Friday, October 05, 2007

NASA Reliving Its Past?

In 1958, we could barely toss a few pounds into orbit, and in the first year of launch attempts, three out of four had failed. The notion that we would be sending people into space, in a couple years...But what would have seemed even more fantastic was the notion that, having landed men on the moon in the late sixties, the last one would trod on the regolith a few years later, and there would be no return for half a century. That was beyond science fiction, into the realm of dystopian fantasy...In our rush to regain the technological lead over the Soviets, we took what tools we had at hand--ballistic missiles (expendable by their nature) and converted them to space transportation vehicles. Very expensive, very unreliable space transportation vehicles. It established the paradigm for how we would get into space with which we live to this day, as demonstrated by the fact that NASA is going "back to the future," developing yet another expendable launch vehicle family to take us back to the moon. This hurried approach ignored an entirely different branch of technological evolution, one modeled on aircraft, in which reusable, piloted vehicles would fly higher, and faster, eventually all the way to orbit....Fifty Years On, Time For A New Dawn, Rand Simberg,, 10/5/2007

To anyone who shares the vision of human beings as a starfaring civilization, this view of the Apollo program, that it was primarily a Cold War response, is a bitter truth. When detente became the new paradigm in Washington under President Nixon, even parts of the Apollo program's planned lunar landings were dropped. The same happened to bold plans for lunar settlement under development in the former Soviet Union. Of far greater significance was the bastardization of the shuttle program.

As originally designed, the entire Space Shuttle system was recyclable. The engineering nightmare of the shuttle actually built, with strap-on tanks and boosters, replaced a flyable lifter that would have carried the shuttle to a high altitude where it would then fly into orbit under its own additional power. The lifter would have then returned to Canaveral or Houston for refitting. The shuttle would do the same at the end of the mission. The original shuttle also had nearly twice the capacity of the final design. The design, a continuation of Von Braun's efforts to Apollo, was long-term. The size of the shuttle was a significant part of a) lowering launch costs, and b) getting enough stuff off the Earth to build both orbiting platforms and to assemble planetary exploration ships designed for both human and robotic crews.

Sadly, the cutbacks in NASA's budgets ended this design program. The engineering compromise that replaced it was a disaster from which NASA is unlikely to recover from. The long-term objective of off-world settlement on satellites and off-world bases was dropped. The enormous maintenance budgets for the operating shuttle also destroyed the capacity of the STS system to compete with France's Ariadne, as well as American private rocket builders, for commercial satellite launching. Commercial satellite launches had been depended upon as a significant source of revenue for the entire NASA program. And these enormous cost overruns and ballooning maintenance budgets also severely constrained NASA's original mission of doing serious science off-world.

NASA has not gotten back on track since. The heads of NASA ignored a brilliant interim shuttle replacement which would have used existing airframes (the L1011) to create both a heavy lifter and a shuttle, a system which was budgeted at $400 million, about a quarter of the cost of one of the current shuttle fleet. For more than a decade, a huge proportion of NASA's budget has gone into the International Space Station, whose history of cost overruns, not to mention its apparent irrelevancy in its supposed mission of space science, is the envy of politicians across the world.

NASA's Mars exploration plan, which looks great in simulation cartoons, completely ignores Dr. Robert Zubrin's sensible, smart and fast Mars Direct design. Zubrin is no disgruntled former NASA engineer, nor a crackpot. His plan was presented to NASA and to Congress several times, and is still widely regarded as the most feasible and cost effective means of getting human beings to the red planet. Its projections of less than five years to the first human beings stepping out onto Mars were deemed reasonable by NASA planners and engineers, even as NASA rejected the plan in favor of one that will put off human exploration of Mars for thirty years. Not invented here seems to have been the response from NASA.

NASA can't do what it used to do very well either. The only master of the lunar voyage admitted recently that the Chinese are likely to get a human crew to the moon before NASA does in its back-to-the-moon program of the 21st century.

This is what happens when a mission is determined more by outside political factors than by the vision of planners. In the 1960s we were all upset about Russian men, women and dogs in desperately fragile orbital vehicles. We felt small. We felt defeated. The objective became to beat the Russians, not to establish a permanent human presence off-world. When that Cold War goal faded in importance, the enterprise set up in response no longer had a well-defined purpose.

Fortunately, the science side of NASA continued to function. Imagine astronomy without the grand tours of Voyagers I & II, or the enormous eye of Hubble and its successor space telescopes. And the industries set up to meet the requirements of NASA's first generation of manned space missions have done pretty well in establishing worldwide satellite communications. Unfortunately, NASA is no longer a player, as it hasn't been for decades, in the commercial side of off-world development. The dislocations caused by the maintenance of the ill-conceived Space Shuttle have pushed NASA out of the lead position in scientific exploration of space. The Rovers are great (and still running three and a half years after the mission was supposed to end) but they're not on the leading edge anymore. The European Space Consortium is. Maybe it's time to limit NASA to what it does best and offer incentives to some other group or group of organizations to do what we thought NASA should do best, the expansion of the human realm to other places besides the Earth.


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