Category Archives: Space and Campaign 2008

“Reboot NASA”

Jim Meigs over at Popular Mechanics has some immediate policy suggestions for the new administration. I disagree that the moon isn’t a useful goal — my concern is the horrific expense of the way that NASA proposes to do it, and following Jim’s advice on building a heavy lifter isn’t going to help with that. Whether or not we need heavy lift is one of those assumptions that need to be reexamined. What we need is low-cost lift, not heavy lift, and building a huge rocket won’t provide it.

Pots And Kettles

…in which Keith Cowing accuses me of being “snarky” (in comments). Guess his irony meter is on the fritz. Oh, well, can’t complain. I’ve been getting steady hittage off it for the last hour or so.

Anyway, with regard to the pick for White House liaison to NASA, I’d just like to see something more to his qualifications than that he raised money for Obama (and of course, his sexual orientation is entirely irrelevant, at least to me).

Who Will Replace Mike?

I think that it’s pretty much a fait accompli that someone will, and probably in less than three weeks. On The Space Show on Sunday, David Livingston asked me if I’d heard any rumors who might be the next administrator. I told him that the only name that I’d heard (and not from any off-the-record discussions) was Charlie Bolden. Bobbie Block has a blog post up now confirming him as a front runner.

I have no idea, assuming that he is in fact going to be chosen, and accepts, what this would mean for the agency, or my own desires for its future direction. The last time we had an astronaut as administrator (Dick Truly), it was kind of a disaster. He basically went to war with the GHW Bush administration over the Space Exploration Initiative, going so far as to send his congressional liaison over to the Hill to lobby against it, in preference to focusing on the space station, which eventually got him fired and replace by Dan Goldin (frying pan, fire). One shouldn’t draw grand conclusions from a single example (though many love to do so with Apollo, Shuttle, and ISS), but we have one unfortunate result of our one experiment with an astronaut administrator.

The other candidates mentioned are Scott Hubbard, Sally Ride (another astronaut, of whom I have good reason to think would be a disaster, from my point of view, because she doesn’t seem to share my own space vision based on past statements and activities), Wes Huntress and Alan Stern. Of those four, the only one that I can say right now that I’d like to see get the job is Alan Stern, based on his past comments about needing to harness private enterprise much more than the agency has been. For what it’s worth, Keith Cowing claims that none of them are interested in the job, with the possible exception of Hubbard.

What I found interesting though, is the last bit:

The current head of Obama’s transition team, Lori Garver, is hoping to be deputy administrator.

Lori has told me herself that she has no interest in being administrator, so this is consistent with that, at least. But I think it would be a mistake. I actually think that it’s more important for the deputy to be technical, with technical management experience, whereas the administrator need (even, perhaps in light of the Griffin experience, should) not be. The deputy is sort of like the COO of the agency, managing daily operations and coordinating the centers. The administrator is more like the CEO, and should be laying out strategy, and interacting with the public, White House and Congress. So while not necessarily endorsing her for either, I actually think that, assuming I had to make a choice, she’d be a better pick for administrator than deputy.

Continuing To Take Sides

I admire Neil Armstrong greatly. He’s a great man, and a great engineer. I was privileged to see him a few years ago at a rare public appearance — a commencement address, which was appropriately humble, and focused on not himself but on the graduates, as a good commencement address should be.

That said, I don’t necessarily take anything he says about modern space policy seriously. This is because a) he and I don’t necessarily share the same goals for our policy and b) it’s not at all obvious that he’s been closely following what’s going on with the agency. After his flight, almost four decades ago, he became almost a recluse, returning to Ohio to teach engineering, and offering little in the way of interviews. In any event, he decided (unwisely, in my opinion) to weigh in on the current NASA transition controversy:

Your article indicated that President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team “faces a tough early choice between extending the life of the aging space shuttle and accelerating its replacement.”

I certainly hope that isn’t accurate, in that the transition team should play no part in such decisions. While these men and women are experienced and enthusiastic space program veterans, they are neither aerospace engineers nor former program managers and cannot be sufficiently knowledgeable to make choices in the technical arena.

The transition team does have the responsibility to collect information to assist President-elect Obama in understanding the issues and decisions he will be facing. The making of decisions of such import, however, is the responsibility of the president and should be guided by the best advice from the most able and skilled experts on the subject.

I think that Professor Armstrong has the wrong take on this. No, the transition team won’t, and shouldn’t make such a decision (if for no other reason than it lacks the statutory or constitutional power to do so — its membership has no official government role, nor is it compensated). However, as he notes, they are collecting information to assist the incoming president in making such a decision, and that includes gathering “the best advice from the most able and skilled experts on the subject.” I’m curious as to why he thinks that they are not doing so. Does he think that this team will go through one exercise now, to no useful purpose, and then the president will later take the time to repeat it, this time “gathering the best advice” as opposed to whatever it is he thinks that they are currently doing? Clearly, they are gathering information, integrating it, and preparing a set of recommendations for the new president. As they should be.

But the next part shows that he has not been closely following what’s going on with NASA lately:

He should have no difficulty receiving high-quality information from NASA. Engineers are painfully honest and insist on presenting any assumptions used in their decision process. Therefore a conclusion can only be challenged when an erroneous assumption can be identified. Because this approach is somewhat unfamiliar in business and politics, its importance is often overlooked.

This is a nice, ivory-tower view of engineering and engineers, and I have no doubt that this is exactly what Professor Armstrong would do were he asked. But it is not what NASA has been doing. We have yet to see a full accounting of the sixty-day study that resulted in ESAS (including assumptions), so apparently NASA management either aren’t engineers, or they are not conforming with the good professor’s idealized notion of how they should behave.

A great deal of thought and analysis has gone into NASA’s program to return to space exploration as the principal focus of the agency. The breadth of NASA’s creative thinking was limited by the funding constraints, and compromises had to be made. Even so, the agency has fashioned a challenging but credible program to return to the moon and go on toward Mars.

How does he know this? Seriously?

Does he have access to the reports and analyses that have been denied to the rest of us? How does he know that the “compromises made” were a result of funding constraints, as opposed to political ones, and personal prejudices (or worse, conflicts of interest among the principals involved)? Is he just assuming that it’s the case, because he doesn’t want to believe otherwise about the agency that allowed him to be the first man to walk on the moon four decades ago?

And what does he mean by “credible program”? That if you put enough time and money into it, you can get it to fly? Sure. But that’s not the criterion. The criteria were supposed to be “affordable and sustainable” (not to mention supporting national security and commercial activity) and he hasn’t made the case for that (of course, he hasn’t made the case for the “credible” part, either, other than assertion).

I’d like to believe with him that NASA has the talented leadership, and has done the analyses, and has offered them up freely, with assumptions, to the transition team. But I’ve seen little evidence of it. This letter reads less like serious policy analysis (since he provides no specifics as to why he finds the program “credible”) than motherhood and wishful thinking in the service of the agency for which he worked so long and well, and with which he achieved so much.

Of course, NASA management wasted no time in making sure that everyone at the agency was aware of Professor Armstrong’s statement of support. And by sheer coincidence, the administrator has come out with a new book on his own laudatory leadership in space.

