Sunday, February 7, 2010

$10 Billion to Save 8.7 Million Lives

I like helping people. That's why I belong to a volunteer service club within my community. I also give my money to worthy organizations every year. So imagine what I could do if I had billions of dollars!

Last week, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced that they would be committing $10 billion to provide vaccines against a wide range of diseases. That is an incredible amount of money, and could greatly reduce the occurrence of many preventable diseases, possibly saving an estimated 8.7 million lives—7.6 million of them children under the age of 5. Not to mention the number of people whose lives would simply be better.

According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy—which covers non-profit organizations—this is the largest single amount ever committed for a specific cause. It's also an incredible gesture, and I applaud Bill and Melinda Gates for taking this step.

NASA Wants Your Input

NASA has implemented an online brainstorming tool, open to the general public, seeking to improve openness, transparency, participation, and collaboration. Here is your chance to participate in developing the future of America's space program.

As you may know, I'm a big fan of openness and transparency. I'm also a fan of collaboration in science and government. In the United States, we live in a participative democracy, meaning that citizens are encouraged to get involved in government, from writing your Congressman to serving in the military to running for office. NASA's implementation of a system like this will encourage participation in government, which is a good thing.

The brainstorming system that they are using, by IdeaScale, allows for ideas to be submitted and voted upon by registered users, as well as allowing comments (like a blog) for the purpose of opening discussions. And if you have an account with Google, Yahoo!, WordPress, or AOL, you can log in by authenticating against that account.

So what are you waiting for? Go to the site and tell NASA what they need to be doing!

Monday, February 1, 2010

The New (Improved?) NASA

NOTE: Cross-posted to Getting There From Here.

If you follow space-related news, then by now you are surely aware that the White House released President Obama's budget plan for 2011-2015 today, and there is no funding for the Constellation Program (the Vision for Space Exploration created under Bush in 2003). So what does that mean? Everybody has their own opinion, but here's mine:

First, it means that the more than $8 billion spent over the past 5-6 years is basically wasted money (along with an additional $2.5 billion that will be spent to close down the program). A lot of people thought that Constellation was a flawed program—including me—but that's a lot of money to flush down the toilet. Sure, not all of it was wasted money. For example, we produced a few new scientific and technical innovations out of that money, but spending $8-9 billion to get what little we got (a single demo flight with non-representational hardware) was a bit crazy. And if Constellation had continued the way it was going, it would have been massively over-budget and late on delivering on its goals. Still, that means that the government will have spent more than $3,500 for each man, woman, and child in this country on a program that effectively accomplished very little.

At the same time, a new generation of rocket scientists got some first-hand experience at designing and building new (or at least updated versions of old) rocketry systems. Again, a pretty expensive price to pay to get some people some good experience, but given that the average age of our rocket scientists has been climbing since the 1960s, that's not really a bad thing.

But that's what it means for the past. What does it mean for the future? Well, that's pretty tough to say, since predicting the future is always a challenge. But here is what is being proposed: NASA will abandon low-earth orbit (LEO) to companies like SpaceX, encouraging and financially supporting a commercial space industry. Instead, NASA will focus on the heavy lift programs necessary to get us to the Moon, Mars, and asteroids.

NASA will spend $7.8 billion between 2011 and 2015 on advanced technology demonstration programs to explore more advanced exploration options. This includes in-orbit propellant transfer, closed-loop life support, automated maneuvering and docking systems, and inflatable space modules (similar to the ones that Bigelow Aerospace is experimenting with... perhaps the new focus on partnerships will allow NASA and Bigelow to work together on these). All of these technologies will be essential to exploring our solar system and beyond.

In addition, NASA will spend $3.1 billion on research into new propulsion systems (hopefully solar sails and VASIMR will be included in this spending) and another $3 billion on robotic missions to pave the way for human exploration.

All of this means that—with the Space Shuttle fleet retiring later this year—NASA does not have any way to get crew into orbit other than to pay $51 million per flight to the Russian Space Agency for launches aboard Soyuz capsules. To alleviate this, NASA is encouraging commercial spaceflight companies to pick up the slack by allocating $5.8 billion for crew launches provided by commercial operators. With the money already allocated to SpaceX and Orbital as part of the COTS program, they have an advantage over other small operators. But with that much money on the line, you can bet that Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and others (including, perhaps, the joint venture United Space Alliance, which operates the Space Shuttle program) will jump into the fray with commercial offerings.

And with the cancellation of Constellation and the end of the massively-expensive Space Shuttle program, more money will be available for basic scientific reasearch in the areas of Earth Observation and Astrophysics. Most interesting to me are added funding to get Mars Science Laboratory launched in 2011 and a probably 2014 launch for the James Webb Space Telescope.

I personally like NASA's renewed focus on research and development, while letting business enterprises commercialize the results on behalf of the government. Too much of NASA's budget over the past two decades has been spent on the Space Shuttle and International Space Station programs. While those programs have provided benefits (notably in the areas of living and working in orbit, including orbital construction methods), the costs once again far outweighed the benefits. The new plan will hopefully shake a lot of complacency out of the system and encourage creative thinking and innovation, while also spurring commercial development of space travel and exploration.