I didn’t read this essay by Jeff Kueter when it first came out in June, but I wish I had, because we might have had a rousing discussion about it in August when we were both at a space policy meeting in DC. It starts off confused from the beginning:
Among the many questions that have arisen as the nation considers the future of the exploration is — should the U.S. invest in propulsion capabilities to travel beyond low earth orbit now or later?
On this question, the President identified his administration’s priorities – “Next, we will invest more than $3 billion to conduct research on an advanced “heavy lift rocket” — a vehicle to efficiently send into orbit the crew capsules, propulsion systems, and large quantities of supplies needed to reach deep space.
Note that the first paragraph seemingly has nothing to do with the second. “Propulsion capabilities to travel beyond low earth orbit” and a “vehicle to efficiently send into orbit the crew capsules, propulsion systems and large quantity of supplies needed to reach deep space” are two entirely different topics, though the former can influence the latter. And as usual, there is an implicit and unsubstantiated assumption that a “heavy-lift rocket” is identically equal to “efficient” delivery to orbit, when in fact, it’s just the opposite, if by “efficient,” you mean cost effective. But then, worshipers of the Apollo Cargo Cult (not to imply that Jeff is one) are seemingly completely indifferent to cost, and demand that the heretics be so as well.
He goes on to ask a number of questions about the 2011 White House budget proposal:
The approach is reasonable enough — Invest in the future in hopes of accomplishing the heavy-lift task more effectively and efficiently. Substantial investments in space-related research and development (R&D) are desirable and the administration’s emphasis on inciting innovation is commendable. But, it is not without questions and, according to some critics, lacks focus. What basic research will mature in five years time to be suitable for use in a deployable rocket? How will this research transfer into development programs? Is basic research the area of greatest need? Are any of the planned investments sufficiently radical to justify the delay in building a new heavy lift capability? What entities, organizations, laboratories, companies, or universities will perform this research? Who will decide which projects are funded, which are not, and when a project is terminated for failing to progress satisfactorily, simply failing, or because higher priorities have emerged? What happens to the industrial base and the workforce needed to build these systems during the five years? What are the implications of delaying the development of new capabilities by five years?
Most of them are good questions, and they arise because he doesn’t understand the real reason for the five-year delay, which was not to develop “new technologies” for heavy lift, which aren’t really needed. The purpose of the delay was to kick the can down the road far enough so that, via the time-honored technique of management by procrastination, the nation would come to its senses and realize that heavy lift is unnecessary to open up space, at least at the current stage of development, and that the false perception of a need for it is actually a hindrance to that goal. To answer his last question, the implications of delay are to a) save money and b) focus resources on those things we actually do need. As for the “industrial base and workforce,” what he really means, though he may not realize it, is the real reason that Congress wants a heavy lifter — to maintain the costly jobs program that has been in place since Apollo, is a legacy of the Shuttle program, and has kept government-provided space transportation unaffordable for decades, for anyone other than government (in perhaps now, even for government). In fact, there is no legitimate concern with a workforce and infrastructure that can provide heavy lift, as long as SpaceX and ULA remain in business, because either is capable of developing such a vehicle should it really be necessary. It just can’t (or at least, wouldn’t, absent incentives) do so in as inefficient and a job-producing manner as pleases those in Congress who make space policy.
He goes on to fret about whether or not the new technologies will pan out, and if they don’t, we won’t get heavy lift in time to go to an asteroid by 2025, yada yada, all of which is based on the false concern that we need heavy lift to do so. This next is amusing:
In 2020 or so, the Space Station will no longer be viable, we are told.
I love the anonymous passive construction. First, by whom are we “told” this? He doesn’t say. And what is the basis for such a telling? He doesn’t say. Yet much of the rest of the essay hinges on what we “are told” about the non-viability of ISS after 2020.