What we have here is an unseemly, pull-out-all-the-stops campaign to politically influence the incoming administration via public pressure (including pressure on agency employees via emails from the administrator’s wife). Mike Griffin should say something immediately to denounce and shut down this activity. If he does not, that in itself would be sufficient reason to replace him, were I the incoming president.

[Update a while later]

Keith Cowing is reporting that the letter was written for Armstrong by NASA. That wouldn’t be hard to believe (at least based on the wording). I think that it’s a little sad, though, that Professor Armstrong would allow his name to be used in such a way.

Hope, And Change (Part Whatever)

A lot of space enthusiasts have been enthused about Obama’s pick for Commerce Secretary, based on his support for commercial space. Unfortunately, his staff is under investigation for a pay-to-play scandal. I’d like to say I’m shocked, but there’s an old saying (and I’ve had some experience with it in looking for spaceport consulting work) that New Mexico is “Louisiana with jalapenosgreen chiles.” And this doesn’t help much with the transition, on top of the Blogojevich thing.

Mike Still Needs An Irony Meter

Joel Achenbach has a piece at the WaPo today on the ongoing NASA/transition foofaraw:

Griffin’s pugnaciousness may not have been the most politically savvy way to lobby to keep his job, but no one could say it was out of character.

No kidding. I found this tragic:

With multiple degrees, including a doctorate in aerospace engineering, Griffin is not reluctant to reveal the confidence he has in his judgments. And he may be lobbying for the ambitious Constellation program as much as for himself. He has always been a true believer in what he calls “the majesty of spaceflight,” and he fervently hopes to see human civilization expand across the solar system.

I believe that he hopes that, which is why it’s such a shame that he’s done more to set us back from that goal in the past three years than anyone else.

And this is an attitude I’ve never understood:

Ed Weiler, a NASA associate administrator (occasionally mentioned in the space community as a potential successor to Griffin), would like to see his boss stick around for a while, particularly with the tricky space shuttle mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope coming up next spring.

“I’d certainly like to have a leader who was an experienced engineer or whatever,” Weiler said.

Why? Why should the NASA administrator be an experienced engineer? Doesn’t NASA have people at lower levels who are competent to oversee a Shuttle flight, even one for the Hubble repair? Is it the job of the administrator to micromanage at that level?

I never had a problem with Sean O’Keefe not being an engineer — I don’t expect a good NASA administrator to be an engineer. O’Keefe’s problem was not a lack of technical expertise, but the fact that he got gun shy after Columbia, and was no longer able to be decisive or lead, because he feared too much having to tell another set of families on the tarmack that their loved ones were gone.

In general, I don’t think it hurts to have some technical knowledge, though in the case of Griffin, I think it did, because he doesn’t/didn’t understand what the job of the administrator is, which is not to get involved in engineering and drive the results of trade studies in favor of one’s own pet designs. Arguably the best NASA administrator (and there aren’t many good ones — most of them have been bad) was Jim Webb, at least in terms of carrying out administration policy and accomplishing the goal. He was a lawyer.

A Big Sloppy Wet Kiss

That’s what Jeff Kluger gives to NASA and the Bush administration in this Time piece. The very first graf lays out the hero, and the villain:

Getting into a shouting match with the HR rep is not exactly the best way to land a job. But according to the Orlando Sentinel, that’s just what happened last week between NASA administrator Mike Griffin and Lori Garver, a member of Barack Obama’s transition team who will help decide if Griffin keeps his post once the President-elect takes office. If the contretemps did occur, it could help doom not only the NASA chief’s chances, but the space agency’s ambitious plans to get Americans back to the moon.

The fact that those last few words are a link almost make it seem like an emphasis. “Doom the space agency’s plans to get Americans back to the moon!” <sound=”dissonant organ chord, thunderclap, horses whinnying”></sound>

If you in fact follow the link, it’s to a piece that Kluger wrote about a month ago on those wonderful plans. The piece continues on, lauding the Bush administration’s foresight in coming up with a new plan, and putting the people into place to execute it. There is an implicit assumption that if Dr. Griffin is removed, and his inspiring architecture ended, that we will have to leave returning to the moon to another generation, because it’s the only way to do it.

It’s very clear that he has talked only to NASA officials who agree with the thesis, and to no one else. In fact, the only quotes he has are from Scott Horowitz and Chris Shank. With regard to Horowitz, he writes:

“At the time, the shuttle had flown 290 people, and out of those 14 were dead — nearly one in 20,” says Scott Horowitz, a four-time shuttle veteran who designed the Ares 1, one of the new boosters. “We needed something that was an order of magnitude safer.”

He doesn’t mention that Horowitz has left the agency to “spend more time with his family.” And he has a quote from Shank:

“We’ve been moving in the right direction since the Columbia accident [in 2003],” says Chris Shank, NASA’s chief of strategic communications. “The concern is that we’ll lose that.” Lately, that concern appears well-placed.

There is no argument about why it is “the right direction” — simply a statement as though it’s fact. And what would you expect Mike Griffin’s flack to say? That there are a lot of ways to get there, and they just happened to pick this one? That they now realized as they’ve gotten into it that it wasn’t as “safe, simple and soon” as ATK’s Horowitz sold it to be?

Most notably, is who he didn’t seem to have talked to — he didn’t bother to get the side of anyone on the transition team. Here’s what he has to say about Lori Garver:

The Obama team picked Garver to run the NASA transition, in part because of her deep pedigree and long history at the space agency, which saw her climb to the rank of associate administrator. But Garver started as a PAO — NASA-speak for a public affairs officer — and never got involved in the nuts and bolts of building rockets. She is best known by most people as the person who in 2002 competed with boy-band singer Lance Bass for the chance to fly to the International Space Station aboard a Russian rocket. Neither of them ever left the ground.

Garver’s lack of engineering cred is especially surprising in light of the eggheads with whom Obama has been surrounding himself — most recently, Nobel prize winning physicist Steven Chu, who has reportedly been tapped to be Secretary of Energy. Garver is also not thought to be much of a fan of Griffin — who is an engineer — nor to be sold on the plans for the new moon program. What she and others are said to be considering is to scrap the plans for the Ares 1 — which is designed exclusively to carry humans — and replace it with Atlas V and Delta IV boosters, which are currently used to launch satellites but could be redesigned, or “requalified,” for humans. Griffin hates that idea, and firmly believes the Atlas and Delta are unsafe for people. One well-placed NASA source who asked not to be named reports that as much as Griffin wants to keep his job, he’ll walk away from it if he’s made to put his astronauts on top of those rockets.

NASA is right to be uneasy about just what Obama has planned for the agency since his position on space travel shifted — a lot — during the campaign. A year before the election he touted an $18 billion education program and explicitly targeted the new moon program as one he’d cut to pay for it. In January of 2008, he lined up much closer to the Bush moon plan — perhaps because Republicans were already on board and earning swing-state support as a result. Three months before the election, Obama fully endorsed the 2020 target for putting people on the moon. But that was a candidate talking and now he’s president-elect, and his choice of Garver as his transition adviser may say more than his past campaign rhetoric.

