Saturday, April 17, 2010

Kick Asteroids

It’s not Friday but stuff comes up.

It’s been interesting reading all the Buzz about President Obama’s new plans for NASA. They cover a wide range of… well, lets call them ideas.

First I need to throw in a few facts:

Obama was born in Hawaii, not the moon. This is not an attempt to hide his birth records.

Obama didn’t cancel the Space Shuttle, GW Bush did that.

The Shuttle didn’t have a replacement vehicle ready when GW Bush announced its retirement because Bill Clinton cut the funding for research into a replacement vehicle.

Obama actually increased NASA’s budget to the point where they can get useful work done. He didn’t “gut” NASA as some republicans say.

In order to keep the Shuttle flying it would need a major upgrade, taking it out of service for at least a year.

NASA has always had one huge problem, it’s a government agency that is directed by the President. So it has to work on an 8-year time frame. Unfortunately science doesn’t like short timeframes.

An other problem it has is its funding is dictated by congress. Which means, technical decisions are often overturned by idiots.

The Constellation program to replace the Shuttle was given some severe handicaps. It had to be built using parts from the Space Shuttle, this was not a technical decision but a political decision geared to keep the same people who work on the Space Shuttle working on Constellation.

A lot of the early costs of Constellation were due to the fact they were trying to use the existing hardware in ways that it was never designed for. A lot of the original budget went to trying to get the Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSME) to work as a second stage when they were designed to fired up on the ground. Finally they went with the RS-68 engines which were built using the research that went into SSME, but were designed to be simpler and could be used as a second stage.

Although it seemed to make sense to build the Ares rockets using existing parts, most of those parts were designed in the 70s with a single purpose in mind.

By canceling the Constellation program and starting fresh NASA can build a heavy lift rocket that uses parts designed later that are more versatile. Like the RS-83 which was designed to replace the SSME but had its funding canceled when the decision to keep the Shuttle flying long after its intended lifespan was made.

So Obama’s decision will probably push the future of US manned space exploration back a few years but his successor in 2016 will have a lot more tools at their disposal.

Increasing the funding to COTS (commercial orbital transport services) will boost the private sector space exploration and should have private companies have at least one rocket that can lift the Orion capsule to orbit (if the Dragon Capsule doesn’t work). Whereas the Ares I probably wouldn’t be ready by that time.

The development of newer rocket engines will make it possible to design a heavy lift launcher with a much lower cost per pound and reliability.

So the next president will have a space program based on hardware developed in the 21st century as opposed to hardware developed in the 60s and 70s.

As far as Obama’s stated goals, they don’t really matter. Without an absolutely huge amount of funding like the amount used on the war on drugs, or the war on terrorism NASA wouldn’t be able to have a manned space program during his presidency. So instead of stating a goal for his replacement to cancel (like most presidents) he decided to leave the goal for next president and give them the tools to get it done.

I would personally like everything to be done, now. But as it’s unlikely the war on drugs or the war on terrorism will be canceled tomorrow this approach will leave NASA and manned space flight stronger in the next administration. So if the next President decides to go to the moon, or an asteroid, or even Mars by 2024. NASA will have the tools to make that happen.

Just like how if Eisenhower hadn’t formed NASA and done a great job in combining all of America’s many different rocket programs, Kennedy wouldn’t have been able to set the goal of sending a man to the Moon in a decade; The next president will have several rocket options available all based on 21st century technology.

1 comment:

Stephanie Barr said...

I couldn't have said it any better and haven't a single correction. I think you've nailed it.

And you don't have to have ships flying (although I think the ISS counts) to have a human spaceflight program.