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Wrong Lessons Learned
It's twenty years today since Challenger was lost with all aboard. It was the first real blow to NASA's confidence in its ability to advance us in space, or that our space policy was sound. It finally shattered illusions about twenty-four flights a year, to which the agency had been clinging up until that event, but it wasn't severe enough to really make a major change in direction. That took the loss of Columbia, three years ago this coming Tuesday.
Unfortunately, while that resulted finally in a policy decision to retire the ill-fated Shuttle program, the agency seems to have learned the wrong lessons from it--they should have come to realize that we need more diversity in space transport, and it cannot be a purely government endeavor. Instead, harkening back to their glory days of the sixties, the conclusion seems to be that, somehow (and inexplicably) the way to affordability and sustainability is exactly the approach that was unaffordable and unsustainable the last time we did it.
But one has to grant that Apollo was safe, and probably the new system will be more so than the Shuttle was. But safety shouldn't be the highest goal of the program. Opening frontiers has always been dangerous, and it's childish to think that this new one should be any different. The tragedy of Challenger and Columbia wasn't that we lost astronauts. The tragedy was that we lost them at such high cost, and for missions of such trivial value.
This is the other false lesson learned from Challenger (and Columbia)--that the American people won't accept the loss of astronauts. But we've shown throughout our history that we're willing to accept the loss of brave men and women (even in recent history) as long as it is in a worthy cause. But NASA's goal seems to be to create yet another appallingly expensive infrastructure whose focus is on recapitulating the achievements of four decades (five decades, by the time they eventually manage it, assuming they keep to their stated schedule) ago.
Will the American people be inspired by that? I can't say--I only know that I am not.
Would they be inspired by a more ambitious program, a riskier program that involved many more people going into space at more affordable costs, even if (or perhaps because) it is a greater hazard to the lives of the explorers? I surely would. But it seems unlikely that we're going to get that from the current plan, or planners.Posted by Rand Simberg at January 28, 2006 10:19 AM
But one has to grant that Apollo was safe
One has to grant that no astronauts were killed during an Apollo mission. This doesn't mean it was 'safe', or even mean that the risks they took were less than those taken on the shuttle, although admittedly, they were doing something that was inherently more dangerous than staying in low orbit.
Rand misses the point, as usual I'm afraid. NASA in fact has a program to enable just what he says he wants. COTS will help, in some small way, to jump start a commercial launch sector. But his (and others) constant complaints about NASA's return to the Moon program make no sense. He doesn't offer a detailed alternative because, and I think he knows this, he can't.Posted by Mark R. Whittington at January 28, 2006 01:30 PM
I'm a little confused. Is the objection to VSE? or is the objection to the ESAS plan to implement the VSE? or both?Posted by Brad at January 28, 2006 03:04 PM
The objection is to ESAS, which only vaguely resembles the original VSE.Posted by Rand Simberg at January 28, 2006 09:53 PM
COTS will help, in some small way, to jump start a commercial launch sector.
Yes, indeed, in "some small way" (probably infinitesimally small, if not negative, based on history), assuming that they actually follow through. The vast majority of NASA's efforts, which are not COTS, is exactly as I say. Apparently you're the one missing the point.Posted by Rand Simberg at January 28, 2006 10:51 PM
I'm an average guy who reads this blog sometimes. Most of the time I have no idea what you all are talking about. I think that is the problem. I just watched a documentary on the history channel about mission control in the 60's. My ignorant opinion is that we've watched a NASA with a clear mission exploring new territory with a young group of gifted engineers morph into a bureaucracy with the sole purpose of sustaining itself.....I don't know the mission of NASA and until people like me know what the plan is, NASA will continue to just exist. When I was a child in the 80's, I collected NASA mission patches, hung them on my wall, and dreamed of being an astronaut. I lost interest. In retrospect, I would guess that the turning point in NASA was the decision to send Christie McAuliffe into space. The missions had to be pointless by then to waste a space on a random schoolteacher.Posted by Rob at January 28, 2006 11:12 PM
Rob, though I disagree with McAuliffe being random and a wasted space (NASA's first step to putting citizens in space), I think you have the rest correct. NASA, at least with man space flight, has become a bureaucracy concerned with self sustainment rather then a mission.
