Friday, December 17, 2010

The Blind Men and SpaceX

The Jainism religion is the origin of the parable about the blind men and the elephant.

A group of blind men approach an elephant. Each man touches only one part of the elephant, and therefore has a different opinion of what is an elephant.

It is only when a sighted person — in one version, a fellow villager; in another, their king — passes by that each realizes his experience was incomplete. The elephant was all their experiences in total, perhaps more. Each man had a partial truth, but not the whole truth.

The reaction to last week's successful launch, orbit and recovery of their Dragon spacecraft has SpaceX in the role of the elephant, with the space-industrial complex in the roles of the blind men.

For the nascent commercial space industry, it showed that a private company can develop new technologies for access to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) with a minimum of government funding. It was the first time in history that a private company launched its own privately designed and built spacecraft atop its own privately designed and built rocket.

History may come to view that launch as comparable to the first flight of the Wright Flyer in 1903, or Charles Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis in 1927. The latter was motivated by the Orteig Prize, an offer made in 1919 by New York hotel owner Raymond Orteig to award $25,000 to the first person to fly non-stop between New York and Paris.

NASA created its own version of the Orteig Prize in January 2006 with the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program. It financed the demonstration of orbital transportation services by commercial providers. According to Wikipedia, SpaceX has received $278 million so far in government subsidies. Orbital Sciences and Boeing are among the other participants.

The Obama administration wants to continue investing in commercial LEO access as a means of closing the "gap" created in January 2004 when President Bush cancelled the Shuttle program. It was acknowledged at the time that the United States would have to rely on Russia for at least four years to reach the International Space Station, until a replacement was ready.

An August 2009 GAO report concluded that the replacement, which we now know as Constellation, lacked a "sound business case," was behind schedule and over budget. That was soon followed by the Augustine Committee report which found that Constellation's Ares I wouldn't be ready until at least 2017, and that Constellation would be funded by decommissioning the ISS in 2015 — meaning Ares I had nowhere to go, ergo the lack of a "sound business case."

The Obama Administration's Fiscal Year 2011 NASA budget proposal cancelled Constellation, believing that priming the commercial pump would close the gap more quickly.

The December 8 flight of Dragon aboard a Falcon 9 was a major step towards vindicating the administration's strategy. Two more test flights are scheduled — one a flyby of the ISS by Dragon, then an ISS docking test — although SpaceX wants to combine the two to save time and money. This would seem attractive to NASA, because it would expedite the process for authorizing SpaceX to fly cargo deliveries to the ISS. SpaceX already has a NASA contract for twelve ISS resupply flights starting in late 2011, but they also have many other customers than just NASA.

Despite their December 8 success, there are still plenty people who seem not to want SpaceX to succeed.

Based on comments posted to newspaper articles and blogs, some people see SpaceX as a clear and present danger threatening government space flight. Whether it's jobs, a dreamy-eyed view of NASA as a primordial Starfleet, or an honest disagreement about national space priorities, they don't want to see anyone else but NASA allowed to launch Americans into space.

I suspect there are differing views within the NASA space centers. Some workers at Kennedy and Johnson Space Centers see commercial space as a threat to their jobs. But NASA is not a modern-day Works Progress Administration, a jobs program for the sake of creating jobs.

Some fear that the focus on LEO takes humanity's eye off a return to the Moon and human exploration of the solar system. One has nothing to do with the other. No nation has shown an active interest in going to the Moon since the United States left in 1972. Quite simply, there's no compelling reason to return now, at least a reason that would justify the cost. I'm all for building Starfleet, but the political will isn't there, in the United States or in other spacefaring nations, which means the government funding isn't there.

And then, of course, there are the politicians whose districts represent NASA space centers and/or NASA major contractors. These people view NASA as a means towards re-election. Politicians who have called for less government and privatization of public services suddenly turn hypocrite when it comes to commercial space.

Senator Richard Shelby, a Republican who represents Alabama where the Marshall Space Flight Center is located, said last April:

"Once these highly skilled workers leave, they will likely never come back..." Shelby said last week of the Constellation workforce. "Under the administration's plan, NASA as we know it will never be the same."

Shelby called Obama's plan "a faith-based initiative" and "a welfare program for the commercial space industry ... where the taxpayer subsidizes billionaires to build rockets that NASA hopes will one day allow millionaires, and our own astronauts, to travel in space."

