Sunday, August 1, 2010

NASA Debate Continues


Former Shuttle astronaut Ken Bowersox thinks some fear the faster yet perhaps more riskier commercial approach to space access.


Florida Today has several articles related to the direction of NASA.

Columnist John Kelly notes that astronauts, past and present, have no more consensus on NASA's future than does Congress. (Although Congress does seem to have consensus on the idea that NASA is a government jobs program ...)

Kelly concludes with this passage about former Shuttle astronaut Ken Bowersox, who's now vice-president of astronaut safety and mission assurance at SpaceX:

Ken Bowersox, a veteran space shuttle and space station astronaut who left NASA to join SpaceX on the commercial side of the industry, said he thinks he understands why they would lean that direction.

"People were really devoted to the goals of Constellation," Bowersox said this week while visiting his company's launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. So some of them are disappointed, he said, that after years of political debate and a final decision that seemed to cement a course for NASA for the first time in a long time, the nation now seems to be back at square one. Astronauts who worked most of their careers inside a big government program — NASA — see a government-driven program as a "sure thing" compared to a riskier privatized approach that seems less sustainable.

"It's so aggressive, it's so fast, that they're just naturally skeptical that it's possible," Bowersox said.

That said, Bowersox made his decision to switch over because he saw SpaceX — and other private companies — as the place where space exploration could be accelerated. Simply put, he thought they could get the job done sooner.


Bowersox's remark about astronauts seeing a government spending program as a "sure thing" reinforces my impression that NASA today is viewed as a guaranteed job program, not as the technological development agency as described in the National Aeronautics and Space Act. Nothing in the Act requires NASA to fly humans in space, to explore other worlds, or even to own its rockets. The NASA of today has little in common with the law of the land.

Opinion articles in today's paper by Brevard County's two members of Congress reinforce their perception of NASA as a jobs program.

Rep. Bill Posey, whose district includes Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, claims that commercial space "makes the gap longer" without offering any proof. The self-proclaimed fiscal conservative wrote that he wants to continue both Shuttle and Constellation without explaining how to pay for it. Posey concludes that, "America should not 'temporarily' outsource our space program to the Russians" but fails to note that decision was made by the Bush Administration in early 2004. Funny how it never seemed to bother him until now.

Rep. Suzanne Kosmas, whose district includes Kennedy Space Center, was more vague in her statement.

What matters most at this point is quickly signing into law a NASA bill that protects our workforce, minimizes the gap and maintains America’s global leadership in space exploration.

Again, NASA's purpose in the law is not to "protect a workforce." It's an aeronautics technology research and development agency. As for "global leadership," the next "space race" is in the commercial sector, which is where every other spacefaring nation is headed. No one else has a serious deep-space human exploration program. There's no money to be made in going back to the Moon, to an asteroid, or elsewhere. Knowledge? Yes. But those destinations will always be there, awaiting the day when technology develops to make those trips more quickly and cheaply.

It's supposed to be NASA's job to develop those new technologies, not keep recycling old technologies into a government jobs program such as proposed by the House bill.

The Florida Today editorial staff published its own opinion column urging Congress to "to stop holding NASA policy hostage and approve a compromise that allows the agency to begin moving toward a new future."

The article called the House bill "badly flawed" because it refuses to acknowledge the reality that Constellation's "long-term costs [are] unsustainable and the program unable to meet its moon-landing goals." They also criticize the House committee's attempt to strangle commercial access to space, calling it "a job killer in Brevard, where the companies hold the potential to create a new industry in flying astronauts."

The editorial also questions the Senate bill.

It would phase in funding for commercial rockets and other research and development projects that could be staged at KSC instead of providing the money up front, slowing the diversification of Florida’s space industry.

Frank DiBello, president of Space Florida, the state’s space-development arm, has said he fears that "kills outright the promise of real R&D opportunity for KSC."

The Economic Development Commission of Florida’s Space Coast is also worried, its leaders telling Nelson in a letter that Florida’s space future "might be bargained away for one more attuned to the needs of Alabama, Texas and Utah, in the name of political expediency . . ."


SpacePolitics.com reports on the House bill's status — it's been postponed as commercial space advocates rally their troops.

Florida Today urges a "compromise," but "compromise" in Congress means each committee member gets some pork for his or her district in exchange for a vote supporting a diluted bill.

This is why it's so important to divorce the government from Low Earth Orbit (LEO) access. No other spacefaring nation has a serious human deep-space program. They're all focused on LEO. That's the next "space race."

Imagine if 100 years ago, the federal government had roadblocked private enterprise from developing commercial air flight. How long would it have taken for the commercial airline industry to blossom, which allowed all of us to experience flight?

That's where we are now. It's a fundamental choice. Either the government controls access to space, or it doesn't. There is no "compromise." Pick a direction.

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