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« "Let My People Die" | Main | Armadillo »

Jim Muncy Speaks

Talking about how a year ago he propounded a strategic deal that we could and should cut with NASA--if NASA was going to invest in COTS and technology, and fund Centennial Challenges and buy suborbital rides, and reach out to New Space, then why not let them (instead of fighting with them) do Ares? Why fight about Orion, or capsules versus wings. If we could find a way to get enough money out of them over the next few years to do the things that we needed to get done, then go ahead and let them do what they were going to do to get to LEO, because we were going to beat them to the moon. He was not saying we should support Constellation, or Ares or Orion--he was simply saying, "Why fight it?"

He was wrong. Not that we should get into fights over designs, but he was wrong to think that NASA wouldn't screw it up. But the way they seem to be going about it is internally logical and consistent, and predictable with the circumstances they face, but Orion and Ares are eating up many things in the agency, including the things we thought we hoped we'd get. So the truce is over.

Notes that it's easily as much Congress' fault. NASA had the original idea of letting a lot of people try a lot of things, but because Congress couldn't figure out which district the money would get spent in, or when it would get spent, they didn't understand, or have any interest in prizes. Their job is politics, and you pass bills based on getting 51%. Decisions are made on both substantive and political grounds, and when the appropriations committee doesn't know who's going to win the prize, they don't know who's going to come to the fund raiser. They don't see the lobby. It's hard to get federal funding for some set aside that someone might win or might not. He's not a great fan of prizes as a cure-all, but they can be a useful mechanism. And NASA never explained to Congress that if the prizes work, there would be lots of jobs in lots of districts, and if NASA was seen to be responsible for this, it would make it easier for NASA to win support. And now NASA has stopped asking for money for them.

He's concerned that NASA is more interested in cutting deals with foreign partners than nurturing commercial US industry, and they are setting themselves up for having station eat them alive because they won't be able to afford to service it. They gave Marshall the easiest, low-tech rocket to design, and they gave JSC the easiest low-tech crew vehicle to design, and it's going to take until 2015, and cost a lot of money. They have cut Advanced Capabilities, and don't think they need it because they don't seriously expect to do much research at ISS. But it also involved with coming up with better ways to do things in exploration. They are not designing any infrastructure to be commercially owned and operated.

NASA trying to rush Orion in order to get to ISS. The "gap" isn't a national security gap, or a human spaceflight gap, or an American spaceflight gap. It's simply a US government human spaceflight gap. Are we really so cynical about US capitalism and innovation that we don't believe that private enterprise could do the job if given incentives? Griffin himself admitted there was no schedule pull for going back to the moon--the only schedule pull for political support was the gap. The notion was that Congress would care so much about space station that they would fund NASA to fill the gap. "If they wanted it so badly, why didn't they just put out a few billion-dollar prizes to accomplish it"? Because they didn't know where or when the money would be spent. Democracy is the worst form of all the others, but he's not very happy with its results in space policy right now.

There are other bad ideas. Like United Launch Alliance. How could they let this past the anti-trust statutes? They're adding additional oversight, and SETA contractors, and FFRDCs and other "powerpoint shops," as though that would solve the problem.

Now that he has that out of his system, he feels better.

Now for the good news.

Dynamic leadership at the FAA that helped with the passage of the revolutionary legislation a couple years ago. AST is now a star in the FAA for the work they're doing in nurturing this industry. There's now ten million dollars in the airport improvement program this year that can be used to convert/expand airports to spaceports. Spaceport insfrastructure is now recognized as strategic and is funded by the federal government.

Operationally-responsive space is now getting attention from the Air Force, something we've been preaching for years. Transitioning from large, expensive infrequent satellites to small, cheaper, often satellites, with surge capability. And there's a private industry that needs vehicles that can do this for their own needs (providing passenger transport). Even Congress has gotten on board, because they know that the war fighter in the field actually wants to have intelligence when he needs it, not months later. It could make sense to spend a few millions dollars on a Tascat/Falcon launch to get something into place that can make a difference in a battle, and the Chinese ASAT test woke them up, because these "gold plated satellites can't be armor plated as well." There's now eighty million dollars for ORS, though the Air Force was fighting against having anything in their budget for it a few months ago. The relevant new chairman in the House recognizes the need to invest more in "PC" satellites and less in "mainframe" satellites. Cautions that we don't know how successful this will be, but there are opportunities there.

Mike Griffin continues to fund COTS at half a billion, and he's doing other things with other private entities, but Jim is afraid that it's too little, and that Congress won't continue to support it. Doesn't know how things will turn out--not as good as he thought they would last year, but there are good things happening. This industry is encouraging, and despite his "downcast eye," he is happy to see us, and happy to be with us and not in DC.

Ending on (what he thinks is) a positive note. One of the accomplishments that Mike Griffin has accomplished is that Shuttle will not fly much past 2010 or 2011. There are only tanks left for seventeenish more flights, and it costs four billion dollars a year. If they don't end by then, they won't get to the moon.

Posted by Rand Simberg at March 23, 2007 03:56 PM
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