There is an implication here that in addition to the fact that she’s not technical, she has no interest in manned space. Otherwise (since obviously the evil Obama wants to kill this program, despite the fact that his views evolved to support it during the campaign), why put her in place? But to anyone who knows her, like her or not, that is lunacy. Let’s let Al Fansome do the heavy lifting in her support, in comments over at Space Politics in response to one of our favorite clueless space commentators:

WHITTINGTON: Or, cancelling VSE entirely, which is what I suspect she has in mind

Mark,

You like to talk like you know space policy, but you obviously don’t know anything about Lori Garver. You have been around for many years, but sometimes you are just a dunce.

I will prove it.

Lori has been a big supporter of the VSE.

On the day that the VSE was announced Lori was on television promoting the VSE. Check out the Lehrer News Hour on January 14, 2004 where she debate Bob Parks.

Relevant excerpts below.

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/science/jan-june04/moon_01-14.html

LORI GARVER: I’m very enthused about the initiative. This is what we should be doing with our space program. The reason Mars is exciting when spirit land on it is because we believe we’re going further. The space program is about so much more than science. I absolutely agree, we’ve been a great space science through the robotic program. But it is because we’re going as a species that I think the public really can relate to this, and ultimately what has caused us a tremendous benefit.

and

LORI GARVER: … But again, it’s that inspiration that calls us to space, and by that it’s not going to be just robots.

and

LORI GARVER: I want my kids to have somebody who is more interesting to them. The first woman who goes to the moon — we’ve never sent any women to the moon — it’s got to be more interesting than whether or not Britney Spears got married this weekend.

and

LORI GARVER: To me, it’s definitely more than magic. I believe as humanity, as a species, we are going into space. We have explored this planet, we will continue to explore this planet and, for our very survival, we must also leave this planet. Ultimately, a lunar base as the president announced today is going to help us build new things, like a solar-powered satellite using lunar materials. That will potentially end our dependence on fossil fuels on this planet.

You, and everybody else who is maligning her intentions, owe Lori an apology.

Now, in fairness to Mark, he may have confused VSE with ESAS/Constellation. He has never been able to understand the difference between the two. But the notion that Lori and Alan Ladwig, and George Whitesides, have an agenda to “cancel VSE” or end plans to return to the moon, is ludicrous.

Anyway, Kluger seems to be similarly unaware of her actual history, instead implying that she is just a soccer mom in space. And if he were really aware of the history, he wouldn’t have let the statement about Mike Griffin thinking EELVs are unsafe go unchallenged, and simply act as a stenographer for Shank (or whoever told him that). In fact, he would have challenged whichever NASA/Griffin defender told him that to explain what had happened in the past few years to change Dr. Griffin’s mind, because in 2003, he had a very different idea:

Griffin has made it clear that he is not opposed to using EELV vehicles effectively unmodified from their current versions to launch crewed vehicles. In a May 2003 hearing by the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee on NASA’s Orbital Space Plane (OSP) program—a short-lived effort to develop a manned spacecraft that was superseded by the CEV—Griffin noted that the term “man rating” dated back to efforts in the 1950s and 1960s to modify ICBMs to carry capsules. “This involved a number of factors such as pogo suppression, structural stiffening, and other details not particularly germane to today’s expendable vehicles. The concept of ‘man rating’ in this sense is, I believe, no longer very relevant.”

He argued that EELVs and other expendable vehicles are already called upon to launch high-value unmanned payloads. “What, precisely, are the precautions that we would take to safeguard a human crew that we would deliberately omit when launching, say, a billion-dollar Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission?” he asked. “The answer is, of course, ‘none’. While we appropriately value human life very highly, the investment we make in most unmanned missions is quite sufficient to capture our full attention.”

The Atlas 5 and Delta 4 EELVs, he noted, have a specified design reliability of 98 percent, in line with experience with the premier expendable vehicles to date. If such a vehicle was used to launch a crewed spacecraft equipped with an escape system of just 90 percent reliability, he noted, the combined system would have a 1-in-500 chance of a fatal accident, “substantially better than for the Shuttle.”

So what happened in the interim to turn them into death traps?

If Kluger really wanted to provide a service to Time/CNN’s readers, he’d get out and do some real reporting, and get some dissenting opinions, instead of simply providing Mike Griffin’s NASA with a widely read forum for its propaganda. He would also come up with a slightly more sophisticated space policy template than “With Constellation, the moon, without Constellation, nothing.”

[Update a few minutes later]

Paul Spudis (who was on the Aldridge Commission) has related thoughts:

Many people have conflated the Vision with NASA’s implementation of it, but they are two very different things. Project Constellation is the architecture that NASA has chosen to implement the VSE. In its essentials, Constellation is a launch system, a spacecraft, and a mission design. NASA chose to develop a new series of launch vehicles, the Ares I and V rockets, the Orion crew “capsule” (formerly called the CEV), and a craft designed to land on the Moon, the Altair lunar lander. The mission design is to launch the crew in the Orion capsule on an Ares I into low Earth orbit, launch the Altair lander and rocket departure stage separately on the Ares V, rendezvous and dock with the lander and depart for Earth orbit to the Moon. The crew would land and explore the Moon from the Altair spacecraft, return to the Orion in lunar orbit, and return to Earth in that vehicle.

Much of the criticism of NASA in recent years is actually criticism of this architectural plan, not necessarily of the goals of the Vision (although some have questioned it). But this architecture is an implementation of the VSE; it is not the VSE itself. The Vision specified long-range goals and objectives, not the means to attain them. To briefly review, we are going to the Moon to learn the skills and develop the technologies needed to live and work productively on other worlds. And there are many ways to skin that cat.

Yes. That’s apparently too complicated a concept for many (including many journalists) to understand.

“Hitler’s Last Days In The Bunker”

Hey, I think that it’s time (long past time) for Mike Griffin to go, but I think that characterization of his behavior in comments at this story is a little over the top. I mean, I don’t expect him to eat the muzzle after his wife takes poison. Though he does seem determined to burn the entire NASA budget to the ground rather than have it turned to some purpose that would actually open up space for the American people…

That said, the title of Bobby Block’s piece is a little understated. If his reporting is accurate (and we have no reason from past behavior of Dr. Griffin or others described to think not) he is being much more than a “transition problem” for the incoming president. This in itself, I think, speaks volumes about Mike and the NASA culture:

Those who spoke for this article, including a member and staff in Congress, NASA employees, aerospace executives and consultants, spoke only on condition that their names not be used…

…The Bush White House has pledged cooperation, and many agency leaders have told staff to cooperate fully. Griffin himself sent a memo urging employees “to answer questions promptly, openly and accurately.”

At the same time, he made clear he expected NASA employees to stay on message.

For example, transition-team interviews have been monitored by NASA officials “taking copious notes,” according to congressional and space-community sources. Employees who met with the team were told to tell their managers about the interview.

