Category Archives: Space

Chock Full Of Space Policy Goodness

Too busy to blog (I’m working overtime, have a sick furnace and a sick cat), but fortunately, Henry Vanderbilt over at the Space Access Society is picking up the slack. He’s very upbeat, and has an update on X-Prize progress, a smart analysis of the president’s space initiative, and the new House legislation on launch regulation, a subject that I still haven’t had much time to analyze.

As part of his new space policy analysis, he also has a powerful argument against the “Bush space policy hoax” folks.

…we think this new plan is very unlikely to be
what many are claiming, mere election-year feelgood puffery. Were
it so, the Administration would be making promises left and right,
jobs for everyone and a contract in every district, and not worrying
overmuch whether the Congress would fund it all once the election’s
over. Instead, the White House and NASA HQ have been notably
reticent about reassuring the established NASA manned space Centers
and contractors that they’ll all have major roles in the new
initiative. Refusing to promise job security is a poor way to win
votes. It is, however, a good way to keep options open to implement
the sort of major restructuring NASA will need to meet the new
program’s ambitious goals within relatively modest budget increases.

It’s long, but read the whole thing.

[Update on Tuesday morning]

There was one specific other item of note from Henry’s report that I would have mentioned last night if I hadn’t had the cat and furnace problems. Pioneer Rocketplane apparently has funding to build their suborbital vehicle, thanks to tax credits from the state of Oklahoma. Mitchell Burnside Clapp, founder and president, told me about this over a year ago, but it’s public information now.

I think that 2004 will continue to be a very interesting year for the new emerging space transport industry.

Hit And Run

With regard to Josh Marshall’s uninformed hit piece, Keith Cowing makes a good point:

I call this hit and run policy analysis. Here is how it works: the practitioner makes some wildly unsubstantiated comments based on a few microseconds of analysis – usually on a topic about which they know nothing. They then throw in some wild cost estimates to scare folks, link a series of unrelated items together to suggest a trend (or usually a conspiracy), and then end the piece with a global pronouncement. Since the practitioner is a popular commentator and talking head on TV, most people just take him at his word. The net result: a complex issue is left lying by the side of the road in people’s minds without ever having a chance to explain itself. The fact that this flimsy analysis appears in a publication that touts itself as being “for and about the U.S. Congress” ought to have a few people at NASA’s Office of Legislative Affairs concerned.

At the risk of violating Instapundit’s trademark, indeed…

[Update on Tuesday morning]

Welcome to any first-time readers from Instapundit. I apologize for the little foofaraw in the comments section–it’s actually quite unusual.

Keith, thank you for the kind and helpful comments on the cat. I’ll continue to visit NASA Watch, and to encourage my readers to do the same, for whatever it’s worth, because I think that it is a valuable website, but judging from several comments, I do think that you’re machine gunning yourself in the foot here.

It would be nice to end this pointless (albeit mild) flamefest and actually have a few comments on the substance of the post.

Hubble Mission Safe?

I received an email from an astronomer pointing out an article in today’s Gray Lady that says a Hubble mission might be as safe, or safer, than an ISS mission. I’ve omitted the emailer’s name in case there’s any political sensitivity.

While I don’t subscribe to Josh Marshall’s hoax theory about NASA’s new focus, I do believe that the NASA hierarchy has been less than truthful concerning changes to its mission goals. When Sen. Barbara Mikulski called Sean O’Keefe concerning the cancellation of shuttle missions to Hubble, he told her that the decision was a combination of money and safety concerns. Once he heard from her that money might not be a problem, his message changed to that of safety alone. Indeed, Jon Grunsfeld’s first comments about the mission cancellation also mentioned money, but safety has now become the overriding arguement, as it is harder to dispute from the outside.

