Daniel Handlin has a critique of the new space policy, over at The Space Review today. Many, indeed most, of his concerns are valid, though I think that he overstates the concerns of safety and human rating. All of the plausible vehicles — Delta, Atlas, and even Falcon 9, are most of the way there already, and no major changes will be required to any of them, despite all the FUD thrown up by the Ares supporters over the past few years. The new policy isn’t just imperfect — it’s not even particularly good. But then, we’ve never had good space policy, in the entire history since Sputnik, from the standpoint of becoming spacefaring, so it doesn’t have to be very good to be the best we’ve ever had.
Those who have seen me defending it here for the past three months may have had the impression that I think it’s great, but that’s a consequence of a) the fact that whatever its flaws, it’s such a huge improvement over the previous plan that it looks great in comparison and b) the complaints about and attacks on it have been so ridiculously hyperbolic, nonsensical and over the top that any pushback against them is going to look like great praise. It’s sort of like the idiots who thought that I was a big George Bush fan, for no other reason than that I didn’t think that he went into Iraq to steal the oil, or try to get his daddy to love him.
So of course the policy can be improved upon. And the questions about HLV and Orion are valid, but don’t seem to recognize the politics underlying the decisions. This piece, like many space policy analyses, presumes that the goal of the policy is to actually accomplish things in space. And for some policy makers, of course, it is, but that will always be in conflict with the more salient goals — to feed the pork to the most politically connected interests.
The purpose of the (up to) five year delay is not to figure out the best HLV design, or to develop “new technology” for HLVs — as the piece points out, we’re not going to learn much about that. At best, we may develop a new engine to replace the Russian RD-180 used by the Atlas (though this is for national security issues — it certainly won’t save any money). The thing is, if we develop an HLV now, we know that it will be very expensive, because it will be based on Shuttle infrastructure, and if we know anything about Shuttle infrastructure, it is expensive to maintain and operate, even without the orbiter. I can’t know for sure, of course, but I assume that the point of the delay is to kick the HLV can down the road long enough for the policy establishment to finally figure out that we don’t need one to do serious exploration, and that in fact it would hold it back due to its high costs (as it has for decades). It would be nice to make this decision now, but there’s insufficient consensus for it, because too many continue to be members of the Apollo cargo cult. So a bone has to be thrown to Marshall, and a few billion wasted on HLV “technologies.”
With regard to the now-you-don’t-see-it-now-you-do Orion “lifeboat,” that was clearly a sop to Colorado, which (unlike Texas, Utah, or Alabama) the president still hopes to pick up in 2012. But a full restoration would have guaranteed unwillingness on the part of players like Boeing to risk their own money on a new capsule that might have to compete with the government-subsidized one by Lockheed Martin. Making it a lifeboat only was an attempt to alleviate this concern, but it’s probably not enough, because the hardest part of capsule design is entry, and it wouldn’t take much (including internal LM investment) to convert it back to a vehicle to carry crew to orbit (basically, all it would need is an abort system). The challenge is going to be how to fence off its requirements in such a way as to provide some confidence on the part of the other players that they won’t have to compete with it (and it may in the end not be possible to do so). I have some ideas on that, but they’re available only on a paying basis for anyone who wants to hire me as a consultant…
Anyway, yes, the policy could stand a lot of improvement (though it remains vastly superior to what came before it). The question is whether or not it’s possible to get anything better in the current political environment. And my biggest fear is that out of ignorance and kneejerk reaction to anything Obama, the incoming Republican House (and perhaps Senate) will bollix things up even worse.
[Update late morning]
I think he’s way off here:
In some sense, anyone can design a spacecraft on paper. But the decades of institutional memory, expert systems engineering experience, and management skills for large space projects that will be lost by dissolving NASA’s role in spacecraft development can never be recovered.
If such a thing ever existed at NASA in any useful form, it disappeared decades ago. Part of Mike Griffin’s justification for Ares was to recreate it. To the degree that such institutional memory exists, it’s more in the contractors than at NASA. The same contractors who are now going to be putting up crew on their launch systems.