The Future of NASA

By Phil Plait | September 11, 2009 7:00 am

NASA logo

I’ll be honest: I don’t know what the future of NASA is right now. Worse? NASA doesn’t know either.

Here’s the situation right now. The Shuttle is planned to fly her last mission in September 2010, the end of the fiscal year. The International Space Station is not budgeted beyond 2016 — that was on purpose; the Bush Administration couldn’t guarantee funds beyond then. NASA is constructing hardware for the Constellation program, the Ares 1 and Ares 5 rockets that are planned to pick up where the Shuttle program leaves off. However, there is no way the Ares rockets can be ready before the Shuttle program ends, and in fact 2015 is the earliest it can be used… and the delay is likely to be longer than that. That means there will be a gap in the U.S. capability to get humans into space, and that gap may be 5 years long or more. More money thrown at Constellation won’t shorten the gap; only extending the Shuttle program will. And there really isn’t any meaningful way to do that for more than a year; hardware like launch facilities are already being converted to use by Constellation.

That’s where we stand.

In May of 2009, the Obama Administration created a group, now called the Augustine Commission, to investigate the current program and look at alternatives for NASA. They just released their findings yesterday (PDF). Note that these are not the detailed conclusions of the commission, but a short version with details to be given later in the longer, final report.

Their conclusions are interesting. First, they say that the goals must be determined (Moon, Mars, near-Earth asteroid landings, and so on) before the hardware is built. Fine; NASA has stated they want to go back to the Moon. However, is Ares the way to go?

Augustine says not really. They suggest a new system, an "Ares Lite" that has less capability than the standard Ares configuration but would be cheaper, or possibly a Shuttle-derived launch vehicle using hardware well-tested in over a hundred Shuttle missions. The problem is, I don’t see any way that kind of thing can be done in anywhere near the same time as the actual Ares rockets being built now. The report states that this can extend the ISS to 2020 and even keep the Shuttle going (in the Shuttle-derived version) until 2015, closing the gap. This assumes a successor to the Shuttle can be flying by 2015. The report doesn’t give details, but I see no way to have a new system designed, built, tested, and ready to go in five years. Perhaps the final version of the report will detail that.

Mike Griffin, the ex-head of NASA, didn’t care much for this report. In fact, in an email, he blasted it pretty viciously (and by blast I mean holy cow someone better give him his blood pressure medicine STAT!). As he points out, the Augustine report doesn’t give much space to simply fully funding Constellation. The actual project has been underfunded, quite seriously, almost since its inception. That has resulted in delays and other woes. Given adequate funding, what we’re already building may be sufficient to do everything we need.

Griffin has other accusations about the Commission, some of which I assume are fair, though I don’t have expertise in such things as the difference in lunar payload capabilities of Ares Lite versus the Ares 5. I can take his word on it. However, I also think he let his temper run away from him a bit; he lambastes the Commission for talking about de-orbiting the ISS in 2016, but to be fair they are presenting that as a possibility due to the tightly constrained budget environment. They actually say:

The Committee finds that the return on investment of ISS to both the United States and the international partners would be significantly enhanced by an extension of ISS life to 2020. It seems unwise to de-orbit the Station after 25 years of assembly and only five years of operational life. Not to extend its operation would significantly impair U.S. ability to develop and lead future international spaceflight partnerships.

As I read it, their point is that to extend the Shuttle (even a year), develop a new rocket system, and keep the ISS flying may not be possible without a lot more money. They suggest $3 billion a year more starting in 2010. That may sound like a lot, but in fact it’s a tiny amount of the overall national budget. NASA gets roughly $20 billion now, and that’s less than 1% of the total US budget.

So here we are. We have a Shuttle winding down, a rocket gearing up but leaving a five-or-more-year gap in our ability to lift people off this mud ball, and a space station that has cost something around $100 billion dollars but which has yet to prove itself worth even a fraction of that amount, and still only fundable until 2020 or so.

Great. So what now?

I don’t know. The best thing that could happen would be for the 400+ members of Congress to reverse their cranial-rectal inversion, give NASA the money it needs to do what it needs to do (though from where is a whole ‘nuther story), and then let us go to the Moon. But that still leaves the gap — which will not be filled by commercial space flight, at least not substantively until the gap is almost over anyway — the ISS, and any potential future budget cuts.

Obama has been fairly slow in dealing with NASA, taking a long time to appoint a new chief. This Commission report — prompted by Obama — basically says we have to do something now.

What will he do?


Comments (93)

  1. stogoe

    He’ll do nothing. He’s very good at that.

  2. Daffy

    Oh, good, the discussion degenerates into Obama bashing on the very first post. That’ll help.

  3. I looked at the PDF and I think it reflects Mike’s concerns that he voiced when the new administration took over. The report appears to simply ignore many of the serious engineering challenges that have to be solved and attempts to reduce the whole question into a simple management task.

    For example : keeping the shuttle flying until 2015 is quite simply a non-starter. It’s just not going to happen.

  4. McCorvic

    That was always the one thing I didn’t like about the Obama platform during the campaign. He was always fairly clear that Nasa funding wasn’t high on his list of “to dos”, but education was. It seems like obvious to me that one of the best ways to get kids interested in science is to have a kick ass space program.

    It’s sad that we have to start looking towards other countries to keep space exploration going forward.

  5. NewEnglandBob

    stogoe spelled his name wrong: stooge.

  6. John

    I find it a tad curious that Griffin gets in a huff now, as opposed to when it mattered more. You know, when he was the Administrator.

    Ok, now that I’ve got that out of me, I’m rather surprised the commission didn’t recommend de-orbiting the station in 2016. For any of the tracks they consider (moon first, mars first, flexible), the station has already served its purpose: Can we build stuff in space? Yup. Can we have people in space for more than 2 weeks? Yup. The station does not tell us how to defend against the radiation dangers any non-LEO mission will have. It does not tell us how to generate the large quantities of food/oxygen/propulsion needed. It does little science. The station now serves little other purpose than to meet our international obligations. By that I mean contracts for money for everyone building and maintaining components. To me, the best track forward is simply to de-orbit ISS now, and renegotiate the partnerships to match whatever track we come up with next. Greater than 60% of NASAs budget goes into building and maintaining the ISS, and if our future is one without it (be it tomorrow, 2016, or 2020), then dump it and move on. Too much money and effort have been diverted from good science or new engineering for manned spaceflight to keep in orbit a station whose purpose has passed.

  7. fred edison

    “(though _form_ where is a whole ‘nuther story)”

    “However, is _Area_ the way to go?”

    Catch a typo and a little kid grows up and becomes a scientist. I hope.

    I don’t know where the money will come from. Maybe they could borrow a few billion dollars of pocket change from the black budget. I doubt that’s seen too many budget cuts, unlike penny pinching NASA. Until a solution is found to fill the space transport gap, I trust we’ll be able to develop a taste for vodka.

  8. Didn’t the AC also say that supporting our own private space ventures has the capacity to eliminate the gap entirely? There are more than a few companies working on rockets right now that could solve the problem of getting crew and cargo to and from the ISS. Why is that always left out of any meaningful discussion on the future of the space program? I say pull the funding from Ares and start paying private companies to not only develop the rockets, but to fly them. If we’re wondering if Ares is going to even get off the ground, it’s time to cut our losses. We’re not ever going back to the moon at this rate, never mind 2020.

    Remember NASA was not created to run the show. It was created as a research body. You could argue that the unmanned mission is under it’s umbrella, but the manned mission is curently a mess. It’s normal for massive cost overruns and delays, and we get vehicles that are expensive to fly and don’t meet the original specification when the contract was awarded. That’s a poor way to run a space program.

  9. TW

    Im surprised that the Augustine Commission didnt return with a recommendation to end manned US spaceflight outright when the shuttles go away.

  10. If the ISS had serious potential to be an on-orbit fuelling station and logistics stop for a mission that then goes on to the Moon or to Mars, I’d disagree with John. But isn’t it in entirely the wrong orbit to fulfill those goals, even if the infrastructure to act as a way-station was bolted onto it?

  11. Stop waging war against everyone and everything, specifically, those who are/were no threat to us (e.g., Iraq) and those that are largely the result of our own actions (e.g., drugs).

    Money problem solved.

