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Alienating Constituencies

Clark Lindsey has lots of interesting thoughts on NASA's priorities:

It certainly seems strange that NASA is initiating the VSE by alienating virtually every natural constituency that it has. In addition to this hit on space education, the science community is becoming convinced that the VSE just means big cutbacks in its funding (At NASA, Clouds Are What You Zoom Through to Get to Mars - NY Times - Mar.21.05), the aviation community is now sure that NASA wants to eliminate all aeronautical research (Congress Quizzes NASA On Cuts in Aeronautics Spending - Space News - Mar.21.05), closing a research center or two will certainly reduce its circle of friends (NASA BRAC: a bad idea - The Space Review - Mar.21.05), and cancelling the Hubble repair mission angered every astronomy fan in the country.

It's not as if NASA has a shortage of waste. It could clearly accomplish much more with its 16 billion dollar budget. Often it appears, however, that particular NASA programs are cut not because they are failing or because they lack cost-effectiveness, but because they are small and don't have the political clout to fight back. Meanwhile, the huge Shuttle and ISS programs relentlessly suck up all funding in sight.

He also has an updated timeline for private space activities. He's increasingly optimistic. Me too. But I'd expand on one point that he makes:

In the US, for example, it is quite possible that NASA's new exploration initiative will fail to produce new systems that significantly lower the cost of access to space.

I would put it more strongly. It will almost certainly fail to do so, particularly since that doesn't even seem to be a program goal.

Based on the results of the architecture studies so far, NASA seems to find it satisfactory to spend billions to send a handful of NASA astronauts to the moon once or twice a year fifteen years from now. Mike Griffin wants to develop a heavy-lift vehicle for that purpose. The traffic rate doesn't justify one such a system, let alone the two that would be required to provide resiliency in the architecture.

The utter economic absurdity of our current approach to spaceflight (which seems largely a return to the glory days of Apollo) continues.

[Update a few minutes later]

One other comment on his new timeline:

2009-2010: ...NASA cancels the CEV under development by one of the large aerospace consortiums and contracts with the America's Space Prize winner for its launch needs.

I don't know if they'll cancel the CEV per se, because they still need an entry vehicle capable of returning astronauts from the moon, unless the plan changes to have them deorbit propulsively. This requires much more heat shielding than a simple entry vehicle from orbit, because the specific energy to be dissipated is twice as much.

What NASA will really have to do (and should be thinking about now) is how to design the CEV with the flexibility to "unbundle" its functions. Private access to orbit means that they don't have to develop the CEVLV (which probably consists anyway of simply "human rating" an EELV like Delta 4 or Atlas V, whatever that quoted phrase turns out to mean), and they don't have to deliver crew to orbit in the CEV command module. Cheap access to orbit, for both people and propellant, will require a radical rethinking of the requirements for a CEV from the current ones, including propellant depots at LEO (probably low inclination, not ISS orbit), as well as at L1 and on the lunar surface. With sufficient propellant available from the moon, propulsive circularization in LEO (perhaps with an aerobrake assist) from the lunar vicinity becomes a more reasonable proposition, and we can design systems that are more specialized for their environment, rather than one that, like Apollo, has to go all (or most) of the way to the moon from the earth's surface, and return, which is the current CEV concept.

And part of that rethinking also has to be the possibility of private interest in developing regular commerce to and from the moon...

Posted by Rand Simberg at March 22, 2005 05:39 AM
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I think it's likely that NASA's return to the moon program will be canceled. Not because of beating them to it, though I hope they do, but because of a federal budget crisis. The Medicare and Social Security problems will be approaching full bloom during that period 2010-2020. Add to that the overall Federal debt currently approaching 50 trillion dollars (that includes future liabilities), and I can see the public and the politicians willing to cancel all space programs.

Posted by Jeff Arnall at March 22, 2005 07:24 AM

Where's MirCorp on Lindsey's list? He predicted great things for them in the last one.

Posted by Robert Elfreng at March 22, 2005 07:48 AM

Jeff, possibly.

Although other effects of various deficits could come into play.

I've pointed out in various fora that, even if you completely abolished NASA, the amount of money freed up by that act comes to only 1/100th of the amount we spend on health care (of which Medicare is a major part) and 1/25th we spend on K-12 education.

There seems to be significant evidence that we waste lots of money on health care that does not seem to make us healthier. I don't know if that is true or not. Given the fact that several countries spend much less per capita on health care with apparently equal results does tend to indicate the truth of that claim.

Completely killing NASA would have little effect on those deficits. Honestly addressing real shortcomings in health care would have far larger impacts. I suspect the latter approach is one that will be tried before NASA is completely abolished -- or even suffers as much as a 50% cutback.

Posted by Chuck Divine at March 22, 2005 10:32 AM


I agree. I work as a contractor to Medicare, and am familiar with their budget. But when most of the population is up in arms about their Medicare or SSA benefits being cut, they aren't going to be thinking logically, and all sorts of useful stuff besides NASA will be cut.

