The Empire Strikes Back At The Corner

Taylor Dinerman has responded (sort of) to my Corner post. I say “sort of” because it doesn’t really respond to many of my points, and seems to be mostly a regurgitation of the standard flawed Constellation advocate talking points. It’s late, and I’m kind of beat from plumbing and painting all day, so I can’t really respond properly, but I’ll try to tackle it before bed:

The issue is, should America go back to the Moon?

No. That is an issue, but the issue is how we should do so if we choose to go back to the moon, or anywhere else beyond LEO.

The Obama administration’s handpicked Commission claimed that under their 2010 budget plan, NASA would not be able to get back to the Moon’s surface until the 2030s without a large budget increase. That finding was disputed by former NASA administrator Mike Griffin. In fact, no one really knows. Projecting program costs over a couple of years is hard enough; doing it over a couple of decades is nonsense.

These are interesting word choices. There’s an obvious implication in damning the Augustine panel as the administration’s “handpicked Commission” (it wasn’t a commission, by the way). There is a certain conspiratorial bent among some Constellation supporters that this nonsense feeds. Of course the administration selected the panel members. So? Were they unqualified? Did they have some kind of secret hidden agenda? Tell us, please? And provide data. And is Mike Griffin supposed to be above the fray, and totally objective?

The “commission’s” assessment of the budget needs was based on inputs from NASA, Aerospace, and others. Yes, it is difficult to project budgets in the out years, as demonstrated by the fact that NASA’s own estimates of Ares development costs ballooned over time, as they learned more about how many snakes were in the bag that they chose five years ago. Can Taylor provide an example of a major NASA program whose costs were less, and schedule shorter, than the original estimate?

Mike Griffin was determined to avoid the mistakes made in the 1970s when the Shuttle was starved of development funds and survived on a shoestring. He poured money into the Ares 1 rocket and the Orion capsule because he was determined to make them the safest and most reliable vehicles possible. The administration claims that this involved “old” technology, yet it will now rely on even older Russian Soyuz systems for human access to space.

First of all, as I pointed out in my Corner piece (to which Taylor doesn’t actually respond), it is a misallocation of resources to spend tens of billions to make the launch vehicle safe, not just because it’s an exercise in futility (as Shuttle demonstrated) but because launch is actually already the safest portion of a lunar mission. Much of that money should be spent on making the rest of the trip safe.

Second, as I’ve written recently, if safety is the highest value, it indicates that what we’re doing isn’t very important, and we might as well just stay home.

The point that we are using the old technology of Russian vehicles is disingenuous in the extreme, because that was always the plan under the VSE, but only temporarily until we could develop a home-grown solution. That remains the case under the administration’s new direction. And that new direction is likely to close the gap much sooner than Ares would have (again, per the Augustine report).

And of course the Russians have good reason to use old technology — it works for them, and has for decades, and they can’t afford to develop new systems. A NASA that proposes to spend over thirty billion dollars on a new system has no such excuse.

OK, next comes the obligatory SpaceX bashing (while conveniently ignoring Lockheed Martin, Boeing and United Launch Alliance):

To imagine that this will create a new commercial space industry is a stretch. After almost a decade of work, SpaceX has managed to get one customer’s satellite into orbit. Their Falcon 9 vehicle is at least six months late. We’ll see if they can meet their obligations under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contract they signed.

“Almost a decade.”

Well, I guess you could call seven years “almost a decade,” but it would require an inappropriate rounding up. You could more accurately call it, “over half a decade.” It all depends on whether you’re trying to convey that it’s taking an unreasonably long time, or not so much.

And the Falcon 9 is six whole months late? Cancel their contract! Pay no attention to the rocket behind the curtain that was originally supposed to be flying in 2014, but hasn’t yet made it through Preliminary Design Review (not Critical Design Review — Preliminary) and now has a low confidence of flying in 2017, even if funding continues, that will cost a hundred times as much as SpaceX has spent to date.

And as for their meeting their COTS obligations, they haven’t missed one yet. Why the skepticism that they will continue to do so in the future? And unlike the Ares contractors, they only get paid when they meet them, instead of simply being reimbursed for their costs plus profit.

That in fact is the big difference between the new plan and the old. The old was business as usual, with contractors being paid regardless of program success. The new is pay for performance, with competition. It’s not about contractors (Boeing is playing in the new system, wth CCDev), it’s about the nature of the contracts. Again, which should a conservative support?

These firms may have the potential to be useful service providers, but they cannot get us to the Moon.

This is a completely unsubstantiated assertion. It is also fraught with unstated assumptions, most of which are probably wrong.

The worst thing about scrapping Constellation is that it will destroy or disable large parts of the U.S. space industry, in particular our large-solid-rocket–manufacturing capability. Someday we are going to have to replace our long-range missiles, and if the expertise is gone it will take years and billions of dollars to replace it.

I see. So we should continue an overpriced, late in schedule, paint mixer from hell, for an ostensibly civilian space agency, so that we can maintain a critical national defense capability?

Let me state that I do not believe that the nation will be out of the solid business if we don’t continue to pay ATK to build gargantuan four- or five-segment solids, though I’m sure that they’d like you to believe that. Last time I checked, Taurus, Atlas, Minotaur and other vehicles use solids.

