On Gingrich’s Moon Base Plan (and Why It Won’t Happen)

A base on the Moon? That would be awesome! But it can't be done for profit... yet (ESA).
A base on the Moon? That would be awesome! But it can’t be done for profit… yet (ESA).

For more on this topic, you can listen to me chat with BBC 5live’s Dotun Adebayo (from “Up All Night” on Jan. 28 — at 1hr 26mins into the show) and check out the Al Jazeera article (“Gingrich promises US ‘moon base’ by 2020“) I was interviewed for.

In case you haven’t heard, one of the Republican presidential candidate hopefuls, Newt Gingrich, has stellar plans for the U.S. in space. Should he make it though the GOP primaries and beat President Obama in this year’s presidential elections and make it to a second second term in office, the United States of America is going back to the Moon! *applause* *cheers* *ticker tape raining down on Times Square*

“By the end of my second term, we will have the first permanent base on the moon and it will be American!” Gingrich declared on Wednesday when he was outlining his plans for NASA and the U.S. space industry during his Florida GOP campaign.

A lot of what Gingrich said seemed to make sense — less NASA bureaucracy, more commercial investment, space prizes — but the one thing the majority of the media fixated on is the “Moon base” thing.

Generally speaking, any promises made during a presidential campaign, let alone a GOP presidential candidate primary, should be taken with a big pinch of salt. Gingrich, who has been hammered by bad press and negative ad campaigns by opponent Mitt Romney, decided to go “all in” during his Space Coast speeches in the hope of persuading Florida — a key swing state — that he was their man to reinvigorate the state’s major industry.

But it looks like his promises have gone a little too far.

Sending men to the moon during the Apollo era cost the U.S. $170 billion (in today’s money). This cost encompassed the development of manned space flight technology — from the massive Saturn V rockets to the Lunar Modules. But to set up a Moon base (an American Moon base no less) the costs of developing the technology, building the base, creation of a Earth-Moon transportation infrastructure and maintaining lunar assets for many years would spiral into hundreds of billions of dollars.

But it’s OK, NASA wouldn’t be expected to pick up the bill, which is fortunate as the U.S. space agency’s budget stands at less than $18 billion (for 2012). In 1966, 60 percent of NASA’s entire budget was pumped into the Apollo Program, so if that were to happen again, NASA science would be a thing of the past.

Using incentives, Gingrich’s plan is to heavily involve private industry. 10 percent of NASA’s budget will be set aside for industrial “prizes” — presumably X PRIZE-like programs. Also, the lunar surface would be a “free-for-all” — corporations would dig in, mine and pillage the lunar surface for its treasures. And then there’s science! Don’t forget the science! SCIENCE will be done, because science is all kinds of awesome.

But there’s a juicy fly in the ointment that Gingrich appears to be ignoring: Where’s the incentive?

As we’ve already established, spaceflight is really, really expensive. Setting up a Moon base would be really, really, really expensive. The International Space Station (ISS) took international collaboration to build and maintain (not forgetting that NASA can’t even access this huge chunk of orbiting real estate without asking Russia for a hand), so whether or not you think $100 billion is a lot of dough for an orbiting outpost, “hundreds of billions” seems like a reasonable estimate for a Moon base. NASA simply can’t “go it alone” to set up an American base, it would need to be an international collaboration, or there would need to be a huge investment made by U.S. commercial interests.

Now, I’m no businessman, so I might be wrong, but companies like to see a return on their investments, right?

We could see similar deals between NASA and private space companies to courier people and cargo into space (like the COTS program that invigorates partnerships like the one between NASA and SpaceX), but again, we’d need to see significant investment by a government agency: NASA. How to get out of this government-funded loop? Let companies profit from the Moon’s resources — there must be gazillions of dollars to be made from that, right?

No.

You’ll hear many people discuss Helium-3 with huge enthusiasm, which is found in abundance on the lunar surface. Helium-3 is the much-touted fuel for fusion power plants. Fusion power is the world’s cleanest, most abundant energy resource; whoever controls the supply of Helium-3 from the surface of the moon could stand to make trillions!

