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.


mike said...

Not to be nasty or anything, but if saving money by abandoning manned flight beyond LEO for 10 to 20 years is such a wonderful idea, why not save any more money by drastically chopping back on planetary science and astronomy projects? I mean, the planets have been there for a long time, they aren't going away any time soon, and since we aren't in any hurry to get humans out there ... there's really no rush in getting that scientific data, is there? Maybe we ought to leave a little for graduate students to look at in the _next_ century.

Matt Metcalf said...

A good point, Mike, but LEO is not a destination. We have literally been flying around in circles for almost 40 years, getting nowhere.

I also don't believe that Constellation would have gotten us beyond LEO in the next 15 years or so, regardless. We would have lost all manned launch capability with the retirement of the Space Shuttle, regardless of the approach. Private companies like SpaceX, Orbital, Lockheed Martin, and Boeing will likely be ready to launch people into space sooner than Constellation, and for considerably less money.

As far as delaying science, I don't think the graduate students of the next century have anything to worry about; we're not in danger of running out of things to study and learn. Knowledge pays dividends in terms of opening up new engineering paths for technological development. Flying hardware that was antiquated before it ever launched wouldn't have opened any new paths; it would have been little more than a great way to spend tax dollars on jobs programs, and if we're going to do that, I'd rather they be spent on programs with long-term potential, not short-term political gains.

mike said...

I am not going to defend the Constellation program; I didn't care much for it myself. I am willing to say that killing off the whole idea of a manned moon program was a mistake. And that, with the demise of manned flight beyond LEO, the prospects for scientific exploration of space strike me as being reduced.

Bluntly but, planetary science and astronomy have gotten a good ride from being part of the space program, likely much more than they would have received if they were ordinary recipients of NSF dollars. Think about it -- are spacecraft out at Saturn really better investments than metallurgy or particle physics or Alzheimer's research? So now the Obama folks have decided -- however sweetly it is being phrased -- that there's really no important role for humans in space, not within the next couple of decades anyhow. Space just isn't that important.

Do you really think Congressmen and OMB won't be casting a colder eye on unmanned space porjects as well?

Matt Metcalf said...

See, and I don't think I agree with that, either. I don't think that this marks the "demise of manned flight beyond LEO". It takes a lot of hubris to think that NASA's plan was the only way any humans would ever have gotten beyond LEO. The Russians, Chinese, Europeans, Japanese, and Indians all have Moon-related plans, and I suspect that Brazil won't be too far behind.

Not to mention private companies. I don't think NASA has any intention of abandoning flights beyond LEO. After a year of careful review, the Augustine Commission determined that the (then-) current plan was not a long-term solution, and that there was a better way to achieve the agency's goals. But as long as we were pouring money onto Constellation (and not enough to make it successful), we would never have the resources to find a better way.

The current plan does take a step back, in some regards, because we are not actively building hardware. What NASA is going to be trying to do is design the next generation hardware that will be necessary to actually achieve the agency's long-term goals... hardware that will be better than what we (and everybody else trying to get there) are using now.

As for the role of humans in space, I think the Obama administration (following the Augustine Commission's recommendations) have decided that the future of human space exploration is too important to spend billions on top of billions doing it wrong. Plus, I have to point out again, commercial operators will have us back in orbit faster and cheaper than Constellation would have anyway. It is NASA's plan to contract flights with those commercial enterprises, which will not only get the job done more cheaply, but will encourage innovation and get the government out of the business of making repeated trips around the planet 200 miles up. Doing so will (hopefully) help those companies develop profitable business models, improve technologies, and drive costs down and reliability up--something that would not likely have happened if they were trying to do it on their own.

Of course, I could be wrong. The future is difficult to predict, and it could be that a new administration in two years or six changes course again, which is one of the reasons we have not been able to get anything done for the last 40 years.