I just finished watching the members of the U.S. House of Representatives debate the NASA authorization bill. The bill was passed, and I’m glad, but that was a sickening debate.
I watched the speeches live on C-SPAN. Many Representatives of both parties didn’t like parts of the bill, but felt it was important to pass it. I agree; I have reservations with it as well. However, most of this bill is just fine, and hits the right notes.
Not everyone agreed. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) strongly opposed the bill, for example (interestingly, she’s Chair of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee and her husband and brother-in-law are astronauts). She apparently is one of the few people still holding onto the idea that we should continue to work on the Constellation rocket system which will be defunded with this bill. I disagree with her on that quite strongly (see below).
She did make some good points, things I myself said in my earlier post. For example, the bill is too specific in what kind of rocket should succeed the Shuttle. That’s not for Congress to decide; they should make broader goals that align with what NASA wants to do, and then allow NASA engineers to make the system. Of course, there was consulting with NASA on the bill, but the bill itself shouldn’t go into details like that. Anyway, despite that, I strongly disagree with Rep. Giffords that this bill should have been voted down.
What really galled me, though, was that several Republicans blamed President Obama for NASA’s current mess, including Ralph Hall (R-TX, remember him?). This is grossly and demonstrably unfair and untrue. Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) hammered over and again the idea that Obama is trying to kill the manned space program. That is not true, and in fact the current situation (including the five year gap between the Shuttle and any follow-on rocket system) started in the Bush Administration. Constellation has been in trouble for some time, behind schedule and over-budget. I’m of the opinion that Obama’s plan to defund Constellation does not kill the manned space program as Culberson said it will. I have written about this repeatedly: far from killing it, this new direction may save NASA from the mess it finds itself in right now.
I’m scratching my head over the reactions of some Congresscritters about the successful launch of the Falcon 9 rocket by SpaceX on Friday. Given that NASA has several billion dollars it will be giving to commercial transport systems over the next few years, you’d think that Congress would be happy that a private company was able to get a medium-lift rocket into orbit on their first try.
But then, you wouldn’t be Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. This Texas Republican — that’s important, hang on — gave a short statement after the launch that was at best tepid, and in reality a slap in the face to SpaceX and all the other private space companies:
This first successful test flight of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is a belated sign that efforts to develop modest commercial space cargo capabilities are showing some promising signs. While this test flight was important, the program to demonstrate commercial cargo and crew transport capabilities, which I support, was intended to enhance not replace NASA’s own proven abilities to deliver critical cargo and humans to low Earth orbit. Make no mistake, even this modest success is more than a year behind schedule, and the project deadlines of other private space companies continue to slip as well. This test does not change the fact that commercial space programs are not ready to close the gap in human spaceflight if the space shuttle is retired this year with no proven replacement capability and the Constellation program is simultaneously cancelled [sic] as the President proposes.
Senator — with all due respect — that’s baloney. Plain and simple.
I am on record as saying that I think that the Constellation rocket program should be axed, and replaced with a system that is more cost-effective and less likely to run overbudget as Constellation has. President Obama’s speech recently made it clear that Constellation’s days are numbered, and that he is urging NASA to look into a better heavy-lift vehicle.
Not everyone agrees, of course. Jeff Hanley — the manager of the Constellation Program — has apparently sent out an email that is an attempt to save at least part of the current system. I have not seen this email, but it’s alleged to try to use Obama’s idea of continuing with the Orion space capsule concept to save even more of Constellation.
As promised, today President Obama released his planned NASA budget for the year. Not too surprisingly, it’s pretty much as the rumors indicated. There’s a lot to say here, and I have a lot on my mind, so please hear me out.
The Good News
The good news for sure is an increase of $6 billion over the next five years. It stresses new technology and innovation (to the tune of over $1.5 billion), which is also good. A lot of NASA’s successes have been from pushing the limits on what can be done. It also stresses Earth science, which isn’t surprising at all; Obama appears to understand the importance of our environmental impact, including global warming. So that’s still good news.
The very very good news is that half that money — half, folks, 3.2 billion dollars — is going to science. Yeehaw! The release specifically notes telescopes and missions to the Moon and planets. That, my friends, sounds fantastic.
