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« And Now For Something Completely Different | Main | Escalation And Melting Snows »

Clear Lake Full Employment Bill

That should be the name of this legislation introduced by Congressman Nick Lampson (D-TX). The NASA Johnson Space Center, and many of its employees, are in his district. Its official title is the "Space Exploration Act of 2002," and it will read like a dream-come-true to many space enthusiasts.

Let's dissect it: First, the statement of purpose:

To restore a vision for the United States human space flight program by instituting a series of incremental goals that will facilitate the scientific exploration of the solar system and aid in the search for life elsewhere in the universe, and for other purposes.

Note the archaic language. "Human space flight program" is a notion left over from the Cold War, and it's getting pretty long in the tooth. This legislation clearly assumes that the primary purpose for humans to be in space is "exploration," and a "search for life elsewhere in the universe." It pays lip service to "other purposes," but it's non specific, and this is the last time you'll hear about them from the drafters of the bill.

Now, to the findings:

The Congress finds the following: (1) It is in the national interest of the United States to have a vigorous, outward-looking program of space exploration, encompassing both robotic spacecraft missions and human space flight.

OK. It's not clear why this is in the national interest, or whether some means of achieving this are more in the national interest than others, but we'll go on.

(2) The United States has achieved major accomplishments in its human space flight program over the last 4 decades, including the first crewed lunar landing, the first reusable crewed Space Shuttle, and the first truly international Space Station.

If by "major accomplishments" one means that those goals were achieved, without paying any attention to how much more they cost than they should have, how effective they are, how much more could have been accomplished in space had the money been spent differently, etc., then, yeah, I guess they're major accomplishments. Considering how badly the station in particular was mismanaged, I guess the fact that there's anything flying at all is a monumental accomplishment, but I'm not sure it's one we want to emulate in any future space programs.

(3) There currently is no commitment to the accomplishment of any challenging goals in human space flight after the completion of the International Space Station.

True enough.

Of course, it's not clear to me that "challenging" is a proper criteria for goals, at least in and of itself. This is one reason that I have heartburn with people who admiringly quote Kennedy's Rice speech:

...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...

Frankly, that's a really dumb reason to do something. Drilling a hole from Peoria to China is not, easy, but hard. That doesn't make it a good thing to throw taxpayers' money at.

(4) While a significant amount of scientific research can and should be accomplished by robotic means, a comprehensive plan of scientific exploration of the solar system and search for life beyond Earth will require both robotic spacecraft missions and human space flight to achieve its goals.

(5) Properly coordinated, the Nation's human space flight program does not compete with robotic exploration but instead complements it and provides additional capabilities for scientific research.

(6) The successful repair and servicing of the Hubble Space Telescope demonstrates the potential for the productive participation of the human space flight program in advancing the goals of scientific exploration.

All true.

(7) There have been numerous commissions and study panels over the last 30 years that have articulated goals for the future of human space flight, and additional studies to establish goals are not needed at this time.

Also true. Studies are not required to establish goals. Just some thought from first principles, which always seems to be lacking when it comes to space.

(8) While there are significant technical and programmatic hurdles to be overcome in carrying out human space flight activities beyond low Earth orbit, the main hurdle to be overcome is the lack of a national commitment to such activities.

Well, yes and no. If by that, they mean that once we make such a commitment, we will put into place new leadership and institutions to carry it out, then perhaps.

But if they mean that everything else is fine, and all that's lacking is a "national commitment," then I vehemently disagree. The current NASA cannot do it in a cost effective manner, and the same politics that motivates this bill (continued job security for various NASA centers) will ensure that such a program is as disastrous as the space station and Shuttle were.

(9) In the absence of a commitment to specific and challenging human space flight goals, programs to develop generic technological capabilities for human space flight are likely to be unfocused, inefficient, and short-lived.

Probably correct. It's certainly been the case to date.

(10) It is in the national interest of the United States to commit to a challenging set of incremental goals for the Nation's human space flight program in order to facilitate the scientific exploration of the solar system and aid in the search for life beyond Earth and to commit to the attainment of those goals.

Sorry, I'm not sold. How is it in the national interest? Why is exploration, and looking for ET important, but not the development of space? Science can't justify this (and never could).

