It seems that whenever I mention NASA and the US congress together I’ve never really got anything positive to say. Indeed my last 3 posts tagged congress are all critical of the government’s involvementin NASA’s affairs and how their constant medlinghas caused nothing but harm. Still I recognise that without congress’ involvement there wouldn’t be a NASA at all and that whilst I may lament the organisation being used as a part of pork barrell politics it at least keeps their budget from being drastically slashed. Today I was hoping to write about some of the more positive news that had come out of the US congress but unfortunately the relationship hasn’t changed one bit.
About 4 days ago saw the passing of a bill in congress that saw some funding approved for NASA. Now usually this would be something to celebrate but in true congressional style they’ve managed to bollocks it up once again:
The House Science and Technology Committee approved H.R. 5781 with strong bipartisan support July 22, sending forward a bill that authorizes only a small fraction of the $3.3 billion NASA sought to invest in a commercial crew transportation system over the next three years. The bill authorized $150 million through 2013 for commercial crew and another $300 million in the form of government-backed loans or loan guarantees. The measure also would continue much of the work being done under NASA’s Constellation program, a 5-year-old effort to build new rockets and spacecraft optimized for lunar missions that President Barack Obama targeted for termination in his 2011 spending proposal delivered to Congress in February.
Now whilst I’m excited at the fact that they’re adding another space shuttle flight to the manifest (as that means I’ll definitely be able to go and see it next year) the rest of the bill shows a complete disregard for Obama’s vision for spacethat was laid down at the start of this year. The idea of replacing all of NASA’s routine activities with cheaper commercial solutions was a sound idea, especially when companies like SpaceX are proving just how capable they are. $3.3 billion would have bought at a rough guess about 30 fully stacked Falcon 9 rockets with Dragon capsules on top, more than enough to tide NASA over for several years. $150 million would probably cover the cost of a single rocket and little more, meaning that all you’d really get would be one demonstration flight.
Keeping the Constellation program alive is something I can’t really support unless it gets a whole bucket load of new funding. Right now many of NASA’s other activities like robotic space exploration and science have suffered because the Constellation program is using resources that were once planned for them. The program’s vision was too ambitious for the amount of funding it was given and unless new money is brought in to complete it NASA will continue to suffer under its burden. You know that this is all done in the name of pork barrelling when the bill will “prohibit NASA from laying off civil servants for at least six months following the bill’s enactment”.
Most often the criticisms I see laid at the commercial alternatives to NASA’s own launch systems is that they don’t have the experience nor do they meet the safety ratings required for NASA’s human program. The first is somewhat valid as whilst companies like United Launch Alliance have a vast wealth of launch experience they have never actually launched people into space on one of their rockets. On the other hand however the requirements for man ratingare well known and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 conforms to all required specifications. ULA has also has specifications for man rated versions of their ATLAS-V and DELTA-V rockets so the notion that commercial space alternatives aren’t up to the task is plainly false.
The bill makes even less sense when you consider some of the most recent developments coming out of the commercial space industry. SpaceX just recently announced their plans for some new launch systems and boy are they impressive:
For the transition from Earth to Mars, however, SpaceX believes nuclear thermal is the preferred propulsion means for the piloted aspect of the mission, while solar-electric power could be used to transport supplies.
The U.S. government “should take the lead on nuclear and commercial industry should take the lead on building heavy-lift launch vehicles,” Markusic says. “Low-level propulsion technology research and development should be government-led, with a transition to flight development in 2025.”
A growth development, dubbed Falcon X Heavy, would employ nine engines clustered in three cores. Collectively these would generate 10.8 million lb. of thrust at liftoff and boost 125,000 kg. to orbit. The ultimate launch vehicle, the Falcon XX, stands as tall as the Saturn V, is configured with six engines in a single core and is designed to lift 140,000 kg. to LEO.
