NASA and Space - The Future vs. the Past


In covering the uproar over the just-released NASA budget and its implications, the major media headlines have been trumpeting: "Lunar Program Cancelled". Yes, sadly the budget has cancelled the current lunar program, based on the NASA designed Ares boosters and Orion capsule. However, as some other writers have pointed out, the Vision for Space Exploration program (VSE), which was conceived by a true government consensus after the Columbia disaster, was in effect hijacked in 2005 by the last person anyone of us would have ever suspected, the greatly respected aerospace engineer, Dr. Michael Griffin. That the VSE envisioned by the White House was hijacked is in little doubt, since the only representative of the space advocacy community specifically invited to attend the former President's 2004 speech was Rick Tumlinson, no friend of business-as-usual in US space policy. The White House shares no blame for picking Dr. Griffin, since many in the space community saw him as a very good choice. Other writers have pointed out that the VSE and Constellation which supposedly implemented it are very different programs. In an interview, Brett Alexander said "I was a primary author of the Vision for Space Exploration.....But they chose the most expensive architecture (for Constellation) and they had cost and technical issues with it. The cost overruns are astonishing."(Amy Klamper - Space News 2-1-2010).

Under Admiral Craig Steidle starting early in 2004, the VSE was a forward looking program that was open to new ideas and the development of fundamentally new, innovative technology. Griffin shut the door firmly on most of those new ideas in 2005. Instead, he looked backward at what had been stolen away from him and the space community by politics 40 years ago - a continuation of the Apollo Program, and tried to re-create it as "Apollo on Steroids". Any studies which had been underway involving re-usable rockets or spacecraft were apparently ruthlessly suppressed, so that the public and most outside experts never got to see the results. Critical long-range programs were cancelled and their funds raided for the short-term goal. Everything that possibly could be made expendable to save a few pennies was. MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics professor David Mindell says in a Space and Earth article posted on physorg (2-5-2010) that "NASA is eating its seed corn for Constellation". The result was exactly what I warned about in 2005 (Return to the Moon p. 137 - 2005) - the use of "giant expendable LEMS" (Lunar Modules) in the new program, itself only symptomatic of NASA's institutional mindset under Griffin.

I have had the experience of being laid off and I know what an terrible impact this has on a person and his family. I have also experienced the frustration of having a project taken away from me. I thus totally commiserate with any and all of the employees who may lose their current NASA jobs, and who have expended herculean efforts on trying to make the Constellation program work. But we need to think about the whole purpose of the space program. The concept of NASA as a short-range jobs program has to end, since it is politically and economically unsustainable. The unwillingness of Congress and the previous President to adequately fund the program that they superficially publically supported proves this beyond a doubt. Dr. Griffin also consistently and massively underestimated the development and construction costs of all the single use vehicles that would be needed for any lunar program and the program's annual operating costs. All of the jobs currently about to be lost would have been eventually lost, but with even greater trauma and distress at the additional wasted effort.

Why has the announcement been received so negatively by many whose jobs are not at risk?. Newspapers and politicians of both parties from the affected areas uniformly responded negatively to the proposal, due to the loss of local jobs. Reaction from national news outlets was mixed and more balanced. It is also now clear from other writers that the announcement gave some of them the impression that the long-range intent was to end human spaceflight. For example, Stephen Weinberg, a long-time opponent of manned space flight and supporter of the "look but don't touch" viewpoint, threw contrary evidence to the wind with the title of his article "Ending Manned Space Flight Is The Right Thing For Science".

As a result of this and similar opinions, fear grew that the budget announcement was intended to kill the current Constellation program but then not replace it with anything. Even the Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords echoed fears that "We may soon abandon our mission" (of manned space exploration). The current budget does remove the Constellation Lunar program without replacing it with any specific destination or goal. (It is admittedly very hard to come up with a specific first goal without at least a year of discussion, and the Augustine Commission deliberately did not focus on a single first goal.) The most obvious first goal for a human expedition would be a near earth asteroid, since it would not require the development of a lander. One comment following a negative article by Astronaut Tom Jones (Popular Mechanics 2-2-2010) made an excellent analogy to support the fact that we can't go very far yet since we do not have a space infrastructure in place: (placing propellant depots in orbit in 2020 is the equivalent of building a road network and gas stations to enable auto travel in 1920).