Oh… wait. Fusion power plants? Yeah, we haven’t invented them yet.

What about using the Moon as a massive resource of precious metals? After all, the moon is made from the same stuff Earth is made of, gold and platinum should be hiding in that Moon rock. Why not set up vast strip mines and refineries? Hell, it would be far easier to extract raw materials and refine them in-situ on the Moon than mining asteroids.

But once again, there’s a big problem; it would cost far more to extract, refine and transport the material back to Earth (let alone the huge health & safety/insurance concerns with flying the stuff back to Earth, reentering tons of materials over populated regions) than the profit a company could stand to make from such an operation.

So, in summary, to build a Moon base it would cost a lot of money. In the current political and financial climate, there isn’t a cat in hell’s chance of seeing a U.S. government agency like NASA footing the bill. Private investment would need to be found. But companies don’t like risking tens (to hundreds) of billions of dollars unless they can see some potential for profit. A Moon base, for now, is not an investment.

Also, the Outer Space Treaty forbids any nation from “owning” any portion of the Moon — so sending U.S. companies to mine the Moon could be a pretty awkward scenario. This alone invalidates the “American Moon base” idea if it was being used for anything other than science purposes. Seeing a mining operation pop up in the Sea of Tranquility would be like BP building a refinery in the Antarctic. Sure, it can be done, but the international fallout would be horrendous (another factor that might dissuade corporate investment in the first place).

The modern world’s economy is based on growth, profit and the politics they motivate. Making money from space, in the near term, doesn’t involve bases on the Moon. Profit and growth can be found in government contracts and investment in cheap space launch alternatives. Space tourism, in the near-term, is also showing some promise. These areas of growth focus on basic space infrastructure — simply blasting stuff into orbit is a difficult and expensive task, private enterprise is currently innovating to fulfill this need. And they are doing it for profit.

A few decades from now, when our planet finally has a viable, sustainable infrastructure in space, talk of Moon bases and company profits may make more sense. But talk of building a base (let alone a Moon colony) when we don’t even have the rockets or spacecraft to get us there, is a bit like saying I’m moving to Hawaii, but there’s no aircraft or boats to get me there and… oh, by the way… I have to ship the bricks of my house to the middle of the Pacific Ocean so I can actually build a house when I get there.

Try selling that profit-making scheme to the CEO of Home Depot.

For more on this topic, you can listen to me chat with BBC 5live’s Dotun Adebayo (from “Up All Night” on Jan. 28 — at 1hr 26mins into the show) and check out the Al Jazeera article (“Gingrich promises US ‘moon base’ by 2020“) I was interviewed for.

When Stardust Met Tempel, a Love Story

Comet Tempel 1 near Stardust-NExT close approach (NASA)
Comet Tempel 1 near Stardust-NExT close approach (NASA)

A NASA spacecraft, a lonely comet and a Valentine’s date with no comparison.

Last night, NASA’s veteran Stardust-NExT mission successfully visited its second comet, Tempel 1. Having already been visited by NASA’s Deep Impact mission in 2005, it’s hard not to wonder whether Tempel 1 was a little apprehensive. Deep Impact did lob a refrigerator-sized copper impactor into the comet’s surface during the 2005 encounter, so I think we can forgive the comet some pre-date jitters.

Fortunately, Stardust was the perfect date (no impactors, silverware, dishes or bottles were thrown), just a peaceful flyby, during which the spacecraft beamed dozens of photos back to Earth. To quote Joe Veverka, Stardust-NExT principal investigator: “It was 1,000 percent successful!”

Alas, although the date was a success, there won’t be the sound of wedding bells any time soon. Stardust is now powering away from the comet at a breakneck speed. Was it something Tempel 1 said?

For more on this Valentine’s rendezvous, have a read of my Discovery News article “Stunning Photos from a Comet Near-Kiss.”