NASA, with only 1 manned-launch in the last three years, doesn't look hungry to prove itself? To me, NASA seems happy it have its budget and is continuing to prod along towards Return-To-Flight version 2, "The Do Over" (Anyone see hope of a follow on flight prior to mid Fall 2006?). The STS is still planned to end 2010, but its replacement (replacement in terms of big budget item) keeps slipping to the right, following in the footsteps of the ISS program. Looks and Quacks like a bureaucracy to me!Posted by Leland at January 29, 2006 05:40 AM
Flying the shuttle again risks losing it, and then many of the bureaucrats' jobs will be threatened. So the ideal situation for them is to draw out the RTF as long as possible, and then follow with as few launches as possible over an extended period. The incentives are just the opposite of those that would lead to efficiency and cost effectiveness. The gravy train must not derail, even if that means traveling at a walking pace.
As long as Congress and space advocates are willing to settle for whatever performance NASA bothers to achieve, they'll get that minimal level of performance. The solution is to have NASA, like much of the true private sector, operate in an environment where real negative consequences follow from incompetence (loss of careers, loss of profits, loss of funding). No sacred cows that are funded regardless of what they deliver.Posted by Paul Dietz at January 29, 2006 06:05 AM
To quantify it, the RFP for COTS says that ISS can support no more than 12 docking opportunities per year. It isn't clear if that includes those already allocated to Soyuz and Progress, but let's give NASA the benefit of the doubt and assume there are 12 flights the commercial sector is allowed to bid for.
If NASA spends $500 million a year for COTS flights, each flight will be over $40 million. That's more than a Soyuz or Progress.
And NASA now says it wants multiple vendors for COTS flights. If NASA chooses 2-3 companies, that means each gets to do only 4-6 flights a year.
Now, even 4-6 flights a year would be a great accomplishment compared to the Apollo flight rate, which NASA wanta to spend over a hundred billion dollars to recreate. So, it's reasonable that people who are impressed by Apollo on Steroids would be impressed by COTS also.
The worship of Apollo and past glories have blinded NASA to the orders-of-magnitude difference between Apollo on Steroids and what is possible with aviation-style operations.
> The vast majority of NASA's efforts, which are not COTS,
To paraphrase the old Ivory Soap commercial -- it's "99.5% Pure Socialism."Posted by Edward Wright at January 29, 2006 03:59 PM
That would be "Christa," not "Christie."
Why do you consider flying teachers to be "pointless"?
Did aviation become pointless when barnstormers started flying "random" teachers? Why shouldn't random people be able to fly in space?Posted by Edward Wright at January 29, 2006 04:13 PM
I have to admit, I really see NASA as almost irrelevant to (at least my) plans - at the prices I plan to achieve, NASA's volume would be negligible. Probably not worth the hassle of going through government procurement. The employee's of NASA would seem to be likely customers though.
What is it XCOR always says, I like to think of my competition as future customers?Posted by David Summers at January 29, 2006 07:16 PM
Flying the shuttle again risks losing it, and then many of the bureaucrats' jobs will be threatened. So the ideal situation for them is to draw out the RTF as long as possible,
brian: oh, I'm sure those working on RTF has rationalized their actions quite convincingly, at least to themselves. After all, it's not at all hard in this environment to find justifications for going slow, for being extra thorough.
There is however, some truth to what you imply about individuals in NASA protecting their rice bowl at any cost, although I don’t see this as any different from any university or corporation.
The difference is that, at least in the case of corporations, the market has ultimate veto power, and isn't afraid to exercise it. Personal interest leads to a different result than in a government bureau with near-guaranteed funding.
Keep in mind that NASA doesn’t choose most of the things they do, politicians do
NASA management exerts considerable control over what is presented to the politicians.Posted by Paul Dietz at January 30, 2006 04:22 PM
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