Ever since the glory days of Gemini and Apollo NASA has struggled to figure out exactly what their goals will be with human space exploration. This is not to say that they’ve lost all direction, far from it. The majority of NASA’s robotic endeavours have been quite successful and they continue to push the envelope in this space. However when it comes to putting us fleshy beings into the great black vacuum of space they, and in the interest of full disclosure no one else, has managed to send humans any further than low earth orbit for the past 4 decades.
My regular readers will know that I put the majority of blame directly on the US congress as NASA makes for an easy target for budget cuts to spend on other policies. However NASA isn’t blameless in this either with nearly every program they’ve run coming in over budget, past deadline and not entirely to initial specification. The reason behind this is easily demonstrated when you have companies with employees totalling in the hundreds, ala SpaceX, managing to achieve what NASA has done with almost 18,000. A good chunk of that is dedicated entirely to the Shuttle program so NASA will look a lot leaner in the near future but the overwhelming amount of people and thus the bureaucracy that follows it have done nothing to help NASA in achieving its goals.
You might be wondering then what brought this rant on about NASA’s past when I only recently extolled the virtues of their new vision. Well it seems that NASA has failed to learn from its past and has set its sights on developing technology that it has already developed (and in fact, licensed out to a private company):
Astronauts may one day orbit the Earth in roomy balloons instead of cramped tin cans, now that NASA has made inflatable space habitats a priority.
The White House announced a change in direction for NASA on 1 February. Instead of the planned crewed missions to the moon, the agency intends to pour money into research and development (New Scientist, 13 February 2010, p 8).
The outline listed technologies on NASA’s wish list but provided few details. Now NASA has fleshed out its plans in a detailed budget proposal posted on its website on 22 February. One section notes that balloon-like habitats “can be larger, lighter, and potentially less expensive” than traditional ones made of rigid metal walls. They could be used as space stations, or eventually as moon bases. NASA may send inflatable structures to the International Space Station to test their mettle – including their ability to shield against space radiation.
Does that sound familiar to anyone? The technology in question was developed by NASA and called Transhab which was in essence an inflatable space station module that could fit atop of current generation rockets yet deliver almost 3 times the volume of the Columbus module. To say that they were a good idea was a bit of an understatement as not only did they deliver more space on the cheap they were also quite a lot more resilient to things like micrometeorite strikes due to the flexible nature of the material used.
They were such a good idea that space entrepreneur Robert Bigelow licensed the technology from NASA to develop his own line of space habitats under his own company Bigelow Aerospace. You could easily write these guys off as just another startup that had yet to produce anything but they’ve already launched 2 of their own modules with a third (which will be able to take humans on board) well on the way. It would make you wonder then that since the technology is viable, even from a commercial point of view, why did NASA drop it?
As always the blame lies with congress who passed House Resolution 1654 that effectively banned NASA from researching and building their own Transhab structures (as well as climate research, go figure). Luckily HR1654 doesn’t stop NASA from actually using inflatable modules on the station so we may just see some Bigelow hardware on the ISS sometime in the future, but only time will tell.
So you can see why I get all up in arms about the way NASA is handled by the US congress. They’re constantly meddling in their affairs which makes it extremely difficult for them to develop technologies that will make space cheaper and more pervasive than it is today. I’ll admit that this is out of a selfish desire to see cheap space access for myself and all of mankind but with the countless benefits of space technologies and exploration being reaped by us all you can see why I believe in it so much. Whilst the private space industry looks bright I still worry about our forefathers in NASA who’ve had their lust for being on the bleeding edge sated by the red tape of congress.