Saturday, April 17, 2010

Closing the astronaut office

President Obama's new direction gives the coup de grace to NASA's moribund human spaceflight program, although he tried to mollify space buffs by a few vague comments about a mission to an asteroid Real Soon Now – i.e., in only 15 or 20 years. In other words, he proposed a project that would not start until well after he is out of office, so funding it can be some future President's problem.  He did not specify which asteroid, so I suggest that we designate it by the Greek letter pi. This will allow us to call the project by its rightful name, as the Pi in the Sky Program.

Obama says that development of the Orion spacecraft (an Apollo Command Module on steroids) will continue, so that it can be used as a lifeboat attached to the International Space Station (ISS). This is an asinine make-work project, spending billions on an emergency escape capsule, grotesquely over-designed for the job, that will probably never be used. It is like saying that a freighter with a crew of six people needs a luxury motoryacht as a lifeboat.

After the retirement of the shuttles this year, there will be nothing for NASA pilot astronauts to do. Americans will be passengers on the Soyuz, piloted by a Russian (at a ticket price of $56 million), or on a private vehicle, piloted by an employee of SpaceX (or another private launch company). There is no justification for more pilots on the ISS, since it simply sits there.

The dominance of pilots as astronauts has been in decline for years. Note that Al Shepard's old job as Chief of the Astronaut Office is now held by biochemist Peggy Whitson. She flew on Expedition 5 to the ISS in 2002 and was ISS Commander on Expedition 16 in 2007, and she has more time in space (376 days) than any other US astronaut. She completed 5 EVAs, for a total time outside of more than 32 hours. So much for the claim that only male pilots have the Right Stuff.

The ISS is now supposed to remain operational until 2020.  There may be an occasional job there for a Mission Specialist (i.e., somebody who knows a lot about ISS systems), but the principal need will be for Payload Specialists. These will not be NASA astronauts but scientists who spend a few months in training (mostly in Russia), fly their experiments, and then return to their labs at universities.

The harsh reality of the Obama policy is that keeping the astronaut office open and the various training facilities running is now an unjustifiable waste of money. With no need for pilot astronauts for the next  decade or two, NASA will have to sell the fleet of T-38s and either mothball the simulators or offer them for rent to Elon Musk at SpaceX. If I were a NASA pilot astronaut, I would now be rushing to get my resume to Elon ahead of the crowd.

There are two underlying reasons for this sorry debacle. The first is that, since NASA's inception in 1959, the engineers in middle management have suffered from the delusion that the only real purpose of spaceflight is to test spacecraft (in contrast to everybody else, who think that the purpose of spacecraft is to enable spaceflight). This means, for example, that they thought the real objective of Project Constellation was not to learn more about the Moon but to build and test new hardware, so they did not understand that repeating Apollo 50 years later would make the agency an object of ridicule.

The second reason for the failure is that, as Chris Kraft once said, people at Johnson believe that "being in charge of manned spaceflight is their birthright." NASA has always preferred controlling a small, pointless human spaceflight program, going nowhere, to playing a supporting role in a healthy, growing program, funded by investors rather than taxpayers. Until recently, NASA has been quite effective in sabotaging potential competition.

These pathological attitudes led NASA into a series of colossal blunders, starting with the decision to build the shuttle in 1972. Instead of learning from that disaster, NASA compounded it by rejecting the Industrial Space Facility (proposed by Max Faget and Joe Allen) in favor of the monstrous white elephant called the ISS. They did it again in 2004, by committing to Project Constellation.

It is very sad to see the death of the program for which we had such high hopes when Neil Armstrong announced that the Eagle had landed. I have however given up any expectation that reforming NASA can make it an aid rather than an impediment to the expansion of our civilization into the solar system. We will eventually need a government role in exploratory missions beyond cislunar space, but we can hope that if the present organization has been dismantled we can start over with a new one that is happy to accept its proper role in support of private enterprise off Earth.

The conclusion is that President Obama's new program will be a painful but apparently necessary catharsis.

It is however very disappointing that he has made no provision for the two projects that hold the key to our future as an interplanetary species. He talks of building a heavy-lift expendable launch vehicle (ELV), but there is no need for that capability in his plan for NASA. We will surely want heavy lift sooner or later, but it is absurd to design such a vehicle without knowing what we will use it for. Moreover, using today's technology guarantees that it will be obsolete long before it flies. 

What we really need are (1) a two-stage reusable launch vehicle (RLV) with a payload to low Earth orbit of 20 to 30 tons, and (2) a serious commitment to sunsats – i.e., space-based solar power. Sunsats can provide unlimited clean, inexhaustible electric power anywhere on Earth.  The economies of scale in any significant sunsat deployment mean that launch costs will decrease from the present level (around $10,000 per kg of payload to low Earth orbit) to less than $400/kg (using RLVs). The implication is that the cost of power from a sunsat can be quite competitive with current terrestrial sources such as gas-fired or nuclear plants (and much cheaper than terrestrial solar power). The cheap marginal launch cost, available to everybody, will lead to exponential growth in other commercial space operations. NASA and DoD will benefit as well, allowing them to do much more in space within limited budgets.

There are no technical showstoppers to development of RLVs and sunsats. NASA could help (e.g., by supporting development of suitable reusable rocket engines), but the most important requirement is assistance in reducing the financial risks (e.g., by guaranteeing the market for an RLV). With a quite modest investment, the Administration could (1) eliminate US dependence on foreign oil; (2) do far more to limit CO2 than any cap-and-trade program (if anyone still thinks that is important); (3) solve the global energy problem once and for all; (4) eliminate global water shortages by enabling cheap desalination of seawater; (5) increase food supply by enabling cheap greenhouse agriculture under rectennas; and (6) open the solar system as part of the human domain. That's a truly colossal bang for the buck.

I need to talk to Lori Garver about this. She was Executive Director of the National Space Society a few years after I was President of its predecessor, the L5 Society -- but I am sure she shared these goals. She was Obama's space advisor during his campaign and she is now Deputy Administrator of NASA.

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