Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Temper Tantrum Tuesday: The Death of NASA

In his 2010 budget President Obama increased NASA’s budget by $6 billion over the next 5 years, but kills the Constellation program, with it the Ares I and V.

As readers of this blog know I was a huge supporter of Constellation program, not just because we would return to the Moon but also because it offered the flexibility to do more things outside Low Earth Orbit.

The Constellation program would have required an additional $15 billion over those 5 years to actually fly, while adding very little to our understanding of rocket science. The basic idea behind the Ares was to take the existing Space Shuttle and Apollo hardware and reconfigure it so that it wouldn’t have the known safety flaws as the Space Shuttle, the side mounted design that was a factor in both shuttle disasters. The program would have allowed us to discover brand new safety flaws.

The Ares I would be the last rocket that NASA would design with the sole purpose of sending people into Low Earth Orbit as commercial launchers would phase it out over its lifetime.

The Constellation Program was killed before Obama stepped in the door of the White House by budget cuts. Former NASA administrator Michael Griffin was in a similar situation to the sober person at the end of a college party where everyone wants more expensive booze but after the hat is passed around there is only $5.17 to buy it. He managed to do an admirable job in getting an inexpensive architecture together with a higher hurtle in the form of higher safety requirements than any other man rated rocket ever had to pass, but in the end every time NASA found a way to trim the budget more without compromising safety the budget got cut more. With this ever-changing goal post it left the Constellation Programs goals always just out of reach of the budget.

The new plan is to rely on Commercial Space Rockets for any manned launches. The Augustine Commission has gotten around the higher safety requirements that NASA had to face by taking their word that the new rockets are safe.

Given the higher safety requirements that NASA faced it was unlikely that the Ares I would launch during Obama’s presidency so he would have to push through a $21 billion program ($15 billion for Constellation and $6 billion for science and research) for a program he would get no political benefit from.

The decision to move NASA out of the space taxi business and back to where they excel, Science and Research, looks like a good idea on paper. NASA can focus on developing new technologies like the X-43 hypersonic aircraft and design a new upper stage booster that builds off the Space Shuttle Main Engines and the Apollo Engines to make one that is even better, instead of just trying to make the existing engines fit differently designed rockets and basically work on new technologies so in 5 years they can be given a task and come out swinging.

The problem is in those 5 years they won’t have any “Bumper Sticker” projects. So when asked by congress they won’t be able to say, “We’re going to the Moon”. Instead they will have to say, “We are developing new systems of both air and space travel that will incrementally bring down the costs of going into space, and by extension reduce the costs of air travel and the cost spent research be returned to the taxpayers as these new industries become profitable.”

The reality is that Congress is filled with morons, who if given a choice on a game show had to choose between some crumpled up old $100 bills and a shiny piece of tin foil, they would pick the shiny object every time. So even though sifting NASA’s focus onto Science and Research and away from being a Space taxi is a better use of resources. Without the “Bumper Sticker” programs, Congress sees NASA as a place to cut the budget even though the science and research arms of NASA actually pay for themselves through the selling of patents and by spawning new industries based on the research they do.

Without the human space program, NASA will probably receive a budget boost this year and face budget cuts for the next 7 years of the Obama administration. The next President will be faced with a decision. Either plan a new direction for NASA, which will be easier as they will have 7 years of new research under their belts and a commercial infrastructure to back them up. Or kill NASA completely, which will also be easier as they will be out of the public view for 5 years.

In my Fantastic Future Friday series I will try think up some bumper sticker missions NASA can embrace in 7 years.


Stephanie B said...

I disagree with you on this one.

I don't agree that there is no human spaceflight program. It says that we aren't building the ships to go to ISS (and only ISS). The station is still ours and that's still a big deal. And work will be on-going for future human spaceflight and exploration. Not a bad deal.

I see this as an opportunity to look to the future to build designs and technologies to allow us to make future program and architecture choices because they are the best choices instead of scrambling to get something put together in an arbitrary timeframe.

Since I've worked here, I've got a dozen or so bumper stickers of programs that never got off the ground. I'm not thinking, given the attitude of the general public, the more bumperstickers that just document what didn't work is going to do us as well as small but successful programs that actually move us forward.

Admittedly, though, I am a dreamer and even if this is a healthy plan, it all depends on implementation. And most of us aren't sure how it will all pan out. I'm keeping an open mind, however.

I feel strongly that a technology/science friendly individual who wants to up that part of education doesn't want to do something that drastically reduces those kinds of jobs. And that's why NASA is getting more money. We'll just have to see how the implementation goes in the long run.

Project Savior said...

You've given me a great idea, start a program to "Capture the Solar System" give it a budget big enough to cover the printing. Then use the $6 billion on important stuff. In 2017 the new President can scrap the "Capture the Solar System" project without hurting anything. In the meantime NASA can tell Congress, "We're Capturing the Solar System". It's vague and impressive sounding enough Congress would give them all the money they wanted.

Grant Lawrence said...


Seems to me part of a governmental push to destroy public institutions (NASA) and send the money to corporations. This is just another example of corporatization/privatization going on over the last few decades.

Project Savior said...

After reading the comments I can see I need to do a follow-up post as this was supposed to be a warning, not a done deal.