Oh yes, and I got bored, so I created a rough animation of the flyby. Enjoy!

Can Spicules Explain the Mysteries of Coronal Heating?

Solar spicules as imaged by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (NASA)
Solar spicules as imaged by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (NASA)

There’s one recurring question I’ve been asking for nearly a decade: Why is the Sun’s corona (its atmosphere) so hot?

When asking this out loud I inevitably get the sarcastic “um, because the Sun is… hot?” reply. Yes, the Sun is hot, really hot, but solar physicists have spent the last half-century trying to understand why the corona is millions of degrees hotter than the solar surface.

After all, if the air surrounding a light bulb was a couple of magnitudes hotter than the bulb’s surface, you’d want to know why that’s the case, right? At first glance, the solar atmosphere is breaking all kinds of thermodynamic laws.

The Sun is a strange beast and because of its magnetic dominance, energy travels through the solar body in rather unfamiliar ways. And today, a group of solar physicists have put forward a new theory as to where the coronal energy is coming from. But they’ve only been able to do this with help from NASA’s newest and most advanced solar telescope: the Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO.

Using the SDO’s high-definition cameras and imagery from the awesome Japanese Hinode solar observatory, features previously invisible to solar astronomers have been resolved. The features in question are known as “spicules.” These small-scale jets inject solar plasma from the solar surface into the lower corona, but until now they’ve been considered too cool to have any appreciable heating effect.

That was until a new type of hot, high-speed spicule was discovered.

“It’s a little jet, then it takes off,” solar physicist Scott McIntosh, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s High Altitude Observatory, told Discovery News’ Larry O’Hanlon. “What we basically find is that the connection is the heated blobs of plasma. It’s kind of a missing link that we’ve been looking for since the 1960s.”

These Type II spicules blast hot multi-million degree Kelvin plasma at speeds of 100 to 150 kilometers per second (62 to 93 miles per second) into the corona and then dissipate. What’s more, these aren’t isolated events, they’ve been observed all over the Sun. “This phenomenon is truly ubiquitous and populates the solar wind,” said McIntosh.

While this research provides more clarity on coronal dynamics, McIntosh is keen to point out that Type II spicules probably don’t tell the whole coronal heating story.

NASA’s coronal physics heavyweight James Klimchuk agrees. “It is very nice work, but it is absolutely not the final story on the origin of hot coronal plasma,” he said.

“Based on some simple calculations I have done, spicules account for only a small fraction of the hot plasma.”

Klimchuk favors coronal heating through magnetic stresses in the lower atmosphere generating small reconnection events. Right at the base of the corona, loops of magnetic flux channeling multi-million degree plasma high above the Sun’s chromosphere become stressed and eventually snap. These reconnection processes produce sub-resolution nanoflare events — akin to small explosions releasing energy into the solar plasma, heating it up.

Another heating mechanism — a mechanism I studied during my solar research days (.pdf) — is that of wave heating, when magnetohydrodynamic waves (I studied high-frequency Alfven waves, or ion cyclotron waves) interact with the lower corona, heating it up.

But which heating mechanism injects the most energy into the corona? For now, although there’s plenty of theorized processes (including these new transient Type II spicules), we don’t really know. We can only observe the solar corona from afar, so getting a true grasp on coronal dynamics is very hard. We really need a probe to dive deep into the solar atmosphere and take a measurement in-situ. Although the planned Solar Probe Plus will provide some answers, it may still be some time before we know why the corona is so hot.

But it is most likely that it’s not one coronal heating mechanism, but a combination of the above and, perhaps, a mechanism we haven’t uncovered yet.

For more on this fascinating research, check out Larry O’Hanlon’s Discovery News article “New Clue May Solve Solar Mystery.”

It’s Official: “2012” Sucked

Just in case you didn’t know, Roland Emmerich’s 2012 wasn’t the best of movies.

Actually, from a science perspective, it sucked.

It sucked in so many ways that I can’t be bothered to list why it sucked (so have a read of my Discovery News review instead).

