Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Okay, I know I said that I was going to spend this post talking about how airlines have historically been a flop, but that was before I saw this piece on Ars Technica about what this new direction for NASA means. It is certainly a little too willing to accept the idea that this is a good change for NASA in my opinion.

At current budget levels, the full development of these systems would take us well into the 2020s even if completed on schedule, and arrive after the planned appearance of private-sector equivalents

Key words in that statement are "current budget levels." Many of us have been screaming that NASA's budget was completely and utterly inadequate for quite some time now. Nothing Obama's done addresses this simple fact. NASA's budget should be $100 billion/yr, if you're going to do anything serious with the agency (that's the level it was at during the Apollo era, adjusting for inflation). Additionally, it says "full development," which means not only the development of Ares I, but also Ares V and a mission to the Moon. The author is trying to spin it like NASA wouldn't be sending humans into space again until the 2020s, but the reality is that if NASA had been given adequate levels of funding (i.e. a few billion more per year to finish developing Ares I), they could have been back in the manned launching business by 2015, 2017 at the latest. That's a full 3 years before the 2020 figure quoted by the article, and ample time for us to kick things into high gear if it looked like the Chinese were going to beat us back to the Moon.
"The fact that we poured $9 billion into an unexecutable program does not mean that we should pour another $50 billion after it,"
This leaves out that the reason Constellation was "unexecutable" can be traced directly to the fact that neither Bush nor Obama were willing to put in the necessary development funding.

The budget also includes money for an extension of the shuttle through 2011, which will allow for the inevitable launch delays in its remaining five missions.
This, of course, increases the chances of us losing another shuttle and crew and when that happens, instead of us grabbing our crotches, spitting, and saying, "Well, them things happen some times." there's going to be a whole rash of agonizing with spineless cunts screaming that "space is too dangerous!" with the manned program already on what can best be described as life support, pulling the plug ("It is fiscally irresponsible for us to spend money on something as dangerous as spaceflight when children are starving in America.") will be pitched as the "logical" solution.

The remaining construction, crew exchange, and servicing will be provided by both international partners and private companies if all goes as planned.

"If all goes as planned" famous last words if I've ever heard them. The only place things ever go as planned are in the final reel of a Hollywood movie. Real life is far messier. Note that Rutan (probably one of the brightest minds in aviation today) is behind schedule on SpaceShipTwo flights. They were supposed to have started last year, but that fatal accident with the engine a few years ago caused a delay. (The investigation into the cause of the accident was unable to find a definitive cause.) The Russians are said to be having problems dealing with the increased load that they've had to shoulder since Columbia, wonder how they'll react to having to pick up even more of the load when things don't "go as planned"?

The only change is that we may now be relying on them for manned missions, although a few companies are already in work on manned launches. $50 million in stimulus money is already allocated to private companies to support development work, and NASA appears to be considering contests like the X-Prize.

AFAIK, there's only two companies in the US building manned orbital craft: Blue Origin and Space-X (Rutan's got stuff on the drawing board, as do some others, but BO and S-X are actually working on hardware). Blue Origin hasn't launched dick, near as I can tell. Space-X finally managed to get a couple of unmanned rockets to work. Of course, Space-X is owned by Elon Musk, who also owns Tesla. On the surface this sounds good, but may not be.

Tesla recently announced that they'll be shutting down production of their roadster. Officially, this is because they lack the production facilities to turn out their roadster and the Tesla S model. In reality this is because there's only a finite number of people who want and can afford the roadster, and they've almost all got one now. Roadster production is scheduled to end this year, with S production scheduled to begin in 2012. This means that Tesla will be building nothing in 2011, so in order for the company to keep functioning, Musk is going to be burning through the $400+ million loan from the Feds he's gotten, putting his own money in, and finding backers to prop up Tesla. Wonder what Musk will do if he's faced with having to pour money into Tesla or Space-X (but can't afford to do both)? Between the two companies, Tesla's the most likely to turn a profit in the shortest amount of time, so logically, one would expect Musk to put his money there.

Over the next five years, a total of roughly $14 billion will be spent on three main programs.

This assumes that the program gets to remain around that long.

More than half of this amount will go to the development of technology for cheaper, extended-range space flight.

Does this restore funding to Prometheus? Because if it doesn't, then its basically just a waste of money, in all likelihood.
This includes in-orbit fuel depots,

Honestly, this is not that difficult a task, and there's oodles of engineering studies they can dust off and use, without having to start from scratch. I'm betting, however, they'll be forced to start from the beginning.

closed-loop life support systems,

Much of the preliminary work on this has already been done, and all that really needs to be done is to build a test platform to bring all the elements together and revise theories as new lessons are learned. Can't see this as requiring a lot of money and time.

and automated rendezvous and docking technology.
Newsflash: The Europeans already do this. Their resupply rockets to the ISS are fully automated. They can't put a human into space and they can do something we can't? WTF?