Bye bye Constellation
Now to the other aspects of this budget. As I have written before, this new budget axes Constellation:
NASA’s Constellation program – based largely on existing technologies – was based on a vision of returning astronauts back to the Moon by 2020. However, the program was over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation due to a failure to invest in critical new technologies. Using a broad range of criteria an independent review panel determined that even if fully funded, NASA’s program to repeat many of the achievements of the Apollo era, 50 years later, was the least attractive approach to space exploration as compared to potential alternatives. Furthermore, NASA’s attempts to pursue its moon goals, while inadequate to that task, had drawn funding away from other NASA programs, including robotic space exploration, science, and Earth observations. The President’s Budget cancels Constellation and replaces it with a bold new approach that invests in the building blocks of a more capable approach to space exploration…
I can’t say I disagree with much that’s written there. A lot of it is based on the conclusions of the Augustine commission, a blue-ribbon panel of experts appointed by Obama to look into NASA’s future plans and make recommendations.
The Space Station
The budget calls for extending the International Space Station beyond the 2016 timeline, perhaps for four more years. I would say this is a bad idea, BUT the budget also asks for extending the ISS’s scientific capabilities. I would be happy to see that; ISS is very limited as a science platform. However, the dang thing is already built and in orbit, so it makes sense to spend a little bit more (I was surprised to see only about $180 million for this) to make it useful scientifically. If that becomes the case, then a lot of the issues I have with ISS go away.
Incidentally, the budget calls for a guaranteed $600 million for the next five Shuttle missions to ISS, even if a launch slips into FY11.
Back to the Moon?
So, where does this leave us as far as going back to the Moon? It leaves us delayed, again. That sucks. However, as I have pointed out before, Constellation was already a mess. Behind schedule, over budget, and starved of funding. It was a mandate from the Bush White House, but never got the money it needed from them or Congress to ensure it could be done (this didn’t work when it was attempted from the Bush Sr. White House/Congress either).
I don’t want a repeat of the Apollo program: a flag-and-footprints mission where we go there, look around, and then come home for another 40 years. I want to go there and stay there. Apollo was done as a race, and the goal of a race is to win. It wasn’t sustainable. We need to be able to figure out how to get there and be there, and that takes more than just big rockets. We need a good plan, and I’m not really sure what we had up until this point is that plan.
Building a heavy-lift rocket that can take us to the Moon, Mars, and near-Earth asteroids is not really easy. It’s not like we can dust off the old Saturn V plans and start up the factories again. All that tech is gone, superseded, and we might as well start from scratch with an eye toward newer tech. This budget is calling for that, as well as relying heavily on private companies.
And about that. I’ll say this again: private companies have not yet put a man in orbit, but Space X, as an example, is close to doing so. Once the Shuttle retires later this year, private companies will be putting humans in space before NASA will have the capability to do so again [UPDATE: please see my comment below; the above statement about companies beating NASA is correct]. I am no fan of paying the Russians or other countries to do this for us, and going the route of civilian space makes sense.
Now, Space X doesn’t have the heavy lift capacity that an Ares 5 or other planned NASA rocket might have had… but with routine launches to space covered by private companies, NASA can concentrate on what it should: innovation, pushing the limits, paving the road. Once the road is laid, let others use it.
So I don’t see this as doom and gloom. I see this as 1) putting science and innovation first, and 2) freeing NASA up to do what it does best: explore the boundaries.
Here’s what I think. Warning: political complaining ahead.
Remember: the way we’ve been doing things for 40 years has gotten us literally in circles. It’s perhaps long past time to shake things up and try something different. In my previous posts on this (see Related Posts at the bottom), people are complaining that Obama is killing our Moon plans and gutting NASA. That’s simply not true. I think this may very well save NASA and our future manned exploration capabilities, if this is all done correctly.
As for that, and having said my piece that I think this is a good idea, it may not matter: the other thing to remember is that this must pass Congress first. I honestly don’t think that will happen. For one thing, two many Congresscritters have too big a stake in NASA to let go; if you don’t believe me, read this article where Alabama Congressmen complain about the new budget. When Republicans whine about privatizing something, you know you’re in for a fight, and it’s not like Congressional Democrats haven’t been all that useful in backing up Obama’s plans.
We’ll see how this goes. If it’s business as usual with Congress, then I suspect it may be a lot like the health care plan all over again: lots of spin and noise, lots of knee-jerk reactions because it’s Obama’s plan, lots of "compromise" that’s really just watering down something to make it worse, and then a budget will be passed that won’t be able to get anything done.
I’m pretty damn tired of that, and I’m going to do something about it. I’ll write my Congressmen, and I’ll tell them that the time for bending over backwards is long gone. It’s time to grow a spine, time for boldness, time for innovation. Whether people like it or not, this is the new budget being proposed, and if Congress wheedles over it, then yeah, NASA really will be screwed, and we’ll spend the next four decades circling our planet and gazing at the Moon, wondering when we’ll ever go back.