Citizens Against Government Waste subsequently awarded Shelby their Porker of the Month for June 2010. CAGW President Tom Schatz said, "It is outrageous for Sen. Shelby to object to the private sector's work on space exploration and characterize it as 'corporate welfare,' when his own actions are nothing but pure pork-barrel spending to contractors from his state."

Texas representative Ralph Hall next month will assume the chair of the House Science and Technology Committee.

Republican representative Ralph Hall, whose district is northeast of Dallas, will become chair next month of the House Science and Technology Committee that oversees NASA. The Dallas Morning News in a recent article described him as "a type of throwback legislator — a guardian of home-state interests and federal programs, including NASA."

Earlier this year, Hall and other Texans opposed President Barack Obama's effort to end the human space flight program, which was sharply curtailed by a law signed by Obama in October.

Hall remains protective of the International Space Station, which is controlled from Houston, and skeptical of the private companies that will ferry astronauts and cargo there in future years.

"I do have [concerns] because it's so important and it's so dangerous and it's so subject to failure," Hall said. "I want to be assured that they're not going to run out of money."

Apparently Mr. Hall doesn't realize that, if his committee pulls the plug on commercial access, NASA will have to pay Russia $50+ million per astronaut for Soyuz taxi service to the ISS. It would be interesting to know if he raised any objection to COTS when the Bush administration began the program nearly five years ago.

As for the "danger," space flight by nature is dangerous. The Shuttle program has cost the lives of fourteen astronauts. The STS-133 Discovery launch is delayed until at least February while NASA tries to figure out the cause of cracks in the external tank's insulating foam. I'm unaware of any concerns expressed by Mr. Hall about the tank's foam still being a hazard after more than 130 flights and the failure that cost the lives of the seven astronauts aboard STS-107 Columbia in 2003.

Mr. Shelby invoked the often-used rhetorical argument about losing skilled space workers. This may seem like a heretical rebuttal, but has anyone dared to say, "So what?"

A century ago, the horseless carriage emerged to replace the horse and buggy. At first, only the rich could afford one, but as with all new technology the price came down as more people bought them.

Imagine transplanting that era's dramatic evolution of personal transport into today's Congressional political climate. It might be argued that stagecoach builders and buggy whip makers need federal protection and subsidies as their skills cannot be lost.

I love Shuttle — my office desk is covered with Shuttle kitsch — but it's a very costly and inefficient system that's outlived its usefulness. Skills unique to Shuttle support are no longer needed.

Russia launches cargo and crew today the way they did in the 1960s — one rocket with the crew in a top-mounted vehicle, and another rocket with cargo. No foam to fall off and strike a side-mounted crew vehicle. It works, and Russia has lost no lives on Soyuz since 1971, the earliest days of that program.

The SpaceX design is a return to simplicity, and that's why their system is so cost-effective. A typical Falcon 9 launch won't require as many jobs as Shuttle. But it's not supposed to be a jobs program.

Little remains today of ICBM Row, where in the 1960s a series of launch complexes supported robust military and civilian space programs.

The famous ICBM Row now exists only in name, with the service towers and blockhouses abandoned and dismantled long ago. SpaceX, Orbital, Boeing and other commercial ventures may breathe new life into Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

When Dragon landed in the Pacific Ocean, one observer commented, "When was the last time we used the word 'splashdown'?"

Should SpaceX or another commercial enterprise launch humans into space from CCAFS, it will be the station's first human launch since Apollo 7 launched from LC-34 in October 1968. Subsequent Apollo missions, and the Shuttle flights, were all from LC-39 up the road on Kennedy Space Center property.

We may be about to enter a Back to the Future decade, heralding a second Golden Age for space flight based on the modernization of 1960s rocketry. Many remain skeptical, and skepticism is always welcome when it comes to space flight, but rather than wasting time and tax dollars on trying to save the stagecoach, we need to invest in the horseless carriage.

Let's not blind ourselves to this opportunity.


  1. Excellent article. I came here from the link at Transterrestrial Musings.

    I'm 52, old enough to remember not only Apollo but Gemini (I don't quite have first-hand recollections of Mercury). I haven't been this excited about a space flight since those days.

  2. I don't come by here often enough, Stephen. Your writing is always good, and frequently excellent. Thanks for another great piece.

    I second rickl's comment about the level of excitement the successes by SpaceX have brought to my life.

  3. Great article. I will remember where I was when Space X made history