(11) While the ultimate goal of human space flight in the inner solar system is the exploration of the planet Mars, there are other important goals for exploration of the inner solar system that will advance our scientific understanding and allow the United States to develop and demonstrate capabilities that will be needed for the scientific exploration and eventual settlement of Mars.

I don't agree that the ultimate goal of human space flight in the inner solar system is the exploration of Mars (e.g., how about finding out what resources are on the asteroids, and mining them?), but if you believe that, then the rest is true.

(12) A bold and sustained human space flight initiative of scientific exploration should contain progressively more challenging objectives, including missions to the Earth-Sun libration points, Earth-orbit crossing asteroids, the lunar surface, the satellites of Mars, and the surface of Mars.

Sounds good to me. Again, assuming that science is the only purpose--I hate to sound like a broken record, but I don't buy that assumption.

(13) A human space flight initiative with incremental goals and milestones will allow a continuing series of accomplishments to be achieved throughout the duration of the initiative, permit the "lessons learned" and capabilities acquired from previous implementation steps to be incorporated into subsequent phases of the initiative, and allow adjustments to be made to the implementation of the initiative as new opportunities or challenges arise.

Sure. Just common-sense project management.

(14) The National Aeronautics and Space Administration should develop a roadmap and implementation plan for a progressive program of human space flight beyond low Earth orbit in support of the scientific exploration of the solar system and the search for life beyond Earth.

OK, as long as that's not all they're doing.

(15) Existing and planned investments in the Space Shuttle, International Space Station, and the Space Launch Initiative should be leveraged to help advance the goals of the human space flight initiative while avoiding duplication of effort.

"...avoiding duplication of effort..."

That phrase concerns me. While it sounds good (socialism always sounds good), that's really code language for granting certain agencies or centers a monopoly on certain technological areas of endeavor.

This was a disaster in the 90s, when Goldin set up the NASA "Centers of Excellence," shutting down a lot of good work at other centers, and eliminating any pressure from competition. The most egregious example of this flawed philosophy was the Clinton Administration's decision to put the Department of Defense in charge of expendable vehicles, and NASA in charge of reusables. NASA then put a single center (Marshall) in charge of the reusable vehicle effort, which in turn handed it over to a single contractor (Lockmart) to implement. The result was the X-33 program. The result of the X-33 program is a billion dollar monument to mismanagement out in the southern California desert.

We must have competition, even (maybe even especially) in government activities. Without it, the bureaucrats become complacent, and building empires takes precedence over achieving results. If this bill ever passes, I hope that the language about "duplication of effort" is stricken from it with extreme prejudice.

(16) The President should ensure that sufficient resources are provided to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and that appropriate financial management controls are in place to ensure that the implementation plan can be carried out in a timely and cost-effective manner.


(17) The United States captured the imagination of the peoples of the world and inspired a generation of young people to enter careers in science and engineering when it successfully landed humans on the surface of the Moon in the years 1969 through 1972.

Yes, but that doesn't mean that that trick will work again. There are lots of other things today that capture imagination and inspire people--space is passe. And if it's just more of feeding NASA billions upon billions of dollars so that young people can watch other people go into space, then I doubt it will be much more inspiring than what we're doing now.

As long as we remain hung up on "science" and "exploration," and ignore the desire of people to go themselves, don't expect most people to get excited about it. There are lots of other vicarious activities in which they can participate that pay for themselves, without having to feed a government space agency scarce tax dollars.

(18) A bold and sustained human space exploration initiative has the potential to inspire a new generation of young people in the same way as the Apollo program did.

Maybe. But as I just said, I have my doubts.

(19) Properly constructed, a bold and sustained human space exploration initiative has the potential to engage the international community in peaceful cooperation in space.

The key words here being "properly constructed." It won't be. At best, it will be like ISS, and that was a disaster. If we want to have international cooperation for the sake of international cooperation, fine, but at least recognize that this doesn't save us any money--it dramatically increases cost, and lengthens schedules.

(20) Completion of the International Space Station with a full crew complement of 7 astronauts and robust research capabilities is essential if the United States is to carry out successfully a comprehensive initiative of scientific exploration of the solar system that involves human space flight.

