Friday, January 29, 2010

The NASA Budget, Continued

This is a follow-up to my blog from yesterday on President Obama's budget. I've finally gotten caught up on my news reading, and assuming the reports are correct, here is my take on things. Please refer to the disclaimer above as far as the relationship of my opinions to NASA, my employer, or any other space-related organization...this is Bart, Private Citizen, writing.
  • Killing Constellation: The President has proposed a budget that would drastically scale back or delay the schedule of the Constellation Program, which was tasked with going to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. Constellation has several major components, including launch vehicles (Ares), a crew exploration vehicle (Orion), a lunar lander (Altair), surface systems (hardware like power and habitat systems needed for living and working on the Moon), extra-vehicular activity (EVA--spacesuits), and ground systems. It takes a lot of money, in normal-person terms--not Department of Defense terms--to design, build, test, and field all this stuff. It also takes time. The less money you give these activities, the longer they take or the less likely it is that they will be done at all. Having not seen the budget, I can only guess that Constellation has either received a total cut or enough of a cut that any NASA-run return to the Moon would not happen until my five-year-old niece is old enough to start complaining about her kids' taste in music.
  • Increasing Funding for Commercial Launches to the International Space Station (ISS): This is actually a smart idea and could/should have been done by the Bush Administration. Right now the only way to get human beings and the stuff they need to live and work on ISS is by the Space Shuttle, which will be retired after ISS is completed; crew/cargo launches by the Russians; or cargo launches by the Europeans' Automated Transfer Vehicle or, soon, Japan's cargo vehicle. But really, once Shuttle is retired, the only nation capable of flying people to and from the space station after 2011 will be Russia. This reality is just now occurring to normal (i.e. non-space) people. So what are the options?
    --Build a new rocket to replace the Space Shuttle. NASA has been doing this since 2005, in the form of the Ares I crew launch vehicle. Ares I, on its current development schedule, will not be ready to send astronauts to ISS until 2015 according to NASA plans. A presidential review panel thought that it would be more like 2016-2017. That would mean depending on Russia, et al., for at least five years, but at the end of that time NASA would again be able to send people up there.
    --Rely only on international partners until the ISS retires.
    --Encourage/pay for American private-sector aerospace companies to build launch vehicles (rockets) and spacecraft (crew capsules) to get astronauts and cargo to ISS. Some of this is already being done under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, which was designed to help new companies--outside of the usual big players like Boeing and Lockheed Martin--develop these capabilities. Two companies are getting money under COTS, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences. SpaceX is the only company of the two developing both a launch vehicle, Falcon 9, and a spacecraft, Dragon.

    If the Obama administration is proposing more money for COTS, which seems like an easy funding vehicle since it already exists, that money could go a couple different directions:
    --Accelerating SpaceX and Orbital's work.
    --Paying to modify Boeing/Lockheed rockets (now built under a joint operation called United Launch Alliance) to launch a Dragon or Orion capsule to ISS. This money, reportedly $6 billion, could go toward "human rating" the Atlas or Delta launch vehicles, essentially adding some more bells and whistles to them to make them safe and reliable enough to put humans on top of them.
  • Extending ISS Operations: This, too, makes sense. Under current plans, ISS would be completed in 2010 and then only enjoy four or five years of full-scale science and engineering operations before being closed down and deorbited (dropped into the Pacific). This presents several problems, including the difficulty of safely deorbiting a 400,000-pound space station and violating the international agreements the U.S. signed, which said that we would keep ISS operational for ten years after full assembly, which would be 2020.
Now a more ambitious person might ask, "Why don't we fund Constellation, COTS, and ISS?" A more pragmatic person--say, a politician--will stick his or her finger in the air, try guess which way the political winds are blowing, and guess (correctly) that the public isn't interested in government spending on a Moon mission "when there are so many more important things to be done here on Earth," like creating jobs. Let's pause for a moment, and savor the tragic irony of that position. Contrary to the public perception that money spent on NASA is wasted on "space," money spent on space hardware is spent mostly on salaries for people, products, and services on EARTH: high-education, high-paying jobs that would result in industrial and consumer spending now and technology advancement and spinoffs in the future.

