More Depressing Space Policy Ignorance

This article at the Salt Lake Tribune is a case of the blind reporting on the blind. The ignorance starts in the very first sentence:

A group of House members says it makes more sense for NASA to slow the development of a new space shuttle rather than kill the program.

There is not now, and never has been, development of a “new space shuttle,” except to clueless people for whom the phrase “space shuttle” means “NASA launch system to get people to and from space.”

In a letter sent Thursday, 15 House members — including Utah Republican Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz — asked NASA’s top administrator to develop a plan to continue the Constellation program using only the money already set aside by President Barack Obama. They want a response within 30 days.

So, they’re talking about Constellation, not a “new space shuttle.” And that’s not what they’re asking for, at least according to the press release from Culberson’s office, which says they’re asking the administrator to:

…appoint a team of NASA experts to review how exploration spacecraft and launch vehicle development and testing may be maintained within the proposed budget request to ensure uninterrupted, independent U.S. human space flight access to the International Space Station and beyond. The team should report back within 30 days in order to provide the administration and Congress with this necessary information – before the President’s space summit in Florida on April 15.

I could provide that report right now — I don’t need thirty days. It’s a two-word report. “It can’t.”

It never could. No amount of study, or budgetary legerdemain, makes it possible for “exploration spacecraft and launch vehicle development and testing” to “ensure uninterrupted, independent U.S. human space flight access to the International Space Station and beyond.” And in fact, we haven’t been able to do the “beyond” for almost four decades, so the horse has long fled the barn on the ability to do it “uninterrupted.” The gap has been known of and planned for six years now, since the new policy was announced in January of 2004 to retire the Shuttle this year, with plans for an ability to get people to orbit on the “Crew Exploration Vehicle” in 2014. That was cemented a couple years ago when production of new tanks and other things was shut down. That was the time to do something about it. It can’t be done now with all the money in the world, and the notion that it can be done within the current budget request could only come from someone completely unfamiliar with what’s going on, and budgetary reality in general. The most near-term solution, though, has nothing to do with Constellation.

The fastest way would be to provide SpaceX, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and ULA with incentives to develop alternate means of access. Atlas and Delta are flying now, and it looks like Falcon 9 is likely to be flying this year. Dragon is built, and mostly needs a launch escape system, which could be developed in a couple years given sufficient funds, and Boeing could probably do a crash program to accelerate the “Orion lite” it’s been working on with Bigelow, while the Atlas and Deltas could have failure on-set detection added in parallel. I do think that with unlimited funds, we could have our own crew access, redundantly, by 2013. But Constellation would be completely irrelevant. And as already noted, these fantasists don’t want to (and couldn’t if they did) provide unlimited funds. Here’s an example of the complete disconnect with reality:

“We can still go forward with Constellation without necessarily having a significant increase in the amount of money that was there,” Bishop said.

Sure, you can go forward with Constellation with no budget increase, but you’ll have to cut something else, and given that the current high-probability date for first flight was 2017 with hoped-for budgets, which would be delayed even further without the increase, it does nothing to achieve the stated goals. What he’s really saying is that “we can maintain the jobs at ATK if we keep pouring money down the rat hole.”

More awful reporting follows:

The letter is the latest attempt to block Obama’s plan to cut funding to the Constellation program. The president plans to shift the $3.5 billion to the International Space Station and other scientific research. In place of Constellation, NASA would support private companies that are trying to develop a space vehicle to ferry U.S. astronauts to the space station.

No, private companies are not replacing Constellation, which was an overall architecture with the stated intent of providing a system to allow return to the moon, not to the space station. It included not only the Ares launch vehicles and Orion capsule/service module, but earth-departure stages and lunar landers. Very few people (even people in the industry) understand what Constellation was, conflating it with Ares, or Orion, or both, or “space shuttle replacement,” or whatever NASA is doing this week in manned space.

Under Obama’s plan, NASA would have no ongoing attempt to return humans to the moon or beyond, though the president has announced plans for an April 15 space conference in Florida to discuss NASA’s future.

