Category Archives: Space History

A Brief History

…of NASA’s resistance to commercial competition, in a comment (number 31) over at Space Politics by Al Fansome:

For the last 25 years, NASA has had to be brought KICKING & SCREAMING every step of the way — into a partnership with commercial industry. It has been resisted by the NASA iron triangle (NASA + contractors + Center politicians).

* The DOT was given the legal authority by Congress in the 1980s to regulate commercial space transportation over the objections of the traditional status quo space powers.

* Commercial payloads were taken off of the Shuttle after Challenger by the Reagan Administration over the active opposition of the then NASA Administrator (Fletcher).

* The Launch Services Purchase Act of 1990 — which was the first law mandating that NASA buy commercial space transportation services — was passed by Congress over the objections of NASA.

* Instead of partnering with the American Rocket Company in the late 1980s, NASA MSFC created a competing hybrid rocket R&D program in an attempt to put AMROC out of business. (They succeeded.)

* The Congress passed the Commercial Space Act of 1998 that mandated that NASA should purchase ISS cargo resupply services. NASA resisted that mandate for 6 years — until Columbia happened and the Bush Administration created the Commercial/Crew Cargo services budget as part of the VSE in 2004. In December 2008, over 10 years after CSA98 passed, NASA finally signed an ISS cargo services delivery contract.

* NASA is still resisting doing commercial crew — which was part of the original official VSE plan (it was the CREW/cargo services program in the VSE). It has taken a national commission of space experts — reporting to the White House — to unequivocably recommend (its in all the options) that NASA institute a commercial crew (instead of Ares 1).

* NASA could have instituted “propellant depots” as part of the national strategy years ago. Why were propellant depots so obvious to the Augustine Commission as a key enable for our national goals in space, but ignored by the traditional NASA bureaucracy?

It is not because the NASA bureaucracy is dumb. I assert the reason is that creating a depot based architecture is not in the “bureaucratic interest” of NASA, as it outsources a large portion of the supply chain for exploration to commercial providers.

Prediction — NASA will resist creating propellant depots to the extent it is given the means to do so.

I think it’s a safe prediction. Those means have to be restricted. Though at least, this time, I think that we have top NASA administration on the right side.

[Early afternoon update]

He left out the saga of the Industrial Space Facility.

A Space Program For The Rest Of Us

I know, you’ve all given up, and just assumed that the piece in The New Atlantis was just another drug-addled Simberg fantasy of grandeur. That when I kept saying it would be Real Soon Now, that it was just vaporware. Well, Now has finally arrived.

As I wrote in an early draft, if extraterrestrial aliens had contacted the White House after the last lunar landing in 1972, and told the president that humans wouldn’t be allowed to move into space beyond earth orbit, and to pass the message on to his successors, but that the public was not to know this, it’s hard to imagine how policy actions would have been much different. Let’s Hope that this can finally Change with the new administration. That (unlike most of the rest of the agenda) would be Hope and Change that I could believe in.

[Late Friday update]

I want to thank everyone for the kudos, but I can’t accept it (did you know that kudos is not plural?) without acknowledging that this was a collaboration. Adam Keiper, the first and only (to date) editor of The New Atlantis, encouraged me to write this piece and, more importantly, played a key role in making it what it was. While we lost some things in editing (that I’ll rectify in a later Director’s Cut, and perhaps expand into a book), he focused it and almost certainly helped make it more influential in getting more to read it now, when we are at such a critical cusp of policy decisions.

But beyond that, he really helped write it. I was tired when I finished, and had a weak ending. The final paragraph, one of the best in it, if not the best (and it may be), is his.

And I’m grateful for the opportunity that he provided to get this message out, not just with The Path Not Taken five years ago (was it really that long?) but this and other pieces. The links in it are his, which indicates to me that he’s been following this topic closely. The most amazing thing is that this collaboration is a result of a snarky criticism by me of his own space-policy punditry, over half a decade ago. Rather than taking umbrage, he opened his mind to new possibilities, and the result is this (so far at least) collaborative magnum opus.


At The Conference

I’ve got connectivity now (the wireless here isn’t public, so I had to finagle an account at Ames). Jim Muncy led off the morning session. Clark Lindsey has a report. The morning session focuses on what’s happening at NASA Ames, which is hosting the conference. I should point out that it’s kind of amazing that a NASA Center is hosting a Space Frontier Foundation conference, but it any center would do it, it would be this one. As Muncy said this morning, he doesn’t expect an invitation from Marshall any time soon.