Now, I’m happy to announce that NASA agrees with me. They think 2012 sucked so much, they’ve branded it the most “scientifically flawed of its genre.”

Donald Yeomans, head of NASA’s Near-Earth Asteroid Rendezvous mission, agrees with what I’ve been saying all along (especially since all that “Institute for Human Continuity” bullshit hit the internet). He said at the Pasadena Jet Propulsion Laboratory meeting:

“The film makers took advantage of public worries about the so-called end of the world as apparently predicted by the Mayans of Central America, whose calendar ends on December 21, 2012. [NASA] is getting so many questions from people terrified that the world is going to end in 2012 that we have had to put up a special website to challenge the myths. We have never had to do this before.”

Even though NASA agreed that Bruce Willis’ Armageddon was bad, it couldn’t compete with the scientific atrocities 2012 inflicted on its audience. The killer neutrinos, planetary alignment, crustal shift, geomagnetic reversal and super-duper-massive tsunamis proved too much. 2012 has even toppled The Core as worst sci-fi science movie. Now that is impressive.

But what does it all mean? Apart from us science snobs having a chuckle on our blogs, I doubt it will make the blind bit of difference. Why? This is why:

“On the opening weekend of 2012, the movie pulled in 65 million in U.S. ticket sales and an additional $160 million internationally, easily covering the $200+ million budget.

Movies aren’t about scientific accuracy, and it would seem that the hype behind 2012 can stand alone as the biggest moneymaker of all.

Fear sells, science doesn’t. The subject of doomsday will always be a blockbuster. Unfortunately, through the miscommunication of science, fear is usually the end-product.”

— “2012” Sells Tickets, Sells-Out Science

Oh well, you can’t win ’em all. Now, have a laugh:

Thanks to @mars_stu and @RogerHighfield for the inspiration.

EDIT: An earlier version of this blog post stated that the Science and Entertainment Exchange was involved with NASA’s decision to make 2012 “most scientifically flawed” movie in its list. I have received an email from the Exchange’s director that this is not the case. I have therefore edited any mention of the Exchange from the blog (even though my source, the Adelaide Now, still references the Exchange).

NASA’s Asteroid Mission: Scary but Useful

Things have been moving fast for NASA in recent weeks, culminating in President Obama’s inspiring speech at Kennedy Space Center on Thursday. I haven’t commented on the new direction for the US space agency’s direction thus far as I’ve needed some time to digest the ramifications of these plans. But generally, I’m positive about the scrapping of the moon goal in favor of a manned asteroid mission (by 2025) and Mars some time around 2035.

But it hasn’t been easy, especially after the Ares I-X test launch in October 2009.

The Ares I-X was the first new NASA manned vehicle my generation has seen take to the skies (I was only one year old when the first of the shuttle fleet launched, beginning nearly 30 years of low-Earth orbit operations, so that doesn’t count). Despite criticism that this test flight was nothing more than old tech dressed up as a sleek “new” rocket, I was thrilled to see it launch.

The end product didn’t matter on that day. Sure, we’ve been to the Moon before, but it just seemed like the best plan on the table. I was inspired, I felt excited about our future in space. Seeing how astronauts live and work on the lunar surface, using it as a stepping stone for further planetary exploration (i.e. Mars) seemed… sensible. Expensive, but sensible

But the overriding sentiment behind Obama’s new plans was that we’ve been there before, why waste billions on going back? Continuing with the bloated Constellation Program would have used up funds it didn’t have. Cost overruns and missed deadlines were already compiling.

So, the White House took on the recommendations of experts and decided to go for something far riskier than a “simple” moon hop. Things going to plan and on schedule, in the year 2025 we’ll see a team of astronauts launch for a much smaller and far more distant target than the moon.

The asteroid plan has many benefits, the key being that we need to study these potentially devastating chunks of rock up close. Should one be heading in the direction of Earth, it would be really nice to have the technological ability to deal with it. A manned mission may be necessary to send to a hazardous near-Earth asteroid. Think Armageddon but with less nukes, no Bruce Willis, but more science and planning. Besides, if a rock the size of a city is out there, heading right at us, I’m hopeful we’ll have more than 18 days to deal with the thing.