The goal here is clearly to develop the ability to assemble a platform for long-range human space travel from multiple unmanned launch vehicles.
To what end, however? Is it spelled out clearly anywhere? Has anyone said, "We choose to go to the Moon."? Nope. Bolden's said that he'll be pissed off if we don't make it to Mars before he dies, but Bolden's not the President.
Another $3 billion will go towards the development of heavy-lift engines and propellants. As of the previous plan, development of heavy lift vehicles didn't get any money until 2016, so this is being presented as an acceleration of this capability.
That heavy lift vehicle would have been Ares V, which would have been built based on lessons learned from Ares I. Now, its going to be something else. If $9 billion wasn't enough to give us a functioning small rocket, how is $3 billion going to give us a functioning large rocket?

Finally, NASA will begin to develop what they term "robotic precursor missions," starting with a robotic, teleoperated Moon rover.
Seriously? This is "noteworthy?" First of all, Google's kind of got this one covered. Secondly, if there's some reason why NASA must do this, then why not reuse the blueprints for the rovers we've sent to Mars (or if not those, then the ones currently being built)?
The ultimate goal is to develop a robotic resource processing capability designed for the Moon and asteroids. If the equipment is launched successfully, it will begin prepositioning supplies that can be used by any manned follow-on missions.
And what missions would those be? Is there money allocated in the budget for them? Or are they simply "potential missions" that a future President might decide to undertake? Either way, without the President coming out and saying something like, "We choose to go to the Moon." the odds of seeing any of those things happening are slim to none. There's a whole raft of NASA programs which have gotten the chopping block over the years.

Another planned expenditure that may ultimately lower launch costs will be a major overhaul of the Kennedy Space Center. The modernization, funded to the tune of $2 billion is intended to improve the efficiency of both manned and unmanned launches.
1.) Note the use of the weasel word "may" in the first sentence. 2.) If NASA hadn't been getting the short end of the budgetary stick for the past 4 decades then this particular outlay wouldn't be necessary.

NASA will work with the DOE to restart plutonium production for use in power long-distance unmanned vehicles.
The last time NASA put in a request for this, it got turned down (during the Bush 2 era, hardly an anti-nuke President), and even it gets approved tomorrow, it'll be 8 years before we have enough to be able to do anything with it. (Again, this is all because NASA's the red headed stepchild of the government.)

Money is in place to to launch the Mars Science Laboratory rover in the fall of 2011
The question is: Will MSL be ready to launch in 2011? One of the guy's I know at NASA doubts it. He describes MSL as "too big to fail," but many at NASA said the same thing about Constellation too.
they have the funds to give the James Webb Space Telescope a 70 percent chance of launching in 2014
WTF does that even mean? Will the JWST be ready for launch in 2014 or not? If it is, will NASA have the money to do it? (Will there even be a NASA to launch it?)
The big news for near-Earth missions is that NASA will try again with the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, which will provide fine-grained monitoring of carbon fluxes from space, allowing us to monitor sources and sinks of greenhouse gasses. The first OCO failed to reach orbit, and nothing else of the same caliber is planned by any other space agency, so the decision to build a second and "refly" it, in NASA parlance, is very good news for geoscience.

The OCO will be joined by Glory, which will track aerosols and black soot (items that can alter the climate, but are poorly monitored) and two other environmental monitoring satellites. These will join 15 Earth-observing systems currently in orbit. As per existing policy, all the data obtained by these systems will be made available to any government or private organization that wishes to use them.
No mention of how much all of this will cost, and a careful avoidance of the fact that all of these missions are at risk because people in Congress don't all believe that climate change is real.
Programs for the identification of near earth objects, which could obviate all worries about climate change were they to become on-Earth objects, will receive another $16 million a year.
And here, another shafting of NASA. $16 million to look out for asteroids on a collision course with Earth. Absolutely no money for R&D on how to divert such a thing were it to be discovered (which sooner or later one will be). IIRC, the figure cited by a NASA scientist that they would need to make sure they spotted everything which posed a risk to the Earth was slightly higher than $16 million, so we're not even doing enough to find the damn things.
Since the dawn of the space age, NASA has been the only way for a human to get to space from within the US. Its problems with the shuttle and work on the ISS have forced it to rely on international partners for manned launch capabilities in recent years, and the Constellation program wouldn't have been ready to supplement Russian launches for several years, even in the most optimistic plans.
I should like to point out that the root of all these problems can be traced directly to the fact that NASA's budget has stayed flat for 4 decades and when you factor in the rate of inflation, NASA's total budget is now roughly equal to what they spent on the unmanned side of things in the 1960s. Not one President, since LBJ, has given NASA a decent budget, and at least one (Nixon) has severely fucked with NASA. The private sector has been touted as manna from heaven and they will somehow "save" NASA from itself. This assumes that all or most of NASA's problems are their own. This isn't the case at all. Certainly some of them are, but many others are caused by a lack of resources and/or meddling by politicians. They don't call it rocket science because its easy, and no matter how good and how efficient the private companies hired to take over from NASA are, they're going to have delays, cost overruns, and accidents. Should we expect that those who've cried out that NASA was a huge waste of money for all these years will somehow be silent when private companies begin having some (if not all) the same problems that NASA's experienced? If believe that, then I've got some beach front property in Arizona I'd like to sell you. I can assure you that at the first sign of trouble all of them will be screaming, "See! Not even the private sector can do it! Its too hard!" Then when the first Chinese astronaut sets foot on the Moon, and everyone else in the world suddenly loses interest in the US and buying its debt, they'll say that America was bankrupted by all the "trillions" (if only) it wasted on NASA.
The heavy lift and orbital assembly technology will be developed without a sweeping vision to support it ("Maybe we'll go to an asteroid at some point" really doesn't cut it in the vision department).
No shit, Sherlock. When Bush I proposed we go back to the Moon and Mars "someday," it didn't exactly inspire Congress to fund NASA to the levels necessary to do this. Without a concrete statement of "We choose to go to the Moon in this decade." you can bet the odds of us going there in this or the next decade to be about the same as those that we had in the previous decade.