  12. ekb

    I’ve read that the commission’s budget numbers are fishy. Rather than estimating the actual cost of Ares, they (that is, Aerospace Corp., who was hired to number crunch) instead took current budget numbers for spaceflight and multiplied them by the number of years allotted to complete the goal. Or something weird like that…

  13. I think there also might be an opportunity here; the past few years have seen unprecedented development of space exploration in the private sector, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. There is also new development from other nations; Japan and India, to say nothing of China, whose space program has really taken off (sorry).

    NASA is extremely important, but fortunately they’re not the only game in town.

  14. Alex

    Perhaps NASA should think of something radical. How about licensing Soyuz. It’s not the ideal launch vehicle, but it’s well tested, reliable and available now.

    NASA & their contractors could use it to learn how to build and operate capsules again, and when they have their own replacement be in a better position than if they’d had a gap in knowledge and experience. Russia gets some well needed dollars.

  15. Kevin

    Personally this isn’t a problem with NASA, it’s a problem with Congress not knowing what to put money into. We spend way too much on stupid, frivolous things, and not enough on the important things. Bank bailouts, wars, and other things like that are crippling the important things in America – education, science, technological progress.

    I don’t want to discredit the men and women who’ve fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, I love our troops. However, when we’re at a period in time where we are about to be surpassed in technology and scientific progress, that is a bad thing.

  16. bob

    kuhnigget and fred edison are right. Throw 100, 200 billion at NASA every year and watch all your problems melt away. That’s what? Two months in Iraq. The way this country funds anything that isn’t designed to kill people is the problem. Really the whole world’s problem.

    The solutions is clear: declare war on space. We went to the moon the first time to beat the Russians. Let’s not pretend it was anything more than a political stunt. Maybe if we tell everyone Al Quida set up a lunar base NASA could get some real money.

    Or maybe fix the economy? Provide health care and a decent job for everyone? Then maybe they wouldn’t be so worried about putting food on the table they could actually thing about space.

    “To what purpose should I trouble myself in searching out the secrets of the stars, having death or slavery before my eyes?” – Anaximenes

    There are way too many things wrong with this planet and the human race for most people to give even a passing thought to the stars. Even if they did, what does living on the moon really improve for the average person?

  17. peflo

    There’s an interesting argument I’ve heard from a few NASA and ex-NASA people I’ve spoken to regarding ISS “proving its worth,” namely that the main goal of the project (from the perspective of those funding it) had very little to do with science and a whole lot to do with keeping ex-Soviet rocket scientists and engineers gainfully employed building rockets for the space program in Russia instead of designing missiles in Iran, North Korea, and China. Whether this was truly the intent of the project or not, it seems likely that it would at least be a wonderful side-effect, and always makes me feel better about the bottom line.

  18. Stellar Sasquatch

    Didn’t someone within the President’s Administration state that the preference for NASA’s focus going forward was primarily monitoring the effects of climate change?

    Some of the 40% of the Stimulus that was used for silly tax cuts should have been applied to simultaneous manned endeavors to the Moon and Mars.

  19. Jeff

    Its not as complicated as people think. The money is there and Obama simply needs to get out and lead on this and stop spending 100′s of billions on social projects. Oh heck, he does not even have to stop spending on social projects. Just divert a *few* more billion a year to NASA, and the Constellation program can get done. The country can do anything it puts it’s mind to doing. All we need is A) a Leader to lead the band, and B) just enough money to buy some instruments for the band instead of buying one for every person in the country. Sorry if that sounds like Obama bashing, but the LEADER gets to take the credit for things and the blame for things. It comes with the office. Bush is gone, get over it. Stop out of control spending on social programs and take just a *few* billion saved and move it to NASA and then LEAD and INSPIRE them. That’ll work.

  20. To be fair, human space flight is a very visible goal of NASA, but it is not NASA’s only goal. For the benefit of the casual lurker, they have huge research arms that examine things such as advanced aeronautics, large-scale changes in Earth’s parameters, other planets and planetary bodies and stars, including our own, amongst other things. They support, in part or whole, many artificial satellites orbiting Earth and other bodies with all sorts of sensors, sending all sorts of information back to Earth and making it available for all sorts of researchers.

    This article sheds a chilling light on a rather substantial gap in NASA’s most publicly visible goal, and that will have a huge impact on all of NASA’s functions. To lose public interest in such a way, and to fail to push the envelope of research in manned space flight risks all of the valuable, if generally forgotten, other research and platforms that NASA supports. I support the private sector, and they have made incredible strides in certain bands of remote sensing, but they don’t cover near the spectrum and can’t make the data as easily (cheaply) available as a public research organization could. Thank you for bringing this to the forefront!

  21. Inertially Guided

    Just a thought here…we used Titan and Atlas-based boosters for unmanned payloads, didn’t we? Well, THEY were used to launch manned vehicles back in the sixties (notably the Gemini program, which flew on upgraded Titan ICBMs with a magnificent safety record), so why not look into the idea of dusting-off the Gemini blueprints and flying manned missions on Titans and cargo lifts via Atlas boosters? The Delta IV is a mean booster as well.

    At one time there was an Air Force plan for using Gemini capsules for just this purpose–there were even mock-ups built of a Gemini-based Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL). I’m not advocating that we build THAT, just saying that we ought to look into fully utilizing these VERY flexible boosters, which the USAF was still using as recently as 2005, I believe, to loft payloads of up to 10,000 pounds to geosynchronous orbit or 47,000 pounds to LEO.

    Okay, I’m a fan of the (mostly forgotten) Gemini Program, and would at heart love to see them fly again as an interim manned transport, but I’m not so much of a Rocket Man as to be able to comment on my ideas’ actual practicality and expense. I look forward to more informed comment from other readers.

  22. Matt T

    One question that has been troubling me on the ISS: How can the US (one nation) justify de-orbiting the INTERNATIONAL space station? As a follow on, would another nation be willing to pick up the tab to keep it afloat? I guess I don’t know the financials behind the ISS. Any answers are welcome (except from Stooge).

  23. Every space blogger is buzzing about this now, and I was no exception. We aren’t on track in terms of where we “thought we would be” by now, but that doesn’t mean it was all bad news.

    No one is saying outright that we can’t or won’t go to the Moon or Mars… and one encouraging excerpt from the committee’s report was that “There are actually more options available today than in 1961 when President Kennedy challenged NASA and the nation.”

    It’s also emphasized that multiple nations have made space exploration a global enterprise. International partnerships once thought impossible could strengthen ties both on Earth and in space. That’s no small accomplishment. Private companies can also lighten the load of space costs on governments. More and more of those will emerge over time.

  24. Gavin Polhemus

    When an astronaut steps out of the Mars lander and surveys the horizon, one person sees the view. When a robot lands on mars, all of mankind sees the view.

    If astronauts were going to return something (knowledge, samples, etc.) which robots could not provide, then I would see a reason to send people. However, I do not know what benefit humans provide. Robots last longer, go farther, see more and cost a tiny fraction of what human missions cost.

    I don’t want to pay another 3 billion per year on trips for individual humans. I want to go to Mars myself, and the best way for me to do that is through the eyes of a robot. Even better, I’d like to travel the whole solar system and survey the far reaches of the universe through the eyes of dozens of robots and telescopes that we can put up for a small fraction of what a human mission costs. I want my money spent on unmanned missions.

    Someday, humans will set out for new homes among the stars, if we don’t go extinct first. Hanging out in low Earth orbit for a couple decades while we figure out how to live sustainably on our little rock is probably not going to delay our departure. We could focus on making the ISS more sustainable as well. This would help prepare for missions beyond the range of resupply trips, and it might reduce the ISS’s operating costs as well.

    As the private sector and other nations enter low Earth orbit, creating a vibrant community there seems far more relevant to our long term goals than bold trips to the Moon or Mars.

  25. I have an AE friend who is devoted to developing systems for space travel. The man works on electric propulsion when it wasn’t fashionable under the Bush administration, and is now hopefully going to see the pendulum swing the other way so that it can get more funding under the Obama administration. He knows his stuff quite well, and also follows politics and policy very closely.

