The Fall Of NASA?

Jeff Foust has a review of Greg Klerkx’ new book, Lost In Space (the title of this post is a subtitle of the book). I read it right after it came out a few weeks ago, and have been meaning to review it myself, but Jeff has mostly done it for me. He’s right in that there are some errors in the book that detract somewhat from its credibility. Here was a list that I made as I went through it.

He says that “…at their most basic, tethers are analogous to the wire that runs from a wall socket to a lamp.”

Errr, no. At their most basic, space tethers are a line that connects one object to another in orbit. He’s talking about a special category of space tethers–electrodynamic tethers, and an uninformed reader might believe that these are the only kinds of tethers that exist, and that their only use is for converting orbital energy to electrical energy and vice versa, when in fact that’s only one application.

He repeats the myth that “Even the paper plans for building the Saturns were gathered up and destroyed.” Not true. Well, perhaps it may be literally true–the plans exist on microfiche, but the implication is that they are beyond our reach. What really no longer exists is the tooling (at least not all of it), which was expensive to preserve and warehouse for a program that was considered part of the past. Should we choose, we could resurrect the Saturn program. It wouldn’t be wise, four decades on, but we have the plans, and there was no conspiracy to burn the bridge over the Rubicon to Shuttle, once across.

He says that “…two congressmen have flown, with little rationale other than their political status…” on the Shuttle. It’s wrong no matter how you define “congressman.” Two Senators (Garn and Glenn) have flown, and one congressman (now senator)–Bill Nelson. This is a particular perplexing error, because it should have been caught by an editor–later in the book, in discussing Senator Glenn’s flight, he writes, “To [Alan] Ladwig, this was Garn and Nelson all over again.”

In describing the Kistler K-1 vehicle (a project that recently got a new lease on life with a couple hundred million NASA contract to purchase flight data), he writes that it “would be a lot cheaper to use than the shuttle…because it will not be piloted and therefore will not have need of the extensive ‘human rating’ requirements that NASA employs for the shuttle.”

Here, he’s bought into (or at least is implictly endorsing) two myths of spacecraft design.

The first is that pilots add cost to vehicles (including space vehicles). There’s actually no evidence for this, at least in any vehicle other than space vehicles. There’s actually good reason to believe that piloted vehicles, properly designed, could be cheaper than unpiloted ones–a proposition that the X-Prize and commercial suborbital developers will test in the coming months and years.

The second is that the shuttle is human rated. In fact, it is not, and never has been, by the standards that NASA has established as human rated. For instance, it doesn’t have “zero-zero” abort capability (that is, the ability to abort from the pad all the way to orbit, the zeros corresponding to the velocity and altitude of the starting condition). I’ve discussed both of these aspects extensively in the past.

He states that Columbia wasn’t able to reach the ISS orbit. In fact, it was–but its payload would have been much less than that of the other orbiters, so it was designated mostly for non-ISS missions. It was in fact scheduled to go to the ISS had it not been destroyed a year ago.

On page 224, he expresses concern about sending nuclear waste into space that indicates a lack of understanding of the issues–he’s a little too prone to buy the scare mongering of some people about this. I do think that it might be financially feasible, and safe, to store nuclear waste in space, but this won’t happen until we develop much more reliable vehicles than are available at present. I discussed this a couple years ago in an early Fox News column.

Greg also has a higher opinion of Bob Park’s opinions than I do.

Overall, I agree with Jeff’s assessment of the book. It’s an interesting read, and will provide a lot of background in terms of NASA versus the private sector, but as Jeff says, it’s a little schizophrenic, in that he can’t quite decide whether the agency is an evil monolith, or a bunch of warring fiefdoms. Ultimately, while descriptive, it’s not very prescriptive, or well organized. It’s more a compendium of interesting stories than a coherent narrative, and it seems to peter out at the end, with no clear conclusion.

The world still awaits the book that lays out clearly the problems with our space policy, and viable recommendations to address them. This isn’t that book. Perhaps mine, if I ever get around to finishing it, will be.