As an astronomer, I’m concerned about the future of basic astronomical research under the new NASA. NASA has quietly put off for at least a year, perhaps more, funding for its MIDEX and SPEX smaller space astronomical instrument missions and cut back funding for approved programs, and O’Keefe’s press conference about the budget was not friendly to basic science (unless you are studying the science of weightlessness on the human body) or space astronomy. Now, this is NASA’s perogative — as my husband says, none of the “A”s in NASA stand for “astronomy” — but I can’t help but think that the broader public might not be concerned about the decline of the one science everyone seems to find compelling and approachable. And it was Bush’s father who made a similar announcement about big goals for the US space program, which then petered out into nothing. It doesn’t take political animus to fear that current path could lead to little progress.

Anyway, I emailed you because I haven’t seen much sign that, outside of those of us who are directly affected, people have appreciated how much the new NASA focus is pulling money away from space science instrumentation and research. I’d like to see some discussion on this issue.

Well, I’m on record as believing that we ought to go ahead with the flight, and safety shouldn’t even be an issue, but that’s not politically correct these days. But I do believe that’s the primary driver for the decision, and don’t think that O’Keefe is being in any way disingenuous–at least I have no reason right now to think so. Risk assessments are always judgement calls, and while one engineer’s analysis may be perfectly valid, it’s always possible to find others who disagree, and NASA is erring on the side of caution right now, in response to the Gehman Commission and a reaction (and probably overreaction) to what happened a year ago.

However, I think that it’s a little too early to tell whether or not the new initiative will be good, or bad, for space science and astronomy in general. People are inferring from the fact that the Hubble decision was announced after the president’s speech that it was somehow a result of it. It wasn’t. They were both a result of the same root cause–last year’s loss of Columbia.

Actually, history indicates that we have the most vibrant space science program when we have a vibrant manned program as well (though it’s not clear whether that will be the case for deep-space astronomy). For example, as far as I know, Webb remains on track.

But what fans of space telescopes should really be doing is cheering on people working to reduce costs (i.e., not NASA), because that’s going to make it affordable for universities to put up their own suites of multi-mirror space telescopes. And if we really do set up a lunar base, farside will make a great place for a radiotelescope, blocked from the noisy earth.

Joshing Bush’s Space Policy

Josh Marshall subscribes to the “hoax” theory of the new space policy. Jeff Foust and his commenters show him (as is often the case) to be full of it. As commenter “Brad” says:

The Marshall piece is not a serious analysis of the merits, or lack, of the new Bush space policy. The complete omission in Marshall’s story of the fact of the Columbia disaster and the floundering of NASA is telling. If Bush had done nothing at all in response, or made a Clintonian style non-decision to muddle through, that would itself warrant criticism. But instead Marshall attacks the president for having the balls to make a real choice…

…I have no illusions that Bush is some kind of space exploration enthusiast, even though he does have a background in military aviation. But I do think the Bush style of blunt decision making is what is responsible for finally cutting though the thirty years worth of bureaucratic B.S. surrounding space policy.

I am worried though that the political venom level is so high now that if Bush is defeated, his replacement will kill manned space exploration just because Bush was in favor of it. The Marshall piece is just another example of the venom.

Yes. I made this point as well a couple weeks ago.

Joshing Bush’s Space Policy

Josh Marshall subscribes to the “hoax” theory of the new space policy. Jeff Foust and his commenters show him (as is often the case) to be full of it. As commenter “Brad” says:

The Marshall piece is not a serious analysis of the merits, or lack, of the new Bush space policy. The complete omission in Marshall’s story of the fact of the Columbia disaster and the floundering of NASA is telling. If Bush had done nothing at all in response, or made a Clintonian style non-decision to muddle through, that would itself warrant criticism. But instead Marshall attacks the president for having the balls to make a real choice…

…I have no illusions that Bush is some kind of space exploration enthusiast, even though he does have a background in military aviation. But I do think the Bush style of blunt decision making is what is responsible for finally cutting though the thirty years worth of bureaucratic B.S. surrounding space policy.

I am worried though that the political venom level is so high now that if Bush is defeated, his replacement will kill manned space exploration just because Bush was in favor of it. The Marshall piece is just another example of the venom.

Yes. I made this point as well a couple weeks ago.

