REALSPACE: Things Are Looking Really Bad For The Space Program

Republibot 3.0
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Despite the fact that I'm a Republican, I’m not one to reflexively attack our president simply because he’s a Democrat. In fact, I’m not one to reflexively attack our president at all. Love him or hate him, he’s the president, after all, and deserving of our respect. And I’ll confess that while I flagrantly disagree with his economic policies, I am actually proud to have lived to see our first black president, which, let’s face it, is a huge step forward in the cultural evolution of our nation, the kind of thing that would have been unthinkable only twenty years ago.

I'm not a fan - nothing he's done thus far has won me over to his views on pretty much any subject - but I will admit he’s surprised me on occasion. Here we are seven months in to his administration, and we’re *Still* essentially following “Plan Bush” in Iraq and Afghanistan, we did *not* run home with our tail between our legs the way the president’s own party wanted us to. That surprises me, and as surprises from the party of geopolitical irresponsibility go, it's a pleasant one.

So I’m proud of the accomplishment itself, even as I’m saddened by the fact that *our own* party hasn’t done more to incorporate black people, and promote them as viable political candidates. So I come not to bury Obama, nor to praise him, but he *is* the leader, you know? Majority rule. If we have any real faith in America, we have to accept that the voice of the people has authority, even when it differs from our own. If we don't, we're no better that those irritating Democratic nimrods who just bitched and moaned for eight solid years saying "Bush isn't the *real* president" and so on. I'll not be lumped in with those kinds of idiots.

That said, there are a number of things that Obama stated during the campaign that bothered me, one of which is relatively germane for discussion here on the site. I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop. It hasn’t *actually* hit the ground yet, but it is falling, no dobut about it.

Last year, Obama said that if he was elected, he’d move for NASA to “Postpone” the Constellation program (Including the Ares rockets and the Orion spacecraft that’s supposed to replace the shuttle) by five years. For those of you who don’t follow the real-world space program, the piece-of-crap Shuttle program is *finally* scheduled to be shut down at the end of 2010, a little more than a year from now, and all of its funds are to be put towards Constellation. Constellation is already in development, of course, but even so, we are *already* looking at a very long gap between the end of the Shuttle Program (Good riddance!) and the time we start flying Orions. Basically, the Shuttle becomes a museum piece in 2010, and the Orion goes in to service in 2015. During that period, the US will have no means of putting a person in space.

Let me restate that again for the sake of underscoring its importance: From 2010 to 2015 THE UNITED STATES WILL NOT BE A MEMBER OF THE MAN-IN-SPACE CLUB.

This will be the longest break in American manned spaceflight since it began, the longest period without an American presence in space since 1961. That’s just obscene. That’s not Obama’s fault, and I’m not laying it on his doorstep, that was the way the program had been established and funded by Congress when President Bush II got it approved. However, Obama’s *repeated* statements that he wants to “Postpone” the program by five years is very, very disheartening. On the surface it means that we won’t be able to put people in space for the decade from 2010 to 2020, at the earliest. Under the surface, however, it basically means Orion/Constellation/Ares are dead projects, cancelled. Why? Because you’re looking at a highly expensive, incredibly detailed, technologically advanced project employing tens of thousands of people from dozens of industries. You can’t just ‘stick a pin in it’ and come back to it a half-decade later, because the companies involved can not afford to keep those resources on hold for such a long time without a payoff. They’ll have to put that stuff to profitable use elsewhere. Added to which, technology marches on, and if you design something in 2005, but don’t get around to building it until fifteen years later, it’s *already* obsolete before you’ve even started assembly, and it makes no sense to build it.

In essence, “Postponement” means it would be more cost effective to start again from scratch 12 years from now. Given the tens of billions of dollars that have already been poured in to developing Constellation, this doesn’t make much sense.

And in a more immediate sense, we’ve spent eleven years now building that six pack of empty beer cans we call a space station. Our contractual obligation to the international project ends in 2011. Are we to spend all that time and money and - technically speaking - lives building the damn thing, only to walk away when it’s finished? Hand it over to the partners and get no payoff? Again, the plan of abandoning the ISS once it’s done isn't strictly-speaking Obama’s fault, that was already on the table under the terms of the Constellation program, but it’s a half-assed idea, regardless of whether the president was a Democrat or a Republican when it got approved.

As the Miami Herald reported a bit ago
Obama has been revisiting his anti-manned space program statements from the campaign. No, that’s not entirely true. I don’t want to put words in his mouth. He has not actually re-iterated his “Postponement” talk since he’s been in office. I don’t honestly believe that Obama has anything *against* a manned space program, and it actually *does* look like he’s got people trying to come up with a compromise that will allow us to keep people in space while at the same time killing Orion to free up the extra cash for whatever beyond-Great-Society projects he and Congress have in mind. That said, it is clearly not as much of a priority for him as it was for the Reagan administration, either Bush administrations, or even Clinton fergoshsakes! In fact, dating back to Eisenhower, the only presidency to show *less* interest in space than Obama is...wait for it...Jimmy Carter.