    I asked him about Griffin and the Constellation and Ares programs, and he laughed. There is no clearly defined reason to go to Mars or the Moon aside from “it’s there”. That’s great and all, and typically a pretty good reason, but there isn’t really that much incentive. Even if there was, building a slightly larger version of the Saturn V, in his opinion, was not the way to go about it. The emphasis in the Bush administration on getting to Mars caused NASA to go three directions at once: existing manned space flight (the space shuttle), unmanned missions (all those pretty pictures we keep seeing here of Jupiter and Mars and Saturn and other galaxies), AND extraplanetary travel (TO MARS!).

    Even if you doubled NASA’s budget it would still be exceedingly difficult to achieve these goals. The trip to the Moon was perilous enough — an anecdote my friend told me was that a NASA engineer spent years trying to work out a vibration damper for one of the stages of the Saturn V, to keep parts from shaking off. He completed his calculation, submitted it to the machine shop, they built it, installed it, it worked. Only later did they discover that the part had been machined backward, and it wasn’t until a few years ago that we really understood why the part worked the way it did. The technology exists, but it has to be applied on a grand scale, just to get to the Moon. We’re seeing the fits the LHC is going through, and that thing has relatively few moving parts compared to a rocket that is supposed to escape Earth’s gravity. Going to Mars would be a vastly more complicated task: you have to shield the vehicle, whatever form it takes, from radiation that the Apollo missions didn’t have to contend with due to the existence of the van Allen belts. You have to pack enough food for a crew, presumably three or four, to make the round trip, which means you want to shorten the trip as much as possible, which would require more powerful and more efficient rockets.

    A lot of this technology just hasn’t been worked on before, because there had never really been a big demand for light, cheap, powerful rockets that can get people to Mars and back. Developing it also isn’t just a matter of dumping more resources on it. Many graduate students will get a thesis out of projects related to topics like this, and we know how long it takes to finish up a thesis (well, at least I’m becoming familiar with it).

    I agree that manned space exploration is a noble goal, and is perhaps one of the most human things in science. After all, it’s a hundred times cheaper and infinitely safer to just send a robot to do it. But be realistic: even if Griffin hadn’t spent his tenure at NASA denying global warming and trying to cover up the fact that the best idea his people could come up with is a slightly bigger Saturn V + Apollo setup, the technology required to get to Mars, which I think should be the “big” objective, is staggering and, at present, only the glimmer in some precocious undergraduate’s eye. Sorry to be a Debbie Downer, I really do wish we could keep up the manned space travel, but we’re not really in a good position right now to send ships zipping around the solar system. One day, with thoughtful buildup and capable leadership giving good long-term vision, we will be.

  26. Björn

    Not to rain on anyones parade but you do know that the US is running a massive budget deficit right? Now 3 billion more for space exploration isnt much comparing to the entire federal budget. However, when you are all ready borrowing the entire budget of NASA and much much more I dont think it is as easy to say that just another 3 billion dollars more would help alot.

    The US government can not afford 3 billion dollar more. As i said before, sorry to rain on your parade and sorry that I bring this up on a science blog.

  27. Charles Boyer

    Stephen, look at the numbers for support for manned space travel versus unmanned.

    One mistake that robotic-only proponents constantly make is that they would see the same dollars that flow into the manned operations side of NASA move into their budget if the manned programs were terminated. Where they get that assumption is anyone’s guess. It certainly doesn’t seem to pass any critical analysis of realpolitik. If Congress and the incumbent Administration decided to opt out of human space flight, those dollars in all likelihood would simply be eliminated entirely.

    You could easily lose BOTH programs if human flight is eliminated, or at best see an incredibly reduced robotic exploration budget. Common sense says that is probably exactly what would happen.

  28. KC

    >When an astronaut steps out of the Mars lander and surveys the horizon, one person sees the >view. When a robot lands on mars, all of mankind sees the view.

    Ummm…so you claim no one was watching when Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon? Really – huh, my mistake!

  29. Pathfinder's Airbag

    At the risk of getting yelled at, it seems to me that Phil and most of the comments here are all distressed about the failure of the federal government to pour billions of dollars into a vaguely-defined PR campaign for NASA. “Putting a permanent base on the moon” and “Human exploration of Mars” are typical of the nice-sounding, broad-brush, ultimately meaningless drivel that the Bush administration spouted when it wanted to sound visionary and profound. Neither goal has been fully explained in terms of scientific, cultural, economic, or commercial benefits to justify the ballooning costs, and no compelling case has been made beyond platitudes about “exploration” and “science”.

    Sure there’s a lot of government money wasted on stupid wars that could be better spent by NASA, but (and here’s where I show my own bias) the unmanned program has been returning a lot of valuable science, and dollar-per-pound it makes more sense both economically and scientifically to build better robots, as it were, than to send heavy people, heavy life support systems, heavy safety features, heavy food and heavy water to the moon or Mars or anywhere else to do pretty much what could be done remotely. For me, the “gee whiz” value of seeing some former fighter pilot tromping around in the Martian dirt may not be justification enough of the mind-numbing cost of those tingle-inducing TV images.

    I love the space program; I just think at a time of limited resources and political challenge we need to know what and why — in boring old non-inspirational terms — before we worry about how much it costs.

  30. KC

    >The US government can not afford 3 billion dollar more.

    You’re perfectly right however, that’s hard to swallow when the US military spending is up to $650 billion per year. That’s almost equal to the military budgets of the rest of world’s countries combined! And that’s not counting so-called “black” military projects we don’t even know about.

  31. Paul from VA

    Regarding the private sector and building rockets cheaper. This has been tried before. The American rocket company tried to develop their own rocket in the 80s. It exploded on the pad. SpaceX has tried to go the same route, but they still have only a 40% success rate with their rockets. Would you want to put a live human being on a device with only a 40% success rate?

    The main problem with rocket development is proving reliability. NASA’s official policy is that any man-rated flying vehicle have less than a 1% chance of catastrophic failure with a high confidence. It’s been a few years since I learned the math involved, but essentially, any launch vehicle needs to have tenish successful unmanned launches in a row before it can be man-rated. SpaceX isn’t close to that. There’s also a lot of skepticism about the company because they claim they can build a rocket that will launch payloads for 1/10 the cost of anything else on the market built by any country. As this is a skeptical blog, I’m a bit surprised that so many people are willing to overlook the statement that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” when it comes to spaceflight. The only other start-up worth mentioning is Scaled Composites, but they are nowhere close to developing anything capable of orbital flight. Private spaceflight looks good on paper, but it should not be counted on to deliver human cargo to orbit.

    My personal take is to simply use commercial rockets. The Delta IV Heavy is alredy capable of launching the Orion crew capsule. Costs $250 million/launch. Why develop new rockets when you can just man-rate proven existing ones? You still have to design a new capsule, but that bit is much less prone to exploding. Ares itself is more or less redundant.

  32. Mick

    @Gavin Polhemus

    Thats right, when humans land on Mars they’re going to decide against filming that and sending it back. To do so would be just silly! The astronauts will take a couple of snaps from digital camera’s, then when they get back to earth they will pass them round at parties to show people.

    “Now this was when I got out of the spacecraft.”

    “And here is me giving the thumbs up in front of a flag, look at the face I’m pulling lol!”

    “I bumped the shutter here, I totally cut Ted’s head off in this shot hahaha! Oh man, I wish we could have shown you guys some video of this… If only we had sent a robot instead, because I hear that’s THE ONLY WAY to get video of stuff these days.”

  33. stephen:”The technology exists, but it has to be applied on a grand scale, just to get to the Moon. ”

    Bovine excrement. If all we did was build another Apollo capsule, we could get to the Moon. Getting there isn’t the problem. What we do once we get there is another case entirely. Constellation is a crock because it’s trying to one-up Apollo and it’s going to end up costing more than developing Apollo from the ground up. That’s messed up. There is no rational reason why we should develop a vehicle designed to go from the surface of the Earth to the surface of the Moon. It’s costly, and it’s very inefficient.

    We need to be concentrating on getting people and equipment to Earth orbit to build a proper space station. Drop ISS into the ocean. It didn’t do what it was intended to do and it cost a LOT of money (and is still costing a lot of money) in the process. The shuttle should already have been retired. It also costs too much money. The russians have been capable and ready to send up our people and equipment for some time, and if they have trouble, there are companies in the US who have already devoted money to getting there. With the money we save we could dump a couple billion on one of them to get them the last mile, and THEY’LL make money off it (unlike NASA)

    After that, build a vessel in orbit who’s sole job is to go from orbit to orbit. If it can get to the moon, it should be able to get to Mars. The only difference will be what it takes with it, but if we go to Mars, it better be with some other goal than science or to be able to say “We did it.” Same with the Moon. Everything that the manned space program does should be as a means to do something else. If it’s human destiny to be in space, then stop screwing around and get us there. If it isn’t.. then lets get busy with things that actually ARE important.

