Category Archives: Space

Space Policy Disconnect

NASA was surprised by the reaction to its announcement a few weeks ago that it wasn’t going to risk a Shuttle crew to keep the Hubble Space Telescope alive.

It apparently underestimated the popularity of the program. It shouldn’t have.

How many people have screen savers of the Shuttle payload bay, or the space station?

How many, in contrast, compute to a background of the Eagle Nebula, or other Hubble images?

Many, particularly in the space science community, were quick to point out the timing of the decision. Was it just a coincidence that, just a few weeks after the president’s announcement on January 14 of a new human-exploration space policy, in which NASA’s resources would be focused on the goals of sending astronauts to the moon and Mars, Hubble life extension was pronounced to be an unworthy cause on which to risk a Shuttle flight?

Well, actually, it was.

While some of the motivations of the agency in this action remain murky, it’s safe to say that, despite the timing, the decision probably wasn’t a result of the new space policy. The most likely suspect remains the CAIB report on the loss of the Columbia last February, which was released last fall. While the commission didn’t specifically recommend not flying to non-ISS orbits, this was an inferred recommendation from many of the others, given that it’s quite possible that the Shuttle crew might have lived, even had the vehicle been written off, had their mission been to the station, where the damage might have been clearly seen and they would have had a safe haven.

But in the timing of all these events and decisions, there seems to be a disconnect in terms of policy. To the degree that the Hubble decision was based on the Gehman recommendations, that decision must now be revisited. Here’s why.

The Gehman report was delivered last fall, before the president’s January speech. At that time, the space policy of the United States was, among other things, to continue to fly the Space Shuttle as long as possible, until a decision was made to replace it, and its replacement developed. With the loss of Columbia, we had only three orbiters in the Shuttle fleet, making each one very precious if they were to support a program of indefinite duration, particularly given the now-empirical reliability of ninety eight percent (two losses in about a hundred some flights over twenty years). Despite any improvements they’re making, that’s probably the number that NASA is using to estimate future losses, to be conservative.

What does it mean?

At that reliability, there is a forty percent chance of losing another orbiter (which would cost billions and years to replace) in the next twenty five flights. There’s a two in three probability of losing one in the next fifty. That means there’s an excellent chance of losing one over the next ten years, at an optimistic flight rate of five per year. Hence the eagerness to follow the Gehman Commission’s recommendations and spend hundreds of millions of dollars to solve the problem, because the prevailing policy is to keep the Shuttle fleet flying until it’s no longer needed.

OK, now fast forward to January 14th of this year, when the president announces, among other things, that the Shuttle is to be phased out with the planned completion of the International Space Station, in 2010, six years from now.

It’s a new policy world. NASA no longer has to worry about sustaining a three-orbiter Shuttle fleet into an indefinite future–they’ve been told that it only has to fly another thirty flights or so.

In fact, here’s the irony.

While its critics are lambasting the agency for sacrificing Hubble on the altar of the new space policy, the new policy in fact would actually justify a Hubble mission. Consider–if it’s no longer essential to maintain a three-orbiter fleet into the indefinite future, the two percent risk of losing an orbiter now looks small compared to the value of keeping Hubble going for several more years, until we can be assured of a worthy replacement. If, against the odds, we do lose another orbiter on that mission, the worst case is that it will simply take another couple of years to complete station, at which point we’ll still shut down the fleet, if the new policy is to be believed.

So here’s the policy disconnect.

We have one part of NASA (the Shuttle program) furiously running off to implement the recommendations of the CAIB, recommendations which were based on a circa-2003 policy made obsolete on January 14th, 2004, with apparently no recognition of the events of that date. We have another part of NASA desperately trying to implement the new, January policy.

It doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that the expensive and delayed Shuttle return-to-flight activities (the latest estimate is to fly again is March, 2005, almost two years after the Columbia loss, and approaching the ridiculously-long standdown after Challenger) should reflect the new, existing policy, and not the old one in which the Gehman report was written. It’s conceivable that, if asked, the commission might not change any of their recommendations, but it’s insane not to ask them, given the dramatic change in national space goals since they issued the report.

Accordingly, I propose that the Gehman Commission be reconvened to weigh in on this issue. It need not be a several-month-long process, or disrupt the lives of the commission members to the degree that the first one did. No long investigations are needed, no facts have changed, except that the nation has a new space policy. It would be appropriate to gather the commission members in a room once more, to review their recommendations from last fall, and to reconsider them in the light of the new space policy that the president announced in January. It need not take more than a day or three.

The costs of it would be minimal, particularly considering the ongoing costs of NASA continuing down an expensive and perhaps pointless road, one costing many hundreds of millions of dollar per year, in developing expensive fixes to a system that we have already stated as policy will be phased out in much less than a decade.

Mr. President, Administrator O’Keefe, please reconvene the commission. Please reconcile this apparent disconnect of the policy of yesteryear with the forward-looking policy that you proclaimed over three months ago. It may indicate that the current NASA policy is correct, but it might alternatively save many millions of taxpayer dollars on fruitless fixes to an obsolete program. And it may create many more beautiful images from distant times and distant galaxies, images that satisfy both scientists’ curiosities, and peoples’ aesthetic souls.

Some More SubOrbital Day News

SubOrbital Day went off pretty smoothly today. We basically walked around in teams briefing Senate staffers on issues of importance to the emerging suborbital launch services industry (see below for our talking points, which pretty much cover everything we talked about). The message was well received for the most part.