The desperation strong-arm tactics being used here are unsurprising, but are also not in keeping with an agency supposedly responsible to public accountability and the taxpayers. As anyone who has been reading this blog for long knows, I was not (to understate) a huge supporter of Senator Obama as a presidential candidate. But on the issue of space, I was largely agnostic, because I had no reason to believe that Senator McCain would be any improvement, and I was certainly not a supporter of president Bush on the issue, other than the basic concept of the Vision for Space Exploration (and a few bright spots, like White House support for COTS in the face of high-level NASA indifference). In this case, because I personally know some of the people on the space transition team, while I have had some policy differences with them over the years, I think that, relative to the current NASA administration, they are on the side of the angels. So I was gratified to read this:

…this week, Garver told a meeting of aerospace representatives in Washington that “there will be change” to NASA policy and hinted that Obama would name a new administrator soon, according to participants.

At this point, and particularly after reading this, it can’t happen soon enough for me. Here’s the real problem:

The tensions are due to the fact that NASA’s human space flight program is facing its biggest crossroads since the end of the Apollo era in the 1970s. The space shuttle is scheduled to be retired in 2010, and the next-generation Constellation rockets won’t fly before 2015.

Nearly four years ago, President Bush brought in Griffin to implement a plan to return astronauts to the moon by 2020 as a prelude to going to Mars. Griffin and his team selected Constellation, with its NASA-designed Ares I rocket and Orion capsule, as cheaper and safer than existing rockets. Constellation – especially Ares 1 — is the center of what Griffin sees as his legacy to return humans to the frontiers of space.

He wants to “return humans to the frontiers of space,” but he is perfectly happy to put forth a plan that ensures that it will only be a few humans (government employees) a couple times a year, for many billions per trip. Talk about Apollo on steroids.

It’s the Apollo budget on steroids as well, which is why Apollo was unsustainable financially. This is only one area in which he completely ignored, or even thumbed his nose at, the Aldridge Commission. As I recommended to the transition team, go read the report, and reflect on how much Mike Griffin’s NASA has deviated from its recommendations, and completely blown off the work of the contractors who worked to present options that would have been in keeping with it.

Unfortunately, due to the jobs issue and politics, it’s possible that this disastrous architecture will continue. But if it does, fortunately, it is pretty clear (though little consolation) that it will do so under new “leadership.”

[Thursday morning update]

In another dispatch from Bizarro World, in yet another display of his magnificent superhuman powers in miscomprehension of plain English, Mark Whittington writes that I (as opposed to the commenter at Bobby Block’s site, who I quoted in the post title) am comparing Mike Griffin to Hitler. He also demonstrates that he has no idea what Godwin’s Law is, if he thinks that I “violated” it.

Well, I guess it’s technically true if, by “comparing,” one means pointing out that he is not. I’ll “compare” Mark to Hitler similarly. Unfortunately, I’m less able to “compare” him in the same manner to Bozo the Clown.

[A few minutes later]

A funny (in a sad way) comment over at NASA Watch (I have a couple comments over there as well for Apollo worshipers):

Remembering that Mike Griffin explained his Orion/Ares system as ‘Apollo on Steroids’, and with what we know about steroid use, Mr. Griffin running off the rails like this [2 1/2 year old project two years behind? Don't you trust what I'm telling you?] can simply be explained as the reaction of his body to heavy steroid use.

Verbally combative, liver damage, shrunken testicles. We’ll get back to you about the latter two effects.

I’ve heard it’s a tough habit to kick.

[Update about lunchtime]

Mark now updates, hilariously and delusionally, to fantasize that “my rage knows no bounds.” Only he would confuse amusement with “rage.”

[Update mid afternoon]

Dr. Griffin claims to be “appalled” at the Orlando Sentinel report. I think that, like people who when they apologize are really only sorry they got caught, he is appalled by the fact that his actions have been reported. I don’t see any denials of the specifics in his protest.

[Evening update (late evening on the east coast -- I'm in LA)]

There’s a good discussion in comments on this topic over at Space Politics. “Anonymous.Space” has good commentary as usual, but this is a key point, I think:

…it’s the transition team’s job to ask questions, and Griffin should understand that and know better than to launch unprovoked, petulant attacks on them in a public setting. He, and more importantly NASA, need the transition team on NASA’s side. Griffin should be thankful that the NASA transition team is wholly composed of NASA boosters (most agencies are not so lucky), and work with the team in a transparent manner to develop the best possible set of materials and options for the new Administration. If Griffin is incapable of doing that, whatever the reason, then he should resign immediately. It doesn’t do Constellation, or NASA at large, any favors to have its Administrator engage in such uselessly childish behavior in view of the public eye, the new Administration, and the incoming Congress.

Considering that it was a Democratic administration coming in, this really is the best possible team that he could have expected. In fact, it’s pretty good even in an absolute sense, given their sympathy to both space settlement and NewSpace, which of course could be one of Mike’s problems with them. It’s quite likely that a McCain transition team would be much worse. I never heard any real signs of promise in McCain space policy during the campaign other than that Steidle was one of his advisors. There’s certainly nothing in McCain’s history to indicate that he would do anything interesting in space. It just happens that a lot (though by no means all) of the most devoted space activists are Democrats. Let’s hope they can make more happen this time than they did in the Clinton administration.

[Bumped]

How To Implement Prop Depots?

With the (at least hoped for) imminent departure of Mike Griffin, there may be opportunities for more sensible approaches to carrying out plans to expand humanity into the solar system. One of the key elements will be propellant depots, and Jon Goff has some policy thoughts on how to (and how not to) make them happen. They echo some thoughts that I presented at Space Access on his panel on the subject in March, but he’s expanded on them quite a bit.

The NASAverse

Clark Lindsey has some thoughts on two parallel universes, in which one has orders of magnitude higher costs than the other. As he notes, I too hope that the new administration will reside in the one with the low costs, but if it does, it will be fought tooth and nail by legislators to whom jobs are more important than either taxpayers’ money or progress in space.

[Update a while later]

I see that, amusingly, Mark Whittington is foolishly attempting to lecture his intellectual betters on matters that he doesn’t understand:

If the sole purpose of Ares/Orion was just to get people into low Earth orbit, Clark would certainly have a valid point. But the purpose of Ares/Orion is to get people into Low Earth Orbit in a vehicle (Orion) designed to go to the Moon. Dragon doesn’t have to go to the Moon. (Of course, imagining a Dragon that could do that, with the extra radiation shielding, the extra consumables, and so on would be an interesting thought experiment. Could a Falcon 9 Heavy still loft such a vehicle?).

There is vastly insufficient difference between a vehicle that goes to the moon and one that goes to LEO to justify the cost difference between Orion and Dragon. A lunar mission requires a) additional radiation shielding, b) twice the thickness of the entry heat shield and c) extra consumables (two of which he points out). That doesn’t translate into orders of magnitude in cost difference by any sane cost model. As for “lofting” it, it doesn’t need to be lofted in a single flight. Once you break out of the notion that you have to do everything in a single launch, it becomes easy to build both a spacious crew capsule, and a service module with abundant consumables. But Elon’s BFR follow on would even be able to “loft” it in one go, and I’d be willing to bet that he could get there on a billion dollars or less, extrapolating costs from Falcon 1 and 9 development. Again, this could be done at much less cost (both development and operational) than is currently planned for the Orion/Ares combination. What part of already spent ten billion on Ares without its even having passed a legitimate PDR, while Elon has only spent a small fraction of a billion does Mark not understand?