I appreciate the fact that he’s trying to keep manned spaceflight going in *some* capacity. The mere fact that he’s making an effort to have his cake and eat it too automatically makes him a better president than Carter (Easily the most inept American leader of the 20th century), who effectively shut down the space program for his entire administration. (Carter is the only president since Eisenhower during who’s administration there was not a single American in space. Even Ford had at least one mission during his term in office, but Carter just ankled the program for some bizarre reason). I believe that the president’s heart is in the right place - and Democrats, on the whole, have good intentions even if their efforts are frequently whack - but it is fairly clear that he doesn’t place a high value on the Space Program. It’s something nice to have if you can, but at the end of the day, it’s just another bargaining chip to be traded away in favor of support for some favored program or another. There’s nothing unique in this - Nixon did it, Carter did it, Clinton did it, Senator William Proxmire did it (He killed Apollo in exchange for cheese subsidies for his own state of Wisconsin) - so I’m not going to accuse Obama of deviltry in this regard. I don't want to make baseless attacks and thereby destroy my credibility.

It’s a bad way to run a railroad, though, and there’s just no getting around that.

What NASA and the president’s commission are looking at right now is essentially the eventual manned exploration of deep space, but not the planets or moons. What this means is that we’d have some kind of a manned spacecraft actually leave Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and explore deep space itself, going to regions of interest like the lagrange points around the moon and visiting near-earth asteroids and doing manned flybys of Mars and Venus, and maybe even putting someone on one of Mars’ two moons

I’ve got nothing against this in theory, and all of those are laudable goals. In particular, I’d like to learn more about the LaGrange points, since if humanity is ever to colonize space, it’s almost undoubtedly gonna’ start there. In fact, a number of these goals were actively discussed in the late Apollo years, and at one point, NASA was seriously proposing a series of Manned Mars and Venus flybys using super attenuated Apollo technology. This approach had a lot to support it, and was intended as a logical intermediate step between the Lunar Program and actually landing a man on Mars (Which NASA was intending to do by 1981 in those days.) As manned space missions go, however, these are all B-list items. Had they happened in the 1970s as a ramp-up to something grander, swell. To happen in the 2020s as a ramp-up to nothing in particular…eh. Not so much.

And there’s a number of conspicuous holes in this plan - how are we supposed to *get* to Phobos or L5 or a Near-Earth Asteroid? If the shuttle is retired, and Orion is on ice, and we’re grounded for a decade, how are we supposed to do all this semi-cool stuff?

The fact is: we aren’t.

As Stephen Baxter has pointed out, “NASA’s job is limiting access to space, not expanding it, and anyone who hasn’t realized that simply hasn’t been paying attention.” It’s true, and since 1981 a sideline of this “Keeping the masses out of space by only letting select people in to it” business has been endless paper studies. Study the effects of this on that and that on this, how would it apply to the construction of next generation spacecraft? Paper study the potential designs of next generation spacecraft. Actually select and design the next generation spacecraft, but don’t actually build them. Abandon the study and start a new one covering the exact same things, but ignoring previous work on the subject. Paperstudy various methods of getting to Mars, design a mission architecture. Refine it. Promote it on TV and stuff, then abandon it and start over from scratch. Lather, Rinse, Repeat.

The commission is basically laying out a plan which will result in new paper studies, but no actions. They’ll make recommendations that NASA will half-heartedly work towards, knowing full well that the recommendations will be changed before they every get anywhere near achieving them. And in the end, noting that they’re discussing will end up happening.

So here’s what’s gonna’ happen:

Sometime next year, Congress will decide to roll back the retirement date of the Shuttles. Their argument will be that it was an arbitrary date to begin with, there isn’t a replacement vehicle in sight, and the shuttles are somehow safer now (Though, in fact, they’re not. They’ve killed 14 people so far, and if you keep those orbital murder machines in service, they *will* kill again, it’s just a matter of when). There’ll be some foofaw about designing a replacement - eventually - and perhaps once the ISS is completed they’ll recommend a more financially sound space program, which basically means two or three shuttle flights a year for the indefinite future, rather than five or six like now. The president will support this because it means killing Constellation/Orion, and freeing up those funds, and continuing the present program at a reduced launch rate will still be cheaper than any of the alternatives.

And that, my friends, will be that. We’ve wasted 37 years spanking it in LEO, and it’s not going to change any time soon. We’re farther from putting a man on Mars now than we were in 1972. We will not see a person there in our lifetimes, unless perhaps it’s a Chinese or Russian explorer.