  34. Charles Boyer

    “The Delta IV Heavy is alredy capable of launching the Orion crew capsule. Costs $250 million/launch.”

    Ummm, that’s not what D4H engineers say. Have you read the executive summary of the June 1 Aerospace Corp. report on this very subject?

    The development of a Delta 4 Heavy rocket certified to fly astronauts would take 5.5 to seven years, according to the report.

    That directly contradicts your statement of “already.” Of course, on its face saying that makes no sense, because D4H is not manrated. That is a much higher quality standard than launching probes and satellites. Probes and satellites can be built to withstand far more extreme conditions such as POGO and other vibrations than the human body can effectively take, just for one example. Those considerations would not only have to be considered, but also proven with the likelihood of additional engineering with its own incumbent analysis until the rocket could be flown with humans on top.

    To that point:

    “Aerospace did not perform estimates of loss of mission and loss of crew probabilities” for upgraded Delta 4 Heavy rockets,

    Those studies would have to be undertaken and understood. And probably the D4H would require further enhancements.

    A substantial rise in Orion costs would be associated with adapting the capsules to fly on Delta IVs and revising mission design work, environmental assessments and ground operations plans.

    That is probably a 1-1 exchange, because the same would be done for any system. But it is fair to point this out. Logistics matter with space flight. Some say that are darned near everything once a system is in place. Those people happen to work at Cape Canaveral, so they may know of what they speak of.

    While I am a big supporter of switching to EELV, it’s not like a truck can go drive over the Banana River to LC37 and load up a D4H and take it to the VAB and stack it with an Orion capsule and head to orbit this year, next year or the year after that. These things take time and money, but first they need a decision to move in that direction. Until all of those things happen, the D4H is not “already capable.”

  35. Gavin Polhemus

    @ KC and Mick: Yes, I am aware that humans can and do operate cameras on their trips, just as robots do. I’m all for sending cameras. Why send the humans?

    @ Charles Boyer: One mistake that proponents of manned space seem to be making is that real science missions are benefiting from all of the enthusiasm for manned missions. I have no doubt that if manned missions were scaled back most of that money would not become available for unmanned missions. But even if a tiny fraction did, that would be great for science.

    In fact, if manned missions were scaled back and none of the savings was redirected to science missions, that still might be a plus for science. When high visibility, big budget manned missions run over budget, the scramble for money can be devastating for smaller, low visibility science.

    Of course, if scaling back back manned missions would automatically mean scaling back science as well, that would be terrible. However, I’m not sure that would happen. There was a huge public outcry when plans were made to bring down Hubble, because people love Hubble pictures. Would we hear the same outcry if we brought down the ISS? I don’t know anyone who loves what they are getting from the ISS, but maybe I’m just hanging out with the wrong crowd.

  36. Brian T.

    It’s been a while since I’ve read Phil’s first book, but I vaguely remember one interesting concept on how to make a space program pay for itself.

    Find a way to capture a metallic asteroid and pull it into a stable Earth orbit and mine it for material. I may have the numbers slightly off, but I think he said that a 1 mile wide asteroid composed of nearly pure nickel and iron could be worth up to a trillion dollars.

    If we could find a way to mine Helium 3 on the Moon and get it back to Earth, it could help research on fusion power. There’s another big potential payoff, although it admittedly would be costly to set up the kind of infrastructure needed for that kind of thing. Even if all the mining and orbital transfer is done with robotics, it’s quite a challenge. Would it be worth it though? I don’t know.

    As for finding money for NASA’s current affairs, why not sell ad space on the rockets? Ads are annoying, sure, but if having a rocket look like a NASCAR vehicle helps to pay for a mission to Mars, why not?

  37. Ken

    Manned space flight is difficult, expensive and dangerous.

    Putting it off however is not going to help that one tiny bit. The only way to reduce any of those three characteristics is to DO IT!

    In the early years of last century there were “daredevil” pilots flying unreliable, unstable machines. They went up, looked around a bit, then came down (sometimes rather harder than they intended). Eventually a handful of people got to ride along with them at carnivals.

    These people provided the experience necessary to build the aviation industry.

    Granted we’re talking about far less capital investment to build a rickety airplane vs. a manned rocket; space vehicles require far greater energies to be harnesses safely and need to operate in a far harsher environment. For the time being that means that only governments can really afford to do it.

    Yes, we need commercial space flight capability. The beginnings of that are under way. To some extent it’s funded privately but some mighty big chunks of change are coming out of NASA’s pocket too – these capabilities are beyond the reach of pure private investment.

    IMO it doesn’t matter at all what we do once we get up there – moon, Mars, asteroids, whatever. We simply need to be doing SOMETHING, in order to develop the technologies and experience. I personally like the idea of developing more than one launcher, even more than one vehicle – it gives us more things to try, and fallbacks in case something doesn’t work out so well. Note that Aries, STS, Atlas, Falcon, Taurus etc. don’t exist in isolation. Experience with one platform helps everyone. Eventually we’ll get good enough at it that it’ll become as cheap and reliable as everyone is hoping. Eventually.

    BTW, it’s been pointed out before that the $3B would be *spent*, not simply loaded onto a missile and shot off into the sun. The manned space program employs hundreds of thousands of people, directly or indirectly. These programs mean orders placed at companies that design and build the components. It means orders placed at companies that develop and fabricate the materials (alloys, composites, cables, etc). It means employment for inspectors, auditors, administrators, managers (yes all those jobs people love to flame at *are* generally necessary). It means employment for engineers, draftsmen, factory workers, and all their support. It means jobs for construction workers, truck drivers, technicians. It means buildings get built and leased. Dirt gets moved, concrete gets poured. Every one of those suppliers have a network of suppliers feeding *them*, so the effect increases geometrically. And even better, due to the types of technologies involved there is a strong bias towards companies who actually operate domestically, much more so than the same $$ thrown at a car manufacturer (yes there is a substantial chunk of overseas supply also, but hey if it’s my tax money I prefer it be spent here).

    Promote American jobs! Fund space programs!

  38. IVAN3MAN

    @ Brian T.,

    Phil wrote a book?


  39. R. M.

    So this may sound a bit counter-intuitive (and cynical), but I think this financial downturn might be the ideal time for NASA to ask for it’s budget to be increased by several billion dollars. The public has experienced such huge government expenditures lately that its sense of perspective has been absolutely wrecked. With hundreds of billions spent on the war and the financial bailout, I don’t think many people would flinch at a request of $3 billion. Not to mention that one could make the case that the money could be used to real employ people to make actual things, rather than in ways that have a less directly visible effect on the economy.
    (Not that I’m saying that this is the “right” thing to do – $3 billion is a lot of money that could be spent in other ways to help people in this country.)

  40. Ken

    @Bob #16:

    > Or maybe fix the economy? Provide health care and a decent job for
    > everyone? Then maybe they wouldn’t be so worried about putting food
    > on the table they could actually thing about space.

    And how exactly is throwing many thousands of people out of work and killing dozens of supplier businesses by cutting off manned space flight going to help that?

  41. Edward at JSC

    re: Charles Boyer

    The 5.5 to 7 years quoted to man rate a D4H may be a bit exaggerated, but it is not unreasonable. Man rated rockets are required to be 2 fault tolerant and that is where all the EELV’s run into problems. They are for the most part zero fault tolerant and making them 2 fault tolerant requires redesign. The EELV must talk to Orion and vice versa such that the Orion vehicle will “know” if it needs to jettison the EELV to get the crew to safety. I worked the OSP proposal years ago and the mandate from NASA was to use D4 and Atlas 5 for launch redundancy capability. The kicker was modifications to the vehicles was limited because they were commercial products, making money launching satellites, and Boeing and Lock-Mart did not want to mess with their designs. As a result the biggest problem we kept coming up against was how do you man rate something that you aren’t allowed to mess with? Ultimately OSP was canceled and we never had to answer that question, but it is resurfacing now with the Augustine Committee recommendations.