My Discovery News colleague Ray Villard agrees:

“A several month-long human round trip to an asteroid will test the sea legs of astronauts for interplanetary journeys. And, asteroids are something we have to take very seriously in coming up with an Earth defense strategy, so that we don’t wind up going extinct like the dinosaurs.”

Possibly even more exciting than the asteroid plan is what — according to Obama — will happen ten years after that: a manned mission to Mars. I can’t overemphasize my enthusiasm for a mission to the Red Planet; that will be a leap for mankind like no other. Granted, there is plenty of criticism flying around that we need to live on the moon first before we attempt to land on Mars, but looking at the new plan, we won’t be actually landing on Mars any time soon. A 2030’s mission to Mars will most likely be a flyby, or if we’re really lucky, an orbital manned mission.

And that’s why going to an asteroid will be a good first step. Spending months cramped inside a spaceship with a handful of crewmates will likely be one of the biggest challenges facing man in space, so popping over to a near-Earth asteroid first is a good idea. A Mars trip could take over a year (depending on the mission). Now, this is where technological development sure would help.

If NASA can plough dedicated funds into new technologies, new life support and propulsion systems can be developed. Those two things will really help astronauts get places quicker (avoiding boredom) and live longer (avoiding… death). For the “living longer” part, there appears to be genuine drive to increase the life of the space station and do more impressive science on it. As it’s our only manned outpost, perhaps we’ll be able to use it for what it’s designed for.

There are a lot of unknowns still, and Obama’s Thursday speech certainly wasn’t NASA’s silver bullet, but it’s a start. Allocating serious funding for space technology development whilst setting the space program’s sights on going where no human has been before will surely boost enthusiasm for space exploration. In fact, I’d argue that this is exactly what NASA should be doing.

Although I was dazzled by the Ares I-X, I can see that continuing with Constellation would have been a flawed decision. Launching a manned mission to explore an interplanetary threat sounds risky, but considering that asteroids are the single biggest cosmic threat to civilization, it sure would be useful to know we have the technology to send astronauts to asteroids, perhaps even dealing with a potential threat in the near future.

Then Spitzer Imaged Baby Stars in the Orion Nebula…

The Orion Nebula's star-forming region (NASA)
The Orion Nebula's star-forming region (NASA).

Firstly, apologies that it’s been over a month since last posting to Astroengine.com. Call it slacking off, call it a sabbatical, either way, it’s not good. I’ve actually prepared several half-finished articles, but I just never got around to completing them. However, I have been on writing overdrive over at Discovery News, so if I go quiet over here, you know where to find me.

Speaking of Discovery News, I’ve just posted an incredible image of the heart of the Orion Nebula as seen by the Spitzer Space Telescope, so I can’t think of a better way to kick-start Astroengine with an image filled with awesomeness.

Although Spitzer has entered a new phase of operations since it depleted the liquid helium coolant used to maintain its instrumentation, that doesn’t mean its stopped producing some awe-inspiring imagery. In a new vista released on Thursday, a bustling star formation region in Orion is detailed, showing some 1,500 young stars the observatory watched for 40 days. This is an unprecedented study, allowing rapid variations in these baby stars to be tracked by Spitzer.

Young stars are generally highly variable in their brightness, a characteristic that is of huge interest to astrophysicists. If we can understand the mechanisms causing this variation, we can gain an insight to stellar evolution, possibly even understanding the history of our own Solar System.

As Spitzer observes in infrared wavelengths, it’s very sensitive to clouds of dust being heated by these young stars. Therefore, the proto-planetary disks surrounding these million year old stars glow brightly. Not only does this give an indication to the conditions surrounding the star, it also provides astronomers with an idea to how these disks of dust clump together, slowly evolving into exoplanets. And now Spitzer has data sets spanning weeks, dynamic changes in the emissions from the stars and their evolving planetary systems can be studied.

