Wednesday, July 29, 2009

One Large Step Backwards

In the past week there was a big celebration of man's first landing on the moon forty years ago. Behind the hoopla no one was noting how far our space program has receded from the high tide of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. It has become a political and social cliché to say “we can land a man on the moon but we can’t” fill in the blank. The brutal truth is we can not land a man on the moon; we have no such vehicle, we have no such program.

The space vehicle that is in service now is a pale shadow of the Apollo program of the sixties. The Space Shuttle has twice failed in a spectacular fashion. Once it failed on the ground, the other time it failed on re-entry. Both times the shuttle was brought down by very simple things. Failed O rings destroyed STS-51-L 71 seconds after launch. It was 32 months before NASA followed up the launch of Challenger with another mission. The other shuttle failure was caused by foam. STS 107 burned up during re-entry because a chunk of foam hit a part of the shuttle wing, punching a hole into the protective skin of the ship. Hot gas leaked into the Space Shuttle and it burned from the inside out.

The Space Shuttle is showing its age and will be retired next year. As the Shuttle is a relic of late 70’s and early 80’s technology this is as it should be. The major problem is that there is no replacement for the shuttle. That’s correct gentle reader, the U.S.A for first time since the early 60’s does not have a follow-on manned space vehicle. Even in the dog days of the late space race NASA was able to stop-gap the situation with Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz missions. Once the Space Shuttle goes away it is all Russia, all the time for manned space missions. The US has got nothing in pipeline, nothing at all, until maybe 2015-16.

We are a long way from JFK’s noble vision and challenge to get to the moon. The new “vision” is to land on the moon in 2020. But as the Shuttle was a pale copy of the bold Apollo program, the Bush / Obama proposal is an even fainter echo of JFK's proposal of daring do. The real best estimate for actual return is 2028, double the time it took JFK,LBJ and Nixon the last time around. The vehicle that is supposed to do the job is a white elephant. It is a monument to the systematic incompetence that ruled government during the Bush Years.

The program consists of two parts: Constellation and Ares I. Both programs suffer from cost over-runs and suspect engineering. Delivery dates and launch schedules keep slipping. The launch vehicle is a mish-mash of old Space Shuttle components and "new" technology that sits mainly on drawing boards and not on the launch pad. Much of the "engineering" of the program has been done by bean counters in green eye-shades and not rocket scientists. While the moon is not made of Swiss Cheese, we are proposing to fly there in a vehicle constructed of that product.

It is the same old story that has plagued NASA ever since we “won” the space race; the money has evaporated from the space program. NASA is constantly trying to live within the penurious budget offered by Congress and we get exactly what we pay for. The Challenger disaster had its beginnings in an organization that was constantly cutting corners to meet mission schedules and requirements. Problems with the Space Shuttle were swept under the rug because fixing them would blow a hole in the budget. Astronauts died because we were too cheap to do the mission right.

NASA was in bad situation when the new president came to power. Moral was low and the leadership was lacking. It did not help that during the election Barak Obama appeared to be no fan of NASA. His website put up typical political boiler plate on how the resources for Constellation could be better used elsewhere. It was the old tired talking point that spending on space is waste when there are problems right here on earth that need to be addressed first. There is even a proposal that we "save" money by letting the Space Station fall into the sea. Nice way to honor the Astronauts who sacrificed their lives to keep it going, isn't it The assumption here is that the budget is a zero sum game. It also assumes that we would actually use the saved money on social spending instead of lining some lobbyist pockets. Moreover it assumes that space exploration has no real benefit to more earth-bound concerns.

There is a great temptation for a politico like Obama to kill off the manned space exploration component of NASA next year. With the Space Shuttle retired and the follow up at least five years away (and counting) it will be far too easy for Obama to kill off the troubled Ares / Constellation program. All he has to do is “study” alternatives or order a “review” of the program. The lay-offs at KSC (Kennedy Space Center) can go on a pace and voila, no manned space program and no easy way to restart the program. The human infrastructure of NASA, the mission controllers and so forth will be permanently lost. Replacing them, retraining their replacements, will be deemed too hard and too expensive. Of course the military aspects of NASA’s mission will continue apace without all that pesky exploring the universe stuff to interfere with it. Who needs science when you can have spy satellites?

We will find out if Obama really cares about space exploration next year. He might keep the elderly Space Shuttle ticking along just to keep Florida happy. Obama already kicked that can down the road by extending out the Shuttle launch schedule another year. Unfortunately that means that funds that were supposed to pay for Ares I are being spent on Shuttle missions. That pushes back the already badly slipping launch schedule of Ares I. Sooner or later Obama will have to take on the fact that manned space exploration is not something that can be done on the cheep. He will find himself dealing with another mess George W Bush left behind. The Ares I / Constellation program may need to be killed so a bolder, smarter, and more innovative program can take its place. Or Obama may just decide that robots are cooler, cheaper, and less risky all around. Obama may finally prove he is no JFK by letting NASA's Moon and Mars missions fade into oblivion. It won't take much effort to kill a moribund NASA; actually all it will take is indifference to NASA's fate.

We will soon find out if we are going to return to the somnolence that ruled the USA until we were rudely woken up by Sputnik. Will men walk on the moon again and if so will the transmissions be in Mandarin instead of English? The way things are going the smart money will be on the Chinese.

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