Granting for the moment the notion that what “we are told” is correct, why? What happens in 2020 that makes the ISS suddenly “unviable”? And what changed between 2009, when the plan was to end it in 2016, and 2010, when the new plan was to end no sooner than (note, not in) 2020 to suddenly render it viable to that date? Is there any basis in the literature for this date, either as a “no sooner than” or “must be ended by”? Is there some key, unreplaceable component that will wear out, or “no longer be certified” (the magical incantation used by the CAIB to justify ending the Shuttle in 2010)? Are there unreplaceable components at all?
Yes, I know that we will no longer have the Shuttle to take components up to it and help with construction/maintenance, but how necessary is it, really? Any component carried by a Shuttle could be lofted with an Atlas or Delta, which can in fact have larger fairings than the fifteen-foot constraint of the payload bay. We have plenty of time to develop a tug with the capability to maneuver it within range of the station, and the ISS and its own Canadarm will remain, along with crew EVA capability. So I’m skeptical that what “we are told” is really true. It’s simply a matter of how much money it will cost to extend its life, and whether or not we perceive the value of that extended life to be worth the investment (also taking into consideration the value of the development of such orbital infrastructure beyond that needed to service ISS, which I would think quite high, given affordable launch costs).
Continuing with the flawed premises, he goes on:
Are there technologies worth waiting for? A breakthrough technology that could radically change the cost or efficiency of space travel might be worth the wait. The Augustine Commission identified solar and nuclear propulsion technologies as promising. On-orbit refueling stations are another concept frequently mentioned. That capability changes the size and mass of the lift vehicle (because it will not need to carry as much fuel into space), but the technical characteristics of the vehicle itself may change very little.
My one-word response: huh?
If the “size and mass of the lift vehicle” aren’t “technical characteristics” and significant ones, what in the world (or out of it) does he think are? If the “size and the mass” (I’m not exactly sure what he means by this — the payload mass? The fairing size? The gross-liftoff mass?) are changed, doesn’t this imply that it could be changed in such a way as to (wait for it) no longer be classified as heavy lift? Why, I think it does!
He then continues on, reverting to the earlier non sequitur:
Certainly, a breakthrough propulsion system has the potential to revolutionize space travel, but the probability of such breakthroughs emerging in a five-year R&D program is low; a view validated by informal discussions with space experts over recent weeks. At a minimum, it appears safe to say that it is equally likely that there will be no breakthrough in propulsion that will require a reconfiguration of the basic approaches to heavy lift in the timeframe established by the President.
That is, he continues to confuse advances in in-space propulsion (e.g., nuclear thermal, VASIMR) with propulsion advances needed for heavy lift itself, when in fact what such advances do is to further minimize the need for heavy lift by reducing on-orbit LEO propellant (the vast majority of the payload for deep-space exploration missions) requirements.
Finally, late in the essay, he gets to the real issue, which obviates most of what came before:
Others suggest the delay in developing a new launch vehicle is justifiable because there is no mission for which such a capability is required. Developing a launch vehicle without knowing what it will carry and to where is problematic. Such an effort would lack focus and is potentially wasteful if the mission never materializes. These concerns have validity, but they speak to a broader issue — what does the United States expect from its human space exploration program in the decades to come?
Gosh. What a concept. Trying to figure out what we want to do before laying out specifications for the transportation systems with which to do it. Also note, like Lou Friedman, he can’t conceive of any purpose to send humans to space other than for “exploration.”
Here’s his bottom line, though he doesn’t save it for the end:
This period of uncertainty still leaves the stark choice — should the U.S. pause the construction of a new heavy lift launch vehicle for the foreseeable future? The balance of the evidence suggests “no” is the appropriate answer.
My response, again, is: huh?
He has really provided no useful evidence, other than what we “are told,” and flawed assumptions about the need for heavy lift, and associated “infrastructure” and “work force,” and confusion about in-space and launch propulsion technologies. Yet this kind of stuff represents the prevailing what-passes-for wisdom in DC and in the so-called “think” tanks. We really need to get a serious, and informed discussion going on these subjects, lest we continue to waste billions of dollars on the continuing delusion that such expenditures are accomplishing real goals in space, as opposed to within the Beltway.
[Update a while later]
I have a follow-up post, based on some comments here.