Joshing Bush’s Space Policy

Josh Marshall subscribes to the “hoax” theory of the new space policy. Jeff Foust and his commenters show him (as is often the case) to be full of it. As commenter “Brad” says:

The Marshall piece is not a serious analysis of the merits, or lack, of the new Bush space policy. The complete omission in Marshall’s story of the fact of the Columbia disaster and the floundering of NASA is telling. If Bush had done nothing at all in response, or made a Clintonian style non-decision to muddle through, that would itself warrant criticism. But instead Marshall attacks the president for having the balls to make a real choice…

…I have no illusions that Bush is some kind of space exploration enthusiast, even though he does have a background in military aviation. But I do think the Bush style of blunt decision making is what is responsible for finally cutting though the thirty years worth of bureaucratic B.S. surrounding space policy.

I am worried though that the political venom level is so high now that if Bush is defeated, his replacement will kill manned space exploration just because Bush was in favor of it. The Marshall piece is just another example of the venom.

Yes. I made this point as well a couple weeks ago.

Launch Permits

There’s been new legislation introduced in the House a couple days ago, that amends the Commercial Space Launch Act. It appears to supercede HR 3245, introduced last fall, which I analyzed at the time.

I haven’t had the time to analyze it in detail, and I’d like to talk to some of the people involved in drafting it before I pontificate, but one major change seems to be a new way of allowing people to fly, by letting them get a permit for research and experimentation, without requiring a full launch license. I think that it’s meant to be analogous to an experimental aircraft certificate, and it’s probably to address Burt Rutan’s chafing under the licensing regime.

I’ve long advocated something like this, and it will be interesting to see if it makes it through the legislative process unscathed (and if it gets vetted by Foggy Bottom, which may be concerned that the process isn’t rigorous enough to keep us compliant with the Outer Space Treaty). There are other implications of this legislation as well, but further discussion will have to await my finding enough time to dig into it.

[Update on Saturday morning]

XCOR seems pleased with the legislation.

Eyes On The Prize

The Bush administration has released its proposed budget for NASA.

It reflects the new policy that the president announced a couple weeks ago, and Keith Cowing, of NASA Watch, has spared us from having to plow through the turgid document ourselves, and interpreted it in that context.

As Keith points out, the budget increases for the first few years are modest, but they are real, and NASA, having been now told that Shuttle will no longer be available a decade from now, can truly focus on new things with the funding available. The agency budget will slowly grow to almost twenty billion dollars by the end of a second Bush term (should that occur), but given the dramatic growth of the federal budget in this administration, it will remain less than its historical one percent of the total, which this year will exceed two trillion dollars.

However, there’s one little item in the budget also mentioned in Keith’s report that, while tiny, may be a portent of huge things to come. The budget of the new Office of Exploration is about a billion dollars (less than ten percent of the total NASA budget), and buried deep within it is a twenty-million-dollar line item called “Centennial Challenges.”

According to the description, the purpose of this is “to establish a series of annual prizes for revolutionary, breakthrough accomplishments that advance exploration of the solar system and beyond and other NASA goals…By making awards based on actual achievements instead of proposals, NASA will tap innovators in academia, industry, and the public who do not normally work on NASA issues. Centennial Challenges will be modeled on past successes, including 19th century navigation prizes, early 20th century aviation prizes, and more recent prizes offered by the U.S. government and private sector.”

The latter reference is to a prize offered by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for the first autonomous robotic vehicle to navigate itself across the desert from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, in a race to be held next month. It’s for a million-dollar purse.

As this article points out, the prize may not be won this year, but even if not, the teams will learn a great deal from the experience, and be ready to try again next year (the program is currently funded at least through 2007).

Why did DARPA do it?

DARPA was convinced that good ideas existed for overcoming some of the problems plaguing vehicles that drive themselves. But officials also suspect that they aren’t hearing all those ideas because some people are unable or unwilling to run the bureaucratic paperwork gauntlet necessary to secure a DARPA contract.

