Obama’s Space Plan: A Paradigm Shift for Nasa.

I mentioned in passing recently that NASA’s future had been in question over the past few months. With the Shuttle program shutting down and their replacement scheduled to be rolled out in 2015 (and 2018 was looking like a far more realistic date) they were going to lose all capability for putting people into space. Additionally they’d sacrificed a whole lot of their core scientific activities just to try and meet the 2015 deadline with the Ares line of rockets. All of this was the result of an overly ambitious target set by Bush that lacked the additional funding to achieve such goals. Obama’s plans for NASA are not what you would expect initially, but diving deeper reveals why these changes need to occur.

A summary of the new objectives for NASA are listed here, with discussion running rampant everywhere:

  • Research and development to support future heavy-lift rocket systems that will increase the capability of future exploration architectures with significantly lower operations costs than current systems – potentially taking us farther and faster into space.
  • A vigorous new technology development and test program that aims to increase the capabilities and reduce the cost of future exploration activities. NASA, working with industry, will build, fly, and test in orbit key technologies such as automated, autonomous rendezvous and docking, closed-loop life support systems, in-orbit propellant transfer, and advanced in-space propulsion so that our future human and robotic exploration missions are both highly capable and affordable.
  • A steady stream of precursor robotic exploration missions to scout locations and demonstrate technologies to increase the safety and capability of future human missions and provide scientific dividends.

At a high level the objectives seek to achieve a few things. The first was doing away with the lofty goals set by the former president Bush. To be honest I initially found this heart breaking as I felt this was one of the core reasons NASA existed. However without the appropriate funding for such actions (I’m talking Apollo era spending of around 5% of GDP, not the paltry 0.5% they get now) realistically it would have been far more detrimental to continue down this path than to cut our losses and refocus on the more important things. Whilst this might keep human boots off other terristerial bodies for another decade or two the missions that eventually go there won’t be flag planting missions, they’ll be permanent settlements. If we are ever going to establish ourselves throughout our solar system such sustainable missions are the way to go. It’s tough medicine to swallow, but it’s for our own good.

The new vision for NASA explicitly kills the constellation plan and with it the Ares series of rockets. I’ve lambasted the Ares I-X in the past for being an absolute waste of time but I still supported the Ares-V, mostly due to its paper capabilities. This is the in for alternative ideas like DIRECT which have had some traction in the past but were pushed aside due to the investment in Ares. I’m glad that Obama decided to include a heavy lift capability in the new plans for NASA as its one of those things that still isn’t commercially viable. Once NASA has the capability though I’m sure demand for it will start to materialize, but for now everything else is handled quite aptly by the current choices such as the DELTA IV Heavy.

Probably the best news to come out of this is an extra $6 billion for NASA over the next 5 years to support the refocus on these new objectives. Probably the most exciting part about the extra funding is that a whopping $500 million to buy services from private launch companies to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. Up until now there wasn’t an official word on whether or not NASA could do that as they’d committed to buying seats on Russian craft at $50 million dollars each. Considering that a Falcon 9 from SpaceX plus one of their Dragon capsules costs about $100 million and can deliver 7 astronauts (over 3 times the payload) to the ISS you can see why I’m excited about this sort of thing. It also helps drive down the cost of such launch vehicles meaning that, whilst its still out of the range of the everyman, the cost may one day enter the realms of say a trip on SpaceShipTwo. It’s a while off I admit, but having NASA buying kit from these guys is a guaranteed way to make space more accessible to everyone.

Additionally there’s also a substaintial amount of funds dedicated to some heavy duty science. This include things like new satellites, observatories, robotic missions to other planets and channeling funds into research that will help further our efforts in space. One of the big ideas nestled in amongst this is the development of orbital propellant stations (think petrol pumps in space), which are going to become a necessity if we seriously want to go anywhere with people on board. This is one of the problems that faces many space missions as you have to carry all your fuel up with you, driving down usable payload and needlessly wasting fuel. With orbital refueling stations we can design simpler, more efficient and capable craft that will take us to the farthest reaches of the solar system.

Still reactions are mixed over the new proposed NASA vision and budget. The bill still has to pass congress and this could prove to be a major sticking point for it. As with any bill that has passed through there concessions will be made, hot air will flow and it could quite easily end up looking nothing like it is now. With jobs on the chopping block because of this (cancelling Constellation will see a fair few people move on) you can expect certain congress members to fight it in order to win the support of their constituents. It will be a hard point to fight to, with America’s unemployment in the double digits. I’m hoping that the American congress’ short term view doesn’t skew this proposal too much, as it’s exactly what NASA needs.

So after rejecting it initially (and putting off this blog post for 2 days because of it) I’ve come to appreciate the changes that Obama has made. Sure we lose the vision of pioneering our way through space but it’s a cost we have to pay if we want to have any kind of sustainable presence outside our atmosphere. We’ll soon know what opposition this bill faces and I can only hope, for NASA and America’s sake, that it passes through unscathed.

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