SpaceX’s new rockets are simply staggering in their specifications. The Falcon X Heavy already outpaces the Saturn V (the biggest rocket in history) and the Falcon XX is nipping at the heels of the planned Ares V. They’ve nailed the point that the private industry should be responsible for the more routine activities of getting into space as NASA has no real need to do this when cheaper, viable alternatives are available. Interestingly enough this is the first I’ve heard anyone talk about nuclear thermal propulsionin quite a long time and realistically I’ve always seen it as the next logical step in rocket technology once chemical propulsion reached its limits. Whether or not SpaceX’s push to get NASA to develop such technology gets off the ground is another matter however and it might be another decade before it sees any traction.
I’ve always been disillusioned with the US congress when it comes to meddling in NASA’s affairs and these recent developments haven’t done anything to help that. The private space sector is really starting to pick up steam and it just makes sense for NASA to drop their current launch systems in favor of cheaper alternatives. This will allow them to get back to their roots of pioneering in space rather than getting caught up in the routine activities that can be easily offloaded to someone else. With Elon Musk’s plan to retire to Mars I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more progress from the private sector in the decades to come and right now it looks likely that they’ll become the ones to inspire the next generation. Maybe then congress will wake up and let NASA do what they do best.
One thing that’s guaranteed to get me going is the US congress meddling around in NASA’s affairs. They have enough internal troubles as it is without congress getting involved and trying to force them in a certain direction. Sure I can understand that the US wants results for their money and therefore feels they should be able to control their activities but with them investing only 0.55% of their total budget in the program you can see why I get all hot under the collar when they’re targeted for reductions in spending. In fact the US Defence Force’s spending on space exceeds that of NASA’s budget by a fair margin (it was $22 billion 3 years ago) which just makes it even more ludicrous the amount of meddling congress does in NASA’s affairs.
If you’re wondering what’s spurred this rant it was this particular piece of news that opened up the old wounds of congress sticking its nose in where its not wanted:
Of the $400 million in ARRA funds Congress designated for space exploration projects, NASA initially planned to spend $150 million on competitively awarded projects meant to seed the development of commercial space transportation systems capable of ferrying astronauts to low Earth orbit.
“These efforts are intended to foster entrepreneurial activity leading to job growth in engineering, analysis, design and research, and to economic growth as capabilities for new markets are created,” NASA explained in a commercial crew and cargo white paper it sent Congress in May.
But House and Senate lawmakers told NASA to reduce the amount for commercial crew and cargo development to $90 million.
NASA was fortunate enough to get a small piece of the stimulus pie (about $1 billion total) which it’s spent about half of so far. Much of that went to the Constellation program in the hopes to keep the development on track for a 2015 debut launch. The problem is however that even if they do make that deadline there’s still a 4 year gap where the US won’t have any capability to deliver astronauts to LEO, the ISS and beyond. There are 2 schools of thought as to how they’re going to bridge the gap: the first being for them to continue their arrangements with Russia using Soyuz (although they’re already tapped out) and the second using commercially available solutions. Congress it seems has decided that the second is not worth the money and the first is not particularly feasible.
Seriously, what were they thinking?
The COTS program was a brilliant idea and it has definitely help spur companies like SpaceX forward. Injecting additional cash into these companies would see the development of fully private manned spacecraft accelerated and would thus close the launch gap that NASA is doomed to suffer. I’m not exactly sure what the congress critters have in mind when it comes to NASA but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Their dealings with them, apart from the initial inception for the space race, have always been rather awkward and short sighted.
This also affects their involvement with the International Space Station. They’ve stated in the past that they’re not interested in continuing their support of the ISS past 2015 drastically reducing the ROI on the project (it was slated for 10 years at full functionality, retirement in 2015 would reduce that to 5). Russia however has said that they’re quite happy for the US to detach their modules as they’ll keep maintaining their sections of the craft. They have extensive experience in long term station maintenance so its no wonder they want to keep their investment for as long as possible. The US however seems willing to ditch all their investment in the project without further consideration.
The reason that this is such a big deal is that the other big partners in the ISS, namely the ESA and JAXA, have to rework their schedules in accordance with the US decisions. They’re just cargo services at the moment but even those sort of missions require extensive planning, you can’t just whip up a HTV or ATV in a couple weeks. In fact they’ve begun to put pressure on the US to make a decision about the matter, but it’s still all up in the air.
