Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Changes in the US manned space program

Change is coming to the US manned space program. At last! Real, dramatic, tangible, believable changes in the course and the results created will finally steer us to this nation's future we dreamed of decades ago.

The time for change is long past due. What we have been doing in human space flight in the US since Apollo has been a failure of epic proportions. Many will defend the status quo and express anger over the upcoming changes proposed by the Obama Administration, but the national track record for manned space flight demonstrates a past that is more about jobs programs, Congressional pork, and broken promises. Defenders of the past are left protecting many billions of dollars spent flying some stuff around in circles, employing a work force that has had no appreciable effect on any grand vision we hold for our national future, and quietly agreeing to accept the myth that they all are doing something useful.

At the risk of heresy, consider any rational measure of the NASA operated human spaceflight program since Apollo. How many promised milestones have been achieved regarding flight rates, payload costs, access for regular people, and science? The unmanned space program HAS managed to accomplish quite a lot with respect to science, but even they are held back by the high costs of accessing space. The original promises for the Space Shuttle spoke of weekly flights, ten dollars per pound ($22 per kg) to orbit, and low operational costs of a mundane service. Instead we were doing great to get five flights a year, purposely obfuscated costs for payloads, and $1,000 Million spent on each flight. We have a standing army employed to accomplish those flights and not a mundane service crew. This is an epic failure considering just the Space Shuttle alone! Consider the $1,000 Million spent on the X-33 that failed to be good enough to even leave the hangar and other attempted transportation projects since Apollo and it becomes abundantly clear that NASA human space flight expenditures weren't about successful space goals. The only measure of success by which they pass is the funneling of money to Congressional districts.

The background of repeated failures in our nation's human spaceflight program must be kept in mind when we judge the changes coming from the White House. These changes focus on Earth to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) transportation plans and how they can be provided by commercial sources. NASA proposes (at the White House's encouragement) to hand over this role to commercial space firms. They propose to buy transportation as a service. At the moment, the announcement is from the NASA Press Office, so a dose of skepticism is a good defense against yet another promise dashed by pork politics. This time, however, the White House is behind the message. We can dare to hope (audaciously so!) that we will break the circular self gratification huddle of our old ways and go somewhere else. More importantly we will go somewhere else in a way that lets us do it again, and again, and again. This time, 'we' will mean more than NASA's employees. It will mean us too. How can it? Those commercial providers will want to make money to increase share holder value (as they must) and that means they will want to sell other flights. That is where 'we' get our vision of the future.

NASA will have to make changes. It can no longer see itself as the Emperor of all things in space. It has done this in the past and failed to deliver. The agency simply cannot get it right when it comes to building their own launch systems, let alone operating them. They cannot be both a government agency and a profitable company. It is time they stopped trying and accept their successes elsewhere while relying upon the free markets to deliver the other services. They succeeded with Apollo because they had an achievable set of goals and didn't have to act like a corporation competing in a free market. They can let the taxi and trucking services go to those who want to deliver them now.

For example, California's SPACEX from its creation through its first successful orbital flights and all the industrial tooling and facilities to support them spent far less than the $445 million NASA has on the recent flight of the Ares 1-X mockup. That mockup didn't even make it to orbit. The Dragon capsule on a Falcon 9 from SPACEX is projected to cost a fraction of the Ares and Orion systems proposed by NASA. We know in which direction NASA's cost projections trend over the life of their programs of the last few decades and must remember that SPACEX has managed to put things in orbit. Orbital Sciences Corp is in a similar position with it's Taurus vehicle and projects similar cost savings over the smoke and mirrors that is Ares/Orion.

Even if one feels less that secure in betting on NewSpace firms, it is important to realize that some of the large traditional companies are adapting old systems to carry payloads and people into orbit to serve commercial customers and yes... even the International Space Station. Atlas V and Delta IV have flown many times (infinitely more than Ares/Orion in terms of percentages) and the Boeing/Bigelow crew capsule under development will cost a fraction of that needed for Orion. This isn't smoke and mirrors as Bigelow already has experience in orbit too. NASA's exploration job need not start at the launch pad anymore. The gate to their part of the frontier has moved up and out into orbit

None of this will happen if the old politics and the old players win the day, but we are on the proverbial edge of a bright new frontier. We can not rationalize wasteful spending that leads us around in circles and employs bright people to accomplish nothing of great value. Access to orbit can be made more mundane, but only by unleashing the free market to do what it does best. NASA can achieve higher goals of exploration and science, but only by unleashing the power of free enterprise to deliver goods and services NASA fails to deliver to itself. The Obama Administration is proposing (through NASA) to do exactly that.

And so the battle is joined. In a dose of historical irony, many who fought so long the wasteful spending and years of great talent lost in the human space flight program in the US find ourselves standing with the current agency leaders like Charlie Bolden and the Obama Administration to fight for this new vision. Those of us who loved the early NASA and what it did for a generation of engineers, scientists, and dreamers fought back tears of anger and frustration for years over what they did next, but now we can join them in a defense of their new plan that makes rational sense. It is about time.

Dare we hope again?

Do we have the audacity?

(Thanks Rick!)

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