[Note: This post is on top all day for the anniversary. Keep scrolling for new posts]

came from outer space:

The aliens did not come across vast expanses of space to eat us. Or take our resources. Or another reasons. Frankly, they’d rather be on their way; they have places to go, things to do. Their spaceship broke down, and it needs repairing. For some reason they have to assume human form to fix it, though, and this means duplicating the bodies of ordinary Arizona townsfolk. As the hero asks them: Why? You built the thing, surely you can fix it without turning into us.

“Yes,” says the creature in an echoey monotone, “but this would require a budget that allows for several creatures, which we do not have. Also, grad students in film school decades from now would not be able to cite the movie as an example of subconscious dread of Communist infiltration.”

And forty years ago, while It didn’t come from outer space, we went to outer space. Apollo XI lifted off on July 16th, 1969, to deliver Mike Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong to the moon. And went live about an hour ago, where you can follow the mission in real time, from now until they return next week. The Saturn is sitting on the pad, and they’re launching in less than half an hour.

[Update a little later]

Alan Boyle has a lot more Apollo-related links, and a story about the restoration of the original video of the landing.

I’ll be keeping this post at the top all day.

[Late morning update]

An alternate history, from Henry Spencer: Welcome to Lunarville.

[Update in the afternoon]

There’s some stupid discussion over at James Nicoll’s place:

Let’s be magnanimous, and as a thought experiment keep NASA’s budget at its peak as a share of the American economy for the next forty-three years.

Do we get five thousand people on the moon? *really*? Those are some interesting economies of scale. Remember, NASA’s budget would only be six times bigger than its current.

A straight linear extrapolation gives ca. eighty-four American associated space deaths.

It’s entirely idiotic to do a “straight linear extrapolation.”

Could NASA have had that many on the moon by now with a steady budget? Who knows? But I know I could have. In fact, it would easily be an order of magnitude more. But task one would have been a serious effort to reduce launch costs.

[Update about 2 PM EDT]

More thoughts from Derb:

As I’ve made plain in several columns, I am a space buff from far back, and I find the exploration of space, including the manned exploration, thrilling beyond measure. That’s my taste in vicarious thrills. Other people have different tastes therein: They are thrilled by sporting achievements, or medical advances, or cultural accomplishments. If the federal government is going to pay for my thrills, why shouldn’t it pay for everyone else’s? If putting men on the moon is a proper national goal requiring billions of federal dollars, why isn’t winning the soccer World Cup, or curing the common cold, or resolving the Riemann Hypothesis?

As a minimal-government conservative, I’d prefer the federal authorities do none of those things. I’d prefer they stick to their proper duties: defending our coasts and borders, maintaining a stable currency, organizing national disaster relief, etc. Leave manned space travel to the entrepreneurs.

That’s pretty much my attitude as well, but I don’t think that we’re going to shut down NASA, so I will continue to work hard to get it to spend the money less crazily.

[Update at 3 PM]

Andrew Chaikin:

Who would have predicted that in 2009 we would have to go back 40 years to find the most futuristic thing humans have ever done? Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan has said that it is as if John Kennedy reached into the 21st century, grabbed a decade of time, and spliced it neatly into the 1960s and 70s. Ever since then, I’ve been waiting to see us get back to where we were in 1972.

Now, in the midst of the real 21st century, none of us can say when humans will go back to the moon – or what language they will speak when they get there. If Chinese taikonauts become the next lunar explorers, will we be spurred to action, or shrug it off? Or will we have somehow risen above our differences and found a way to go back to the moon together?

Call me naïve, call me just another aging Baby Boomer who can’t let go of the past. But I firmly believe that Apollo was just the first chapter in a story of exploration that has no end, and will continue as long as humans are alive. And I still want to believe that when humans do return to the moon to follow in the Apollo astronauts’ lunar footsteps, it will have more of an impact than many people now realize.

It will, but only if we abandon the failed Apollo model. If it was a first chapter, the rest of the book is going to have to look very different for it to lead to exploration without end. It did indeed happen too soon, so it cost too much, and it established a terrible precedent for human space exploration that we have not recovered from to this day, as demonstrated by the current Constellation disaster. This will be the theme of my piece at The New Atlantis (which I hope will be on line in time for the anniversary on Monday, but I can’t promise it, particularly since I’ll probably be doing final editing at the conference this weekend).

Men On The Moon

The next three weeks or so leading up to the anniversary are going to be full of pieces like this, from a British journalist who covered the event. It’s a good piece, and I don’t want to diss it–it’s obviously a key part of his own personal history and inspired him, but I disagree with this notion, which will also be a common one among the upcoming commemorations:

A new era was to begin: there would one day be huge satellite cities in space, colonies on the moon, an outpost on Mars, and all before 2001.

