Whither NASA?

posted in: public affairs, space | 0

I haven’t written yet about my reaction to the proposed change of course for the U.S. space program. To be honest, the Obama proposal threw me for a loop. In case you just got back from Antarctica and haven’t heard, President Obama’s budget proposal for NASA was a shocker: When the space shuttle is retired at the end of this year, the plan is to turn responsibility for manned launch-to-orbit over to the private sector. They’re working on it, they say they can do it—and cheaper—so let’s turn ’em loose to do it. Buy seats on the Russian Soyuz in the interim. And that multi-billion-dollar Constellation program to send astronauts back to the Moon? Cancel it. It’s over budget and troubled, and was never properly funded to begin with. So what’s NASA’s job, then? Plan for the future; invest in new technologies; go into deep space to visit an asteroid, then aim for Mars—say, by the mid 2030s. Total funding to increase, but get NASA out of the routine business of space transportation. For one good analysis, look at Bad Astronomy’s Phil Plait’s comments.

There’s a lot to like in the Obama proposal—though after watching Atlantis launch in person, I’m not sure there’s anything “routine” about launching humans into orbit. Putting that aside, though, what’s good about the plan? Well, long-range planning, with a genuine vision for exploration, is always good. While I believe we have unfinished business on the Moon, visiting an asteroid is also a terrific idea. We might have to move one of those suckers one of these days, to keep it from snuffing us like the dinosaurs; furthermore, we might find ourselves mining the asteroids for metals like nickel and iron, for future space construction. Time to start learning how.

What’s not to like? Well, laying off a highly skilled and experienced workforce, for one thing. Under the Obama proposal, a lot of those people who know how to put things into space will be out of jobs in a year or two—a frightening loss of human infrastructure. Some might find jobs in the private companies like SpaceX, who hope to step into the gap. But many won’t. And what about the astronaut corps? Have we trained them, only to turn them out? Are we abdicating our hard-earned leadership role in space, as Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan think? It could happen. Our astronauts are split on the question. And what about this long-range thinking? That’s okay to talk about today, but what happens when the next administration comes in? Will they want to make their own mark, and change directions yet again? One space expert I talked to said that was his biggest concern. In fact, according to him, the whole reason we don’t already have a replacement for the shuttle is because we keep changing course every four years.

SpaceX Dragon cargo/crew module, artist’s conception

I picked some brains while I was at the Nebulas. One writer I talked to, someone who’s a big space booster, and definitely on the conservative side politically, said, “I don’t much like Obama. But I do think his proposal has a lot of merit.” That took me aback, as did another person on the inside, who said, maybe losing all that experience won’t be all bad. Maybe new blood will be willing to try new ideas.

So what do I think? I’m not sure I have enough information to carve out a position. I’d love to see the shuttle keep flying a little longer, while we design a replacement. But the spare parts lines have already been shut down; the business of retiring the thing is already well underway. To reverse that could cost billions. Am I ready to depend on other countries to supply the space station we’ve built at such a cost? I hate the thought.  Can Elon Musk and SpaceX, and similar smaller companies, step into the breach? Maybe. We’ll have a better idea when the Falcon 9 test rocket launches later this year. But what’s Congress going to do? That’s as hard to predict as the weather. Stay tuned. It’s going to be interesting.

SpaceX Falcon 9 static fire on launch pad

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” — Proverbs 29:18

  

0 Responses

  1. Anonymous
    | Reply

    Jeff:

    The question is if you want an expensive, safe, well-defined, space program that will provide us with manned access to deep space, or if you just want to instead take those funds and "spread the wealth" on a large number of high-risk, low-return gambles, most of which will provide little value.

  2. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    That makes it sound much simpler than it actually is. Access to deep space is by definition high risk at present. Useful access to deep space, for the long haul, requires investment in some high-risk possibilities, only some of which will pan out. (I mean financial risk, though risk to personnel certainly figures into the equation, also.) The correct course is probably some tricky balance between using well-developed technology and extending it incrementally, and shooting the moon on new ideas that could offer breakthroughs.

    Going with private launch services for crews is somewhere in the middle: Can these companies really come through with lower-cost spacecraft, when their own success as companies depends on making them both reliable and affordable? And how much do we taxpayers kick into the effort.

    It's a little like the growth of aviation, except that the costs are much, much higher.

  3. Anonymous
    | Reply

    Well lets see I seem to remember that the most expensive part of spaceflight is connected to escaping earth's gravity. So it would seem to me that if we're ever going to get serious about doing more than hanging around the orbit of our own planet we need to start doing things like building industry on the moon that can build craft that can get us further out without the huge amounts of fuel it takes to off the ground here. So that's why i'm a little leery of the idea of not going back to the moon. It seems to me it's the logical jumping off point to further exploration.

    – Marco

  4. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    You're probably right about the desirability of setting up mining on the moon if we want to build large-scale habitats in Earth orbit. Use solar-powered mass drivers to sling lunar material into space, etc. I think the timeline on that is farther away than what we're talking about now. But I agree, in principle, and it was one of the things I was referring to when I said we have unfinished business on the moon.

    But within current budget constraints, the hardware we need to develop to travel to an asteroid is similar to what could get us back to the moon. And mining asteroids is another possibility. But perhaps more importantly, developing methods of moving them out of a collision course with Earth, if we discover a killer asteroid heading our way! Right now, we just don't know how to do that (though there are plenty of ideas on the table).

  5. Oxygen Plant
    | Reply

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  6. RaynreV
    | Reply

    "In fact, according to him, the whole reason we don't already have a replacement for the shuttle is because we keep changing course every four years."

    This could be a good argument for giving space exploration to the private sector. Let the companies pick where they want to go, how to get there, and what budget to do it with. Since board members and CEOs aren't switched out regularly every four years, they might be in a position to hold the course, as it were.

Post your comment before you lose your train of thought. (Mine already left the station.)