level of respect that Buzz Aldrin possesses. In addition to being the second man on the moon, he has gone on to espouse a clear vision for the future of manned spaceflight in both his technical proposals and the science fiction he has written. When Columbia was lost and when North Korea launched its unsuccessful ICBM, Buzz Aldrin was the first guy the cable news networks turned to for an interview. While other retired astronauts have failed at their attempts to be administrators and rocket designers, Buzz Aldrin stays relevant through his keen analysis of the problems at hand and his common-sense technical approaches for solving them.

Buzz Aldrin is most interested in the choice of rockets for going back to the moon. But the smart place to start is a through examination of the mission requirements. Mike Griffin's NASA decided, for reasons never fully explained, that four astronauts would spend seven days on the lunar surface (for a total of 28 man-days.) This has driven the mission architecture towards a rocket that's bigger than Saturn V and threatening to outgrow the existing infrastructure. What if Buzz Aldrin looked at something like a three-astronaut mission, with two astronauts spending fourteen man-days (seven per astronaut) on the lunar surface? Such a reduction in the scope of the mission would greatly ease the requirements on the launch vehicle.

It's unclear what will happen to the results of Buzz Aldrin's analysis of alternatives, but it's clear that they will not earn so much as a second glance from Mike Griffin. My suspicion is that Buzz Aldrin is preparing himself to advise the next NASA administrator, and perhaps the next president himself.

Supporters of DIRECT might take heart in knowing that Buzz Aldrin is not currently pleased with the status quo. But if his past proposals are any indication (see here and here,) he's not totally sold on DIRECT either. At the same time, Buzz Aldrin's mindset favors shorter development times and smaller development budgets than NASA has currently baselined. These are qualities that many DIRECT supporters will rally around, even if their preferred strategy isn't chosen. While there is no guarantee of which option Buzz Aldrin's panel will support, there's little reason to hope that it will be favorable towards the current Ares I and Ares V.