Mike Griffin

…continues to defend the indefensible. Clark Lindsey has a response. Others have commented on this particularly bit of misleading the uninformed:

Griffin also suggested that the plan didn’t put much thought into the decision to defer a human return to the Moon in favor of a mission to a near Earth asteroid by 2025. The made that choice, he suggested, “apparently without realizing that the delta-V to get to almost all asteroids is higher than the delta-V to get to Mars” with similarly long travel times and limited launch windows. “In a number of ways reaching asteroids can be harder than reaching Mars.”

While I agree that it’s unlikely that much thought was put into the 2025 asteroid mission, this is disingenuous. No one said that we’re going to visit “almost all asteroids,” or even one in the main belt, so the velocity needed to get to “almost all asteroids” is irrelevant. All that really matters is the delta-V to get to the one that we choose, and there are many earth crossers with very low requirements.

On the subject of his comments about new technologies, I would expand on Clark’s critique. Mike says:

He was skeptical of the plan’s emphasis on “gamechanging” technologies to enable human space exploration. “Any time I develop a new technology I potentially change someone’s game,” he said. “Without a plan, I don’t know what game, I don’t know if it’s the game I ought to be changing, or if it’s a high-value game or a low-value game, but I’m going to change something, so it’s pretty easy to promise that I’ll do gamechanging technologies.”

He added that such technology development programs can be prime targets for future budget cuts, either by the Office of Management and Budget or in Congress. “The Congress surgically removes those programs and spreads the money to goals that they have in mind,” he claimed. “No congressman or senator ever gets credit for a technology program. Congressmen and senators get credit for projects.”

The first statement is simply gobbledygook (to be kind). It’s real simple, Mike. The plan is to explore the solar system with human beings. The current “game,” which you reinforced with Apollo on Steroids, deliberately eschewing the use of any new technology, is unaffordable and unsustainable, the complete opposite of what the Aldridge Commission recommended that the VSE must be. Any technology that dramatically reduces the development or operational cost, or increases the amount of activity that can be performed for a given cost, is a “game changer” and a high-value one. Deferring for now the development of heavy lifters and replacing them with propellant depots (as the Augustine panel members cited as a “game changer”) would be one example.

As for what congressmen or senators get “credit” for,” all he’s really saying is that unless it’s a big jobs program, it’s not politically sustainable. That is all the more reason to get the commercial people in the game as soon as possible, so that they can rely on things other than porcine motivations for continued space activity. And as the events of the past few months show, it’s clear that when the price per pound is astronomical, even pork can’t survive forever, even if it was accomplishing useful things toward the goal of opening up space, as Constellation was not. So given the choice between politically unsustainable hyperexpensive launchers and politically unsustainable useful new technologies, give me the technologies.

The Big DNA Letdown

Thoughts on the (so far) overhype of genetic sequencing.

I think that there are going to be huge breakthroughs in health and longevity, but our understanding of genetics is currently much too dismal for them to come from DNA analysis in the near term.

My understanding is that the DNA is a recipe, not a blueprint. And while even with a blueprint of a house, the final product is still dependent on the carpenter, it is at least specified. A recipe can have much more varied outcomes, depending on the cook, and the available resources and ingredients.

Remembering History And The Fallen

And passing on the memories to a younger generation:

It goes without saying that re-enactors take what they do very seriously. But the mistake is often made in assuming that it is all about dressing up and playing army and searching for that transcendent moment when the present falls away and the past is once again alive. Just as important to these re-enactors is the act of honoring the fallen, of making sure their sacrifices — often the supreme one — are never forgotten.

As I watched through the day, this same spirit seemed to imbue the Scouts with a similar sense of pride and purpose. These were Silicon Valley kids after all, their lives filled with Facebook and World of Warcraft, MTV, and SATs. Many have seen their parents lose jobs in the last couple years; and many will soon choose a lesser, cheaper college because their families can no longer afford the tuition. And more than one Scout couldn’t join us on this trip because of tight family budgets. And yet, as difficult as times are, marching in the heat in a scratchy wool uniform with a rifle on your shoulder put things into context for the boys. It could be much much worse. They could be dumped into a grave in Ball’s Bluff, or standing at the Angle, watching as canister blew to bits boys their age on the other side, and nervously awaiting the bayonets of Pickett’s and Pettigrew’s on-rushing howling divisions.