In addition, those of us who have watched with frustration as mankind was restricted to Low Earth orbit (where we have now been stuck for about 38 years), were depressed at the thought of another whole decade stuck in Low Earth Orbit, even if the human program survives. The justification for staying in LEO has been that we were preparing for further exploration beyond LEO. Bolden's honest press conference comment (2/6/2010) that we would not be flying the Heavy Lift Vehicle (HLV) needed for further exploration until after 2020 did not help. Practically, though, to develop a really inexpensive and practical HLV would probably take about that long, and to develop payloads to put on it would also take about the same amount of time. All of the serious, current, competing, expendable HLV plans are so expensive that very few would ever be launched. One writer agreeing with Augustine Commission member Leroy Chiao's blog of 2-4-2010 pointed out that what we need is "indefinitely affordable technology" to access the Moon and other destinations. (Constellation would have been affordable only very temporarily at best).

If you would ask any of the older astronauts, many of them would tell you in effect, that "Space is about the future". It is not about the past. While we greatly honor all of the past work that has been done on the program, if we only focus on the glories of the past, we miss the ultimate point of the program - the future and long term survival of the human race, and using space resources and energy to protect the Earth. A one-planet species is eventually a dead end. Many other individuals and groups have rallied to the defense of the new path, including Buzz Aldrin, the X-Prize Foundation, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, the Space Frontier Foundation, The Planetary Society, The Economist, and Wayne Hale, who made an eloquent reference to Robert Heinlein and his writing in support of space (NASA Blogs 2-2-2010).;
Lori Garver, NASA Associate Administrator, said "We're not cancelling our plans to explore space: we're cancelling Constellation" (Leslie Mullen - Astrobiology 2-3-2010).

There is also an article from someone who's job is obviously NOT at stake, and who is a long-time friend of the space program, Director James Cameron (Washington Post 2-5-2010). Cameron is a calm, clear and practical thinker and manager who knows how to pick good technical people, and how to use his resources and funds most effectively to make good movies. He has directed the development of very advanced technical equipment which will soon be used to very good effect by many other producers and directors. He (with his picked staff), had to imagine what this equipment would do, why it was needed and how it would work, before they designed it. He is also able to follow engineering arguments so that he has a respect for the opinions of engineers and does not order them to do the impossible or the dangerous. Thus he has many of the exact skills that would be needed to make high-level decisions about a large technical program. He is obviously far more competent in such matters than the NASA manager who so little respected engineers that on the day in 1986 before the Challenger exploded, he said the immortal, despised and ultimately deadly words "take off your engineer's hat and put on your manager's hat".

About 10 years ago, Cameron attended one of the early Mars Society Conventions. He sat in the audience with us, soaking up all the Mars technical lore for his projected Mars TV series which was probably cancelled by all the quickie competition from the cheap Mars movies that were made during that period. Later, in a talk to the whole convention, he revealed a better pressurized manned rover design for the Moon or Mars than any that I have ever seen from NASA. As a result of operating cameras in the Russian submersibles during the filming of the actual wreck of the Titanic, miles deep under the North Atlantic, he wanted to be able to reach out and pick up objects on the ocean floor, which was of course impossible due to the extreme pressure. As a result, his rover design allows the entire rover to "kneel down" on its axles when a promising object on the surface is spotted. A robot arm then can pick up the object and place it into a small airlock. When the inner airlock door is opened, the rock can be immediately examined, without the hours required to "suit up" just to collect a single rock.

Some of the comments on Cameron's article criticize him for expressing his opinion while not being a "rocket scientist". The answer to this may lie in what led Dr. Griffin astray. Griffin is a world-class and magnificent engineer, but without casting aspersions on engineers, who I greatly admire for their technical skill, he is "only" an engineer. Cameron (as described here) is thus in effect operating at a level "above" the level of the engineer. He has to respect engineers, but also be more than an engineer. If you ask a space engineer to design a space program, he will probably design it based on vehicles. This is the famous "If you have a hammer - the answer is a nail" trap. Before you ever start designing hardware, first you have to decide the overall purpose of the program - why are we doing this at all, then what that hardware should do and then how it should do it. Only then should hardware design begin. Griffin and his team instead began with hardware designs and created a program that partially fit those designs.

