Looking for a silver bullet
A few little things
There are copious other points one could raise about the new policy, and treatises could be written about each one, but we will just examine them in passing here. First, there is the erratic and contradictory course of the Obama Administration on space policy. Originally his campaign promised to delay Constellation for five years to pay for an education program. Then Obama reversed course, saying that “…we were talking about delaying some aspects of the Constellation program …I told my staff we’re going to find an entirely different offset”. He went on to cite his support of Constellation as a specific case of how he was more “pro-science” than Bush. An Obama campaign statement later said, “As president, Obama will support the development of this vital new platform [Orion/Ares 1] to ensure that the United States’ reliance on foreign space capabilities is limited to the minimum possible time period. The CEV will be the backbone of future missions, and is being designed with technology that is already proven and available.”
Well. So much for that.
There is also the odd circumstance that the President finds himself in, where he is trying to privatize a major government function which has never been carried out by the private sector—certainly an unusual ideological position for Obama, given that his domestic policy on everything from healthcare to finance to the auto industry has been centered on creating a bigger role for government, not a smaller one.
There was the President’s absurd statement that we should not go to the Moon because “we’ve been there before”. Setting aside for the moment the titanic insult this represents to lunar scientists, and ignoring the presence of lunar resources that can support construction of a base or further exploration, this simply is not a valid rationale for choosing to abandon the Moon. This is like saying that you’re not going to take a trip to Asia because you’ve spent three days in Tokyo, so “you’ve been there before”. The analogy is not that far off: the ratio of the area of Tokyo to that of Asia is close to the ratio of the lunar surface area explored by Apollo astronauts to that of the whole Moon. There may well be valid reasons for taking a trip to another region, but your having “been to Asia” is certainly not one of them.
Similarly, there are good arguments to be made for visiting, say, Mars or an asteroid first, but not because we’ve somehow exhausted everything there is to do on the Moon. Paul Spudis makes a number of excellent points with respect to this assertion on his website, and points out that one of the key lines of attack against Constellation was that it was an unsustainable, “flags-and-footprints” paradigm that did not ensure creation of a long-term space infrastructure—and yet that seems to be exactly what the Obama policy advocates. As Spudis points out, if we base our program merely on doing things that have not been done yet for the sake of doing things that have not been done yet, the space program “will no longer have any more real long term benefit to our national security and wealth than did the bread and circus shows that heralded the demise of ancient Rome.”
There is also the matter of the five-year delay in selecting a design for a heavy-lift booster. The fact is, the technology programs that the Obama administration have cited they will pursue have very little to do with concrete mission planning and call into question why the booster should delayed so long in the first place. As Spudis goes on to discuss on his website, “If a heavy lift launch vehicle (HLLV) is not needed for future human missions beyond LEO, why are we spending billions of dollars researching aspects of it in order to make a design decision five years hence? If a heavy lift launch vehicle is needed for such missions, why are we waiting five years to make that decision when we have the parts and workforce needed to make the vehicle now?”
A policy document released by the White House laid out a number of specific technologies to be researched by NASA under its plan: for heavy-lift boosters it vaguely lists “propulsion research”, and under other fields it specifically mentions are on-orbit refueling, automated rendezvous and docking, and life-support technologies. Frankly, none of these have anything to do with a heavy-lift booster. It certainly would not benefit, in itself, from on-orbit refueling (how would you get into orbit? More importantly, how would you get the fuel to orbit?). While it’s good to research new rocket engines, the simple fact is that chemical rocket engines are extraordinarily well-understood. The Space Shuttle Main Engine, designed in the 1970s, approaches the limits of chemical rocket engine efficiency. The RL-10 and RS-68 represent other, high-performance, highly evolved rocket engines, available right now for use on the first stages of rockets; there simply is no imminent “game-changing” (to use Obama’s words) advance in chemical rocket engine design that is worth delaying construction of an HLV for five years. In-space electric propulsion is great but also is totally irrelevant to HLV design. Obama vaguely referred to “new materials” in his speech, but we’re not going to be building rockets out of nanotubes by 2015.
Innumerable HLV boosters have been designed on paper. The idea that we’re going to wait five years to pick an HLV design to develop, while no real technological changes occur, is as if you started a new airline and then announce you will wait five years to decide on the specifications of the first airliner that you want to buy. Why would you do that? You obviously need an airliner, and you should have a pretty good sense of what airliners are available now, what airliners will be available five years from now, and what characteristics they will have. It simply makes no sense to wait five years, in that case or in the Obama space plan. The only thing that will be different in five years is that the Shuttle infrastructure and its workforce will be gone forever, rendering any ability to use it for an SDLV impossible. This is the same thing that happened when our nation threw away the Saturn infrastructure in the 1970s.
