Thursday, February 4, 2010

Thursday Follow-up: NASA

In my Temper Tantrum Tuesday: The Death of NASA it’s clear from the comments I wasn’t clear enough on my feelings about NASA’s new budget and their new direction. I’ll try and clear that up.

In broad terms NASA has three parts: Science and Research, unmanned Space Exploration, and Manned Space Exploration. The new budget transfers the Manned Space Exploration, at least the Low Earth Orbit portion of it to private contractors.

From a resources point of view this is a wise decision. Even given the larger budget that NASA would need to get the Constellation program rolling again, Space X and some other companies would beat them in getting a manned capsule into Low Earth Orbit. The Ares I wouldn’t be NASA’s only access to space even if it were allowed to continue.

The Ares I was designed to be a bridge between where we are now and the time in 10 years or so when there are several companies with different types of launch vehicles so that if one fails it doesn’t stop all space activities. Just like when the DC-10 jetliner was found to have serious flaws it didn’t stop jet travel in the time the DC-10 was down because there were other jets available.

The new budget tries to move up the time that multiple launch vehicles will be available from private companies.

The other parts of NASA also get a boost, the unmanned space exploration where the real work of furthering planetary science is done and the Science and Research arm of NASA that if it were a private company would be the bread and butter part. The money making arm.

The manned space exploration arm was sort of a loss leader; building new rockets with existing parts didn’t help the nation as much as the Science and Research but it looked cool as hell.

In an ideal world the merit of having NASA free to pursue research that would help the Aerospace field enough that all the research money gets returned in the form of patents and taxes would justify a bigger budget to work on longer-term projects.

For example: Right now jet travel is too much of a gas hog to operate when oil prices rise back up above $100 per barrel. The solution is to make the aircraft out of lighter weight carbon fiber, but no one knows how carbon fiber reacts to constant depressurization and repressurization only NASA can do the necessary testing to find out.

When NASA does this testing they lease the patents to the aircraft builders at a cost less then if the builders stole the information and that money is returned to the federal treasury. Then as the aerospace industries rebuild to take advantage of these more fuel-efficient planes this increased economic activity creates more tax revenue for the federal government.

In an ideal world this would be more than justification enough for NASA’s budget.

In the real world, that money comes from Congress, which is filled with idiots.

I could hope that either Harry Reid grows a backbone of gets replaced in the 2010 elections. I could really hope Alan Grayson would get elected to the Senate and replace him. But even if Reid were to suddenly grow a backbone and tell the Republicans when they threaten to filibuster to go ahead and watch everyone turn on them as they give 40 days of speeches, Congress will still be full of idiots.

Only armed with facts and figures doesn’t fly well in congress, slogans work. So even though the cancellation of the Constellation program is better as far as numbers and having NASA work on science and research is better in the long run. It’s a tougher sell politically.

I hope President Obama can do that, I really do. And I’ll give him what little support my little blog can, but it will be tough making congress see that building a good foundation is more important than choosing the right wall paint.


Stephanie B said...


The reaction of many that not having a timetable or locking in a design precludes a human space program argues that having "a" program was more important than doing it right.

I want a human space program. I want NASA involved - no one in the US has any experience with human spaceflight except for NASA. But a program built on a foundation of thoughtful research and optimization seems a far better opportunity for a meaningful long-lasting space program than efforts that are artificially constrained by budget and schedule to take less than optimal paths.

People frequently say, anything is better than nothing, but, when it comes to high visibility one-shot efforts where lives are on the line, I'm not sure I agree with them. Better to take a later flight with a parachute you know has been checked out than try to catch this one with a parachute packed haphazardly.

Project Savior said...

The price of freedom is ever vigilance.
The price of progress is never being satisfied.