  42. Charles Boyer

    Edward, excellent points.

    Here’s what a good friend in LSP said recently, which add to your points:

    “I think that had we made the decision to fly the Orion spacecraft on Atlas V or Delta IV five years ago, we’d be flying them now and shuttle could retire on schedule with no gap in US manned access to space.

    Human rating these vehicles would not have been trivial, but certainly achievable in the time we’ve spent so far on Ares 1. ”

    Now here comes the patented Rub:

    “If vehicle performance were lacking, Atlas V and Delta IV could have been stretched or had their core diameter increased without much more effort. The organizations building, managing, and evolving these vehicles have been doing so continuously for over 50 years. They know what the vehicles are and are not capable of and are fully qualified to stretch those capabilities in the direction needed to fly Orion.”

    While the organizations are certainly experienced, he’s talking about a new bird for all intents and purposes. Perhaps that is for missions above and beyond LEO, but that would not be a trivial task by any means.

  43. Charles Boyer

    “In fact, if manned missions were scaled back and none of the savings was redirected to science missions, that still might be a plus for science. When high visibility, big budget manned missions run over budget, the scramble for money can be devastating for smaller, low visibility science.”

    Or increasingly expensive high visibility Mars robotic probes, for that matter. MSL/Curiosity is slurping up budget in its overruns like no tomorrow.

    “Of course, if scaling back back manned missions would automatically mean scaling back science as well, that would be terrible. However, I’m not sure that would happen. There was a huge public outcry when plans were made to bring down Hubble, because people love Hubble pictures. Would we hear the same outcry if we brought down the ISS?”

    A fair point about Hubble, yes, but if the Webb telescope or MSL were canceled, how many news cycles would that occupy? I would give it two days in the general news. Much, much longer in places like this one.

    I am convinced that to the public, Hubble is great because it produces extremely pretty pictures more so than the science it produces. Yes, as an engineer, I appreciate the science and the boundaries it expands. Joe Sixpack, however, he is not as easily impressed by the science of the accelerating universe or GRBs as they are by incredible color photos that HST produces.

    BTW, Discovery’s planned 5:48pm EDT touchdown has been waved off and now 7:23pm has been targeted.

  44. Sean

    I think its time to call in the good folks at Jettison Salvage. They’ve already gone to the moon, salvaged a gold satellite, deflected an iceberg, made First-Contact with alien life and disarmed a dangerous android.

    They’re more MacGyver THAN MacGyver… but with feathered hair and bell-bottomed jeans.


  45. doofus

    Maybe NASA should run health care.

  46. Ken

    Logically speaking, the only thing that can untangle this mess is if private industry, such as Spacex or Blue Origin pick up the pace QUICKLY and start launching astronaut-carrying hardware within the next couple years. Keep an eye on Spacex. They actually have a contract with NASA to have several unmanned cargo launches to the ISS within the 5 year shuttle gap. And let’s not forget Russia’s Soyuz or Japan’s new unmanned cargo ship, which will have its first launch sometime this week.

  47. Charles Boyer

    Can someone explain to me why NASA’s Administrator, Charles Bolden, will NOT testify to Congress about the Augustine Report, while former Administrator Mike Griffin WILL?


    House Science and Technology Committee Hearing – Options and Issues for NASA’s Human Space Flight Program: Report of the “Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans” Committee

    “Panel 2 … Dr. Michael Griffin, Eminent Scholar and Professor, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, University of Alabama in Huntsville”

    “New NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden is no longer scheduled to appear before Congress next week to discuss the future of American astronauts in space. Instead, former NASA chief Mike Griffin will testify before the U.S. House Science and Technology committee on Sept. 15.”

  48. Gavin Polhemus

    @ Charles, I agree with everything you say. High visibility, big budget unmanned missions cause big problems when they overrun their budgets. One might argue that those overruns are dominated by the desire to get good science, so we are sacrificing one kind or science for another, rather than sacrificing science for “humans were here” bragging rights. However, I don’t know enough about the missions to know if that actually holds up when you look at the numbers.

    I also agree that cancellation of JWT or MSL would get about two days of news. Would we get any more if we canceled Constellation? I doubt it.

    Your point about pretty pictures from Hubble is exactly correct. Pretty pictures is what people want. It is much easier and cheaper to do that with unmanned missions, and we can pack a ton of science on while we are doing it. Joe Six Pack knows that Hubble takes pretty pictures, but can he name a single astronaut from the last five years? I can’t. That is why I doubt the claim that cutting the manned program would be devastating for the unmanned program as well. The unmanned program is providing the pretty pictures that people want from NASA.

    The eye sees for man; the camera sees for mankind. I think it is the pretty pictures that will keep the science missions aloft.

  49. T.E.L.

    Charles Boyer Said:

    “One mistake that robotic-only proponents constantly make is that they would see the same dollars that flow into the manned operations side of NASA move into their budget if the manned programs were terminated. Where they get that assumption is anyone’s guess.”

    I’m not sure where you get that idea from. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that argued before. I’m highly critical of crewed spaceflight, but I’ve never assumed something like that. The point hasn’t been that the extra money, once freed-up, will magically flood robotic missions with loads of extra cash. The point has been that robotic missions can be done here & now without terribly much extra money, whereas sending passengers to do the same thing means waiting decades longer and paying through the nose for it.

    “You could easily lose BOTH programs if human flight is eliminated, or at best see an incredibly reduced robotic exploration budget. Common sense says that is probably exactly what would happen.”

    I don’t see how that’s so obvious. Robotic space exploration is just a form of basic research; but basic research in the U.S. already gets a lot of funding outside of NASA. Why would it be especially likely to get cut within NASA just because we stop using warm bodies as rocket payload?

  50. Charles Boyer

    “Would we get any more if we canceled Constellation? I doubt it.”

    I would bet good money (is there bad, if it doesn’t come from ill-gotten gains?) that were the US to abandon spaceflight that there would be significant fallout that would rattle for quite a while.

    Were President Obama to make such a decision, the Republican Party would be all over that. Why? The politics of Florida with all of the HSF-oriented industry that is resident to the the I-4 corridor. As goes the I-4 corridor so goes most presidential elections. That’s because of the nature of Florida politics and the importance of Florida in the Electoral College. Many there, in fact, say that Obama won Florida because of his speeches reassuring KSC focused workers that he would continue and not shut down the space program. If you recall, he had once said that he planned to drastically cut NASA in order to pay for educational programs through the Dept. of Education.

    We a Republican president to do so, the Democrats would do the same. And not only Florida, but Alabama and Texas would come into play.

    “Joe Six Pack knows that Hubble takes pretty pictures, but can he name a single astronaut from the last five years? ”

    Let me ask you in riposte if the average American could name the first spacecraft America ever put into orbit, Explorer 1. Could they name the first spacecraft to land on another planet, Viking 1?

    Now can they name the first man to walk on the moon?

    The first American to fly into space?

    The first American to orbit the Earth?

    I would bet most would know Armstrong. Many if not most would also know Shepard and Glenn’s name too.

    Poll after poll show consistent and unvarying support for manned space flight. It would not be popular politically to stop. Instantly, you would here cries of “ceding space to the Russians and the Chinese.” Heck, we already are, by sending a hundred-fold to crooked bankers instead of investing in our future through science and development not only in space but also in energy, medical research and other worthy fields.

    UIPDATE: Florida landing plans scrapped. Discovery now slated to land at Edwards Air Force base in California. No ETA specified.

  51. T.E.L.

    Charles, the first spacecraft to land on another planet wasn’t Viking 1. It wasn’t even American.

  52. Björn

    KC: Even if the entire US military budget was eliminated and 10 NASAs on top of that the US government would still be in deficit spending. Again, the US government can not afford even 3 billion dollar more. I wish that they could afford that though, too bad really.

  53. Gavin Polhemus

    Charles, You have convinced me that the public supports manned space flight and that cutting it would be politically very damaging. I don’t personally have much enthusiasm for human space flight, but if the public wants to the government to pay for it, wonderful. I’ll enjoy the pictures as much as anybody. I certainly am not going to tell the Joe Six Pack what he should want.

    I am not convinced, however, that science is a beneficiary of human space flight, or that science would be harmed if the public said “no thanks” to the actual cost of a manned mission to the Moon, Mars, or an asteroid. I think unmanned program has enough support to survive independent of what happens with human space flight, largely based on the support I’ve seen for Hubble.

