Sunday, April 18, 2010

Obama's Deep Impact

President Barack Obama tours the SpaceX launch facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on April 15, 2010.

All you need to know about President Barack Obama's space vision can be told from the above photo.

Obama's "space summit" visit to Kennedy Space Center on April 15 was perfunctory at best, and no doubt infuriated those who think his proposed FY 2011 NASA budget is heresy, if not an abomination.

He didn't tour the Vehicle Assembly Building. He didn't view an orbiter. He didn't hold a photo op with KSC workers.

No, all he did was visit the SpaceX launch facility at Pad 40 of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

From my perspective, it was a hearty middle-finger to the space-industrial complex who've been screaming to protect the status quo ever since the budget proposal was released.

From your perspective, that might be a good or bad thing.

Despite predictions for months from pundits that Obama would be forced to capitulate, or at least compromise, on his intention to commercialize Low Earth Orbit (LEO) access to space by priming the private sector, the President has shown no intention of folding.

SpaceX has been the whipping boy for those opposed to Obama's proposal. Individuals posting (usually anonymously) to comment threads on sites such as Florida Today have written they hope the company's Falcon 9 rocket blows up, and claimed that SpaceX will kill astronauts, yet they ignore the seventeen astronaut deaths in NASA history, including fourteen on Shuttle orbiters.

Time magazine senior writer Jeffrey Kluger claimed that the SpaceX visit was a "tactical blunder" because "plenty of NASA folks want nothing to do with the private-sector interloper." Kluger failed to explain, though, why Obama should care what those "plenty of NASA folks think" because he's the President while they're government workers, full-time or contract.

In short, he's the boss. They work for him.

Going by comments in the local papers, the main gripe seems to be that many of them might lose their jobs. As Obama and many others have pointed out, that decision was made more than six years ago by President Bush. The government has spent that time closing up the Shuttle shop, with many second- and third-tier contractors having gone out of business or onto other things. Most analysts say it would take at least two years to build a new external tank to resume flights, and meanwhile all these workers would be sitting around collecting a paycheck. Apparently that's fine with them, but I suspect most taxpayers would disagree.

An article in the April 18 Florida Today titled “Brevard Preps for Unknown” details the angst and uncertainty facing Brevard County as it faces layoffs, but what have these people been doing over the last six years to prepare for this? Very little, apparently.

The article compares Brevard to Kokomo, Indiana, which experienced massive job losses after the local auto industry shut down. Kokomo survived “through a coordinated strategy that emphasized diversification beyond the auto industry, identifying workforce skills that could be applied to emerging sectors and supporting small businesses.”

This is something I've written about repeatedly — the need for diversification — but if Brevard finally figures it out, it will be too late to replace the jobs about to be lost.

Some, of course, see the solution as simply continuing to fly Shuttle and build Constellation, refusing to acknowledge reality.

A new variant on this argument is that because NASA in the 1960s was about 3%-4% of the federal budget, it should be the same now. This thinking ignores the current trillion-dollar annual federal budget deficits or the absence of any widespread support in Congress to increase space spending.

A January 2010 Rasmussen Reports poll found that 50% of Americans want to cut back on space spending, and more want the private sector to pay for it than the government.

Then there are those whose genuine concern is that the United States will be left without its own LEO access vehicle. These believe that the private sector — whether it's SpaceX, Orbital, Bigelow, Boeing or someone else — can't possibly deliver faster than the existing government big contractors. They complain that we'll have to rely on the Russians who will have a monopolistic hold on LEO access and can charge us whatever we want to reach the International Space Station.

But the fact of the matter is that the Bush Administration's Constellation program foresaw a minimum five-year gap after Shuttle retired, so they negotiated deals with the Russians to fly astronauts on Soyuz. This has been going on for several years now. Why haven't they complained until now?

The Augustine report concluded that Ares I wouldn't be ready to fly to the International Space Station until 2018 — two years after the ISS was scheduled for decommission by splashing it into an ocean.

The non-partisan U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee Report (commonly known as the Augustine report) found that Ares I, the replacement LEO vehicle, probably wouldn't be ready until 2018 and would require significantly more funding to catch up. Unless Congress approved $3 billion more per year from outside the NASA budget, the money would have to be diverted from other NASA programs, meaning an end to robotic programs and other scientific research.

The Bush administration budget also foresaw shutting down ISS and splashing it into the ocean in 2016 to free up more funding for Constellation. So if Ares I wouldn't launch until 2018, and ISS received the death penalty in 2016, where would Ares I be going?!

The "gap" wouldn't be an issue if ISS were to shuffle off its mortal coil in 2016, but Obama proposes to extend ISS to at least 2020 and is negotiating with our international partners to extend it to 2028. Ironically, Obama's pardoning ISS revives the "gap" issue.

Can the private sector deliver a reliable LEO vehicle more quickly than would Ares I?

Nothing is guaranteed, but it's clear Ares I wasn't going to be the answer anytime soon either.

Constellation was also to deliver the Ares V, a heavy lifter that would return us to the Moon. The Augustine panel found that Ares V wouldn't be likely to fly until 2028, if ever, and had no funding for a lunar lander so we'd have no way to reach the surface even if we got there.