We were a little disorganized due to the fact that the principal players are busy building hardware (woohoo!), but everything came together in the end. One kind of cool thing that happened while I was briefing Landon Fulmer, a legislative correspondent for Sam Brownback – the door to the conference room opened up and in walks General Pete Worden, who is working as a Congressional Fellow in Brownback’s office. While I was recovering from my surprise, Pat Bahn (who was my teammate) showed up from his previous appointment (we’d split up to make up some lost time). Fortunately Worden and Pat know each other, as evidenced by the fact that Worden offered to deliver Pat’s canned SubOrbital background briefing. He did an excellent job of it, too. It’s nice to have people who really get it in positions of influence.

I had a similar surge of hope when Steve Parker, a Legislative Fellow in Bill Nelson’s office, started asking about the Black Armadillo. Very encouraging, especially considering we were meeting in a room covered with Space Shuttle pictures – I thought making the SubOrbital pitch would be like trying to sell Linux to Bill Gates. A pleasant surprise indeed.

It was nice to catch up with the SubOrbital Institute usual suspects, though Neil Milburne of Armadillo wasn’t there, most likely since they are building and testing hardware at a furious rate. There’s going to be some interesting news in the coming months, not just related to the X Prize. Unfortunately I can’t divulge everything, but stay tuned.

Go Read Those Guys

Boy, ask and ye shall receive. A few more posts like that, on a regular basis, Andrew, and I could retire. Unfortunately, this blog has a lousy pension plan.

And after y’all have read Andrew’s post on Suborbital Day, head over to The Space Review, where Jeff Foust explains, once again, why we shouldn’t build a new heavy-lift vehicle.

The Saturn 5 proved that heavy-lift vehicles can enable human exploration of the Moon. It

SubOrbital Day

Today is SubOrbital Day, a lobbying event for the SubOrbital Institute. I’ve cut ‘n’ pasted the talking points for the day below the fold. I’ll post more later, possibly tomorrow if the evening wrapup is especially festive. We’ll be walking around Capitol Hill briefing Senate staffers on the issues below, trying to encourage them to take action that will make it easier for you and me to get into space.

Continue reading SubOrbital Day

Two Thirds Of The Way There

SpaceShipOne flew to over two hundred thousand feet today. In a sense, as Jim Oberg points out (via Alan Boyle, and by the way, congratulations on the second anniversary of Cosmic Log), at that altitude, it could be said to be the first private manned vehicle to fly into space.

It’s looking more and more like that insurance company that funded the X-Prize is going to lose the bet, but I’m still hoping for an upset for the prize by some upstart.

Land Of More Enchantment

New Mexico has been selected to host the X-Prize Cup.

[Update]

Here’s more info.

[Another update]

Here’s more from the New York Times. It’s very confusing–they seem to be conflating the Ansari X-Prize with the X-Prize Cup, which will be a separate annual competitive event, much like the Americas Cup of sailing.

[One more]

Leonard David has fleshed out the story more, with a better explanation of what the X-Prize Cup (which is what this story is about) is about.

Space Solar Power

Geoff Landis has a paper out on novel approaches to space solar power systems.

One of the reasons I’m skeptical of lunar He3 for fusion as a viable space based business is the competition from SPS. If you can put enough infrastructure on the moon to process the enormous quantities of regolith needed to extract He3, you can just as easily churn out huge numbers of SPS satellites. Unless there is some unforseen showstopper with SPS (and the only one I can think of is possible long term environmental effects due to the microwave beam, but that seems unlikely), then SPS construction will win over He3 fusion. We can do SPS with current technology. We’re not even close to being able to do fusion with He3, and we won’t be for probably two decades. That’s just fusing the He3, not doing it cheaply enough to compete with other power sources.

I’m slowly churning through a detailed piece on fusion which will hopefully clarify a lot of these issues, but I’m a having trouble making the piece not suck, so don’t hold your breath. Hopefully I’ll get unstuck soon.

Low Pressure Hothouse

Dan DeLong has a suggestion for the NASA Centennial Prize:

1. first edible tomato over .1 kg grown at 5 kPa total atmospheric pressure
2. first edible potato over .1 kg ” ” ” “
3. first kg of edible corn kernels ” ” ” “
4. first kg of edible peas ” ” ” ” “
5. first kg of edible beans
etc.

Where 5 kPa is Martian atmospheric pressure and also a reasonable-to-build lunar greenhouse. If you make the winner of each ineligible for the others there will be a large number of contestants.

Each contestant gets to choose atmospheric constituents from oxygen, nitrogen, and CO2 in any combination.

Then, another series of prizes would be for food crops grown with 2 weeks daylight and not more than X% duty cycle and Y illumination intensity for 2 weeks, repeat cycle as necessary. Then, X and Y decrease to lower and lower values for higher dollar prizes.

I hesitate to extend the idea to animals because I wouldn’t want the issue to get confused by animal rights activists.

Unfortunately, things that are literally edible (they won’t kill you, and might even prove nutritious) don’t necessarily taste all that great. As I pointed out to Dan in email, there are a lot of items in the produce department of my local grocery (including tomatoes) that I consider inedible, at least relative to the home-grown variety. Maybe you could come up with a panel of judges to make a determination as to whether it was sufficiently edible to be useful to space colonists.

Vegas In July

If you’re interested in returning to the moon, you might want to think about attending the Return to the Moon Conference, sponsored by the Space Frontier Foundation, in Las Vegas this July (around the time of the thirty-fifth anniversary of the first manned moon landing on July 20th). Film director James Cameron (Terminator, Titanic) is scheduled as one of the speakers. Considering that the president has made this part of the new space policy, it should be a very interesting meeting.