That's the case only in the political sense that if NASA can't show that it can do a space station, no one can have any confidence in its ability to do anything beyond low earth orbit. If they mean that ISS will be useful to such a program of human exploration, it's nonsense. It's in entirely the wrong orbit. If we need a low orbit station to support other manned activities, we'll have to build another one, that's actually designed for that, and in the right place.

Now on to the actual goals.


(a) GOALS. - The Administrator shall set the following goals for the future activities of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's human space flight program:

(1) Within 8 years after the date of enactment of this Act, the development and flight demonstration of a reusable space vehicle capable of carrying humans from low Earth orbit to the L 1 and L 2 Earth-Sun libration points and back for the purposes of assembling large-scale space structures such as would be required for scientific observatories, to the Earth-Moon libration points and back, and to lunar orbit and back.

Wonder how they came up with eight years? Kennedy's "...within the decade..." had a nicer rhetorical flourish to it.

For those who don't know, the L-1 and L-2 points are two of what are called "Lagrange points," after the French mathematician Josef Lagrange, who discovered them in the process of solving what was called the "three-body problem." This problem is a classic orbital mechanics question: what happens when an object is influenced by not just one body, as is a satellite in orbit, but two (e.g., earth and Moon). (Lagrange also developed powerful new techniques for doing analysis of dynamics in general, using energy methods, rather than Newton's vector methods, which rapidly become intractable for complicated problems.)

Actually, it's more properly called the "two-and-a-half body problem" because the mass of the third object is ignored (just as the mass of a satellite is generally ignored when computing its orbit around the earth, because the earth's mass is so large in comparison that we don't have to worry about how much the satellite swings the earth back and forth as it goes around it--it's negligible).

Lagrange points are those locations in which the combined forces of the two bodies balance the orbital motion, so that the object stays in the same position relative to them. There are five of them. The two being referred to here are on a line between the two bodies. L-1 is in between them, and L-2 is outside of both of them, on the side of the smaller. For instance, the L-1 point for earth and Sun is between the earth and the Sun, and the L-2 point is farther from the earth than the Sun, but on the line connecting them.

Some scientists believe that these would be interesting places to put observatories, to study both earth and Sun. So the goal here is to develop a vehicle, designed to operate only in space, that could provide transportation of crew and cargo to those locations, as well as to the earth-Moon libration points, and to lunar orbit. Any vehicle that can get to the earth-Sun points would be easily capable of the latter, because they're much closer.

It's not a bad capability to have, but I think that they're putting the cart before the horse. More on that a little farther down.

(2) Within 10 years after the date of enactment of this Act, the development and flight demonstration of a reusable space vehicle capable of carrying humans from low Earth orbit to and from an Earth-orbit crossing asteroid and rendezvousing with it.

OK, but I don't understand how the requirements for this differ from the first vehicle described above, other than possibly duration of the mission. That wouldn't be a design issue, per se, though, other than possibly heavier shielding, and perhaps more comfortable accomodations.

(3) Within 15 years after the date of enactment of this Act, the development and flight demonstration of a reusable space vehicle capable of carrying humans from lunar orbit to the surface of the Moon and back, as well as the development and deployment of a human-tended habitation and research facility on the lunar surface.

A vehicle designed to land on the lunar surface would be a different one than one that operates only in orbit, so this separation does make sense. Basically, what they're proposing here, after development of the orbital transfer vehicle from (1) and (2) is building a lunar base with the infrastructure to support it. You know, like my grade-school teachers told me in the sixties we'd have in the seventies...

(4) Within 20 years after the date of enactment of this Act, the development and flight demonstration of a reusable space vehicle capable of carrying humans from low Earth orbit to and from Martian orbit, the development and deployment of a human-tended habitation and research facility on the surface of one of the moons of Mars, and the development and flight demonstration of a reusable space vehicle capable of carrying humans from Martian orbit to the surface of Mars and back.

They're proposing that we develop vehicles capable of going to Mars. I think that the asteroid-mission vehicle would be capable of doing that, and the lunar-surface vehicle would lend itself to being adapted to the Mars surface mission.