No, Obama’s plan would have ongoing attempts to return humans to the moon, and beyond, and in a much more cost effective way that would allow it to happen sooner. It just won’t use “Constellation,” and it won’t look like “Apollo on Steroids,” which apparently, for some people, is the only thing that a human space exploration program can look like.

Constellation, which President George W. Bush created in 2005 to develop a new manned space vehicle, has cost more than originally anticipated and has run into production delays. The White House argued the program “was not clearly aimed at meeting today’s national priorities.”

Gaaaahhhh. No, Constellation was created by Mike Griffin, as a particular way of implementing George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration program. Bush had nothing to do with it, other than hiring Griffin, and then apparently paying no more attention to what NASA was doing. And it wasn’t just to “develop a new manned space vehicle.” As already noted, it was an entire (flawed and unaffordable) lunar exploration architecture.

The Obama administration also disagrees with Bishop that Constellation can continue without increased funding. In the budget, the administration cites a previous blue panel study that found Constellation wouldn’t be able to land on the moon until the 2030s and to do so, the government would have to abandon the International Space Station in 2016.

Gee, they cited an actual study. But Bishop knows better:

Bishop called Obama’s cut “naïve” and argues that it will not only cede American space superiority to Russia, India and China, but it will hurt national security.

“The kinds of people and the kinds of jobs that build a rocket to put a man on the moon, are the same kinds of jobs and the same kinds of people who build missiles to defend this country,” he said.

In light of his other beliefs, let us all bask momentarily in the glow of incandescent irony of Bishop calling anyone else “naïve” on the topic of space policy. I’ve got an idea. If it is really “ceding American space superiority to Russia, India and China” to develop cost-effective, robust home-grown access to earth orbit and beyond, instead of continuing to maintain a jobs program that might deliver a monolithic fragile NASA-owned system sometime in the 2020s that will cost billions to fly each time, then let them be superior. And if it’s an issue for national security, why don’t you go find the money at the Pentagon? Not that I’m a big fan of giving NASA more money, at least for what it’s been doing in human spaceflight, but if I were the agency, I’d be getting tired of having my budget hijacked for foreign relations (cough — ISS — cough) and “national security” (lord knows what) purposes, instead of for actual, you know, space stuff. If it’s really that important, we have other government agencies responsible for funding that kind of thing. And if you want people to build missiles, pay them to build missiles. There’s not much in common between building a missile, and building exploration hardware.

Like the other House members who signed the letter, most of whom are Republicans, Bishop discounts private space vehicles as “unproven.”

Yes, pay no attention to that string of successful Atlas launches, or the fact that SpaceX has put a rocket on the pad, and developed a crew entry capsule, for less than it cost NASA to do a single test flight of a vehicle that has little heritage to the one they plan to eventually fly, years from now, at a cost of billions per flight. No, NASA and Ares, aren’t “unproven.” With Shuttle, X-33, X-34, SLI, OSP, they’re conclusively proven to be high-cost, low-activity disasters, albeit job producing, until the programs implode.

I continue to be amazed at these so-called Republicans not only showing little faith in, but actively bashing U.S. private enterprise, with nonsensical arguments.

But forget all that other nonsense he said. As I noted, here is the real reason that he wants to keep the program going:

He said the Constellation cuts would eliminate thousands of jobs at companies already working on the project, including hundreds in his district. ATK is developing the Ares rocket in northern Utah, which would launch the new vehicle out of Earth’s orbit.

You don’t say. So, pork over progress. Par for the course with space.

[Update a few minutes later]

One other point to keep in mind when you hear people talking about “stretching” out or delaying programs (as the clueless education staffer did during Obama’s primary campaign, or these congresspeople are doing now): there is, in theory, is cost-optimal schedule for any given program. Try to accelerate it, and the cost goes up (and there is a limit to how much you can do so even with a bottomless wallet, as illustrated by the problem of trying to get a baby in a month using nine women). Stretch it out, and the cost goes up as well, though the annual costs can be reduced, due to inefficiencies of keeping people on but working at a less effective pace. Unfortunately, the tendency of government programs is the latter, because they are funded on an annual basis, and the most important budget to the Congress is always the next year’s, since they have no control over future years, and that’s the one that will cause the most political pain to them at the next election. Add to this the fact that future expenditures are discounted (a typical rate we used to use for cost analyses for government programs was the cost of T-bills), and costly program stretches become inevitable.

