Friday, August 30, 2013

Drift or Sanity

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.”

— Attributed to Albert Einstein
but probably Rita Mae Brown

Above the fold on Page 1 of this morning's Florida Today is an article titled, “'Drift' is Plaguing NASA.”

Written by space reporter James Dean, the article is about opinions expressed by John Logsdon and Scott Pace in a teleconference with reporters about the direction of U.S. space policy. Logsdon is the former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, and the author of John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon published in December 2010. Pace is the current director, and was NASA's Associate Administrator for Program Analysis and Evaluation in the mid-2000s when the Bush administration crafted the Constellation program. Pace chaired Mitt Romney's space policy advisory group during the 2012 presidential election.

Logsdon faults President Barack Obama for not inviting global space powers to coordinate their efforts, an idea Logsdon proposed in May 2011. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev floated the idea of a global space summit in April 2010, but he's out of power and Vladimir Putin seems to have different ideas about U.S.-Russian relations.

Pace is quoted as saying, “We're currently in a very, very fragile situation, particularly as it regards human spaceflight. It is not at all inevitable that human spaceflight will continue as we look in the years ahead.” He also claims that when the International Space Station is deorbited, “There will be an end to U.S. human spaceflight, and an end to a near-term government market for the commercial sectors.”

The fundamental flaw in Pace's thinking is that he equates NASA with U.S. human spaceflight.

The truth is that human spaceflight is about to take off — literally and metaphorically — here in the United States, thanks ironically to the commercial space programs begun while Pace was at NASA in the mid-2000s.

NASA's commercial cargo and crew programs are a true American success story.

SpaceX flies a 21st Century robotic spacecraft called Dragon to deliver cargo to the ISS, and intends to fly a crewed version within two to three years. Next month, Orbital Sciences will launch its Cygnus vehicle on a demonstration cargo run; if successful, they begin a contract for eight cargo deliveries.

Three companies — SpaceX, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada — are developing 21st Century craft for taking up to seven crew members into Low Earth Orbit. All three vehicles are well along to crewed test flights around 2015, assuming Congress doesn't cut the funding again.

The ISS, contrary to Pace's claim, is not the only market. Bigelow Aerospace is developing inflatable habitats for LEO deployment. A demonstration version will be attached to the ISS in 2015, and full-scale versions are scheduled for launch in 2017. Seven nations have signed memoranda to use the habitats. They will use one of the commercial crew vehicles to get there.

Pace also overlooks the adventure tourism market. Within the next two years, Virgin Galactic and XCOR will take crewed test flights beyond the international standard for space, 100 kilometers (62 miles). XCOR also plans to use the Lynx for satellite deployments, and their long-range goal is orbital flight to and from a runway.

U.S. human spaceflight is not adrift. It's simply changed course.

NASA was never intended to be Starfleet. If you read the original 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act, it simply directs the new agency to “ contribute materially to one or more” of a list of objectives. NASA wasn't to be the leader, only “contribute.” Nowhere in that list is a directive to launch people into space, or to send them to explore other worlds, or even to own its rockets.

That all changed when President Kennedy proposed the Apollo program. We've spent the last forty years trying to figure out what to do with all that Apollo infrastructure.

Apollo was a fluke of political currents that coalesced in 1961. Those circumstances ended long ago. They will not return.

Thinking that Congress will end its porking ways and somehow spend untold billions on an Apollo rerun is not realistic.

Under the current administration, NASA is returning to its originally intended purpose — an aerospace research and development agency. It partners with the private sector. It contributes materially by signing Space Act Agreements with these companies, helping them develop 21st Century technology that no other nation on Earth will have. Some partners receive awards for achieving milestones. Other agreements are advisory.

Perhaps the most significant will be the March 2013 unfunded SAA between NASA and Bigelow Aerospace which could lead to a commercial lunar program. The Golden Spike Company is already developing a commercial lunar lander.

If you look only at NASA's budget, then you might conclude that U.S. human spaceflight is “adrift.” But if you combine it with the billions being spent by the U.S. commercial space industry, then U.S. human spaceflight has a bright future.

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