This is just not true, much as we’d like it to be. Apollo, for all of the wonder of the achievement, was in fact a detour from the road to those goals. I’ll be explaining that more in my essay a little later this summer in The New Atlantis. I would also note that Eagle didn’t separate from “Apollo.” It did so from the spacecraft Columbia. But that’s just a nit compared to the other point, and I encourage people to enjoy the piece anyway–it’s generally a good historical description of the event.

Fortieth Anniversary Coming Up

It’s less than three weeks until the fortieth anniversary of the first human lunar landing. Alan Boyle has a roundup of links. It’s also a good time to start planning a commemoration ceremony with friends and family. HappilyUnfortunately, it’s on a SaturMonday this year, a good eveningnot such a good evening to have a party.

Link is fixed, too thanks to commenter “Jim.”

End Of An Extravaganza

John Derbyshire says that government human spaceflight was largely pointless, and likely to end soon.

I don’t actually find much in there with which to disagree (I’ve pointed out the Zheng He analogy myself) — we have gotten horrible value for the money spent over the past forty years, and I do think that the hope is for private space. Though if the Augustine Commission could recognize and articulate the value to the nation and planet of becoming truly space faring, for things like planetary defense, and put forth a realistic plan to do it, I suppose that it’s possible it will survive somehow, but it will have to have sufficient pork content, which will defeat the purpose. But it’s hard to see Constellation continuing to exist in its current form.

I’m actually working on (or at least supposed to be working on) a longish piece for the summer issue of The New Atlantis on this subject.

[Tuesday afternoon update]

I will say that I think that “pointless” is too strong a word — as I said, we have gotten quite a bit of value, but not enough to justify the expenditure. And in many ways, Apollo has actually set us back from progress in space, by establishing a failed government-development model that lives on to this day in the form of Constellation. I hope that the Augustine Commission can finally fix this, but I fear that it won’t.

Well, He Meant “…A Man…”

…but he didn’t quite say it:

Riley and Olsson…concluded that Commander Armstrong and his family members do pronounce the word “a” in a discernible way.

And based on broadcasts from Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin from the surface of the Moon, it is clear that the word “a” was easily transmitted to Earth without being obliterated.

But their analysis of the intonation of the phrase strongly suggests Commander Armstrong had intended to say “a man”. There is a rising pitch in the word “man” and a falling pitch when he says “mankind”.

According to Mr Olsson: “This indicates that he’s doing what we all do in our speech, he was contrasting using speech – indicating that he knows the difference between man and mankind and that he meant man as in ‘a man’ not ‘humanity’.”

I think it’s safe to say that this has been analyzed to death at this point. It’s only been forty years.

Six Years

It’s hard to believe, but the Columbia disintegrated, with seven crew, over the skies of Texas six years ago today. And our space policy remains as screwed up as ever.

[Update in the evening]

Clark Lindsey has links to some musical tributes to the disasters. Also, for those who missed the link on the earlier anniversaries this week, here are my thoughts a year ago on the cluster of space disasters at the end of January and early February.


Restructuring The Dream

I was going to write about this latest attempt to resurrect the mythical “Apollo spirit” by former CNN science reporter Miles O’Brien. But fortunately, Paul Spudis gives him the history lesson so I don’t have to. Well, not just so I don’t have to — that’s just a nice side effect for me, because I’m busy.

As Paul notes, Mike Griffin and (to a lesser degree, even before Griffin) NASA’s biggest mistake is in assuming that we can just pick up where we left off with the unsustainable and unaffordable Apollo program and somehow sustain and afford it. NASA has to get much more innovative, think about how to use existing infrastructure that has other uses (which is why it should, at least initially, be EELV rather than Shuttle derived), encourage and involve the private sector to a much greater degree, and think marginal cost rather than development cost, or they’ll end up with another Shuttle, and station, regardless of what the mold lines of the vehicles look like.

[Update a few minutes later]

Unsurprisingly, Mark Whittington (who really ought to fix his permalinks so they don’t double the tag) is still guzzling the koolaid by the pitcher.

[Another update a couple minutes later]

Over at The Space Review (which now seems to be allowing comments, though there are none yet at this article), Stokes McMillan hopes that Kennedy’s first 100 days will be repeated by Obama.

Don’t count on it. In fact, don’t even hope for it, if it’s a repeat of Apollo. Apollo was a unique set of circumstances, and unlikely to repeat. In order for history to repeat, using the JFK model, would be for him to have some humiliating foreign policy event comparable to the Bay of Pigs (unfortunately, that one’s not at all unlikely…) and then another exogenous event that spurs us into another space race. The only thing that I could think of that would be comparable to the double blow of first being beaten into space four years later, and then beaten into a man in space in the first hundred days, would be a surprise manned Mars landing by (say) the Chinese. And even then, I wouldn’t bet on a revitalized American space program as a response.

Sorry, but compared to other administration perceived concerns (global warming, lack of health care, the economy, etc.) space simply isn’t important. And it hasn’t been for over forty years.

