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Short-Term Thinking

We're starting to see the programmatic consequences of NASA's political inability to get the Shuttle/ISS monkey off its back. I was reading the final Call For Improvement from NASA on the CEV program, that just came out this week, and noted that one of the biggest changes in it from the draft that came out late last year was that the word "methane" had been excised from it, whereas in the draft, it had been baselined. Apparently, NASA doesn't have the funds to pursue this propulsion technology, despite its potential for improved safety, reduced operational costs, and extensibility to eventual Mars (and Near-Earth Object) missions.

The Shuttle and ISS have both been programmatic disasters exactly because of decisions made early in their development to skip key technologies that could have dramatically reduced down-stream costs, and (as seems to be inevitable with a space program funded on an annual basis by a Congress that's focused on the next election), we're apparently following the same path with CEV.

NASA Watch has more on this subject, as does Clark Lindsey:

The fundamental criticism of the Exploration program that has come from the community is that the program as currently designed will make little progress towards development of a sustainable, long-term, in-space infrastructure. This decision further pushes the program towards "flags and footprints" rather than "return to stay" or "steppingstone to Mars."
Posted by Rand Simberg at January 13, 2006 05:47 AM
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This was predictable.

If there were true broad support for what VSE/ESAS is trying to accomplish, money would have been found to do the development. They wouldn't have to pinch pennies. Instead, what support is there seems to be of the 'I want my pork' variety. Architectural details or long term plans or 'doing it right' matter little when it comes to pork; what matters is dollars in specific congressional districts.

For that reason, I expect we will see more flailing, redesign, scaling back, and eventual cancellation. Like STS and ISS, it won't end pretty.

Posted by Paul Dietz at January 13, 2006 06:11 AM

Indeed it was inevitable (at least given Griffin's unwillingness to attempt to buck the status quo--he's still betting that he can somehow pull it off). But fortunately, unlike STS and ISS, the end will come faster this time, because CEV/VSE will have private competition.

Posted by Rand Simberg at January 13, 2006 06:22 AM

What private competition is that, Rand? Mind, I would love to see *serious* private, lunar enterprises, but I don't see such on the horizon any time soon.

Posted by Mark R. Whittington at January 13, 2006 12:44 PM

I expect to see them sooner than NASA getting to the Moon, which is over a dozen year off even in the unlikely event they maintain their planned schedule.

But I was referring to private competition for LEO transportation (which is the first goal of CEV). Once the price for that comes down, none of NASA's lunar architecture plan makes much sense. At a minimum, they'll have to go back to the drawing board, assuming that there aren't any plans for private lunar expeditions (but I'm sure there will be, because there already are--Bigelow, for instance--they're simply waiting for ETO costs to come down).

Posted by Rand Simberg at January 13, 2006 01:01 PM

Well, this deals a serious blow to my previous theory that Griffen was playing a rope-a-dope Bush administration style, with a deliberately unsustainable architecture that allows flexibility downstream. Nope, he's just playing an Apollo 2 hand , no bluffing.
Unless NASA pulls a shocker and switches to Lox /kerosene, I am forced to conclude that Griffen actually really intends on following through with the whole ESAS plan as currently stated. This particular decision, IMHO, is a disaster waiting to happen--it ensures that any kind of Lunar architecture that NASA develops will be essentially non-transferrable to the commercial sector at any point. Previously there was at least the hope that, if a methane/lox landing system was developed, at least the technology could be useful for commercial users. No commercial entity in its right mind will want to use hypergolics or LH2. It just doesn't make sense.

I am severely discouraged, and even considering giving up the whole NASA cheerleeding racket entirely.

Posted by cuddihy at January 13, 2006 02:10 PM

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