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.)

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