  54. XMark

    So I guess China’s gonna pull ahead and win space race 2?

  55. MadScientist

    I’d say put more money into getting ESA’s Jules Verne class of robotic delivery vehicle certified for human passengers and safe return to ground (or ocean). Endeavor is the youngest of the shuttle fleet and even she’s almost 20 years old. Sure you can keep the fleet running, but something’s got to give; the service life of the shuttle wasn’t originally intended to be as long as it’s been pushed to.

    I don’t like this “oh, but we can scrap the current program and do things cheaper” mantra; I’ve seen it before and it ends up in more waste. The important thing should be getting a good idea going, not apeing Charles Babbage and pushing half done things aside to start on the next grand delusion.

  56. Good, well-banalced review, Phil!

    I tend to agree with Mike Griffin. He has alwasy impressed me as a competent engineer who is not afraid to lead, and believes in his mission.

    And I am quite willing to believe that that the Augustine Comission members are probably very nice people, even though I am not sure that I would want to entrust my manned space exploration program to their vision, leadership, patience, and wisdom.

    Yes, umnanned space probes are a great idea in places where humans dare not tread (Venus, Jupiter, the Sun, …).

    And yes, space exploration is expensive.

    And no, NASA’s mission is not to solve world hunger. It is to explore.

  57. Michael Kingsford Gray

    Were I in charge of NASA, I would immediately close down all manned space flight,
    and plow the money that is left over into robotic missions.
    I would give the ISS to the Chinese, or the Indians, or whomsoever wants this useless, pointless white elephant.

  58. Jeff

    Question is, if not the United States, or a team with the United States as a member, who? Will we be eventually written up 50 to 100 years from now as a ‘pioneer’, but fell by the wayside? Obama, Bush, whoever. It does not matter what fool is in office. What matters is who is leading. Go to the moon? Go to Mars? No. Fine. There is NO COMPELLING reason to spend the money. Except for the INSPIRATION it fosters. Does no one understand? We are our best when told, it can’t be done. We should not provide universal health care, or universal ANYTHING. As a people, provide inspiration. Why? Because a child inspired to solve a problem will. In the end, that is all we need. We all benefit from the success of our children. But humans need inspiration. And that is a commodity NASA and our government can provide.

  59. JebTexas

    I don’t understand why this info isn’t being talked about: SpaceX ( has the contract for supplying the ISS until NASA gets in gear. Five years worth of launches, I think. They just lofted the C&C module on STS 129 that goes in the ISS for docking control w/ the Dragon capsule. They have launched 2 sats successfully, they have contracts with Orbcomm, Inc. for 18 more that will keep them in the black w/o the NASA input, and they have facilities out of the US should they need em. They are using the same Merlin engine in the Falcon 1 config ( one engine) the Falcon 9 ( the same ISP as the Saturn 5) and the -9 heavy. They are using Kerosene and LOX, not H2, and they are rolling. They are launching the man-rated Dragon Capsule later this year, but the launch system is already in use. Elon Musk’s goal is Mars. SpaceX is making space pay. Why isn’t this getting more press? You guys are smart folks, but ya’ll missed this?

  60. JB of Brisbane

    Does everybody remember that there was a gap of nearly five (5) years between the flights of the Apollo/Soyuz Test Program and STS-1? Of course, there was no ISS then…

    @Gavin Polhemus – my take on the first robotic exploration of Mars:

    Houston: Mission Control to Explorer, switch on external TV camera.

    Robot: Explorer to Mission Control… bite my shiny metal a#%!

  61. Mac

    I’m not from the US, so excuse me for my bad English.

    Questioning the NASA projects in the near future is quite right.

    Face it: We use the same propulsion method today, which was developed 60 years ago by Werner von Braun and Sergey Korolyov.
    60 years passed, billions of dollars spent and still 80% of the spacecraft’s energy is used up to get LEO orbit.
    This is not the way to get – within acceptable time – to the closest planets even.
    On the other hand we have ion-thrusters, plasma engines, VASIMR engine and God knows what else is invented in the meantime.
    I know that those engines are not capable to lift off from the earth, but exactly this is the big big problem.
    Instead of spending billions to keep the the shuttle fleet alive for one more year or servicing that useless ISS, it is time to think different.

    Build a station where a spacecraft can be assembled and start from there to explore the solar system.
    Come up with new launching methods or at least give them a try.

    Manned mission to the Mars? With this technology? Pointless and completely wasting time and money.

    So do something NASA people but not this orthodox way.
    With these ancient methods we don’t get nowhere.

  62. Charles Boyer

    @Gavin, I can see where you are coming from and have great respect for your point of view, and in fact, I partially share it.

    I do think, however, it is fair to point out that direct science in and of itself is not the only benefit of human space travel, and never has been. The truth is that the real payoff from space travel thus far in our beginning steps into it (hard to believe, but it’s only been a little over fifty years since humans could orbit anything!) have been the adaptive uses of the technologies generated to make space travel possible.

    Some may say in forums like this one that Project Apollo was a complete waste of money, something I have always found deeply ironic given that the integrated circuits that they use to make that statement are the great-grandchildren of technology that Apollo helped create. Ironic, wouldn’t you say?

    The Apollo guidance package verifiably used the first integrated circuits when MIT began working on it in the 1960′s, and at one point the MIT people were using 60% of the world’s supply. The other 40? Minuteman missiles, and classified, but those were primitive in comparison. That in turn led to spark development in the tech thanks to necessity, which led to economies of scale, which led to Intel, TI and other companies taking world leadership that they have yet to relinquish.

    That’s merely one example, there are others. Bottom line is that when all things are considered, space travel has paid for itself by helping create technologies that in turn fueled the computer revolution. The income taxes paid by an Intel et. al literally dwarf the 25.4 Billion US dollars that paid for the program.

    It is reasonable to expect that a continued mix of manned and robotic missions would do the same and would help the country that dares to step into the void in the long run. After all, history has a habit of repetition.

  63. Mitch

    The question to ask is – why is this a priority? does it matter if there is a gap?

    I would suggest that since we cannot take care of ourselves down here on Earth yet (climate change, health care, education, turrists, etc.) we have no business thinking about manned space missions. Space can wait, let’s take care of our home first.

  64. Sean

    The panel should have shown some spine. The ISS should be deorbited immediately. Why are we burning money for no results? Stop burning money and the problem is solved.

    I am not going to support sending a penny more to NASA, an organization that is completely unable to set any kind of priorities. Frankly, I think the ISS white elephant shows that NASA should be taken apart completely. Put another agency in its place to handle unmanned missions, NASA has lost its track. (The scientific value of NASA comes entirely out of its unmanned missions, and so recently so has its inspirational value. We have Hubble and Cassini in the news, and then we have media stories about the ISS astronaut who didn’t change his underwear. Actually, I think the ISS has a *negative* inspirational effect, by making space seem mundane, boring and unscientific.)

    “The best thing that could happen would be for the 400+ members of Congress to reverse their cranial-rectal inversion, give NASA the money it needs to do what it needs to do (though from where is a whole ‘nuther story), and then let us go to the Moon.”

    I love this sentence. It perfectly encapsulates the viewpoints of NASA’s supporters. First give NASA money. Then maybe NASA might be able to think of something to do with that money. Like going back to the moon, or maybe sending up a new ISS—how NASA spends the money is less important than that it is there.

  65. coolstar

    This post starts out stupid: The Future of NASA, and goes downhill from that. What the bald astronomer really means is “the future of u.s. manned spaceflight as proposed by the Bush administration and carried out by NASA”. That’s clearly a lot different than “the future of NASA”. Manned spaceflight has been done poorly by NASA ever since the shuttle’s first flight. While SCIENCE has been done very well (with some mistakes) over that same time period. Isn’t it time to think about what any semi-competent junior high sports coach would tell her charges? “you always change a losing game”. Manned spaceflight as done by NASA has been a losing game for the last 30 odd years. The ISS was invented so that the worst flying machine ever conceived would have someplace to go (after the shuttle was sold to Congress with a huge pack of lies about lowering the cost of access to NEO). I’m not against human spaceflight, but for pity’s sake if we’re going to do it let’s not repeat the mistakes of the last 30 years. To ever build a sustainable presence in and beyond NEO, we need to exploit the resources of near earth asteroids, to bootstrap our way. The moon? As my student’s like to say, “been there, done that, got the t-shirt”. No science to be done there that can’t be done cheaper elsewhere, no resources to be exploited (ice, helium 3? I’ve got ACRES of swampland to sell you), no lessons to be learned that can’t be learned while doing something safer AND useful (you don’t leave one deep gravity well to land on another unless there’s some compelling reason to do so). Just because Phil has worked for NASA (as have I), it doesn’t mean he has to drink the koolade. there are LOTS of GREAT things NASA can do that don’t involve manned spaceflight and idiot ideas like returning to the moon.