Posted by Jeff Arnall at March 22, 2005 10:39 AM

Enlarging the funding base beyond taxpayer generated revenue is the key step.

However Beltway types will hesitate to do that (whether DEM or GOP) because the man who writes the golden check also writes the rules.

Private funded space too esaily escapes from Washington control.

= = =

I believe NASA should launch a space hotel. Use one HLLV shot or a handful of EELVs and Bigelow inflatables and allow any tourist riding a private launched from America rocket to stay for free.

Soyuz guests are welsome, but they need to pay. ;-)

Then auction the thing off to recover taxpayer funds.

IMHO, creating this demand will stimulate alt-space far better than any $100 million prize.

Posted by Bill White at March 22, 2005 10:43 AM

> I believe NASA should launch a space hotel. Use one HLLV shot or a handful
> of EELVs and Bigelow inflatables and allow any tourist riding a private launched
> from America rocket to stay for free.

Um, Bill -- NASA has already launched a "space hotel." Look up ISS. It's been in all the papers. :-)

> Then auction the thing off to recover taxpayer funds.

How would that "recover taxpayer funds"? Who would bid on it?

> IMHO, creating this demand will stimulate alt-space far better
> than any $100 million prize.

What planet do you live on, Bill?

Repeat after me: A space station that you can't afford to get to is worthless -- No matter how billions NASA spent on it.

Posted by at March 22, 2005 06:45 PM

I find it interesting that Clark mentions America's Space Prize. If Burt Rutan thinks that the deadline for ASP is too short (which he does,) how can anybody realistically expect to win it?

My guess is that Bigelow will end up extending the deadline for ASP after Jan. 10, 2010 passes. Rutan won't be able to get serious about an orbital spacecraft until around 2008, after SpaceShipTwo is making money for Richard Branson.

Posted by Impossible Scissors at March 23, 2005 12:48 PM


You make a good point. Irrational behavior is more difficult to predict than rational.

It will be interesting to see what might happen, though, if evidence of really massive waste in health care comes to people's attention. I've seen some pretty dramatic shifts in public opinion in my lifetime. Liberal Democratic President LBJ won massively in 1964. He was succeeded by Republican Nixon in 1968. The liberal Democrat George McGovern in 1972 tanked horribly.

I know I'm still wondering what the impact of the Schiavo case will be. It's a real wild card currently.

Posted by Chuck Divine at March 23, 2005 03:45 PM

I'll try to respond to some of the items posted here.

With respect to MirCorp (, there are several points. Xero ( is one of MirCorp's investments and it seems that it will become the European alternative to Zero-G ( Orbital Recovery ( is also on track to launch its space tug in 2008. (I don't know if MirCorp was formally the vehicle he used to invest in ORC but Walt Anderson was one of the founders of the company).

MirCorp certainly won't be launching any space habitats anytime soon. (Never if Anderson is convicted). Neither will Spacehab. On the other hand, Bigelow's development of inflatable habitats is far more ambitious and on a much faster timescale than I thought possible in 2003.

As I try to emphasize, the main point of the exercise is just to show that privately financed space development has become a reality. Individual companies will come and go but the movement still makes progress.

Altair, Osborne, etc. made their impact on PC development and great things were predicted for them but they disappeared. Instead other companies came along to do the great things. Creative destruction is an essential part of the process.

The question is whether that kind of depth and resiliency exists yet with development. I would say it does at the suborbital spaceflight level. It's going to happen even if, say, Virgin had some sort of financial crisis and Branson had to shut down his spaceflight operation. There are still several other companies that are going to fly vehicles.

Orbital progress is more fragile. If either Bigelow or Musk decide to stop their programs, there don't seem to be any moguls at the moment ready to take their place. (One could say that Musk stepped in after Beal gave up on building an orbital launcher.)

I also would be more comfortable with an America's Space Prize deadline moved back a couple of years. I just don't think that 2010 is totally impossible. Again, the fact that we are talking about private orbital systems by 2012 rather than 2010 is an enormous paradigm shift from just a few years ago when the suggestion of a private manned spaceflight program of any kind was considered completely ridiculous by most people.

With regard to economics, I would urge people to keep things in perspective. In 2004 the US economy had a $12 trillion dollar GDP and 4.4% growth. (See BEA stats.) We've averaged around 3.3% annual growth since 1983.

The SS studies are extremely conservative and assume growth rates of around 1% for most of the years in those 50 and 70 year projections. If instead, the economy grows at a more historically consistent rate of 3%, the GDP in 2054 would be $53T and in 2074, $95T. Total accumulated household wealth will be at least 3 or 4 times those numbers.

With most technologies accelerating rather than slowing down, I don't think that maintaing such a growth rate is impossible even though it does get tougher and tougher as the GDP becomes so enormous. Having a solar system sized economy will help!

Posted by Clark at March 23, 2005 11:06 PM

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