Perhaps it’s fitting that this news is released on the anniversary of the loss of Columbia — it’s been seven years since that day when the orbiter broke up upon re-entry. A very good case can be made that complacence played a big role in that event. When it comes to space exploration, we must never rest on our laurels, we must never have the arrogance to think we have it all under control, and we must never forget that to explore means to push ahead into unknown territory. That is the lesson of Columbia.
The Moon, Mars, and all of space await us. This new budget may not be perfect, but I strongly suspect it’s the best we can do, and far, far better than the course we currently have laid out. If we don’t push for this now, we may never go back.
A ship may be safe in the harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.
For criminy’s sake. What is it with people and all the rending of garments over the impending doom of NASA?
1) The reports of Spirit’s death are greatly exaggerated.
OK, yes, Spirit is now stuck. It looks like even if it survives the Martian winter it may no longer be able to traverse the Red Planet’s landscape. But that doesn’t mean it’s dead. Instead of a rover, it’s now a stationary platform capable of doing a lot of science on the cheap (since most of the cost was getting it there).
If you’d rather not have a lander sitting on the surface of Mars doing science that we simply cannot do from millions of kilometers away on Earth, then fine. But astronomers and scientists and science journalists should know better. Stop saying it’s dead.
[And I can picture Opportunity on the other side of Mars, waving its mast frantically, saying, Hey, remember me? Still moving, still doing cool stuff!]
Next, and more importantly:
2) The reports of the manned spaceflight’s death are greatly exaggerated.
OK, yes, it does look like (assuming the rumors are true) the Obama budget for NASA is cutting out the Constellation rocket program in general and Ares in particular. But that doesn’t mean manned spaceflight is dead.
As I said in that above link, private space companies are still a ways off from putting people in orbit. However, I strongly suspect they’ll be doing it before Ares would’ve been ready to do it anyway. Private companies like Space X may be two years from that, while Ares wouldn’t have been ready for five, assuming NASA could even get Ares ready by the scheduled time and in the assigned budget (which I would give a chance of, oh, say, precisely 0). So it’s possible, perhaps even likely, that after the Shuttle retires later this year (or early next) companies like Space X will be able to reach the International Space Station with rockets before NASA could.
As far as going back to the Moon, we still don’t know exactly what the budget for NASA will be like, but it was made clear in the leaked reports (again, assuming they are true) that money will be spent to look for a better heavy lift vehicle than Ares. No specifics were given (though the Commercial Spaceflight Federation says it may be 6 billion bucks, a huge chunk of change), so let’s wait until we actually see the report, hmmm?
Also, a lot of folks thought Ares was a waste of time, money, and with little or no chance of working well. Heck, the Space Frontier Foundation praises the killing of Ares! So not only is it unfair to lament the death of manned spaceflight, some people think — with some evidence, mind you — this will spur it on even more.
That last sentiment rings true to me. NASA’s manned program has been endlessly circling the Earth for almost 40 years now, with no real end in sight. I don’t have a lot of faith, so to speak, that Ares can do the job in breaking this cycle. I suspect a lot of the same folks who are decrying this move by Obama are the same ones who would be first in line to say that NASA has had its wings cut for decades now, making one bad decision after another when it comes to space exploration. Maybe it’s time — maybe it’s long after time — that we let someone else have a stab at this.
When I look at the Moon, I see a place where people will one day work, live, breathe, play, and explore. I also see that future receding two years for every year NASA doesn’t have a rocket to go there, and I’ve been watching that movie play for many years now.
I’m tired of it. When I look out my window now I see a future I’ve been dreaming of my whole life, a future that seems just out of my reach. When my children, my grandchildren, look out their windows in that future, y’know what I want them to see?
The blue-green crescent Earth hanging in a pitch black sky over a cratered horizon.
Let’s give space a chance.
Rumors are flying that in the President’s budget, which will be presented to Congress on Monday, all the money for the Constellation rocket program — and the Ares I and V rockets — will be gone. NASA will still get a full budget and even a slight increase, but the money for the new rocket system will be axed.
First and foremost, these are rumors. The sources are all anonymous, and all the media are quoting each other. However, given the number of sources and the media involved, it’s probably fair to say these rumors have a good chance of being true.
So what does this mean?
To be honest, I’m not sure. It’s a lot to think about, and I’m not an insider expert on NASA. Having said that, here are some thoughts. Consider these mumbling out loud, ruminations to ponder. If I’m wrong, please feel free to comment!
[Continued after the jump.]