Sunday, September 12, 2010

U.S. Human Spaceflight, Obama, and the Political Process.

Recently, I read two arguments that Obama has “in fact, pulled us almost entirely out of the manned space effort.” And that for “what he has spent on do-gooder social garbage, we could walk again on the moon”.

I think both opinions are wrong.

To the first, remember that Obama inherited a Program of Record (PoR) that would, at the funding levels authorized before he entered office, have retired the space Shuttle in 2010, ISS in 2015, and then spent billions of dollars to develop the government owned and operated Ares I launcher that essentially duplicated the payload capacity of the existing Delta IV.

The Augustine Commission estimated that the PoR would allow NASA astronauts to return to low earth orbit (LEO) around 2018-2019 in a NASA capsule atop a NASA launcher. In the interim, U.S. crewed access to LEO would depend entirely on the Russian Soyuz launcher and spacecraft.

In contrast, Obama’s NASA proposed to have the government purchase astronaut seats to orbit in privately owned spacecraft atop commercial launchers, much as NASA launches unmanned spacecraft today. The Augustine Commission estimated that this might provide U.S. access to LEO one or two years before the PoR.

As to the second argument:

Government funding doesn’t work that way.

Yes, it’s technically true that if your least favorite government program costs $5 billion a year, canceling it would make those funds available for your most favorite program.

However, Congress probably doesn’t share your preferences.

Suppose that Congress has a sudden spasm of civic rectitude, and discovers that they can spend $5 billion less a year, on programs that you don’t approve of.

How much of those savings will flow to increased funding for NASA?

Not much, I suspect.

1 comment:

Hugh Knight said...

Hi Will,

When I wrote that about “manned space flight” I didn’t say it well. I meant manned exploration of space—not just trips into LEO. In our last discussion you argued, fairly convincingly, of the value of private enterprise taking man into space. As you know, I am ideologically in support of that idea—I think private enterprise is better for most kinds of efforts—but I have seen little to make me believe private enterprise will actually stand up to the challenge. Yes, they are making hesitant, faltering first steps (and I do not mean that in a negative way—it can hardly be otherwise), but we have yet to see that they will be able and willing to carry through with what they have begun.

But I do *not* believe we will see private enterprise taking men to the moon and to Mars and beyond, and that’s what I meant by a manned space flight program. The shuttle was *never* satisfactory—a mere LEO pickup truck; useful, but ultimately not capable of getting us off of this rock. And the Mars rovers were wonderful—for what they could do. But a human could have done more in two weeks then they did in their entire mission. I want to see a colony on Mars, and I want to see explorers on Europa and Titan. No private industry will attempt that for a hundred years, if ever. Obama took away all hope of that.

You can argue that the original PoR might not have achieved its stated goals, but Obama’s plan defeats any hope. Under the previous plan we might not have made it to Mars in my lifetime, but under Obama’s plan we are guaranteed not to.

As for the point about the government not taking money from entitlements and spending them on something more important like space exploration, you’re right, of course—that was mostly my frustration speaking. None the less, Obama (and not just Obama!) has *gutted* NASAs manned efforts, and the money has gone into meaningless socialist programs; that fact cannot be denied. If people would stop voting bread and circuses we *could* spend the wasted money on space research and travel. Naïve? Perhaps, but I don’t care.

I suspect you think I don’t understand the points you’re making, but I do. Ultimately, it comes down to what amounts to a difference of focus. You believe that space work in LEO combined with unmanned probes to explore the solar system is acceptable. I disagree. I believe we must send men to the planets, and, hopefully, to the stars. I know that must seem romantic or naïve to you, or both, but I don’t see it that way. If we merely had the will and the spine we could do it.