Monday, February 1, 2010

R.I.P. NASA Part 1

So, today we are told that NASA's not going back to the Moon, or anywhere else, with their manned rockets.
The space agency's budget would grow to $19 billion in 2011 under the proposed budget released on Monday, with an emphasis on science and less spent on space exploration.
This, of course, is being spun as an "advancement" for the program:

"What this does is open up (space) for more people to be going more places in a way that is not on the back of the taxpayers," NASA's deputy administrator, Lori Garver, told reporters in a conference call.

This is, to be blunt, horseshit. Over the next couple of posts, I will try to show why, no matter what one might think of the Constellation program, this step can only lead to one thing: The end of the US as a spacefaring nation, in both the manned and unmanned fields. Unless there is a substantial change in what is being proposed, by the time the last of the Apollo astronauts has shuffled off this mortal coil, there will be no more NASA.

On the surface, turning over the "routine flights" from Earth to LEO to a private company sounds like a good idea. It sounds so good, that we started doing it in 1995! The idea, of course, was to "fix problems at NASA" and "lower the cost of spaceflight." It has not been a raging success.

First, and foremost, it failed to significantly lower the cost of shuttle launches. Had it done so, there would have been a flurry of activity within NASA to do something with that extra money, since the rule which governs budgets (be they corporate or government) is that if you don't spend all of what they gave you this year, you can expect to get less next year. Any time a large emergency arose, NASA needed special funding to handle the matter, they didn't have the reserve capital to deal with it.

Secondly, and most tragically, it failed to prevent the growth of the various cultural attitudes which led to the loss of Columbia. We will never know, of course, if NASA had retained total control over the shuttle if the loss of Columbia would have occurred or not, but it should be noted that there was less attention and political pressure on NASA at the time of Columbia's final flight, than there was at the time of Challenger's final mission.

Third, United Space Alliance are, wait for it, ultimately the ones in charge of the now cancelled Constellation program! In short, we've had a private company dealing with "routine" missions to LEO and the only thing about it which can be considered a "success" is that they've managed to get NASA to take the rap for what's gone wrong! Woohoo!

Of course, we're told that this time things will be "different." (Why do I hear Bullwinkle saying, "Nothing up my sleeve!" all of a sudden?) I'm sure they will be, just not "better" or "progressive." As of this writing, there hasn't been a test of the resupply rockets which are supposed to enable NASA to meet its obligations towards the ISS until someone, somewhere, comes up with a replacement for the shuttle/Constellation. Of course, if the private company rockets don't work (entirely possible, Space X, one of the companies, had a number of failed launch attempts), then the Russians will have to pick up the slack. I doubt if they're going to be really happy about that.
"We are most concerned by the unpredictability of shuttle launches," RIA quoted Russian mission control flight coordinator Valdimir Solovyov as saying.

The Endeavour shuttle blasted off earlier this month after repeated delays. U.S. space agency NASA said it would hold off launching any more space shuttles until it better understands a problem with the craft's insulation.

Solovyov said the uncertainty about the U.S. launch dates meant Russian rocket staff have had to re-calculate ballistic parameters of flights by the Progress spacecraft, an automated Russian cargo vehicles used for the ISS.
Cheer up, Vladimir! I'm sure some bean counter will come up with the bright idea that since you guys can do it really cheap, there's no point in us Americans doing it at all, so they'll be happy to cut you a check for all that extra work they're going to be expecting of you!

In the next part, I'll be talking about how since airlines have been hugely unprofitable in this country, it seems highly unlikely that a private spaceline is going to be at all profitable. Especially when it only has one customer. (Oh, you think that they're going to get the cost down to where "ordinary" people can afford to go to space soon? I wouldn't hold my breath on it.)