But science aside, the Spitzer imagery is a thing of beauty, reminding us how complex our cosmos really is. Don’t believe me? Take a look for yourself (click the pic to dive right in):

The star forming region in Orion as studied by Spitzer, rotated 90 degrees (NASA/JPL/Caltech)
The star forming region in Orion as studied by Spitzer, rotated 90 degrees (NASA/JPL/Caltech)

The Real Inspiration Behind “Project M”

The Project M android... haven't I seen you somewhere before?
The Project M android... haven't I seen you somewhere before?

As you know, I’m highly dubious about this “Project M” that has just surfaced on the intertoobs (I strongly suspect it’s a hoax). But doubts aside, I kept looking at that android throwing stones on the lunar surface thinking I’d seen that guy somewhere before. At first, I thought C3PO from Star Wars… but no! It’s this guy:

It's uncanny! Bender from Futurama explores the lunar surface (NASA/20th Century Fox/Ian O'Neill).
It's uncanny! Bender from Futurama explores the lunar surface (NASA/20th Century Fox/Ian O'Neill).

I think Futurama’s Bender would do a fine job exploring the moon.

“Project M”? Let’s Not.

Doing for NASA what Star Wars did for sci-fi, send C3PO to the Moon! Huh?
Doing for NASA what Star Wars did for sci-fi, send C3PO to the Moon! Huh?

OK, so I have little idea about this project because there’s not much information circulating, but I hope it’s not real.

It looks like NASA’s Johnson Space Center is heading up a robotic mission to the Moon. No big surprises there as that plan is pretty much in alignment with the “Flexible Path” for the future of space exploration for the U.S. space agency. Also, now the Constellation Program has bitten the dust, we’re not going to see man return to the Moon any time soon.

So what’s the answer? Send a robot that looks like a human to the Moon instead!

As I said, there’s little information about “Project M” apart from what’s been posted on AmericaSpace:

Project M is a JSC Engineering Directorate led mission to put a lander on the moon with a robot within a 1,000 days starting Jan 1., 2010. “M” has significance in two ways. First, it is the Roman numeral for 1,000. And “M” is the first letter for “Moon”.

How is Project M different from past NASA projects?

  • No prime contractors.
  • No roadblocks.
  • Just use the best engineers in the world to get the job done on time.

There will be full press on this… including embedded media, full multimedia and social networking. Can you say “The Apprentice goes to Space?”

When will Project M begin? Next month? Next year? No, Project M has been “go” since Monday, November 9th.

But “M” is the first letter of “Missing the Point” too, but that hasn’t been mentioned.

The enthusiasm for a robotic mission to the lunar surface sounds fine and dandy, and it’s to be expected, but if they really intend to send a bipedal robotic man to the Moon within 1000 days, then NASA hasn’t learnt anything from the Constellation debacle. This smells like a publicity stunt with little to no direction and it would be a shame if serious funding is being put into it.

Could the bipedal robot just be a metaphor for the project? Possibly, but I’d have to question the common sense in doing that too.

Also, where’s the incentive (indeed urgency) to create a Manhattan Project-style group of engineers to rush this project to completion within 3 years? If the members of Project M think they can avoid the cumbersome red tape and cost overruns that NASA and its contractors have faced in the past, then great, but I don’t think that’s a reality for such an ambitious project that lacks direction.

Sure, there’s funding being ploughed into humanoid robot technology — such as the “Robonaut” that is being developed by JSC engineers and the car maker GM — but the real-world application of androids (robots designed to look and act like a human) is that they can assist human operators. Bipedal androids such as the one depicted in this promo video would be exploring (read: “picking up stones”) space by themselves. There are no humans working along side them and therefore no real reason to create them in the inefficient form of a human.