This is pork, not progress.

[Late afternoon update]

Now Mark says I (in addition to fantasizing that I claimed to be his intellectual better) that breaking up CM and SM would require three launches “in a short time.” No. They would require two launches, one for each system element, and one or many launches for propellant, but none of which, other than the CM launch, would have to occur in “a short time.” Propellant could be stored on orbit for an indefinitely long time with proper depot design, and there is nothing intrinsically in an SM that couldn’t allow weeks or months of on-orbit LEO storage.

I don’t know where this myth comes from. People who want to justify tens of billions for a heavy lifter, I guess.

It’s A Start

We’re finally starting to take the asteroid threat seriously enough to start dedicating new telescopes to looking for them. A hundred million dollars seems like a pretty cheap insurance policy against another Tunguska or worse, in a populated area.

Unfortunately, we’re not developing the kind of spacefaring capability we need to do something about it if we see one coming. This is one kind of change that I’d be happy to see with the incoming administration. But it remains to be seen what space policy will come out of the process.

“Whistling Past The Graveyard”

Like Thomas James, that’s exactly what I thought when I read the comments by (former astronaut, now ATK VP) Charlie Precourt in this piece by Brian Berger on the space transition team questions:

Executives at Alliant Techsystems (ATK), the Edina, Minn.-based prime contractor for the Ares 1 main stage, told Space News Nov. 25 they were not alarmed by the questions the transition team is asking about Ares and the Constellation program, which encompasses not only the shuttle replacement but also hardware NASA would need to land astronauts on the Moon. “They are doing due diligence,” said Charlie Precourt, ATK’s vice president of NASA space launch systems. “If you are the incoming steward of all federal agencies you are going to ask a spectrum of questions like this.”

Precourt said he was confident the transition team ultimately would reach the same conclusion as NASA, namely that Ares offers the best combination of cost, safety, reliability and performance, and that staying the course is the best way to minimize the gap between the shuttle and its replacement.

Of course he is. What else is he going to say?

But here’s what really drives me crazy about the reporting here. The headline on Berger’s story pretty accurately describes it, but when it was republished by Fox News, their copy editor picked up on the last phrase in that graf to rewrite it as “Obama May Cancel Shuttle Replacement.”

Sigh…

This kind of thinking is extremely misleading, and confuses, rather than enlightens policy discussion. It implies that we are going to continue along the path that we’ve followed for the past half century, and that NASA will develop and operate its own monolithic launch system for its own purposes, largely disconnected from the needs and aspirations of the rest of the space community and the public.

Beyond that, what does it even mean to “replace” the Shuttle, particularly with Ares 1/Orion? What is it that is being replaced, functionally?

The ability to deliver twenty tons to ISS? No.

The ability to return thousands of pounds from orbit? No.

The ability to launch seven (or more) crew to LEO, and perform research there for up to two weeks, and return the results? No.

The ability to provide a lifeboat for the ISS? Definitely no, since Shuttle doesn’t even have that capability (something that people urging the program extension seem to continually forget). Even if we continue the Shuttle program (with all the cost and risk) until that halcyon day that we have the “replacement,” we will continue to be reliant on the Russians for Soyuz, at least until something else can replace it, such as the SpaceX Dragon.

We have to break out of the mindset of referencing space policy to the “Shuttle.” A little over six years ago, when I was writing for Fox News myself, I wrote a piece on this theme, titled “A Shuttle By Any Other Name.” As I wrote then:

The original idea of SLI, started in the wake of the disastrous X-33 program, was that NASA would take the lead in developing technology for “next-generation” launch systems. This was code word for new reusable space transportation systems.

More importantly, hijacked by various factions at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, and the Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, it was really a plan to build a replacement for the current space shuttle, to be developed and operated by NASA, and thus preserve the current empires and fiefdoms that make the present space shuttle so costly and inefficient, and ensuring a continued costly monopoly of manned space by the agency for decades to come.

This agenda is revealed by the wording in popular accounts of the program’s purpose, in which the definite article is generally used to describe the desired outcome.

“The next-generation vehicle.”

“The ‘shuttle II'”

“The shuttle replacement.”

Note the implicit assumption — there will be a replacement for the current shuttle and it will be a replacement, not replacements (plural).

In the space community, the question is often asked, “What will the next shuttle look like?” Popular articles about space similarly speculate on the nature of the “next shuttle.” The question is often asked “can we get a shuttle to the moon?” (The answer is no).

Clearly, “shuttle” has become synonymous in the minds of many in the public with space vehicle.

In his great work, The Analects, the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucious wrote that if he was ever asked for wisdom by the government, the first thing he would tell them was that, before he could provide such advice, a rectification of names would be required.

“If names are not rectified, then language will not be in accord with truth. If language is not in accord with truth, then things cannot be accomplished.”

It would be well for the government in general, and NASA in particular, to heed this admonition.

As a humble beginning to such a rectification of names, I hereby propose that we purge the word “shuttle” from our national space vocabulary. As applied to space vehicles, it is a word from a different era. It was an era still in the Cold War, when few could imagine a space program without NASA in charge, when few could imagine free enterprise offering rides into space. It became a symbol of a national space program, one size fits all — a vehicle that could build space stations, resupply space stations, and indeed (as a fallback position, in case the funding didn’t come through for space stations in the future) be a space station itself.

Shuttle was dramatically overspecified. Its payload capacity was too large. Its ability to change direction on entry (called cross range), which made its wings much larger than otherwise needed, was dictated not by NASA’s requirements, but by the Department of Defense, whose blessing was necessary for program approval. It wasn’t just a truck, but a Winnebago, capable of acting as a space hotel and science lab as well as a delivery system. These, among other reasons, are why it is so expensive, and such a policy failure.

Yes, while shuttle is a magnificent technical achievement, it truly is a catastrophic policy failure — a failure made almost tangible, in half-billion-dollar increments each time it flies, a few times a year.

And the failure is not in its design — it is in its requirements, its very philosophy, the very notion that a single system can be all things to all people, or even all things to all parts of our space agency. Anything that replaces the shuttle, in terms of those requirements, will suffer from the same flaws and failures.

We don’t need a replacement for the shuttle.

We need a space transportation industry.

It should be like our air transportation industry, or our ground transportation industry, competitive and flexible, to meet the needs of individuals and large corporations, and it should be based on the principles of a market economy — not the wish list of government bureaucrats.

We don’t have a “national airplane.” We don’t have a “national truck,” or a “national bus.” We have a variety of vehicles, tailored to a variety of markets at variety of prices for different customers and desires.

Three decades ago, with hope in our hearts, fresh from our lunar success, we initiated the first space shuttle program. If we wish a vibrant future in space, one in which thousands of people will venture off the planet in pursuit of their dreams, we should hope, even more, that it’s also our last.