They want to establish bases in Mars orbit first, on either Phobos or Deimos, the Martian moons (which are really captured asteroids--they're very similar in nature and composition).

But back to my "cart before horse" comment. There's no mention here of how we're going to get to orbit, affordably or otherwise. And if you don't know that, it's foolish to design your orbital vehicles.

Payloads tend to be designed around the capabilities of the vehicles that are going to launch them. The only large-scale exception was Apollo, in which the Saturn V was developed for the explicit purpose of launching the payload destined for the Moon.

If NASA starts designing orbital systems without knowing how they're going to get them into orbit, they're either going to end up redesigning them, or forcing requirements on the new launchers that aren't optimal. Most importantly though, there's going to be no way to estimate what this will cost unless we know the cost of getting from earth into space, which remains the dominant cost in most of what NASA does.

The next section discusses implementation.


(1) ESTABLISHMENT. - The Administrator shall establish an Office of Exploration, which shall be headed by an Associate Administrator reporting directly to the Administrator.

(2) FUNCTIONS. - The Office of Exploration shall, in coordination with the Office of Space Flight, the Office of Space Science, and all other relevant Offices, be responsible for planning, budgeting, and managing activities undertaken by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to accomplish the goals stated in subsection (a).


(1) COMPETITIONS. - The Administrator shall establish a process for conducting competitions for innovative, cost-efficient mission concepts to accomplish each of the goals stated in subsection (a). The competitions shall be open to entities or consortia from industry, academia, nongovernmental research organizations, National Aeronautics and Space Administration Centers, and other governmental organizations. Mission concepts may include the provision of a commercial item or service sufficient to accomplish all or part of the relevant goal. Mission concepts that include international participation and cost-sharing shall be encouraged. The Administrator shall solicit proposals for the competition with respect to the goal stated in subsection (a)(1) not later than 180 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, and shall determine when it is appropriate to conduct competitions with respect to each of the other goals stated in subsection (a).

Here they at least pay lip service to competition. But they don't mean competition within the government--they're just talking about a competitive procurement.

The rest of it is just boiler plate procurement procedures. I'm not sure that this level of specificity belongs in legislation, but there's nothing particularly noteworthy about it.


(e) AUTHORIZATION OF APPROPRIATIONS. - There are authorized to be appropriated to the Administrator for carrying out this Act -

(1) $50,000,000 for fiscal year 2003; and
(2) $200,000,000 for fiscal year 2004.

So fifty million next year, and two hundred million the year after that. This is what is known as the camel's nose under the tent.

While I'm glad to see someone at least acting like they care if we do something useful in space, I think that this is doomed to failure. It's not the 1960s any more, but the thinking in the beltway doesn't seem to recognize that. It's not just a matter of setting a goal--we have to be more intelligent about how we carry it out.

As I've said before, we need to get the cost of access down before we can figure out the best way to open up the solar system, and once we do that, major government programs like this may no longer be needed--the National Geographic Society could sponsor a Mars expedition.

But if you're a congressman with a major NASA center in your district, that's not the right answer.

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 16, 2002 05:02 PM
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That's a pretty good critique of Lampson's Big Idea (the title of an oped piece I've submitted to the Houston Chronicle.)

I see a couple of other problems with the bill. First, it lacks focus. Lampson includes just about everything one would want to do beyond LEO for the next twenty or thirty years in his bill. I think that should it ever became law (about the same possibility of my flying to the Moon without aid of a spacecraft), it would sooner or later collapse of its own weight. The space station was like that; the original included just about everything one would want to do on a space station on one facility. We know what happened subsequently.
Second, Lampson indulges in a bit of micromanagement. Is the transportation infrastructure he proposes appropriate for what he wants to do? I don't know, but it seems to me that question is best answered by engineers and mission planners, not the Congress.
Lampson would have been better to propose some focused program, with specific goals, limited in scope, which could be accomplished for a few billion and in a few years. My favorite (of course) is a series of lunar expeditions to prospect for natural resources, scout out locations of a base or settlement, and test technologies that would support the same.

Posted by Mark R. Whittington at May 16, 2002 09:27 PM

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