The Shuttle is a classic example of that. They ended up spending billions upon billions more in life cycle costs and annual operational costs, and arguably having a program failure, in terms of the original goals, because they were unwilling to spend the money up front in development. The people paying the bills in the seventies didn’t have to worry about what the operational budgets were going to be in the eighties, nineties and aughts. And when those budgets came along, the only choice was to pay them at the time, and they couldn’t afford to augment them with new development budgets to make things cheaper in the future. Which is in fact why we have “the gap.” It was recognized in formulating the VSE that NASA wasn’t going to get money from Congress to develop a shuttle replacement (in terms of human access to LEO) at the same time we were operating Shuttle, so serious development couldn’t begin until that program was shut down.

If Congress had really been concerned about “the gap,” they would have provided the funding to avoid it. But they didn’t, and they won’t, because space isn’t important, despite all the nonsense about the Chinese and Indians and national security. All that matters is the jobs, and those only to the congressmembers whose constituents are affected. All of this talk about thirty-day studies is just posturing.

9 thoughts on “More Depressing Space Policy Ignorance”

  1. In other better news, it appears President Obama intends to seek ITAR reform. Successful ITAR reform could help NewSpace simply go around NASA.

    To offer the preferred WW2 metaphor – in light of the nonsense Rand blogs about above, efforts to reform NASA might be seen as an attempt to drive through the Maginot Line rather than go around, via Belgium and Luxembourg.

    Win the right ITAR reforms, and maybe NewSpace can flank and encircle NASA.

  2. To clarify – I am saying the nonsense is coming from these reporters and certain Congress-folk, not Rand.

  3. Bill,

    And its going to get a lot worst as news of the Shuttle retirement expands from the very small band of those folks, and reporters, who follow space and the rest of the population that only take an occasional interest in space.

  4. The paths around the Maginot Line are not nearly as obvious as most NewSpacers expect. They are hidden in a forest that we have not explored because all our lives we have been focused on the Maginot Line. We have been raised since childhood dreaming about NASA’s economic fantasies, and it is far more difficult than we may expect to replace these fantasies in our thinking with economic reality about space. I do agree with Bill and Thomas that ITAR reform is crucial to efforts to find our way to these paths.

  5. Rand,

    I appreciate your staying on top of these kinds of articles. I just left a comment on the SLT message board to address some of what you have covered.

    Sometimes it’s difficult to break through the politics of the moment, but all you can do is point out the facts…

  6. Successful ITAR reform could help NewSpace simply go around NASA.

    ITAR has nothing to do with NASA aside from restricting how NASA interacts with foreign entities. It’s enforced by the State Department.

  7. arguably having a program failure, in terms of the original goals

    Arguably? The Shuttle fell orders of magnitude short of the claims under which it was sold. Of course, everybody has conveniently forgotten what the goals and hype that sold the Shuttle were. “We’ve always been at war with Oceania”.

  8. I blame it all on the documentary mentality. Someone comes along and wants to make a documentary about space. They tote out all the NASA pie in the sky Powerpoint material and make fancy CGI with astronauts petting furballs or whatever. But hardly none of them focus on the real goal to achieving what it takes to making inroads to becoming a truly space faring society. And well, by and large the majority of those activities exist here on terraferma not up there in orbit. The perceptions in the mind of those that sit and have nightmares about global warming ravaging us all could just as well turn their attention to some real celestial threats that could irrevocably change our existence as a species and understand that access to space is a real problem solver. Space activity shouldn’t be looked upon as some wasteful activity for rich thrill seekers or eccentric scientists. But as a real opportunity to become a truly robust human species. I see your dinosaur bone and club you over the head with it if you keep me from getting on my own private spaceship.

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