So where does this leave us? If the President gets his way--and don't count on that--the extensive launch facilities at Kennedy Space Center would be converted to support Falcon 9, Atlas V, or Delta IV launches to ISS. The rocket-designing workforce in Huntsville, which is eager to build Ares I and the much larger Ares V for exploration missions, would be looking for jobs at ULA in Decatur. A bunch of people in Houston currently supporting Space Shuttle missions would lose their jobs, but those helping build Orion would keep theirs, and eventually NASA would again need mission control operations to support Orion missions to ISS. But for now, a lot of jobs in Florida and Alabama and Texas would be shifted to other duties or cut outright. In an economy with 10 percent unemployment, such a decision, on top of killing America's long-range ambitions for space exploration, would not be particularly popular with some segments of the electorate.

Others, like my friends at the Space Frontier Foundation (SFF), are thrilled that the government is finally getting out of the "space operations" business. I've had my moments of doubt on that issue myself. In an economy that is healthy and with a workforce that's aging, retiring the Shuttle made sense--the older folks could retire and make room for the young punks eager to prove their stuff in the marketplace. And yes, there are things the private sector can do better, like keep their eyes on the ball programmatically. They don't argue every year as to whether their goal is to make money or not. Even if management and employees change regularly, everyone knows the business is there to make money.

The government, meanwhile, has an argument about the budget every year. Some years, they want to focus on increasing employment in Florida; other years they want to spend more on environmental monitoring; in more forward-thinking years, they want to spend money on fundamental research into aerospace, space science, planetary science, and other forms of astronomy; and sometimes they think it's a good idea to send people into space. It's a chaotic way to run a business, which is why governments are not the natural mechanism for exploiting space as a long-term concern. However, exploration is an iffy proposition for businesses. Payoffs are hard to determine. Obtaining funding for purely speculative ventures is difficult or impossible without a guaranteed return on investment. Governments are also now the only organizations willing or able to fund blue-sky engineering projects like single-stage-to-orbit rockets, in-space nuclear propulsion, or large-scale outposts in orbit or on the Moon.

The previous two paragraphs explain why I have no problem with a "mixed fleet" or "mixed economy" in space. There are things government does very well, like fund basic research and development, which offer no payoff or incentives to the private sector to accomplish. This would include things like building new exploration launch vehicles or launch vehicle technologies. Government also can fund basic infrastructure, like the first outpost in low-Earth orbit, on the Moon, or at the bottom of the sea. It is also responsible for maintaining the peace, collecting taxes, and regulating things like civil law and consumer protection. The building of ISS, Constellation, space telescopes, and NASA research centers, along with setting up the Office of Commercial Space Transportation fit these functions quite well. However, there are things that private enterprise can do much better, like improving efficiency in routine, known services, such as launching cargo and (eventually) crews to ISS. The private sector can better design, build, test, and field smaller products and services for known applications, like spare parts, accounting services, or employee cafeterias. Private businesses are also best at improving upon and mass-producing new technologies once the basic principles are known.

The sticking point for the SFF is Ares I, which they see as competing with Atlas, Delta, etc. And on a purely apples-to-apples comparison of capabilities, they might have a point: Ares I and human-rated commercial rockets would both be able to launch human beings to ISS. However, while the private sector sees that capability as redundant (true), government sees that as a strategic (national security) capability, which exists outside of questions of profit or loss. Let's say, for example, that Russia and the U.S. start a diplomatic tussle, and the U.S. government no longer considers American crew members on ISS "safe." Uncle Sam would want the on-call ability to launch a rocket to ISS to retrieve those crew members. Would a private-sector comapany, its investors, or its insurers allow a private rocket and spacecraft to head into a situation that likely spelled a danger to, and loss of, company property? Possibly--but only if government was the insurer--at which point we've got a nationalized space prgoram, which was exactly what the private sector guys are trying to avoid. So: there are reasons to have a government-built and -operated rocket that can go to ISS.

But SFF overlooks the primary purpose of Ares I, which is to support missions, in tandem with Ares V, to the Moon, asteroids, Mars, or wherever. If Congress can get access to ISS more cheaply via Delta IV, they will take it...but others will still want Uncle Sam to be able to do it, just in case.

And lastly, the big point I hear the rocket guys in Huntsville argue all the time is that no private company has launched a crew or cargo ship to ISS, leaving out the important word: yet. Until that "yet" happens, the private sector needs to cool its jets, so to speak, on making claims of superiority over NASA; meanwhile, NASA needs to accept that eventually they will lose their monopoly on human access to Earth orbit. Assuming the 2011 Obama budget passes as written, the private sector will have to, as my friend Tom Olson put it today, "put up or shut up." And in the meantime, a bunch of aerospace workers in Florida, Alabama, and Texas could be facing a very tough 2011.

This ain't over.

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