Really the heart of the problem here is the giant bureaucracy that plagues both NASA and the US congress. SpaceX has proven that they can develop a launch capability with a team of hundreds, not thousands. They’ve also demonstrated that they can recover from launch aborts in a matter of hours, not days. This can all be easily attributed to the fact that they run with a minimal set of red tape and congress’ decision to funnel money away from companies as capable as they are is just unfathomably stupid.
For the negligible expenditure that NASA costs the US I am always confounded by how many people still think its a waste of money. If it wasn’t for NASA you wouldn’t have GPS, satellite television and programmable pacemakers. It would be nice if congress could get their hands out of their business for a while so that NASA can properly define their objectives and hopefully get itself back on track. I’d also love to funnel another 1% of GDP into them in order to develop things like a moon base but I know that’s never going to happen.
Maybe I should start my own nation, with space rockets and SCIENCE. 😉
The last few decades haven’t been very kind to NASA. Ever since their heyday back in the 60’s and 70’s they have been the target of budget cuts, over-budget under delivering programs and constant congress involvement that has made innovation on their part extremely hard. Whilst I believe that their budget of 0.5% of GDP (as it was back in the Apollo program) is a small price to pay for phenomenally inspirational activities it has become apparent that it is easy to write off the benefits of space travel when there are many other things requiring attention back here on earth. You can then imagine my surprise when NASA announced, in essence, they were going to attempt to do Apollo again, albeit with modern technology and decades of experience in low earth orbit. They called this teh Constellation Program and you’d be forgiven for thinking that they were taking their inspiration from the past.
Constellation was born out of the former president’s vision for space exploration which at the time seemed like a boon for NASA and its cohorts. Realistically it was a political ploy for him to try and win votes from the scientific community as if he was not to be reelected how could we guarantee that the next president would share his vision? I can’t comment on how much of the vote swung his way because of this but he did manage to get reelected. However additional funding that would be required to ensure NASA’s continued presence in space as well as developing a completely new set of space vehicles never materialized. This then lead to the current situation whereby NASA has a large gap in its ability to keep a manned presence in space, currently relying on private industry and Russia to support them.
The vehicles themselves are a pretty big step up in terms of delivery payloads into space. The Ares I is a straight up replacement for the shuttle, with a slightly larger payload capability with the added bonus of having better safety features like a launch abort system. The Ares V is where the real changes are occurring, as it can deliver a phenomenal 188 tons into low earth orbit. Compared with the Saturn V it can deliver almost double the payload into lunar orbit at 71 tons. The lander vehicles and crew capsules follow the same route, basically being bigger brothers of their Apollo counterparts. Whilst they are a significant step up in NASA’s payload capability (and really nothing comes close to the Ares V) they are still many years away from being flight ready.
And here is where we get to the crux of the matter: should NASA really be creating a new space fleet? With companies like SpaceX and Bigelow Aerospace stepping up their presence and showing that they are capable of providing many of these technologies at a small percentage of the costs that NASA is incurring it doesn’t seem beneficial to have NASA be in the business of building new space craft. Realistically they could get so much more done by utilizing the services these new private space companies are providing as they are footing the research and development costs. This would then allow them to shift their focus away from the routine activities like maintaining the International Space Station and focus on the revolutionary things like lunar bases and a Mars shot.
It’s also entirely possible that because these private companies are doing so well that eventually they will overtake NASA in their ability to deliver those kinds of awe inspiring moments. Once some mega-billionaire gets a taste for the idea of being the first man to land on another planet you can be assured that the private space companies would be more than happy to step up and provide a means for them to achieve that dream. Whilst it would be a significant blow to NASA it would allow them to refocus back onto pure science based missions, something which is not politically palatable right now.
Constellation is one of those projects that I’m sure will bring many positive benefits to humanity. It’s just unfortunate that I can’t see what they are right now. With the barrier to space dropping at an increasing rate I’m sure that the industry will hit a critical point where a combination of private and government activities will lead NASA and its cohorts to inspire humanity once again.