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The Fundamental Problem
Jeff Foust and Charles Miller talk about the real issue with space--the fact that we still can't afford to get there on any useful scale.
On a related note (though it's not obvious that they're related, other than the fact that both pieces appear in today's issue of The Space Review), Greg Zsidisin wonders whether we are going to repeat the Apollo debacle.
Well, that depends on what you think "the Apollo debacle" is.
If I read him correctly, Greg seems to think that it was abandoning the Apollo hardware and its capabilities and replacing it with the flawed concept of the Shuttle:
It's déjà vu all over again, of course. Shortly after Apollo 11, NASA triumphantly presented its funding list of "next logical steps". These included human Mars exploration, Moon bases, and a large space station in Earth orbit serviced by a reusable "space shuttle". At the time, the US was engaged in the costly, divisive Vietnam War, while the economy was beginning a big slide that would result in double-digit inflation in the early '70s.
The problem is that "the next logical steps" weren't necessarily all that logical, but they did fulfill the von Braunian vision (which is what it was based on). In a sense, the Shuttle was the "next logical step," but only in the sense that it was an attempt to make space affordable--something that Saturn never would have done, had we continued it, as so many now nostalgic for that era would prefer. In fact, such misplaced nostalgia for large expendable rockets is at the heart of the cargo-cultish approach of ESAS--it is an attempt to return to the glory days, when we went to the moon, and the whole world watched.
The mistake of Shuttle was not in seeking CRATS (Cheap Reliable Access To Space, which is essential, as Foust and Miller point out). It was in the approach taken to do it. And in that, I don't mean a reusable system. It was in thinking that it was a task for a major government, Manhattan-Project-style initiative on the scale (or even on a smaller scale) of Apollo, in which the government would develop, build and operate a fleet of vehicles (of a single design) to handle all of the nation's (and hopefully, much of the world's) space transportation needs.
No, it was no mistake to set as a goal the dramatic reduction of costs, and increase in routine access to space, which was in fact the original goal of the Shuttle program, and why, despite its many successful flights with useful accomplishments, it was an utter failure programmatically. It should still be the goal, but we have to take a different approach, and not just technically, (again) as Foust and Miller point out:
Any new initiative to achieve CRATS must address the repeated national failures (Shuttle, NASP, X-33, X-34) to achieve CRATS. Instead of trying the same old thing over again, and expecting different results, a new initiative would address the core reasons for the failure, and provide some ideas on a new approach.
Unfortunately, the core reasons for the failure lie at heart in our overall approach to, and thinking about spaceflight. I've often noted that we got off on the wrong track half a century ago, when space technology (at least for human spaceflight) became an expression of technical ability in a race between two Cold Warriors, rather than a utilitarian development for commerce and national security. In so doing, it created a mindset on the subject from which it is difficult for most policy analysts, let alone the general public, to escape. It also created a politically potent iron triangle between NASA, the contractor community, and the Congress that makes it difficult to implement new or innovative policy solutions, because the success of those rent seekers is not contingent on actual progress in space. As long as the contracts continue, and the jobs remain in place, and the lobbyists make their political donations, it doesn't really matter that much whether or not the human space program is expanding humanity into space, or making us a spacefaring nation, because those goals are not nationally important.
The good news is that there is pressure from outside that system to force change. One, as is noted in the Foust/Miller piece, is the growing awareness in the military of the vulnerability of our space assets, and that the only real solution to this is responsive space, not just in terms of access, but also in terms of replacement systems. One of the several ways in which NASA has completely flouted the recommendations of the Aldridge Commission is to propose an architecture that contributes almost nothing to national security. Another way, equally if not more important, is that it contributes almost nothing to nurturing private space enterprise.
Even ignoring all of the technical problems with it, these two factors are probably what will doom it. When the budget crunch comes, unlike the Shuttle, NASA will be unable to call on the Pentagon to come to bat for it. And while private space companies will continue to support the Vision for Space Exploration in the abstract, none of them have any motivation to support ESAS itself. Particularly when there are much more lucrative, and less fickle markets, as they start to satisfy private desires to go, and ignore NASA's continued emphasis on a voyeuristic program that allows us to watch a few civil servants go to the moon while we foot the bill.