  66. T.E.L.


    I can agree with a lot of that; but I don’t think it’s true that there’s nothing left on the Moon worth discovering. Apollo only returned samples from six locales, with none of them on the Far Side or near the poles. Reports of the Moon’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

  67. coolstar

    Yes, there’s fodder for some geologists on the moon, but is it worth $100 billion for a manned mission? If the geology is that interesting, it can be done with sample and return missions, but I suspect that very, very few planetary scientists would support that over missions to Mars, Titan, Enceladus, NEOs…..

  68. T.E.L.


    I didn’t say anything about manned missions. I’m all for the robots these days.

  69. Phil, the “Ares Lite” is just one option the Augustine Commission is suggesting. There are other options as well. The committee isn’t pushing any one of those options specifically, although it has said that its first two options (which assume current funding plans hold) do not produce any kind of reasonable manned exploration program.

    Many folks inside NASA have questioned the wisdom of the Ares I/V approach. Recently I looked at the numbers, and it’s like this: $35B (at least) to develop Ares I, plus another $15B to develop the Orion crew exploration vehicle… all to replace a reusable Shuttle that cost $34B (in 2009 dollars) to develop. Seems like we aren’t getting any better at this.

    One thing the Augustine Commission has also suggested is commercializing manned launches to LEO, and letting NASA focus on the cutting edge (beyond LEO) of manned space flight.

  70. Sean

    One more thing: While NASA’s manned space program is not inspirational and has nothing to do with science, the commercial drive to space is inspirational. The private companies are trying to make space more accessible, while NASA is trying to go back to the same places for even more money. And once they get back to the moon, they’ll hit some golf balls and declare it $100 billion well spent.

  71. drdave

    The Direct Team states they can fly Orion by 2014. $8.8 B with a Billion. And tht’s a by product of deep space capability. Ask Aerospace Corp.

    UAL will present at AIAA next week. COTS is alive.

    This Doom and Gloom based on the Augustine Summary Report is way premature. Just ask Phil at comment #23:

  72. Petrolonfire

    @6 John :

    To me, the best track forward is simply to de-orbit ISS now,

    Er, you wanna let the astronauts get out and the shuttle undock first!? ;-)

    (Pictures “John” in charge of NASA instantly ordering the ISS into a fiery reentry end with the astronauts onboard still screaming at him not to do it and then the remains of the whole blazing ISS coming crashing down onto … “John’s” house. All because he wouldn’t wait & check things out a bit more carefully first. ;-) )

  73. Petrolonfire

    @ 48. Gavin Polhemus Says:

    Joe Six Pack knows that Hubble takes pretty pictures, but can he name a single astronaut from the last five years? I can’t.

    Joe Sixpack : “Uh, yeah I can! There was that one that wore diapers when she went to kidnap her astronaut lover’s new girlfriend, what was her name again, Lisa …something? (Novak -spelling?) ;-)

    When an astronaut steps out of the Mars lander and surveys the horizon, one person sees the view. When a robot lands on mars, all of mankind sees the view.

    Bzztt! Dead wrong there.

    A heck of a lot more people will notice and see the view when a human being is on Mars than will when its just another rover (or the old rovers still) or Viking or an orbiter.

    If astronauts were going to return something (knowledge, samples, etc.) which robots could not provide, then I would see a reason to send people.

    Then you see a reason to send people because humans *do* indeed provide stuff that a robot can’t. The Human dimension. Human’s can do things that robots can’t – they think instantly and on the spot, they are far more flexible, adapt and innovate and go beyond their programming and more. They can laugh, love and inspire, write poetry and songs, paint and see things exactly how we want to seem them – through human eyes not artifical ones. They can give talks and give hope, be interviewed and write memoirs, deck deniers like Sibrel and get kids interested in science in ways that robots just can’t.

    I don’t want to pay another 3 billion per year on trips for individual humans.

    You have a spare $ 3 billion? Wow! Lucky you. I don’t think anyone’s asking you personally – & certainly not to pay the whole cost. Its a taxpayer funded thing – a tiny, tiny percentage of a whole lot of money you pay in taxes most of which is wasted on far worse things like wars we should never have got mixed up in.

    I want to go to Mars myself, and the best way for me to do that is through the eyes of a robot.

    Either you are a very small person or that robot you are planning to send is truly humungously BIG! Most people wouldn’t fit in your average robots eye. ;-)

  74. Mac

    @ Petrolonfire

    You really caught the very essence of the problem.

  75. StevoR

    @ 66. T.E.L. Says:

    coolstar, I can agree with a lot of that; but I don’t think it’s true that there’s nothing left on the Moon worth discovering. Apollo only returned samples from six locales, with none of them on the Far Side or near the poles. Reports of the Moon’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

    67. coolstar Says:

    Yes, there’s fodder for some geologists on the moon, but is it worth $100 billion for a manned mission?


    I think it is worth every cent for us to go to the Moon again – & beyond with real live humans because, just for starters, we have :

    1. Helium three which could be a fuel of the future.

    2. Possibly water ice, possibly minerals - we may find that extracting ores from the Moon works cheaply and easily and, of course, won’t have the environmental or social issues we get on Earth. Uranium mining on the Moon, for instance, could help stop the worries about radioactive elements being launched from Earth, avoiding the sort of protests that for instance, the Cassini spaceprobe suffered with its RTG component. Maybe we could actually build such spacecraft and launch them from the Moon itself?

    3. The Moon also offers a low gee, hard vacuum environment which is could have its advantages for some industrial processes – and a wide range of temperatures. Ditto. The Moon would also be an ideal place for using solar power : long days, no clouds (or air) in the way, huge tracts of land available and some locations with permanent sunshine – polar craters. Plus the Lunar Farside offers a great location for a giant radiotelescope.

    4. The opportunity to practice colonisation and artificial ecological sustainability techniques and learn how to create artificial biomes (think the “Biosphere II” experiment but better) more rigourously than on Earth and perhaps more accurately – for planetary environments than space stations but in a way that may be more ethically responsible than on Mars – *if* Mars has some life forms of its own.

    5. Dare I suggest tourism? No seriously, if places like Antartica and Mt Everest are becoming tourist sites of sorts (& they are) then why not the Moon too? Apart from other factors there’s the fact that apparently, in the low lunar gravity with sufficent space to fly in and a pair of strapped on wings, Humans can run, jump, flap their arms and actually fly like birds. I’d love to see – & do – that.

    Now all we need is to get the fungineers designing the Lunar theme park…

    … Or better still a Farside radiotelescope & nearside Lunar colony which can combine and make best use of all those factors mentioned.
    We’re whalers on the Moon,
    We carry our harpoons
    But there ain’t no whales
    So we sing tall tales
    And (? act like drunk baboons?)
    - ‘Futurama’ Lunar episode (Ok, I forget the last line there .. )

  76. Plutonium being from Pluto

    As for robots vs human space exploration I don’t believe things are either/or.

    I think we can have – should have – both.

    The same also applies for the govt. /private debate.

    Mind you, it must be said that the private space agencies are still a very lo-oong way behind – they’ve yet to get humans into orbit let alone be in a position to lead us to the Moon or beyond.

    Plus I really hate the thought that the first (wo?)man’s word’s on Mars may be something like :

    “I claim this planet for Fizzy Soda, I come to boost sales for only my soft-drinking kind! This mission brought to y’all by fast food joint A, shoe company B & Tampon manufacturer C. Land on Sunday, sell on Monday ..”

    Sigh. I suppose if that’s what it takes to get us there .. but .. yeck. :-(

    Far better to have a national organisation doing space exploration for the whole nation in a non-(monetary)profit fashion and for science in a way that includes everybody.