Note that this was written about three months before the loss of Columbia.

Let’s hope that this time, with the “change” afoot in Washington, we can (finally) make better policy decisions, free from the blinkered thinking of the past.

Eating Our Seed Corn

Jon Goff has some thoughts on the need for NASA to get back into the R&T business. And they remind me of my piece from last summer about the need for an orbital infrastructure, much of which will require that kind of technology investment. I hope, based on some conversations with transition people, that this issue will be addressed in the new administration.

Change I Can Believe In

It’s looking like Gates is going to stay at the Pentagon. I think that’s good news from a space perspective, because I’ve heard that he’s been trying to light a fire under the Operationally Responsive Space folks. It would be a shame to replace him with an unknown in that regard. There should (at least in theory) be a lot of synergy between military and civil space transport needs, in both orbital and suborbital. I hope that the new administration will be able to do better coordination on that than the Bush administration did.

Advice From Across The Pond

Rob Coppinger has some suggestions to the Obama administration for NASA policy. I agree that Ares I should be mercy killed ASAP, but I disagree that we need an Ares anything else. We need to stop focusing on heavy lift and start developing the capability to store propellant on orbit, which will allow us to launch escape missions of arbitrarily large mass.

Some Brief Space Policy Advice To The Obama Team

Which in fact I’ll probably be offering in the next days and weeks, since I actually know several of them quite well.

If you want to know how to get the VSE back on track, you could do a lot worse than to simply go back and reread the Aldridge Commission Report. Mike Griffin doesn’t seem to have done so, or if he did, he largely ignored its recommendations, with the one exception being developing a heavy lifter (which was the one main thing that the commission got wrong).

A Vision, Not A Destination

With a new administration coming in, there’s a lot of speculation about potential shifts in civil space policy, ranging from whether or not Mike Griffin will stay on as administrator, and if so, who will replace him, to whether or not we have the right architecture to achieve the outgoing president’s Vision for Space Exploration, or even whether the VSE itself is still valid. Yesterday, the Planetary Society seemed to convert itself to the Mars Society, with its statement that we should bypass the moon, so now we can’t even decide what the goal is.

I’m having a sense of deja vu, because we’re rerunning the debate we have every few years over space policy, and as always, we are arguing from a set of assumptions that are assumed to be shared, but in many cases are not. I find that the longer I blog, the harder it is for me to come up with new things to say, particularly about space policy. Almost five years ago (jeez, how the time flies–was it really that long ago that we celebrated the Wright Centenary?), I wrote a piece in frustration on this subject. Sadly, nothing has really changed. A vision isn’t a destination. I’ll replay the golden oldie, because I think that it might be useful to guide the current debate, assuming anyone of consequence reads it.

Jason Bates has an article on the current state of space policy development. As usual, it shows a space policy establishment mired in old Cold-War myths, blinkered in its view of the possibilities.

NASA needs a vision that includes a specific destination. That much a panel of space advocates who gathered in Washington today to celebrate the 100th anniversary of powered flight could agree on. There is less consensus about what that destination should be.

Well, if I’d been on that panel, the agreement would have been less than unanimous. I agree that NASA needs a vision, but I think that the focus on destination is distracting us from developing one, if for no other reason than it’s probably not going to be possible to get agreement on it.

As the article clearly shows, some, like Paul Spudis, think we should go back to the moon, and others, like Bub Zubrin, will settle for no less than Mars, and consider our sister orb a useless distraction from the true (in his mind) goal. We are never going to resolve this fundamental, irreconciliable difference, as long as the argument is about destinations.

In addition, we need to change the language in which we discuss such things. Dr. Spudis is quoted as saying:

“For the first time in the agency’s history there is no new human spaceflight mission in the pipeline. There is nothing beyond” the international space station.”

Fred Singer of NOAA says:

The effort will prepare humans for more ambitious missions in the future, Singer said. “We need an overarching goal,” he said. “We need something with unique science content, not a publicity stunt.”

Gary Martin, NASA’s space architect declares:

NASA’s new strategy would use Mars, for example, as the first step to future missions rather than as a destination in itself, Martin said. Robotic explorers will be trailblazers that can lay the groundwork for deeper space exploration, he said.

“…human spaceflight mission…”

“…unique science…”

“…space exploration…”

This is the language of yesteryear. This debate could have occurred, and in fact did occur, in the early 1970s, as Apollo wound down. There’s nothing new here, and no reason to think that the output from it will result in affordable or sustainable space activities.

They say that we need a vision with a destination, but it’s clear from this window into the process that, to them, the destination is the vision. It’s not about why are we doing it (that’s taken as a given–for “science” and “exploration”), nor is it about how we’re doing it (e.g., giving NASA multi-gigabucks for a “mission” versus putting incentives into place for other agencies or private entities to do whatever “it” is)–it’s all seemingly about the narrow topic of where we’ll send NASA next with our billions of taxpayer dollars, as the scientists gather data while we sit at home and watch on teevee.

On the other hand, unlike the people quoted in the article, the science writer Timothy Ferris is starting to get it, as is Sir Martin Rees, the British Astronomer Royal, though both individuals are motivated foremost by space science.

At first glance, the Ferris op-ed seems just another plea for a return to the moon, but it goes beyond “missions” and science, and discusses the possibility of practical returns from such a venture. Moreover, this little paragraph indicates a little more “vision,” than the one from the usual suspects above:

As such sugarplum visions of potential profits suggest, the long-term success of a lunar habitation will depend on the involvement of private enterprise, or what Harrison H. Schmitt, an Apollo astronaut, calls “a business-and-investor-based approach to a return to the Moon to stay.” The important thing about involving entrepreneurs and oil-rig-grade roughnecks is that they can take personal and financial risks that are unacceptable, as a matter of national pride, when all the explorers are astronauts wearing national flags on their sleeves.

One reason aviation progressed so rapidly, going from the Wright brothers to supersonic jets in only 44 years, is that individuals got involved ? it wasn’t just governments. Charles A. Lindbergh didn’t risk his neck in 1927 purely for personal gratification: he was after the $25,000 Orteig Prize, offered by Raymond Orteig, a New York hotelier, for the first nonstop flight between New York and Paris. Had Lindbergh failed, his demise, though tragic, would have been viewed as a daredevil’s acknowledged jeopardy, not a national catastrophe. Settling the Moon or Mars may at times mean taking greater risks than the 2 percent fatality rate that shuttle astronauts now face.

Sir Martin’s comments are similar:

The American public’s reaction to the shuttle’s safety record – two disasters in 113 flights – suggests that it is unacceptable for tax-funded projects to expose civilians even to a 2% risk. The first explorers venturing towards Mars would confront, and would surely willingly accept, far higher risks than this. But they will never get the chance to go until costs come down to the level when the enterprise could be bankrolled by private consortia.

Future expeditions to the moon and beyond will only be politically and financially feasible if they are cut-price ventures, spearheaded by individuals who accept that they may never return. The Columbia disaster should motivate Nasa to set new goals for manned space flight – to collaborate with private groups to develop a more cost-effective and inspiring programme than we’ve had for the past 30 years.

