Monday, April 19, 2010

Space, the Lost Frontier

On Thursday, April 15th, President Obama went to the Kennedy Space Center and outlined his plan for NASA. Whine there wasn't much in the way of pomp and circumstance, it was a big day for the space agency. At least they would get details on what they were going to do for the next several years. Change was in the air, and the results came crashing to the ground.

The President's space policy is as follows:

1. The cancellation of the 6 year old Constellation Program.

2. The conversion of the new Orion capsule (the shuttle's replacement) into an escape pod for the International Space Station.

3. A budget increase of $6 billion over 5 years.

4. The setting aside of $6 billion over 5 year from NASA's budget to assist private companies in developing space technology.

5. Doing research into space technology.

6. Increasing space-based Earth observation.

7. Upgrading launch and launch preparation facilities.

8. Beginning research on a new heavy lift rocket, with a design to be selected in 2015.

9. Landing astronauts on an asteroid in the future.

10. Orbiting Mars by the mid-2030's.

11. Landing on Mars a few years later.

As I watched the speech I sat there incredulously. I have never seen such a set-up for failure before. Added to that is a depressing lack of sense. For weeks I had waited to hear what the President had to say thinking it would be interesting. Instead I saw dreams get crushed. To top it all off, President Obama continuously talked about how this was all a good thing.

One of the President's claims was that he loved NASA so much that he raised their budget despite freezes and reductions in government spending. But did he really do that? First off, his blue-ribbon Augustine Commission (a panel he organized to look into options for the new space policy) said that NASA needed $3 billion more a year to accomplish goals. $6 billion over 5 years comes to $1.2 billion a year, less than half the recommended amount. With that, I couldn't help but notice that the amount of money NASA will be giving to private companies is the same as their raise, meaning that their budget is the same! Instead of giving NASA more money, the President found a roundabout way to give taxpayer-raised government money to private companies, one that makes him look like a real hero.

Ever since the President released his proposed budget we knew that Constellation was on the chopping block. Instead of a new shuttle replacement program, we are now focusing on pure technology research. Now I'm not saying that I'm against R&D, it is necessary, but here's an analogy for what is happening: I sell my car to get the funds to upgrade my car's cruise control into a full-blown autopilot. When I'm done I take this new system outside to install into my car, only to realize that I don't have a car anymore! So yes, lets do research into space technology, but we need something to do with it! One of the landmark items of this research is the new heavy lift rocket, which is definitely something we need. But here's a question: How is a rocket design that hasn't even been started on, and won't be picked for 5 years get us a new rocket sooner than the Constellation Program's Ares V rocket, a rocket that's been in development for 6 years already?

Seeing the President channel Kennedy and goals for Mars and the asteroids felt like a slap in the face. Yes, we need to get humans to the asteroids; we need to learn more about them. Mars has been drawing us like a beacon for decades. But the 2020’s for the asteroids and 2030’s-40’s for Mars?! First question: how are we getting there? There are no plans for a ship. What’s to say that the next administration won’t cancel all the research (which has a good chance of happening. More on that later.) How are we going to learn how to live in space for that long? The station is a good start, but it is not enough. Nestled inside of Earth’s magnetosphere, the station is protected from most of the Sun’s radiation. It’s too small to be self-sustaining. We need to learn how to build a self-sustainable outpost first, and we have two prime candidates: the Moon, and the LaGarange Points. They’re exposed enough to have to deal with the radiation, far enough to make resupply tough, yet close enough to keep in touch and get help if needed. Why aren’t we making use of such excellent classrooms?

Barring an intervention from Congress, this is what NASA will be doing through the Obama administration. I do not see how they can hope to survive the next. No matter if the President’s term ends in 2012 or 2016, none of the new projects will be finished before he vacates the White House. Unless Obama’s successor is a major space fan here is what I think will happen: A new Space Panel will convene to examine what NASA has been doing and where they stand. The lack of a ship and the reliance on foreign powers and private companies to get anything into space will be highlighted. The dollar signs attached to the research programs will be questioned. Eventually the question will be asked: “What are you doing to extend American interests in space?” NASA will have to admit that they will have people up in the next decade, that they will start to work on a new ship as soon as the new rocket is built. The government will not be satisfied with this and cut the budget, taking the research with it. With less money NASA won’t be able to start a new program, its research will be curtailed, and it will wither as this cycle repeats every year at budget-deciding time.

The new focus on private companies is a bit of a mixed bag for me. NASA has always used private companies for its work. Contractors built every craft, satellite, and probe we have ever sent aloft, as well as the rockets that carried them. But can private companies run space programs of their own, and what would that be like? We don’t really know. One claim is that competition will bring the price down, but there is a minimum limit to the price. Go under that limit and safety and success get compromised. Then there’s the bottom line: profit. A government agency like NASA doesn’t have to make money, while private companies do. If there is no profit in going into space (which is a very big question right now) then companies will fold. The only guaranteed way to make money in space is to mine the resources found in the various bodies there. Unfortunately, that kind of an operation is beyond us right now. We could make O2, H2O, and fuel from lunar and Martian dirt, but that is very limited, something that a small outpost could do for self-sustainability. For now, no one has enough capital to fund a space program from scratch to sustainable mining operations. Profit just isn’t there from tho looks of things. When there is, what will companies do to keep their profit margins? How will you enforce space laws?

I pray that these predictions don’t happen. With luck something will happen that will revitalize our space program, restoring it to the limelight, and making its workers heroes. We feed our bodies every day and work hard to make sure that everyone can eat. Let’s feed our souls as well. By going where no one has ever been we learn more about the universe around us, and we learn more about ourselves. Why not go and learn?

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