“Who’s out there in their garages, their bedrooms, in their labs, working on this?” Negron said. “We want to know.” The race might appeal to some people who simply want to show what they can do, without all the red tape.

It’s also a reference to the X-Prize, which may be won this year (and if not, it won’t be won at all, because the prize expires on December 31st). This, a private prize, has spurred several teams to attempt to build vehicles that can take people out of the atmosphere, and repeat the effort within two weeks, proving out the concept of a reusable spaceship.

Both prizes are modeled on something else obliquely referred to in the Office of Exploration document (“…early 20th century aviation prizes…”)–the Orteig Prize, which Charles Lindbergh won in his solo flight across the Atlantic over six decades ago, and both take advantage of the efficiency (at least to the prize offerer) and leverage provided by such prizes. For the DARPA prize:

…it’s not a race likely to be won on the cheap. Whittaker estimates it will cost about $5 million to win the $1 million prize.

The Orteig prize similarly generated many times its value in net resources poured into the goal, and Burt Rutan’s X-Prize attempt alone has reportedly already cost more than the ten million dollars on offer. More importantly, unlike many recent NASA programs, it achieved its goal, in a spectacular fashion (a fate to soon be hoped for with the DARPA and X-Prizes as well).

What’s the down side? Again, looking at the Office of Exploration document, here’s a key phrase: “…from 19th century navigation prizes…”

I’m not sure what they’re referring to here, because the most famous navigation prize was the Longitude Act, passed by the British Parliament in 1714 (that is, in the eighteenth, not the nineteenth century). This was a 20,000 pound prize (worth millions in today’s currency) for the ability to determine the longitude of a ship at sea.

As related by Dava Sobel in her best-seller Longitude, the prize was won by John Harrison. He invented the spring-powered clock, unaffected by the rolling of the waves as previous pendulum clocks had been, which allowed ship’s navigators to know what time it was in England–necessary information to determine their position.

I should have used quotes around the word “won,” because as hard as the challenge of achieving the goal itself was, it proved even more difficult to collect the full reward, an endeavor to which he devoted much of the remainder of his life. His thinking turned out to be a little too far “outside the box,” and some used this as an excuse to try to deprive him of his rightful dues.

This should be a cautionary tale for modern government prizes as well. Anyone who’s ever dealt with Congress knows that it can be most fickle, and ultimately, the greatest barrier to the utility of such prizes may be confidence of the contestants in the ability and willingness of the government to ultimately deliver.

The initiative in the new Office of Exploration budget is small–just two percent of its budget–and perhaps just the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent, but that may be just as well. It could prove a useful pilot program to determine whether NASA is truly interested in true innovation, from previously-unknown talents, or instead in continuing to maintain the status quo.

The eyes of the alternative space community will be kept very closely on this prize.

Oops, He Did It Again

I’m a little delinquent in responding to this, because Adam Keiper pointed it out to me last weekend, but it’s been a busy week. Gregg Easterbrook is determined to waste my time having to correct him.

There’s no reason right now to go back to the moon, other than as make-work for aerospace contractors. For 30 years, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (nasa) has sent no automated probes to the moon, because no one has proposed anything compelling for even robots to do there.

There are many reasons to go back to the moon. We (literally) barely scratched its surface thirty-plus years ago. There are abundant resources there to potentially establish settlements, to produce clean abundant power, to produce propellant, and for the narrow-minded people (like, apparently, Gregg) who think that the only reason to spend money on space is science, there remains a great deal of science to do there.

Gregg is simply wrong. Many people have proposed things for both people and robots to do. They may not have been compelling to NASA, or Gregg Easterbrook, but neither of those two entities have shown themselves to be reliable indicators as to what is, or should be, compelling to others.

Going from Earth’s surface to orbit requires a lot of energy and is very expensive with existing technology. At the current space shuttle launch price of $20 million per ton, merely placing 1,000 tons of Mars-bound equipment into orbit would cost $20 billion–more than nasa’s entire annual budget. And that’s just the cost to launch the stuff. Design, construction, staffing, and support would all cost much more.