[Update a while later]

Don’t look to the Europeans to scare us into another space race. Space isn’t important there, either:

Sources close to the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV)/Advanced Reentry Vehicle (ARV) team are telling Hyperbola that the November 2008 ESA ministerial meeting outcome was seen as catastrophic for the agency’s hopes for ARV operating before the International Space Station (ISS) is de-orbited, even with a 2020 end of life target, and a follow-on manned version of ARV.

But there will be plenty of jobs, so it’s OK.

More Thoughts On Boundary Conditions

Clark Lindsey follows up on the previous discussion (with the typical ahistorical nonsense in the comments section about Nixon “scrapping” Apollo):

I think that if, say, Pete Worden had been chosen as NASA chief in 2005, his study would have set boundary conditions much closer that for the HLR than to Griffin’s and come up with a HLR type of architecture. Conditions on Constellation required that it avoid in-space operations at all costs, avoid multiple launches at all costs, and avoid development of any new technologies at all costs. Not surprisingly, all of that ends up costing a whole lot.

As someone once said, when failure is not an option, success gets pretty damned expensive.

A Nice Space History Find

After I mentioned the story about Bob Frosch wanting to run NOAA instead of NASA (something that I’d heard at the time, but had never really verified, even after meeting and spending quite a bit of time with Frosch in the early nineties), I decided to dig into it to see if it was true or apocryphal. Which resulted in finding this transcript of a very long but interesting interview with him, that contains a lot of interesting Carter-era NASA history.

It confirms that NOAA was his first pick, and he expected to get it, but was edged out by someone more politically connected (I didn’t bother to find out who it was — the NOAA history site didn’t make it very easy to figure it out). The first question on the table for the incoming Carter administration was whether or not to cancel Shuttle, which they didn’t seem to understand, and Frosch’s first task was to figure it out, because they were looking for places to cut for the president’s own programs. In the end (obviously) it wasn’t cancelled, but the planned fleet was cut from seven to five (and really four, because Enterprise never flew). Had they built the full seven, it would have cost a couple billion more at the time, and we’d have five (or possibly four, because we might not have replaced Challenger) now instead of three, and eking another few years out of it might look a lot more attractive.

But this part struck me as kind of funny, given the rumors that have been flying about Obama’s plans:

Frosch:…there was another question that came, not so much from the President, but began to come from OMB and Frank Press, which is important to reorganization. It is: why does NASA have so many centers? Why don’t you close a few centers? You know, it’s a perpetual question. It tended always to focus on Huntsville, largely because they were the engine place, and the mentality of a lot of OMB and political types is a very short-term mentality; and so, they were saying, “Gee, we’re almost through with the development of the Shuttle engines. Obviously, you don’t need Huntsville. After you finish the engines, you dispose of Huntsville.” You can decrease the number of people. And remember, the President came in saying there were too many bureaucrats; you’ve got to decrease the number of bureaucrats. There was a lot of pressure — “What are you going to close?” In fact, there was a rumor around NASA that the reason I had been selected was because, as I told you, in the Navy job I actually closed something. Okay, so that was mixed up in this whole organizational guestion.
That rumor wasn’t well founded, was it?
No, no: as far as I know, it had nothing to do with it. Nobody was thinking about that at all. Oh, there were funny rumors, that since Lovelace and Frosch had both had experience in the Pentagon, the whole place was going to be swallowed up by the Pentagon. In fact, there were people running around at one stage, saying we were brought in to militarize NASA. It was very peculiar, but the only thing you do about these things is you ignore them (laughs), very straightforward. So, we launched, among other things, into “what are we going to do about reorganization?”

The more things change…

In The Beginning…

Here’s a Youtube video (via Rob Coppinger) of the Apollo VIII Christmas-Eve broadcast from the moon, forty years ago tonight. I expect to have a piece up about that mission some time this evening, over at Pajamas Media.

[Evening update]

Don’t bother looking for it tonight — it won’t go up until early tomorrow morning (probably about midnight Pacific). Like a gift from Santa…

[One more thought]

I wonder if astronauts read from the Bible today to the world on Christmas Eve, if the ACLU would sue NASA for violating separation of church and state? It’s a lot different world today than it was forty years ago.

[Christmas morning update]

The piece is up now.

Forty Years Ago

Tomorrow is the anniversary of Apollo VIII. Paul Spudis has some thoughts. As he notes, though we didn’t necessarily realize it at the time, that was probably when we won the moon race, in that it resulted in the Soviets dropping out and pretending they had never been racing. Of course, Johnson had already canceled the program even before the flight, though we hadn’t yet achieved Kennedy’s goal. That would happen seven months later, in July of 1969.