The human body isn’t exactly an optimized one for space exploration. The next robotic missions to the Moon and Mars will be rovers, with wheels, because guess what? That makes more sense than revolutionizing android technology, sending it to the Moon within 1000 days, only for it to fall over and not be able to stand back up. (I’m sure Project M would counter this argument and say that the technology would have matured to such an extent that the android would be able to stand up again, but why let it fall over at all?) The center of gravity needs to be low for stability and no matter how big you make a robot’s feet, it’s simply not going to be able to explore as efficiently as a wheeled or multi-legged all-terrain vehicle.

So, in short, I see this video as about as valuable as the ad-drawing Moon rover video. And we all know what I thought about that nonsense.

Source: NASAWatch, Universe Today

What’s NASA’s Biggest Accomplishment of 2009? It’s Still Here.

A space station in the movie '2001: A Space Odyssey.' It's hard to believe that by 2015 we might not have any space station (the sci-fi writers in the 20th century didn't see that coming).
A space station in the movie '2001: A Space Odyssey.' It's hard to believe that by 2015 we might not have any manned outpost in orbit (sci-fi writers never saw that coming).

I was only half joking when I tweeted, “Vote for your favorite NASA accomplishment in 2009: http://bit.ly/83xWlJ [x] Still existing.” I was referring to a vote that is being held over on iTWire, where they’ve listed an array of NASA endeavors and then asked their readers to pick their favorite mission/discovery.

To be honest, I wouldn’t have a clue about how to choose between a Mercury flyby, precision-bombing of the Moon or detection Martian methane; all endeavors have enormous merit and each have vastly improved our knowledge of the Universe. Each is as profound as the other. But it’s not the vote of a 3 page list of NASA achievements that I found myself most uneasy with, it’s the fact that none of these achievements can make the future of the world’s premier space agency any more secure, especially when we are talking about orbiting U.S. astronauts.

There’s a strange dichotomy of opinion: NASA is globally renowned and respected for carrying out outstanding science, and yet it is constantly lambasted (often unfairly) for its spaceflight ineptitude.

Shuttle Out. Space Station Out?

The catalyst to NASA’s human spaceflight problems is of course the retirement of the shuttle next year. We’ve seen it coming for a long time and yet the “5-year gap” hasn’t budged, in fact, it’s become a lot bigger. This gap is the number of years between the shuttle being retired and the proposed completion of NASA’s next launch system, Constellation. To fill this gap, the U.S. must use the Russian Soyuz vehicle at a premium rate. One can only imagine the diplomatic fun NASA has in store for the next few years.

And why should NASA maintain its human spaceflight program anyway? You remember the International Space Station (ISS), right? Well, it’s a good idea to have access to the biggest space station ever constructed in Earth-orbit after spending billions to build the thing. Unfortunately, the very foundations of the ISS are looking a little shaky.

Here we are with the world’s most expensive real estate zooming over our heads, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has just told the White House that the U.S. taxpayer is getting a raw deal from International Space Station (ISS) science. This obviously doesn’t sound good for the ISS’ future beyond 2015. (That is, if you can still comprehend that the space station is still slated for decommissioning in five years time.)

Slight-Of-Hand Rocketry

I only have a general idea about what information the GAO has access to, but I know that the ISS is doing continuous science in microgravity to better our understanding about how we operate in space and use instrumentation that have a huge advantage over ground-based techniques. Unfortunately, NASA is a political entity and politicians are eying the space station with more than a little skepticism. As pointed out by Greg Fish over at Weird Things, wasn’t the ISS supposed to the stepping stone to the Moon… or even Mars by now? Not so long ago I remember intense excitement for how the ISS was going to change the world. Shockingly, now I sometimes hear people say: “we have a space station?!”

To make matters worse, the shuttle replacement is underfunded and behind schedule and the shadow of doubt over Constellation is becoming blacker than a moonless night. NASA triumphantly launched the Ares I-X, only for the celebrations to be quenched by critics (including ex-Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin calling it “slight-of-hand rocketry“) pointing out that the Ares test launch was a publicity stunt at best. At worst, the space agency was conning the American public into thinking progress was being made.