The problem with this is that Gregg remains mired in the belief that Shuttle is “existing technology,” when in fact for the most part it is thirty-year-old technology. As I’ve pointed out before, Shuttle is an absurd benchmark for cost of launch in estimating costs of doing things in space in the twenty-first century.

These are reasons why, when Bush’s father asked nasa in 1989 about sending people to Mars, the Agency estimated a total program cost of $400 billion for several missions. That inflates to $600 billion in today’s money and sounds about right as an estimate

Yes, Gregg, there are reasons why the agency estimated that cost. Reason 1: they decided to use the program to justify everything that every center was doing. Reason 2: they didn’t really want to do it, desiring to continue to focus on space station instead, and they in fact actively lobbied against it on the Hill, an act for which Dick Truly was later canned by George Herbert Walker Bush. Non-reason: it bears some resemblance to what such a program would have to cost.

In fact, it’s absurd to worry about the cost of such a program right now, or to try to stretch absurd examples to attempt to estimate it, as Gregg mistakenly does, in this and other recent articles. We have no idea what it will cost, but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be a goal of the nation. When it comes down to actual designs, and plans, and cost estimates, then will be the time to criticize it and decide whether it’s worth the money at that point in time, or to wait until some better plan (or technology) comes along. But it’s pointless to take potshots at it now, and to say that we shouldn’t do it because the Gregg Easterbrooks of the world can’t figure out how to do it cheaply.

One of the frustrating things about Easterbrook is that in any wrongheaded column, he always somehow finds a way to say things with which I agree:

…while a Mars visit would be an exhilarating moment for human history, planning for Mars before improving space technology is putting the cart ahead of the horse. Nasa’s urgent priority should be finding a new system of placing pounds into orbit: If there were some less costly, safer way to reach space than either the space shuttle or current rockets, then grand visions might become affordable.

But it’s still not quite clear if he’s got it right, because I don’t know what he means by “find.” If he means develop a Shuttle replacement that somehow operates more cheaply, this would be another programmatic disaster, but if he means to simply put out basic requirements to the private sector and purchase services from whoever can meet them, then I am in a hundred percent agreement. But I’ve never seen anything in any of his writing to indicate that this is what he as in mind. He seems to remain in the mindset that NASA should do the thing, it’s just that they’re not doing the right one.

As long as he remains stuck in that stale, four-decade-old paradigm, he’ll continue to write uninformed articles like this, in which he occasionally arrives at the right result, for entirely the wrong reason.

A Haunting Past

Late January has developed a reputation as a grim and fatal period in NASA’s history.

Thirty-seven years ago this Tuesday, on the 27th, Apollo astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chafee died horribly, of asphyxiation and rapid incineration in an Apollo capsule on the Saturn launch pad. Destined for the moon, they never got off the ground in the vehicle that was to take them there.

The event caused a massive overhaul of the Apollo program, but NASA recovered, and two and a half years later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon and, per President Kennedy’s audacious goal, returned safely to the earth.

Eighteen years ago today, on January 28th, 1986, the space shuttle orbiter Challenger was torn apart by aerodynamic forces as it separated from a collapsing fuel tank and its solid boosters. Just as their mission was beginning, seven astronauts fell to their deaths, from a great height, in what remained of the vehicle.

That accident resulted in two and a half, in fact almost three, years of delay until the shuttle flew again, as well as a supposed change in NASA management.

Apparently, there wasn’t enough change, because now, in 2004, coming close on the heels of those two tragedies, NASA has another sad date to commemorate. This coming Sunday, February 1, will be the first anniversary of the loss of the orbiter Columbia with its seven gallant crew.

How long it will be before shuttles fly again is now anybody’s guess. The goal is late this year which, if it occurs, will be shorter than the hiatus from Challenger, but there’s also a good chance that it will stretch into 2005.

Is there any reason, physical or psychological, for this close clustering of fateful anniversaries?

Probably not.

Certainly the Apollo I fire had nothing to do with the season–it occurred in a controlled environment that was indifferent to the weather outside.