    As for all the criticism directed at NASA by some folks here – well, talk about ingratitude & overlooking the many superb things NASA has done for everyone! Astronomers – anyone who even likes astronomy – owes NASA an unpayable debt for the HST alone. Not to mention the Voyagers, the Mars rovers, the Apollo program, the previous robots that also landed on the Moon (who recalls their names? ) Magellan, MESSENGER, Stardust, Genesis, the International Space Station, the Mariners, the Vikings, et cetera, etc ..

    Really people, before you start tearing NASA down and abusing them you might want to stop and think about all they’ve actually done – most of which is far beyond what any other group – nation or company could or has ever manage(d). If any group will get us “to boldly go where no one has gone before” NASA will. They’ve already demonstrated that.

    I think President Obama (who I understand is a bit of a ‘Star Trek’ fan) needs to set out a clear vision for NASA, tell ‘em what we’re going to do – eg. a person on Mars by 2019 – then put someone who shares that vision & has a good plan how to accomplish it in absolute charge & insist that we pull out all the stops, esp. funding~wise, to make it so!

  77. Ken

    @JebTexas #59:

    I don’t understand why this info isn’t being talked about: SpaceX isn’t the only one contracted under COTS to supply the ISS …

  78. Mike Mullen

    Face it, the current mess is the product of replacing the Shuttle being left almost to the last minute. Throughout the previous two administrations various plans have come and gone, missions to the Moon and Mars have been proposed, always for well after the president in question would be enjoying their retirement.
    Ares 1 looks like it was designed in about five minutes on the back of an envelope, it hardly inspires confidence. Maybe it is time for the USA to embrace international co-operation and work on a manned plan in conjunction with the ESA.

  79. Sean

    “Astronomers – anyone who even likes astronomy – owes NASA an unpayable debt for the HST alone.”

    That’s right. And we could have a dozen Hubbles up there (a few of which would have problems) if it weren’t for the manned space program. The astronaut repairs were make-work for the shuttle program, which cost more than sending up new Hubbles! Once more, NASA sacrificed a crown jewel for its meaningless manned space program.

  80. G Williams

    TaurusII isn’t manned or reusable, and SpaceX has a few successful launches under their belt already, though only of Falcon 1, their lightweight booster. They are simply the most mature private space program currently. COTS and others certainly have a place in our future in space, but SpaceX will get there first.

    The manned space program is the only hope humanity has for the future. Global Warming aside, we can’t live stuck on this planet forever, We’ve got to spread out to ensure survival, with disasters that could wipe out a single planet lurking in just about every interstellar corner, the faster we get off this rock the better.

  81. Pisces

    I think we need to ensure the continuity of both the manned and unmanned space program. It has been nearly 37 years since we were last on the Moon. The ISS is still not exactly what Willy Ley envisioned and the Space shuttle is a 30+ year old design. Perhaps what we need is a truly international effort involving NASA, the ESA, the JAEA, RFSA and yes, even the CNSA.
    We need to encourage and support the private aerospace companies like Scaled Composites who are presently making steady advances in space travel. What mankind does NOT need is another extended hiatus from manned exploration. Yes, i believe robot missions are a good value and deliver a vast wealth of new knowledge of the cosmos, but i also think the ultimate goal is for humanity to go into space, investigate first hand the wonders of our solar system when possible and establish a permanent presence off planet. We should continue our journey to the stars.

  82. Plutonium being from Pluto

    @ 79. Sean Says:

    “Astronomers – anyone who even likes astronomy – owes NASA an unpayable debt for the HST alone.”

    That’s right. And we could have a dozen Hubbles up there (a few of which would have problems) if it weren’t for the manned space program. The astronaut repairs were make-work for the shuttle program, which cost more than sending up new Hubbles!

    Really? I think your maths and calculations may be a bit – even a whole lot – out there.

    Besides how would we launch them in the first place without the shuttle? It was actually launched by the Shuttle I think you’ll find & I’m not sure it *could* be launched using any other rocket – except maybe a Saturn V! ;-)

    Once more, NASA sacrificed a crown jewel for its meaningless manned space program.

    “Meaningless” you say? Well NOT to me – or most other people.

    I think manned spaceflight means a huge amount to a huge number of people & if you’re going to deny this you’re going to need to back your assertion up with something more than merely your own opinion.

    We remember Neil Armstrong’s Lunar landing, (even if, like me, we are too young to have seen it live.) there are people that strongly care about that – & the moonrocks and information it brought back.

    (Some loony nutters even care oddly by saying it didn’t happen and wasting their lives trying madly to disprove that it did. Why? I don’t know myself but it clearly matters to them.)

    Aussie astronaut Andy Thomas is a household name in my home city of Adelaide. Many people are inspired by science and dream of becoming astronauts.

    When it comes to robots outside of a few science buffs you just don’t get that same level of interest or inspiration or dreaming or yearning.

    Who remembers the name of the first robot on the Moon or where they were when it landed? Who really cares?

    Robots are good and all and they have their place but spaceflight is a human endeavour and human space exploration is a vital aspect and meaningful dream and can achieve a lot more than robots.

    I think we need both human and robotic space exploration.

    I just wish the USA would fund and direct both properly.

  83. Grand Lunar

    Tough times, indeed.

    At least it’s only $3 billion extra. Not much, when one considers how much is spend on other, not so lucrative ventures by the govt.

    I say NASA ought to combine a couple of ideas; use the side-mount launcher first, then develope a Direct 3.0 launcher along the way.
    And also tell them to get over the Ares rockets. IMO, and in hindsight, they weren’t the way we should’ve gone. Ares 1 itself is just too darn expensive for what it’s supposed to accomplish and for the time it’ll take to make it.

    It would be nice to get some more mileage out of the ISS. I still feel SOMETHING can be done with it, aside from being another artificial meteor.
    The right minds just need to get a hold of it. Heck, why not redecorate the interior to make it a hotel in space? Then let the private sector have at it.

    As for the shuttle, why not let it fly a mission or two per year after the 2010 date until the new ship is ready to fly? I’m sure it’ll make it with that pace.

  84. T.E.L.

    Grand Lunar,

    You feel the ISS good for something. But what do you know it’s good for? If you can’t even think of something specific to do with it, then what makes you think it’s good for anything?

  85. Matt

    Might be out of the box, but it seems NASA would be much happier if it could just do science and not have to do space flight too. Maybe its time NASA sells off its Space flight section to someone like Spacex or someone else and let them do what NASA and the US government clearly does not.

  86. Andy Girl

    Nasa gives people hopes and dreams….I can’t believe its going to close in 2011!!!!

  87. Space The New Frontier

    Apollo, and President Kennedy, sure brought the USA together, Lets all focus on one mission, and keep the program going. After all, we all have spent all this money and effort to say we can do it! The only major downfall that NASA overlooked, is not giving information freely and honestly to the very same people that have funded their exhistance. People simply want to know what their hard earned money has bought, and the ability to see hands on, and the freedom of an honest reply. NASA has forgotten about the hand that has fed their program, It is everyone in the USA. Can this old adage be reversed? I hope so, and at a very very expensive lessons suffered by us all. It’s the US civillians that have funded this program, called NASA. Time we got together don”t you think?

  88. Carl Wirt

    If we let the space program die, we are letting our future die. Its one major area of technological expertise we still excel at, and it is imperative we keep it alive. We should be going in the exact OPPOSITE direction from the one we are going, we should be massively funding NASA, creating factory schools for scientists and engineers, setting new goals. The spinoff technologies from doing this would revitalize the US economy and create thousands of jobs. Look at how many jobs the Apollo program created. Also we need to develop technologies for utilizing the vast natural resources that are in the asteroids and on the moon, as our rare earth minerals are running out, as well as fossil fuels. If we pursue space, we may well become a major spacefaring nation and reap the benefits of that endevour. If we abandon space, we will become a third world backwater.

  89. Max Rafael Waller

    I strongly believe NASA did too many projects and lost focus of their overall mission, in other words they over-diversified. I am baffled why NASA did not maximize the potential help of all of their famous astronauts to explain how they have improved space travel to ensure funding for they projects and the proven benefits especially medical from the missions: Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, the Military Orbiting Laboratory, and the short-lived Sky Lab.


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