Neil Armstrong claims that Obama's NASA budget proposal would reduce the United States "to second or even third rate stature."

Cancelling Constellation is considered an outrage by those who yearn for a rerun of Apollo. Three Apollo astronauts — Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan — sent an angry letter to the media called Obama's proposal "devastating" and claimed it would reduce the United States to "second or even third rate stature."

Just who we would be "second or even third" to, and by what measuring stick, went unsaid. The Russians have no Moon program, and despite claims by some it's not the Chinese either.

Obama had some rather impolitic words for that attitude in his speech.

Now, I understand that some believe that we should attempt a return to the surface of the Moon first, as previously planned. But I just have to say pretty bluntly here: We’ve been there before. Buzz (Aldrin, in attendance — ed.) has been there. There’s a lot more of space to explore, and a lot more to learn when we do. So I believe it’s more important to ramp up our capabilities to reach — and operate at — a series of increasingly demanding targets, while advancing our technological capabilities with each step forward. And that’s what this strategy does. And that’s how we will ensure that our leadership in space is even stronger in this new century than it was in the last.

Obama proposed sending a human crew to explore an asteroid, which doesn't sound as romantic as a Moon return or a trip to Mars, but it would certainly be more challenging.

An April 16, 2010 Washington Post article detailed the technological hurdles of an asteroid rendezvous. Most asteroid candidates are about a quarter-mile across, while the Moon has a diameter of 2,160 miles. Because an asteroid would have no gravity, the crew vehicle couldn't land; some means would have to be found for explorers to harness themselves to the surface.

Returning to the Moon would be a rerun of a 1960s technological feat. What Obama proposes has been done only in science fiction. In the movie Deep Impact, the astronauts must secure not just themselves but also their lander to the comet surface.

My personal preference is not a return to 1960s-era publicity stunts that demonstrate technological prowess, but a steady and sober path to permanent human occupation of space.

I would return to the Moon not to collect more rocks, but to establish a permanent colony. This would be essentially the ISS on the lunar surface. We would take the knowledge learned from the Soviet-era space station Mir and from the ISS, and use that to live on the Moon. It usually takes about two days for Shuttle to return from ISS, so the three-day return from the Moon wouldn't be that long and if something went wrong help wouldn't be far away. Because the Moon has no atmosphere, we'd have to develop the technology to shield humans from long-term exposure to radiation as would be required in a long trip to Mars.

That scenario differs from LEO missions. I've no problem with encouraging commercial access to Low Earth Orbit. It's time. The technology is there, and so is the public interest. But the cost of permanent lunar habitation remains beyond the private sector for now.

Whether it's the Moon, Mars, or an asteroid, none of those programs will ever happen unless Congress approves the funding.

In any case, Obama's proposal threatens the sclerotic bureaucracy of the space-industrial complex. In my opinion, that's a good thing.

An article in the Business section of the April 18 Florida Today details how commercial interests have tried for years to penetrate the NASA bureaucracy at KSC, with little interest.

Starfighters, Inc. wants to provide private suborbital training to the public from Kennedy Space Center.

The Obama administration has created a web site for the KSC Center Planning and Development Office to encourage more commercial use of existing facilities. One example is Starfighters, Inc., which proposes to provide private suborbital space flight training. They wanted to use the Shuttle landing strip but were rebuffed for two years by NASA.

It seems a terrible waste to let all that infrastructure sit unused except for Shuttle missions. The Obama administration is trying to dispose of sclerotic thinking to open up space in the 21st Century to the public. By doing so, it can only help the local economy and create more jobs.

Some choose to look back. Obama prefers to look ahead. Which most certainly frightens those with a vested interest in the status quo.


  1. Heh Stephen...nice blog concur 100 percent.

    Tell you the "Mir tracking" system story. I am an amateur radio operator and am friends with a lot of the Russian Cosmonauts (flew them in the T-38)...

    anyway some years ago when Mir/ISS were doing their thing, NASA wanted a Mir tracking station at JSC...well I had one at the house (and it still works) that picked up data from the station, displayed it and did some conversion to English of the data mask. Long story short, one day one of the folks who was in that project on site asked me "how did you get the mask, we still dont have one" and my reply was "I just asked (insert name here) and he emailed it to me"

    take care Robert G. Oler

  2. I have a friend in the Astronaut Office who has a Russian flight suit with her name in Cyrllic. It was a gift from one of the cosmonauts.

  3. Nice blog Stephen. I'm not a political partisan like I was years ago, but I think most of Obama's plans would be spoken against anyway, pork to status quo regardless.

    It is just disingenuous caterwauling.

  4. Stephen...Hmmm I might know who that is. I got my Soviet era flight suit when in the USSR and got a ride in a couple of their MIGS...nice to fly the opposition for a bit Robert

  5. Just wanted to point out two teeny tiny little items in the article. The President is also a GOVERNMENT PAID EMPLOYEE with alot more perks than the aerospace workers. (who work for him? Gee I thought the President WORKED FOR US?!?)

  6. You might want to check out a laid off KSC worker's perspective on Obama's speech and visit.