Challenger would arguably not have occurred in the summer, since it was caused by an O-ring below rated temperature, but there are many weeks that it gets cold in central Florida, not just January’s end.

If the prevailing theory about Columbia is correct, the damage to its thermal protection system was caused by falling foam, not ice, and even if it was ice, this can happen any time of year due to the cryogenic temperatures of the external tank. It could have occurred regardless of the date–it was purely bad luck. Or perhaps a better description, to be more in line with the findings of the Gehman Commission, is a string of luck running out on a flawed mindset.

It’s just coincidence, but engineers–even NASA engineers–are human, and in any future manned spaceflight activities this time of year, one suspects that they’ll have their fingers crossed, even if hidden in their pockets, for many years to come.

But in light of such a history, just how risk averse, how devoted to crew safety, should NASA be? Were our past decades’ achievements in space worth the cost, in lives and treasure?

To some, the answer is obvious. No expense, no course of action, should be spared to prevent the deaths of astronauts, even if that means they don’t fly at all. They should not risk their lives on any mission “needlessly.” This is the argument often used by opponents of manned spaceflight in general.

Of course, such a position makes no sense when even cursorily examined. If that philosophy were applied to other endeavors in life, we’d remain in the caves today, or perhaps even in the trees. No minerals would be mined, nor autos driven (did you really need to go to the store for that ice cream?), no bridges or skyscrapers would be built, because sometimes, in these activities, people die. Any activity resulting in human progress entails risk.

And who is to decide what “needlessly” means? Certainly, if you have no interest in putting people into space (as, for instance, is the case with many scientists), then any manned spaceflight is needless. “No, no,” they say. “We just mean that we shouldn’t be doing things in space that can be done better with robots.”

But that of course begs the meaning of the word “better.”

Why don’t we mine coal exclusively with robots? Why didn’t we develop robots in the 1930s to build the Golden Gate Bridge, an undertaking that cost dozens of lives? In some cases we do, of course, but not to achieve a risk-free state (which isn’t possible) so much as to save costs through increased productivity. But that’s not the argument that people who say we shouldn’t “risk lives” for “needless activities” seem to be making.

Let’s take a concrete, and topical example. NASA has effectively decided to deorbit the Hubble Space Telescope, an instrument that has opened up vast new vistas of the universe. Some have decried this decision as the first casualty of the president’s new space initiative.

Of course, it’s not that simple. Hubble was designed to use only the shuttle for servicing, but the shuttle is now focused on the ISS. We will have limited shuttle flights available, even after we return to flight, and we have international commitments to the latter, but not the former.

But the real issue is that, as a result of last year’s tragedy, we have made a policy decision to never again send an orbiter into the wilderness–to an orbit from which the vehicle cannot be easily inspected and the crew easily rescued. This means effectively that all future shuttle flights must go to ISS, and barring some alternative means of saving it, Hubble will come down.

That’s not the decision I would have made, if the only choices are using a Shuttle or letting Hubble die. Yes, Shuttle missions are expensive, but we’re flying them anyway–we might as well do something that’s of clear value with them. Yes, astronauts’ lives will be at risk, but that’s their decision to make, not pundits and scientists. Yes, another orbiter will be at risk, but we’ve already decided to phase out the program, and it actually could limp along on two through ISS completion, if necessary.

In any event, it’s not really that risky. We went seventeen years without a loss of an orbiter. The probability that we’ll lose another in the next two or three years is pretty low. We’re may be playing Russian Roulette, but that’s a misleading analogy for a gun with a hundred empty chambers and a short game.

On the other hand, the decision may prove a blessing in disguise, because there may in fact be other options to save Hubble, if NASA can expand their thinking and contemplate alternative and innovative approaches. This may be a golden opportunity to see if some new, non-government players can start to undertake risky but worthwhile ventures, free of the fear of Congressional inquisitions, and undaunted by deadly anniversaries.

[Update at 4 PM PST]

As some probably guessed, this is today’s Fox column.