I have long said that NASA's approach is essentially socialist, but I realize now that I've been wrong in that assessment. Since reading Jonah Goldberg's book, I've slowly come to realize, over the past few months, that a much more accurate phrase for it is fascist (not that there's anything wrong with that).
Chair Force Engineer recently came to the same conclusion:
In order to justify the enormous expense of the space shuttle borne by the American taxpayers, and to get the flight rate up to levels which would make the vehicle economical, the shuttle was used to launch commercial payloads during its early years. The thought of a government-funded, government-operated vehicle launching commercial payloads should be anathema to freedom-loving Americans. But the shuttle served its need as "the moral equivalent of war." After all, the Russian efforts to duplicate the shuttle capabilities with Energia-Buran helped to bankrupt the Soviet Union. And the shuttle & space station continue to serve as symbols of national pride, promoting the religion of the state.
Exactly. We are supposed to contribute to the glorious State's Space Program, and be content to watch the chosen Representatives of the State, our Celestial Gladiators, go out into the cosmos for us. That is the von Braunian vision (hey, anyone remember where he got his start?), and Mike Griffin (who I'm pretty sure sees himself as von Braun's successor) is eager to continue it. And it doesn't help that neither he, nor any of his other OSC compadres--Tony Elias, Bill Claybaugh, Doug Stanley, et al--even believe that CRATS is achievable. It's a convenient belief, of course, if one wants to build big rockets at taxpayer expense. But we shouldn't fool ourselves that it has anything to do with classically liberal American values. Or becoming a truly spacefaring nation.
Fortunately, we are reaching a point at which we will no longer be able to afford such grand visions of "One NASA" (Ein NASA, Ein Volk, Ein Administrator), and will instead be focused on actual mission needs by the military, and commercial desires of people who actually want to do stuff in space, with their own money. At that point, perhaps, the Cold War will finally be over for the one agency that, like a few Japanese soldiers on remote islands, who hadn't gotten the word, even into the sixties, continued to fight on well past its end.
[Update about noon eastern]
OK, maybe Mike Griffin isn't von Braun's heir:
Werner Von Braun's body was found in China this week after making the trip from D.C. No, he wasn't exhumed, he just churned in his grave until he augured all the way through after an unidentified visitor paying respects whispered to him graveside about the latest hare-brained scheme to make ARES 1 lift off and fly right.
OK, so it's not simple or soon. But as noted at the link, if it never flies, at least it will be safe.
[Late Monday evening update]
Based on his comments, Mark Whittington apparently hasn't read Jonah's book, despite the fact that he attempted to review it.
From the first edition, pages 210-211 (my annotations are in square brackets, and red), "Even Kennedy's nondefense policies were sold as the moral analogue of war...His intimidation of the steel industry was a rip-off of Truman's similar effort during the Korean War, itself a maneuver from the playbooks of FDR and Wilson. Likewise, the Peace Corps and its various domestic equivalents were throwbacks to FDR's martial CCC. Even Kennedy's most ambitious idea, putting a man on the moon, was sold to the public as a response to the fact that the Soviet Union was overtaking America in science..."
"What made [Kennedy's administration] so popular? What made it so effective? What has given it its lasting appeal? On almost every front, the answers are those elements that fit the fascist playbook: the creation of crises [We're losing the race to the Soviets! We can't go to sleep by a Russian moon!], national appeals to unity [They are our astronauts! Our nation shall beat the Soviets to the moon!], the celebration of martial values [The astronauts were all military, the best of the best], the blurring of lines between public and private sectors [SETA contracts, anyone? Cost plus? Our version of Soviet design bureaus?], the utilization of the mass media to glamorize the state and its programs [No Life Magazine deal for chronicling a bowdlerized version of the astronauts' lives? Really?], invocation of a "post-partisan" spirit that places the important decisions in the hands of experts and intellectual supermen, and a cult of personality for the national leader [von Braun? "Rocket scientists"? Not just Kennedy Space Center, but (briefly) Cape Kennedy?]."
Bold type mine (in addition to red annotations).
Nope, no fascism here. Nothing to see here, folks.
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