Yes, somehow we’ve got to break out of this national mentality that the loss of astronauts is always unacceptable, or we’ll never make any progress in space. The handwringing and inappropriate mourning of the Columbia astronauts, almost eleven months ago, showed that the nation hasn’t yet grown up when it comes to space. Had we taken such an attitude with aviation, or seafaring, we wouldn’t have an aviation industry today, and in fact, we’d not even have settled the Americas. To venture is to risk, and the first step of a new vision for our nation is the acceptance of that fact. But I think that Mr. Ferris is right–it won’t be possible as long as we continue to send national astronauts on a voyeuristic program of “exploration”–it will have to await the emergence of the private sector, and I don’t see anything in the “vision” discussions that either recognizes this, or is developing policy to help enable and implement it.

There’s really only one way to resolve this disparity of visions, and that’s to come up with a vision that can encompass all of them, and more, because the people who are interested in uses of space beside and beyond “science,” and “exploration,” and “missions,” are apparently still being forced to sit on the sidelines, at least to judge by the Space.com article.

Here’s my vision.

I have a vision of hundreds of flights of privately-operated vehicles going to and from low earth orbit every year, reducing the costs of doing so to tens of dollars per pound. Much of their cargo is people who are visiting orbital resorts, or even cruise ships around the moon, but the important things is that it will be people paying to deliver cargo, or themselves, to space, for their own purposes, regardless of what NASA’s “vision” is.

At that price, the Mars Society can raise the money (perhaps jointly with the National Geographic Society and the Planetary Society) to send their own expedition off to Mars. Dr. Spudis and others of like mind can raise the funds to establish lunar bases, or even hotels, and start to learn how to operate there and start tapping its resources. Still others may decide to go off and visit an asteroid, perhaps even take a contract from the government to divert its path, should it be a dangerous one for earthly inhabitants.

My vision for space is a vast array of people doing things there, for a variety of reasons far beyond science and “exploration.” The barrier to this is the cost of access, and the barrier to bringing down the cost of access is not, despite pronouncements to the contrary by government officials, a lack of technology. It’s a lack of activity. When we come up with a space policy that addresses that, I’ll consider it visionary. Until then, it’s just more of the same myopia that got us into the current mess, and sending a few astronauts off to the Moon, or Mars, for billions of dollars, isn’t going to get us out of it any more than does three astronauts circling the earth in a multi-decabillion space station.

There’s no lack of destinations. What we continue to lack is true vision.

All that is old is new again.

A Frightening Thought

George Abbey as NASA administrator? If that were to happen, it would be one of the worst effects of the Obama win, at least for those who care about our future in space.

[Update early afternoon]

Here was my take on the Abbey/Lane paper at the time it was first published, over three years ago:

I’m reading the space policy paper by (former JSC Director George) Abbey and (former Clinton Science Advisor Neal) Lane.

It gets off on the wrong foot, in my opinion, right in the preface:

Space exploration on the scale envisioned in the president’s plan is by necessity a cooperative international venture.

I know that this is an article of faith with many, but simply stating it doesn’t make it an incontrovertible fact. In reality, this is a political decision. If it became important to the nation to become spacefaring, and seriously move out into space, there’s no reason that we couldn’t afford to do it ourselves. The amount of money that we spend on space is a trivially small part of the discretionary budget, and even smaller part of the total federal budget, and a drop in the bucket when looking at the GDP. Even ignoring the fact that we could be getting much more for our money if relieved of political constraints, we could easily double the current budget.

The statement also ignores the fact that international cooperation in fact tends to increase costs, and there’s little good evidence that it even saves money. It’s something that we tend to do simply for the sake of international cooperation, and we actually pay a price for it.

Neither the president’s plan nor the prevailing thrust of existing U.S. space policies encourages the type of international partnerships that are needed. Indeed there is much about U.S. space policy and plans–particularly those pertaining to the possible deployment of weapons in space–that even our closest allies find objectionable.

While I don’t favor doing things just because other countries find them objectionable (with the exception of France), this issue should not be driving our space policy, as I pointed out almost exactly three years ago. What the authors think is a bug, I consider a feature.

In the introduction itself, I found this an interesting misdiagnosis:

In January 2004, President George W. Bush announced a plan
to return humans to the Moon by 2020, suggesting that this time U.S. astronauts
would make the journey as a part of an international partnership.
However, the recent history of the U.S. space program–the tragic Columbia
accident, a squeezing of the NASA budget over many years, the cancellation
of the Hubble Space Telescope upgrade mission, a go-it-alone approach to
space activities, the near demise of the U.S. satellite industry due to U.S. policy
on export controls, and international concern about U.S. intentions
regarding the military use of space–points to serious obstacles that stand in
the way of moving forward.

Again, they state this as though it was obviously true (and perhaps it is, to them). But they don’t actually explain how any of these things present obstacles to returning to the moon. The loss of Columbia was actually, despite the tragedy to the friends and families of the lost astronauts, a blessing, to the degree that it forced the nation to take a realistic reassessment of the Shuttle program. We aren’t going to use Shuttle to go back to the moon, so how can they argue that its loss is an obstacle to that goal?

Similarly, how does squeezing of past NASA budgets prevent future intelligent spending in furtherance of the president’s goal? While lamentable if it doesn’t occur, repairing Hubble was not going to make any contribution to the Vision for Space Exploration. And while the state of the satellite industry is troubling, again, there’s no direct connection between this and human exploration. I’ve already dealt with the spuriousness of the complaints about international cooperation. In short, this statement is simply a lot of unsubstantiated air, but it probably sounds good to policy makers who haven’t given it much thought.

They sum it up here:

U.S. policy makers must confront four looming barriers that threaten continued U.S. leadership in space: export regulations that stifle the growth of the commercial space industry, the projected shortfall in the U.S. science and engineering workforce, inadequate planning for robust scientific advancement in NASA, and an erosion of international cooperation in space.

There are some barriers to carrying out the president’s vision, but so far, with the exception of the export-control issue, these aren’t them, and they don’t seem to have identified any of the other actual ones.

From there, they go on to give a brief history of the space program, with its supposed benefits to the nation. They then go on to laud the international nature of it. When I got to this sentence, I was struck by the irony:

The International Space Station best portrays the international character of space today.

If that’s true, it should be taken as a loud and clear warning that we should be running as far, and and as fast, from “international cooperation” as we possibly can.

The largest cooperative scientific and technological program in history, the space station draws on the resources and technical capabilities of nations around the world. It has brought the two Cold War adversaries together to work for a common cause, and arguably has done more to further understanding and cooperation between the two nations than many comparable programs.

What they don’t note is that it is years behind schedule, billions over budget, and still accomplishes little of value to actually advancing us in space, other than continuing to keep many people employed at Mr. Abbey’s former center, and other places. But, hey…it promotes international cooperation, so that’s all right. Right?

