But some people can’t get over it:
The Flexible Path tries to satisfy everyone with a long laundry list of destinations, but it is more noteworthy for what it pushes back to the end of the line. The Program of Record (Vision for Space Exploration) has the objectives of manned landings on the Moon and Mars. The Flexible Path does the opposite—an anti-Vision—and tries to do everything except manned landings on the Moon and Mars. Lunar landings are replaced with lunar orbits, and Mars landings are replaced by Mars flybys and possibly Mars orbits. “Look but don’t touch” eliminates the servicing of surface equipment, in-situ resource utilization, and sample return for the Moon and Mars. Manned flights are two-way missions, so removing sample return is particularly short-sighted. The Augustine report includes part of a quotation from President Kennedy: “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…” If the Flexible Path had been around during Kennedy’s time, all the Apollo landing missions would have been cancelled.
I’m sorry that Mark Whittington’s stupid “Look but don’t touch” phrase seems to be picked up by more and more people, because it’s so misleading. Not doing the planetary surfaces first is not an “anti-vision.” It is simply a different vision, and much more practical one. I will say that “flexible path” is not my preferred plan — I would in fact go chase the lunar rainbows sooner than later, but it’s the best path of any of the proposed Augustine alternatives, because the methods that NASA has chosen for lunar return are simply unaffordable. And it doesn’t eliminate planetary excursions — it just puts them off until they do become more practical, and we’ve developed more deep-space experience. The commission continues to see human Mars landings as an eventual goal. But if you’re going to do that, it makes a hell of a lot more sense to me to go to Phobos or Deimos first, which requires much less earth-departure propellant, with the potential for getting more propellant from those bodies for expeditions down the gravity well.
And suppose that instead of the lunar goal, Apollo had in fact been about beating the Russians to an asteroid, or Phobos, in an unsustainable manner (as the lunar missions were performed)? How would we be any worse off today? In neither case would it have been about opening up space.
The Flexible Path attempts to replace the Ares 5, capable of lifting 160+ metric tons to low Earth orbit, with a less capable launch vehicle, going as low as the 75 metric tons of the EELV-derived vehicle. The notion that the Flexible Path brings us closer to Mars is dispelled by this push for a less capable launch vehicle. Being physically closer to Mars, in terms of distance, does nothing if it runs away from the energy and mass requirements of a Mars landing. The variety of missions possible using the Ares launch vehicles is actually wider and more diverse than what the Flexible Path allows. The Ares launch vehicles are certainly more than capable of launching missions to Lagrange points, near-Earth objects, and any other destination on the list. Reduced capabilities make the Flexible Path decidedly inflexible.Sigh…
This is an extremely simple-minded view of “capabilities.” Is a vehicle with a larger payload better than one with a smaller payload? Yes, all other things being equal. But all other things are rarely equal. One has to take a total systems approach to determine the optimum, and not just focus on a single system element (this applies to safety as well as cost, by the way). If, for example, one can buy ten flights of the smaller vehicle for the cost of a single flight of the larger one, which is better? It’s hard to say, unless one looks at the total mission cost, including amortization of development, as well as legacy value toward the future. Unless one imagines that one will be able to do a Mars mission with a single launch of Ares V (and even its proponents admit that you can’t), then eliminating it does not necessarily affect ability to get to Mars at all.
Consider two alternate architectures. One invests in the development of a large launch system sized for (say) a lunar mission, and ignores the orbital operations necessary to assemble pieces in orbit, or to fuel them. The other takes the money that could be spent on launch systems and instead focuses on the latter technologies, using them to leverage the transport capabilities of existing or slightly modified vehicles.
At completion of development, the former has a lunar transport system (as long as it doesn’t go down for some reason) that has no other capabilities, because it is too small to go anywhere else, and there was no investment in the orbital technologies necessary to do multiple launches with it. And if it goes down for some reason for some significant period of time (as every launch system has to date, other than the EELVs, and it may just be a matter of time for them), the entire enterprise is shut down. If one wants to go to Mars, it will be necessary to either develop those technologies originally spurned, or to develop a (perhaps impossibly) larger-yet launch system. And each flight will be horrifically expensive, and the vehicle will never develop high reliability, because its flight rate will be too low. This is taking the fundamental mistake of the Shuttle (which was not reusability) and tripling down on it.
On the other hand, the latter course provides a system which can assemble arbitrarily large interplanetary missions in orbit to any destination, using a variety of launch systems, ensuring that any one of them standing down does not prevent human space missions beyond LEO. So which one is truly flexible, not to mention resilient?
The Flexible Path replaces set destinations and set dates with a hazy cloud of uncertainty. NASA did not achieve Apollo like this. If the Flexible Path is as good as its proponents say, why will it be applied to human spaceflight exclusively? The entire space agency should have a chance to experience this new transformative policy. But with lesser objectives, lesser launch vehicles, and a lesser budget, it is unlikely the rest of the agency would enjoy the experience.
Let me say it one more time. It doesn’t matter how NASA achieved Apollo, for two reasons. First, Apollo had nothing to do with space. Second, NASA had an essentially unlimited budget with which to accomplish the goal, which was not to open space to humanity, but to beat the Russians in a technological joust. Until we understand this, and stop yearning for something that never was, and never will be, we will continue to waste billions of taxpayers’ money on Cape spectaculars, and never make much progress in space.
I would add one more point, for those who fear the Yellow Menace on the moon, or any other nation that follows the Apollo paradigm. Space will not be opened by throwing large vehicles away a few times a year. If we couldn’t afford it, at the height of our power and influence in the sixties, why should we believe that any other country can?
[Update in the late afternoon]
Incoherent in his apoplexy, seething with unreined rage, foaming at the mouth and eyes bulging, beard afire, Mark Whittington leaps so hard at his chain that he breaks it, and pounds out incomprehensible gibberish on his keyboard about this post and the previous one.
I’m exaggerating? You don’t say…
I also think it’s hilarious that his permalinks still have double page markers, after all these years of running that blogspot blog.
[Update a few minutes later]
Ray from Vision Restoration blog makes a very good point over there:
The Program of Record has virtually nothing to do with the Vision for Space Exploration except at the most superficial level, such as the initial destination (the Moon). The Flexible Path as outlined in the report is a lot closer to the Vision for Space Exploration than the Program of Record. Check out the Vision for Space Exploration documents, the Augustine Committee report, and the status of Constellation – or see some (of many) examples here of how far the Program of Record is from the Vision for Space Exploration.
It is really annoying to have to deal with commentary by people who have no idea what they’re talking about, and don’t even bother to read the class assignment. Including Mark Whittington.