Thursday, April 22, 2010

Articles of Interest

Former astronaut Story Musgrave thinks "human space flight needs to be put in partial hibernation" and prefers robotic scouts for now.

Articles from around cyberspace ...

Former astronaut Story Musgrave comments on the Obama administration's proposed FY 2011 NASA budget and other subjects in The Atlantic.

Musgrave is not a young man, and he's well aware of the obstacles to effecting change in an organization that involves as many Congressional interests and individual fiefdoms as NASA does. He understands Congressional resistance to any changes that might affect jobs back home, as well as how entrenched the different camps at NASA are. Indeed, he says it's a "valid question" whether the operational structure and approach of NASA could even be changed at this point without disbanding the organization as it now stands and rebuilding a new research institution from scratch.

But Musgrave believes it still could happen. "If you have a strong enough leader with an artistic vision of where we go next," he says, "the public is going to get behind it. Congress is not going to give you a good space program. You have to create it and sell it to the public, and the public forces it to happen. And you've got to do that in terms of good project management with a specific and achievable goal and a specific timeline, like we did in the 1960s." Even if, he says, the goal has to be less costly, because the funds are more precious now.

Musgrave labeled the International Space Station a "$100 billion mistake" and thinks that "human space flight needs to be put in partial hibernation. You continue to develop the capability, but send the robots first."

Space analyst James Oberg is more positive about commercialization of space than was Musgrave.

The NASA vehicles for human spaceflight have been complex because they needed to perform a wide array of complex missions. However, when it comes to building a vehicle aimed at one and only one specific type of mission, a lot of routine equipment becomes superfluous ...

NASA would never build a spacecraft this spartan. But NASA has never designed a spacecraft purely for the space taxi role. NASA has never designed any sort of taxi for use anywhere.

That may explain why the Apollo and Orion vehicles built by NASA for crew transport missions weigh in at the 40,000-pound level and higher, while simpler spacecraft from Russia and China are less than half as massive. Using new structural materials and leaving out fancy extras, some designers suspect that a bare-bones space taxi for four people would more likely weigh in the range of 10,000 pounds, allowing the use of medium-class boosters already in service.

Aviation Week posted this article two days ago on Obama's space policy speech last week. Nothing new than some inside baseball on the winners and losers within the aerospace industry.

Space Politics regular Rand Simberg writes for the conservative National Review that "We have a radical president bent on socializing and nationalizing everything from the auto industry to hospitals, but when he comes up with a policy that actually harnesses free enterprise, we hear from conservatives nothing but complaints."

The so-called conservative opposition to this new direction in space policy seems, at least to me, to come from three motivations: a visceral and intrinsic (and understandable) distaste for any policy that emanates from this White House; a nostalgia for the good old days, when we had a goal and a date and a really big rocket and an unlimited budget (what I’ve described as the “Apollo cargo cult”); and, in the case of such politicians as Senators Shelby, Hutchison, Hatch, et al., pure rent seeking for their states. Of course, these aren’t mutually exclusive: For some, all three apply. But none of these reasons addresses the problems with the status quo or the wisdom of the new policy.

Simberg concludes, "If we can finally get on with the business of letting private industry take on the (literally) mundane task of getting people only 200 miles above and let NASA focus on new technologies, there is plenty of time over the next few years to decide exactly where to go from there — and Barack Obama will not be involved in that decision. The important thing is that we had to euthanize NASA’s expensive, unneeded new rockets and move on to the more critical development of opening up space."

Florida Today reports that U.S. Senator Bill Nelson from Florida wants an extra $762 million in the NASA budget over the next five years "to continue testing of the solid-rocket motor based on the Ares I rocket, which is cancelled under the White House's latest budget proposal. Nelson said additional testing will be helpful in the development of a much more powerful rocket needed to launch astronauts on missions beyond Earth-orbit."

Good luck with that.

The Air Force is scheduled to launch its secretive X-37B flight this evening at 7:52 PM EDT. More on that if/when it happens.

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