Whether NASA makes any kind of Constellation progress or continues to perform outstanding science on the ISS, it seems that there is a widening disconnect between NASA science and the perception of what NASA is trying to do. Many argue that NASA is just really bad at communicating science to a public audience, but I would say that the agency is doing more than ever to communicate their stuff. Also, NASA does an awful lot more than just getting astronauts into space — their robotic missions, observatories, space telescopes and research are breaking new ground every day. So why the huge question mark hanging over NASA’s human spaceflight plans?

Myopic Politics

Well, getting man into space is dangerous, it’s expensive and it’s long-term. All of which are not good for the political nature of NASA. In 2004, President Bush made the gargantuan promise that the US would make it back to the Moon by 2020 (and Mars soon after). This sounds great, but there was no money. Bush had made a political decision based on his term in office, he had also made it after the Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy when seven astronauts lost their lives. Back then, NASA needed direction more than ever, especially as the shuttle fleet was grounded.

Although the shuttle missions recommenced and NASA got back to leading space station construction, by 2009 Bush’s “Vision” has become nothing more than a pipe dream. The money that was promised never materialized and it is now up to President Obama to get NASA’s human spaceflight plans back on its feet. But the damage has been done and the U.S. has an ailing economy and lumped with an overpriced Constellation Program. Changes need to be made.

The Augustine Commission has done something to identify the options, but the final decision comes down to what Obama and the new NASA Administrator Charles Bolden can hash out.

Commercial Rocketeers

Personally, I don’t see the Constellation Program getting off the starting blocks. But I don’t think this is due to any kind of technical or design issue, it will be purely political. Funds are tight, Constellation is too expensive. Sadly, adding insult to injury, the ISS is also in the firing line.

So now the responsibility for U.S. participation in the ISS falls on the shoulders of the burgeoning private spaceflight sector, which in itself could be a revolution in the making. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a real commercial answer to the human spaceflight problem? Using companies like SpaceX to ferry astronauts to-and-from the ISS makes a lot more sense than NASA doing the same job for way more money.

But again, I have that nagging feeling about a genuine disconnect between the public and the importance of spaceflight. Not only can human spaceflight advance human experience, it can boost our economy, education and technology. Last time I looked, those were very political sectors, it’s just unfortunate that politicians and many voters will never understand the correlation.

Actually, Obama Hasn’t Decided on the Future of NASA

You may be forgiven for thinking that President Obama had decided on the future of NASA’s human spaceflight plans yesterday, but in an official (note: official) statement from the White House today, Obama says that he has made no such decision.

Quoting “knowledgeable” (yet anonymous) sources, Science Magazine’s ScienceInsider blog said:

The president chose the new direction for the U.S. human space flight program Wednesday at a White House meeting with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, according to officials familiar with the discussion. NASA would receive an additional $1 billion in 2011 both to get the new launcher on track and to bolster the agency’s fleet of robotic Earth-monitoring spacecraft.

In a nutshell, NASA would get an additional $1 billion in funding and start work on a new (yet undetermined) heavy-lift launch system. Good news for NASA, but not-so-good news for the Ares I (and possibly Ares V, although the larger rocket wasn’t mentioned). Also, this magical silver bullet of a “new” launch vehicle would be ready for blast-off in 2018.

However, Space Flight Now has just reported that the White House hasn’t made a decision yet:

NASA and White House officials claim such reports are mere speculation, but they are providing no information on when a decision could be announced. The administration will file its fiscal year 2011 budget request in February.

Still mulling over the findings from the Augustine Commission report, Obama and Bolden have yet to arrive at an agreement as to how to progress with NASA’s human spaceflight plans. It’s now very clear that ex-President Bush’s bold “Vision for Space Exploration” was lacking a little thing called money, and the commission’s findings indicated that NASA needs an extra $3 billion in funding to keep the agency’s human spaceflight plans alive.

Although these anonymous sources are no doubt credible, it’s wise to wait until the final word from the White House is known before saying “bye-bye” to Ares.

Via: @SpaceFlightNow