There’s the question of what the purpose is of purposely designing a “stripped-down” Orion in order to serve as a lifeboat, especially when Obama said that that vehicle (or something similar to it) will later be used for deep-space missions anyway. It seems as if Orion is being stripped-down just to prove that Constellation was “bad” and that this something different, even while we are planning to later build it back up into the vehicle that was planned to have been built in the first place. Could someone in the White House really have proposed this convoluted and wasteful idea with a straight face?
But ultimately, and most importantly, there is the question of space leadership. One thing that 2008 Obama (the one who supported Constellation) and Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell, Gene Kranz, Eugene Cernan, and other Apollo heroes all agree on is that American leadership in space is vital to the national security and long-term economic prowess of this country, and that Constellation is key to maintaining that leadership. By sacrificing our guaranteed capability to reach space with crewed vehicles and shredding our plans for Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) exploration, we are giving up our recognition of America’s aerospace industry as a national source of pride and technological leadership.
The key axiom that is being lost in the noise of the Obama space policy rollout is that the exploration and use of space is not done best by governments, nor is it done best by private industry. What do I mean by this? In the very long term, I think that private industry represents the true future of space exploration. But we’re not yet at that point. In today’s world, space exploration is a public good: something that, like defense, is best undertaken by government and private industry working in partnership.
Almost no one remembers the Aldridge Commission Report, released in 2004. While the report was in general too vague for specific policy recommendations, it did make one excellent point about the nature of the government-private partnership in the exploration of space. The report advocated the idea that NASA should be a nimble, focused, risk-taking, trailblazing agency that took the risks and great expense of opening up some new destination so that private industry could follow. For the Moon, for example, NASA would decide its goal was the Moon, it would develop and prove the necessary spacecraft to reach it, and set up an initial outpost. Now private industry has access to the technical lessons learned and perhaps the spacecraft designs developed by NASA, and since the risk has been reduced by NASA’s flights, it’s now possible for private industry to lay out reasonable business plans for development of the Moon as a commercial destination. NASA blazes the trail, and private industry follows and develops each place. This would allow both government and private industry to bring their strengths to bear on opening up the space frontier (in the former case, enormous resources in terms of money, talent, and an ability to take greater risk; in the latter, time and the mandate to develop profitable enterprises and long-lasting infrastructures in space).
The Obama space policy tries to mislead people into thinking it is this idea, but it is not. In the Aldridge “vision”, one has a space agency that decides it wants to reach a destination, focuses much of its energy and resources on that mission, spends enormous and money and takes great risk to develop the necessary technology, and lays the groundwork for private industry to follow. In the Obama plan, NASA funds random, haphazard technology development programs with little relation to each other in the hope that one will produce a “breakthrough” that will allow NASA to do something unspecified, while also hoping that one of about six or seven companies successfully develops a manned spacecraft so that it doesn’t have to buy more spacecraft seats from the Russians. There is no similarity between these two scenarios.
Burt Rutan, surely one of the leading figures in the private space industry, has expressed this same concern with the Obama approach. As he points out, “It is a good idea indeed for the commercial community to compete to re-supply the ISS and to bring about space access for the public to enjoy. I applaud the efforts of SpaceX, Virgin and Orbital in that regard and feel these activities should have been done at least two decades ago. However, I do not see the commercial companies taking Americans to Mars or to the moons of Saturn within my lifetime and I doubt if they will take the true Research risks (technical and financial) to fly new concepts that have low confidence of return on investment.” This is precisely the issue outlined above, and precisely why the Obama space policy fails to optimally leverage the American space industry.
The government-private partnership that is lacking in the Obama policy is what allowed a program like COTS/CRS to work well; NASA was able to fund private development of cargo spacecraft as a supplement to the guaranteed space access it was developing. In addition, it was advantageous to farm out some of the LEO resupply work since NASA was focused on a BEO destination, the Moon. Now that the partnership is effectively gone, and something like COTS/CRS will have the enormous requirements problem thrust upon it since it now must become the nation’s guaranteed access to space. While a failure to deliver on COTS/CRS was financially embarrassing before the Obama policy, it was little more than that. Now failure to follow through on such a contract, for whatever reason, becomes a national security and foreign policy concern, imperiling our ability to reach space at all while raising the prospect of sending many more hundreds of millions of dollars to Russia (or maybe China or India, one day).
At the end of the day, the Obama policy is set to repeat the mistakes of the past, both in terms of silver bullet contracting and destroying infrastructure; it makes little sense on a number of points; it fails to utilize the capabilities of America’s aerospace industrial base; and ultimately it devalues American space leadership, to say nothing of the generation of students it will fail to inspire. I cannot close this better than someone who has walked on the Moon, so to quote the Armstrong letter, “For The United States, the leading space faring nation for nearly half a century, to be… with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future, destines our nation to become one of second or even third rate stature. Without the skill and experience that actual spacecraft operation provides, the USA is far too likely to be on a long downhill slide to mediocrity.”