This reality hit us all, men and boys, most deeply when Captain Mullin’s wife Katie, in her long, traditional dress, delivered to each of us packages “from home”: hand-addressed packets of string-tied butcher paper bearing replicas of stamps of the era. Inside, in an extraordinary effort by the ladies of the 71st, we found, wrapped in wax paper, gifts of lye soap, dried fruit, peanuts, shortbread, handkerchiefs embroidered with our initials (and a medicinal bottle of whiskey for me, the colonel) and, most touching of all, hand-copied versions of real letters from home of the era. No instant messages, no emails, not even a cellphone call from home — in 1862 this might be all that a young soldier might hear from home in months.

I don’t think that either side of that war was fighting for universal health care, mortgage bailouts, or bloated public-employee pension plans.

SpaceX

OK, several people have asked, in off-topic comments and email, about this announcement by SpaceX from last week, and wondering why I haven’t noted it.

Two reasons: first, a lot of it is in a piece I wrote for Popular Mechanics last week, and expected to run last week, and I didn’t want to step on the story here. Second, I didn’t think it was that big a piece of news. There’s little here that hasn’t been known for years to people who have been following the company and Elon’s plans. All it does is flesh out numbers on the thrust of the Merlin 2 and payload for the BFR.

As for whether I think that it is a challenge to my ongoing jihad against heavy lift, well, maybe. As I told Max Vozoff at lunch the other week, I’m not opposed to heavy lift in principle — I just think that it is unnecessary at the present time, and that it will be ghastly expensive if done using NASA legacy hardware and work force (and perhaps even ULA-legacy hardware, too, though that will be somewhat more affordable). If Elon can make it work economically, then more power to him, but I expect him to do it on a fixed-price contract that has to fairly compete with solutions not requiring it. For instance, if he wants to bid for propellant delivery, and thinks that he can beat the price at the depot of other bidders, go for it. I just don’t want the taxpayer to subsidize the development of what I consider an unneeded vehicle.

Still Not Quite Getting It

The WaPo has an editorial today on space policy, that points out some of the flaws in the Congressional rocket design, but misses the mark in many ways, as others have point out:

Last year, the Augustine commission found that without an additional $3 billion in funding over the next several years, the Bush administration’s Constellation program for manned spaceflight and a return to the moon would be impossible.

I’m not sure what they mean by this, but it would seem to imply that it’s only three billion over several years (perhaps half a billion per year) when in fact it is an additional three billion per year. That is how much bigger Mike Griffin’s rocket appetite was than his budget.

It goes on:

…the new plan added a manned mission to asteroids and even a visit to Mars by 2025 without allocating more funds for that. This makes little sense.

Yes, it would make little sense if that was actually the plan, but contra the editors, there is no date associated with a Mars mission. It is simply the “eventual goal.”

Referring to the White House, Senate and House plans, they note:

All three plans for space have in common an unwillingness either to abandon the dream of human spaceflight or to confront the budget reality. But with the funding for NASA set around $19 billion and not likely to change, bold plans for humans in space are simply not feasible. Something must give. If the administration and Congress truly want human spaceflight, they need to fund it adequately. Piecemeal funding that dooms programs to failure is a waste of money — especially when so many truly vital space functions, from the satellites that supply maps and communications to the telescopes that allow us to glimpse distant worlds, could benefit from such support.

That’s true of both congressional plans, but not the White House plan. It may not have been articulated very well to date, but the administration plan is the only one that is responsive to the grim choices laid out by the Augustine panel last fall. Congress seems to ignore them completely, continuing to prefer pork over progress, and potemkin human spaceflight programs over real ones. There is, of course, nothing magic about $19B — certainly the Congress could increase it if it wants, it light of the explosion of budget in all other areas (NASA used to be almost one percent of the federal budget — this year, it’s about half of that, not because its budget was cut, but because the federal budget essentially doubled in the past year). But there is no need for more money, and if it were forthcoming, reviving Constellation in anything resembling its previous form would be a ghastly waste of it. Unfortunately, actual accomplishments in space remain unimportant to those who decide the funding for it.

Biting Commentary about Infinity…and Beyond!