The piece goes on to describe the four “barriers,” of which only one (export control) really is. While it’s troubling that not as many native-born are getting advanced science and engineering degrees as there used to be, there will be no shortage of engineers, since the foreign born will more than pick up the slack. It’s perhaps a relevant public policy issue, but it’s not a “barrier” to our sending people back to the moon.

The most tendentious “barrier” is what the authors claim is inadequate planning and budgets for the vision:

President George W. Bush’s NASA Plan, which echoed that of President George H. W. Bush over a decade before, is bold by any measure. It is also incomplete and unrealistic. It is incomplete, in part, because it raises serious questions about the future commitment of the United States to astronomy and to planetary, earth, and space science. It is unrealistic from the perspectives of cost, timetable, and technological capability. It raises expectations that are not matched by the Administration’s commitments. Indeed, pursuit of the NASA Plan, as formulated, is likely to result in substantial harm to the U.S. space program.

Even if one buys their premise–that expectations don’t match commitments, that all depends on what means by the “U.S. space program,” doesn’t it? They seem (like many space policy analysts) to be hung up on science, as though that’s the raison d’être of the program. Leaving that aside, they (disingenuously, in my opinion) attempt to back up this statement:

The first part of the NASA Plan, as proposed, was to be funded by adding $1 billion to the NASA budget over five years, and reallocating $11 billion from within the NASA budget during the same time frame. These amounts were within the annual 5 percent increase the current Administration planned to add to the NASA base budget (approximately $15 billion) starting in fiscal year 2005. This budget, however, was very small in comparison to the cost of going to the Moon with the Apollo program. The cost of the Apollo program was approximately $25 billion in 1960 dollars or $125 billion in 2004 dollars, and the objectives of the NASA Plan are, in many ways, no less challenging.

This is a very misleading comparison, for two reasons.

First, as the president himself said, this is not a race, but a vision. Apollo was a race. Money was essentially no object, as long as we beat the Soviets to the moon. The vision will be budget constrained. NASA’s (and Mike Griffin’s) challenge is to accomplish those few milestones that were laid out in the president’s plan within those constraints. It will cost that much, and no more, by definition.

Second, simply stating that the goals of the plan are no less challenging than Apollo doesn’t make it so. While the goal of establishing a permanent lunar presence is more of a challenge, it’s not that much more of one, and we know much more about the moon now than we did in 1961, and we have much more technology in hand, and experience in development than we did then. In short, any comparison between what Apollo cost and what the vision will cost is utterly spurious. The only way to get an estimate for the latter is to define how it will be done, and then do parametric costing, using 21st-century cost-estimating relationships, on the systems so defined (a process which is occurring, and is one not informed in any way by Apollo budgets).

The U.S. Congress has made clear with its NASA appropriation for fiscal year 2005 that it has serious questions about the NASA Plan.

No surprise there. But that’s merely a reflection of specific items (i.e., pork for their districts) that were cut, and says nothing in particular about the overall ability of NASA to achieve the plan with the budget. In fact, an annual appropriation is just that–it provides no insight whatsoever into what Congress might think is required in the out years, when the real budgetary issues would emerge, if they do at all.

Overall, this section strikes me as less a serious policy discussion than a political slap at the administration, by one of the first high-level NASA officials to be canned by it, and by a disgruntled physicist (and science advisor from the previous administration) unhappy that science is not the be-all of the program.

I’ve glanced through the rest of the thing, but I think I’ve covered the major flaws in it already. What’s actually most notable to me is that they completely ignore the potential for private passenger flight, and commercial space in general (other than bemoaning the impact to the satellite industry of export restrictions). Given how badly they’ve misdiagnosed the problems, their prescriptions have little value. In terms of providing a basis for administration policy, my own recommendation is that it be simply filed away–in a circular receptacle.

I see little reason to revise that review today. George Abbey shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near space policy (though perhaps, at seventy six years of age, it’s not something that he wants, or could handle at this point). It certainly wouldn’t be change we can believe in. Or change at all.

Goodie

Senator Nelson is urging Barack Obama to keep Mike Griffin on:

“He called Lori Garver and said that until they had a surefire choice, they should continue with Griffin. And he thinks Griffin is doing a good job,” said Bryan Gulley, a Nelson spokesman. Gulley would not say who Nelson would support if or when Obama picks a new NASA administrator.

Well, obviously, you don’t want to leave the post vacant, or put in a loser. But it should be a high priority to find a good replacement for him, not to mention come up with a new policy (the two will no doubt go together). The Ares/Orion debacle is entirely Mike Griffin’s baby at this point. I know that if I were named the new administrator, I’d can Ares, ramp up COTS and COTS D, and get started on R&T, and then (not much later) RDT&E for a propellant depot, and let ULA, SpaceX and others worry about earth to orbit. With a prop depot, the weight margins on Orion and Altair become essentially unlimited, so I’d start designs over from there.

But for many reasons, I’m not going to be named administrator. I just hope that whoever is has their head screwed on right.

Oh, and I should also add (as I commented over at Bobby Block’s site) that people who should know better (like Senators who have actually flown in space) seem to continue to ignore the reality that extending Shuttle doesn’t give us independence from the Russians, because the Shuttle can’t act as an ISS lifeboat. All it does is cost billions more while putting crew at high risk. Until they get Dragon or Orion, or something else, we are going to have to continue buying Soyuz if we want to continue to have US astronauts at ISS.

[Saturday morning update]

There’s more discussion on this topic over at Space Politics.

An Absence

One of my ongoing themes is that space is not politically important. Apparently the incoming administration agrees. It isn’t mentioned anywhere at the transition web site. I poked around in “Technology,” “Energy and the Environment,” and couldn’t find anything about civil space, or NASA. The only discussion of space that I could find was under “Defense”:

Ensure Freedom of Space: An Obama-Biden administration will restore American leadership on space issues, seeking a worldwide ban on weapons that interfere with military and commercial satellites. He will thoroughly assess possible threats to U.S. space assets and the best options, military and diplomatic, for countering them, establishing contingency plans to ensure that U.S. forces can maintain or duplicate access to information from space assets and accelerating programs to harden U.S. satellites against attack.

A “worldwide ban on weapons that interfere with military and commercial satellites” would be unenforceable–it’s pie in the sky. And there’s no way to “harden U.S. satellites against attack” unless we come up with much lower costs to orbit. Does the new administration consider Operationally Responsive Space to be part of the solution? And will they take it seriously?

In any event, space policy in general seems to be a tabula rasa, other than campaign promises, so maybe there’s an opportunity to write some and get it added to the site.

Don’t Panic

That’s what Jeff Foust says to do about Oberstar.

I agree with everything Jeff wrote, except for the part about his likely interest in this issue. I’m pretty sure that he hasn’t forgotten it, even if he has given up on it for now on the Hill.

And as I noted in comments over there, I don’t think that it’s “panicking” to attempt to nip a problem in the bud. It’s a lot easier to put the kibosh on it now than it would be after he was formally selected and announced. Clark Lindsey seems to share my view.

I would also note that I didn’t mean to imply that I thought this meant anything at all about an Obama administration’s general attitude toward commercial space. I doubt if whoever is considering Oberstar is even aware of the issue.