While the cancellation of the lunar program has made many of us depressed at the prospect of returning to the treadmill of going in circles in LEO for another decade or two, the actual choice is one of going in bureaucratic circles forever or not. The basic question is (if you work in the space industry): do you want to get to the point where large numbers of people can travel to and can work in space, or do you want space to be too expensive for that for decades to come? Do you want to build expendable rockets forever, or start building Mars landers and lunar mining equipment. Government agencies by their very nature cannot and will not reduce operating costs. Private companies have to do that to compete. Without reducing operating costs dramatically, our space future will be left on the ground.

What will happen if the new program (which once more opens NASA to new ideas) is allow to proceed? It is even possible that with private enterprise handling the known hazards of transport to LEO, NASA will be able to re-focus its old genius on transport and exploration beyond LEO, so that we might even be able to return to the moon sooner than under the current program. (That is, of course, if we can formulate a good scientific or economic reason to go back there immediately.)

So yes, we will not be going to the moon on impossibly expensive expendable rockets, with expendable crew capsules and expendable lunar ferries, and without even knowing why we are going back or what we would do once we return. What we will be doing (hopefully - if the politicians keep their promises, which no-one can guarantee), is beginning the transition to the expansion of the human economic sphere into space. The so-called "flexible path, if it is followed properly, will open up access to multiple destinations and space activities. For example the use of space for production of clean, continuous solar energy could be enabled (although this option was unfortunately not mentioned in the announcement). Reduced cost of access will also allow much more and better space science to be done. Human and robotic expeditions to the Moon, Mars, its moons and to near earth asteroids would become possible and much safer.

How will we be able to tell if the program is going in the "right" direction? The government should go ahead and create launch contract guarantees with at least two companies for ground to LEO operations. It should never develop or operate an earth to orbit vehicle again. We (the future-oriented space community) will need to see actual funding supported and enacted to allow development of advanced and innovative technology, such as plasma rocket engines like the VASIMR for use in deep space, and hypersonic air-breathing engines for future launch vehicles. We want several companies to be able to develop systems to safely, reliably and cheaply deliver cargo and passengers to low Earth orbit destinations. We want the government to underscore the critical need for a heavy lift booster (HLV), and encourage the private sector to develop one itself, preferably as a re-usable two stage booster (no easy task).

We want to see the development of a truly and fully integrated space transportation system by NASA in conjunction with the private sector, one that will allow access to all areas within and including the Moon's orbit (cis-lunar space), as well as the nearby Earth-Sun LaGrange Points 1 and 2. This system should include both vehicles and nodes and incorporate delivery of propellants to orbit by private launch vehicles to be stored in large propellant depots (nodes). This would allow deep space vehicles to be launched without propellants in their tanks, greatly increasing the size of vehicles that can be launched. We want to see the development of generalized, re-usable vehicles (space taxis, space tugs, lunar ferries) for transport of humans and cargo to points beyond low earth orbit and return to their starting point for re-fueling. We need to see a long-range, realistic plan for actual exploration missions based on reduced transport costs and the actual funds available. We want crew safety, redundancy and creation of self-rescue abilities and crew refuges to be a high priority. We also need solid reasons and rationales for each exploration mission. We also expect closer cooperative efforts in manned exploration between the US and other countries with less visible US domination. In space, countries should cooperate and companies should compete for the benefit of all.

What can we do to make the current massive lurch in the space program palatable to its critics. In the near term, exceptional measures should be taken to assist NASA and contractor employees to find new jobs with either orbit access service providers or within NASA to begin work on the new in-space transport system. We would hope that the government would encourage the new companies to open facilities in some of the communities which stand to lose the most jobs, as Bolden suggested at his press conference. Within just a few years, reduced costs could mean even more space-related jobs than there are now as cost savings spill over into the private sector and encourage more launches by both government and business. Reduced access costs could thus mean more missions. We should establish a clear path and timetable to the availability of a private HLV, and specific payloads for its manifest, such as giant space telescopes and propellant depots. As soon as feasible, a logical sequence of human mission destinations with a rough timetable should be established, to show everyone that human exploration beyond LEO will continue.

Space is a very, very hard row to hoe. Some of the projected entrepreneurial milestones will happen later than expected and expenses will initially be higher than expected. Disasters will probably happen. However, the benefits of space commerce and clean energy and being a multi-planet species far outweigh the risks and costs if they are accomplished by business methods. Space must become economical before it is practical. Give the new (and old) space entrepreneurs a real chance to accomplish this and I believe that the results will be truly amazing.

Please follow SpaceRef on Twitter and Like us on Facebook.