But suppose that it’s really true. Then why should it come from NASA’s budget? Why should we have to suffer from a terrible design, that will cost billions per flight to fly a few elite astronauts per year ad infinitum, so that the Pentagon will be able to develop a new generation of ICBMs if they ever get the funding to do so? Why pervert the civilian space program for this, and take it out of NASA’s budget hide? Why not make the five-sided building pay for it?

Was this really supposed to be a rebuttal that the Program of Record is a “conservative” one?

It would be wonderful if space exploration could be done by private enterprise, but that is simply not going to happen.

While I don’t think it unreasonable that space exploration will eventually be done by private enterprise (as in they pay for it, and that in fact is how this nation was largely explored), that’s not the point. Space exploration will continue for now to be funded by the government. The issue is how we do exploration.

Certainly not until launch costs are reduced to a tiny fraction of what they are today.

This is one of the most common confusions about launch costs. They will never fall to a tiny fraction of what they are today as long as NASA is developing and operating its own monolithic systems for its own use. That will happen only with competition and markets. What the new policy does is have the government create these, as it did with the airmail for the aviation industry eighty years ago. And it will finally do this, over half a century after the misbegotten start of the space age, driven by a cold war that circumvented a more natural development of private enterprise in space. Again, if conservatives don’t like this new policy, it’s either because it was proposed by Barack Obama, or because of misplaced nostalgia for Apollo and an inability to recognize any human exploration program that doesn’t look like it. Or both.

Don’t Let It Happen In Vegas

Let alone stay there…

Let’s ignore the fact that there is nothing in the Constitution about the president as “financial-advisor-in-chief.” His moronic and repeated bashing of Vegas is not only digging a deeper hole for his water-carrier in the Senate, but almost guaranteeing that he himself won’t be winning Nevada in 2012.

I need to write a longer post on this, but the notion that this man or his advisors are political genii is pretty laughable at this point. The only reason he won is that a) the Dems weren’t that thrilled about Hillary, b) he has charisma for people susceptible to such emotional nonsense, c) McCain was a lousy candidate and ran a lousy campaign and d) the media was totally in the tank for him and refused to run anything negative and e) almost any Dem was going to win in 2008.

His luck has run out.

The Country’s In The Best Of Hands

Why small business isn’t hiring, and why the tax credits won’t work. I love this line:

The good news is that, when it comes to reshaping the U.S. mortgage market [any market for that matter — ed.], the Obama administration’s top guns are bringing to bear all of the brisk, rough-’n’-ready entrepreneurial know-how they picked up in their previous careers as university professors, nonprofit activists, and holders of political sinecures.

Sad, but true.

New New Space Review

Clark Lindsey has an extensive run down on what happened last year. It was quite a year. This year may be a bigger one, though.

[Update a few minutes later]

I’m back to house renovation in Colorado, and too busy to blog, which is a shame because it’s a news-rich week on the space front — even more than last week, when we were only dealing with rumors. Fortunately, Clark is on the case. Just keep scrolling.

Obama’s Big Mistake

It started right out of the box, a year ago:

If there’s a single event for which Obama himself is to blame, one decision that explains his predicament, it is his mishandling of the stimulus at the dawn of his administration. Put aside the debate over whether it has “worked,” and forget the White House’s absurd trick of talking about jobs “saved or created” (for the record, I save or create 500 push-ups every morning). Obama made a rookie mistake outsourcing his first major domestic policy decision to Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and the Old Bulls of the Democratic Party, and that blunder has done lasting damage to his presidency.

May it continue. And based on his behavior, it seems likely to.

The Irony On The New Space Policy


For this baby boomer who grew up in the Cold War, the world has gone bizzaro. Here is Jeffrey Manber on Russian TV defending the capability of commercial companies to design and fly manned rockets and disputing Alabama politicians who are attacking such companies and claiming that only a government agency can do such things. The irony is manifest when Jeffrey notes that said agency will be paying a Russian company to launch its astronauts.

Heads are exploding all over the place.

More Space Policy Thoughts

…from Stephen Fleming. Goodby space program, hello space industry.

[Tuesday morning update]

Michael Belfiore, at Popular Mechanics:

I would argue that the new direction is not just the best option for NASA, but the only one. NASA already has no choice but to rely on the Russians for rides to the International Space Station after the shuttle retires this year. It’s an embarrassment. Obama’s budget will open the door to homegrown solutions for crew and cargo delivery to the space station, while providing much needed research funding for the development of next-gen technologies such as heavy-lift rockets and on-orbit refueling depots.

It’s a step that’s long overdue, though not one without peril. The private sector will have some very big shoes to fill, without the track record to prove that it’s up to the job. And can it succeed without succumbing to the kind of bloat that has eaten our defense budget alive? Working with the government tends to increase the amount of paperwork and oversight, along with the bureaucracy required to handle that extra workload, so it’s a legitimate concern. But, after all, the goal is to reduce the cost of reaching space. It has become clear to the right people, including many engineers and managers at NASA, that the traditional way of doing things hasn’t been working. NASA and the White House have every incentive to keep out of the way of the private contracts as much as possible.

We’ll see if that’s enough.

Biting Commentary about Infinity…and Beyond!