Thursday, April 14, 2011

NASA's failure to launch: Being right in so many wrong ways...

Reading a couple posts by Phil Plait today, I wanted to check back in on some of what I wrote on Tuesday about the passing era of U.S. manned space flight.  He agrees with me on many points, but also disagrees on a couple of details.  One big difference is on the merits of the now canceled Constellation launch system.

He offers the following quote, referring to the Augustine commission, which was largely responsible for Obama cancelling the program:

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…

Plait agrees that the delay in any future crewed space exploration (Moon, Mars) is regrettable, but he also does not think that Constellation would have been the right approach.  Reading his arguments, I am inclined to agree.  My earlier post reveals the danger of forming opinions based on headlines and my own gut instead of actually looking deeper into the stories and facts involved.

The main thing I got wrong was the idea that the current plans essentially scrapped NASA's role in crewed exploration.  They do not, but they call for actually developing new technologies instead of essentially going backwards to re-develop the old Apollo schematics.

On this, Plait writes:

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.

Looking at the role emerging for private companies, Plait also makes some valid points that I had not considered, basically that low-earth operations are probably better handled by the private sector, freeing up NASA to look further, focusing on science, exploration and large scale plans like the Moon and Mars.

Still, he agrees that the space program has been less than inspiring for close to 40 years, since the premature cancellation of Apollo in 1972.  Like me, he remembers:

...breathlessly awaiting the [first] Shuttle launch, and I remember thinking it would be the next phase in our exploration of space. I was still pretty young, and hadn’t thought it through, but I’m sure had you asked me I’d have said that this would lead to cheap, easy, and fast access to space, and by the time the 21st century rolled around we’d have space stations, more missions to the Moon, and maybe even to Mars.

Like me, this was really the only truly historic event involving successful manned space flight in my memory.  I, of course, am not counting the two shuttle losses.  Those two events were memorable, but they bring the failures of NASA over the last 40 years into sharp relief, illustrating what is wrong with the U.S. space program these days, and they offer no encouragement that the future potential of NASA will ever be achieved.  These losses are probably the clearest examples of the complacency that has been plaguing the U.S. space program for so long...

As for the legacy of the Shuttle program and the last 40 years of malaise at NASA, Plait sums it up well:

Don’t get me wrong; the Shuttle is a magnificent machine. But it’s also a symbol of a political disaster for NASA. It was claimed that it would be cheap way to get payloads to space, and could launch every couple of weeks. Instead, it became frightfully expensive and couldn’t launch more than a few times a year.

This was a political problem. Once it became clear that NASA was building the Shuttle Transport System, it became a feeding trough. It never had a chance to be the lean space machine it should’ve been, and instead became bloated, weighted down with administrative bureaucracy and red tape.

More than that, though, to me it symbolizes a radical shift in the vision of NASA. We had gone to the Moon six times — seven, if you include Apollo 13 — and even before the launch of Apollo 17 that grand adventure had been canceled by Congress, with NASA being forced to look to the Shuttle. Ever since then, since December 1972, we’ve gone around in circles.

Now, there’s a lot to be said for low Earth orbit. It is a fantastic resource for science, and I strongly think we should be exploiting it even more. But it’s not the goal. It’s like walking halfway up a staircase, standing on your tiptoes, and admiring the view of the top landing.

We need to keep walking up those stairs. In 1961, the effects of space travel were largely unknown, but Yuri Gagarin took that chance. He was followed by many others in rapid succession. Extrapolating from his travels, by now there should be a business making money selling tours of the mountain chains around Oceanus Procellarum by now.

Instead of everyday men and women going into space to tour the moon, the NASA will soon not even be able to put a man or woman into space at all.  Compared to that, low Earth orbit is at least something, but as I wrote on Tuesday, it is really hard to get fired up for low Earth orbit.  The Moon and Mars, on the other hand?  Those are goals people can rally around, if there are clear, realistic plans and we can see real steps being made to actually make them come to fruition.  

I believe that much of the loss of interest in the manned space program comes from the fact that all that has been offered for so long has just been vague, always falling through, plans for the Moon and/or Mars with no tangible evidence that we are actually committed to going there.  When I was a kid, it looked like Mars was 20 to 30 years off.  30 years later, those estimates remain the same.

Still, where on Tuesday I found only discouragement in the current plans, Plait does find hope, if NASA can find a clear vision, set some salable goals, and develop some political acumen:

It was a political decision to cancel Apollo. It was a political decision to turn the Shuttle from a space plane to the top-heavy system it is. It was a political decision to cancel the Shuttle with no replacement planned at all (that was done before Obama took office, I’ll note). It was a political decision that turned the space station from a scientific lab capable of teaching us how to live and explore space into the hugely expensive and bloated construction it is now.

NASA needs a clear vision, and it needs one that is sturdy enough to resist the changing gusts of political winds. I’m hoping that Obama’s plan will streamline NASA, giving away the expensive and "routine" duties it needs not do so that private industry can pick them up. The added money to go to science, again in my hopes, will spur more innovation in engineering.

And NASA needs a goal. It needs to put its foot down and say "This is our next giant step." And this has to be done hand in hand with the politics. I understand that is almost impossible given today’s political climate, where statesmanship and compromise has turned into small-minded meanness and childish name-calling on the Congress floor. Not to mention plans for drastic and in many cases crippling budget cuts across the board by Congress.

But I’m old enough to remember when NASA could do the impossible. That was practically their motto. Beating the Soviets was impossible. Landing on the Moon was impossible. Getting Apollo 13 back safely was impossible.

Unfortunately, Plait and I are probably among the youngest who do remember NASA doing the impossible.  And many more have forgotten.  So long as NASA remains committed only to the repeating the possible, losing the public's interest in the endless been there, done that circles, there is little hope for the future of America's manned space program, and I stand by the concerns I wrote about on Tuesday.  However, after reading Plait's posts, I may have been right for some of the wrong reasons, and some of the problems I cited may actually have been steps in the right direction.  But we are a long way from getting back to the top of the stairs.  Or the stars.

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