Sunday, April 12, 2015

Articles of Interest

Click the arrow to watch the film. Video source: SNCspacesystems YouTube channel.

I haven't written in a while because I've been reading several space-related books.

First up is After Apollo: Richard Nixon and the American Space Program by John Logsdon. It's a semi-sequel to his 2010 book, John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon. The latter is my go-to reference for the political process that led to Kennedy proposing the human lunar spaceflight program.

It's my second read-through of After Apollo. The first time was with a galley proof. This time, it's for a review.

After that, I'll start on Airlines & Air Mail: The Post Office and the Birth of the Commercial Aviation Industry by F. Robert van der Linden. I've been reading several books about the birth of commercial aviation in the early 20th Century, which has fascinating parallels to today's NASA commercial space program. The U.S. Post Office, the U.S. Army and other government entities offered contracts, subsidies and incentives to encourage aviation buffs and entrepreneurs to start carrying passengers with air mail. There were accidents, there were fatalities, and of course Congress couldn't help but intervene.

To quote sage 20th Century philosopher Yogi Berra, it's déjà vu all over again.

Elsewhere in NewSpace, Sierra Nevada Corporation is still trying to find a market for its Dream Chaser spaceplane. The company released on April 6 the above promotional video showing Dream Chaser launching either on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V, or on a European Space Agency Ariane 5. Dream Chaser has a new paint scheme, and hinged bat wings to fit within a payload fairing. The video concludes with a notional landing at a runway, and the declaration that it will launch in 2018. SNC hopes to land at Houston's Ellington Field, so it can truck returned ISS payload directly to Johnson Space Center. Even though SNC didn't get one of the first crew delivery contracts, last month it was announced that NASA will help develop Dream Chaser through Critical Design Review.

On the OldSpace side of aerospace, NASA's late March revision of its Asteroid Initiative hasn't found any more enthusiasm in the halls of political power than have earlier iterations.

Congress foisted the Space Launch System on NASA in 2010 to protect NASA contractor jobs with Boeing, Lockheed Martin and ATK. Since then, NASA has been searching for a use for SLS. As it has for 45 years (read After Apollo), NASA continues to insist that it's sending people to Mars. When President Obama visited Kennedy Space Center five years ago, he proposed a human spaceflight rendezvous with an asteroid as a stepping stone to Mars. The Asteroid Initiative attempted to politically marry the President's proposal with Congress' pork program to give SLS a raison d'être. Congress has yawned, demanding an Apollo rerun to the Moon, or an Apollo on steroids mission to Mars, yet has declined to provide any funding for such pretentious programs.

The latest variant, called the Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM), would pluck a boulder from an asteroid and park it in lunar orbit for an eventual Orion rendezvous sometime in the 2020s. NASA insists this mission evolves technology for a human Mars program, although most observers fail to see any logic in that assumption. In any case, the mission fits within the meager budgets Congress is willing to approve for NASA in the years ahead.

Last week, the NASA Advisory Council clucked its disapproval for ARM, and for good measure proposed their own idea — pluck a boulder from the Mars moon Phobos.

No one seems to have the courage to speak aloud the real question — why should we send people to Mars now?

There is no reason, of course.

Some will tell you that it's to “inspire” children, although they don't explain how this is a better investment in “inspiration” than spending the hundreds of billions of dollars elsewhere. (How's about a modern classroom and textbooks for every U.S. child?)

Then there are those who will tell you that humanity is destined to explore — we must explore for the sake of exploration. As John Logdson writes in After Apollo, NASA tried that argument on the Nixon administration and Congress after the Moon landing, only to fail miserably. It was a fundamental misread of the political confluences that led to Kennedy proposing the human Moon program in May 1961. Even if humans are destined to explore, with today's technology we can use robotics. A human footprint on Mars is an egotistical indulgence.

Others will tell you that only humans can truly survey the Mars surface, that robots can't do it as fast as a human. But the rover Curiosity seems to be doing just fine, and there's no real urgency to roaming Mars any faster than we are now.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk and others believe that humanity must establish a colony off-world so the species survives annihilation. That's okay, so long as they're spending their own money.

Meanwhile, the taxpayers continue to flush $3 billion a year into what critics call the Senate Launch System. NASA administrators have hinted in recent weeks that the SLS schedule will slip yet again into 2019, more than two years behind the December 31, 2016 launch date mandated by Congress in 2010.

Which brings me to another book on my reading list, Spaceflight and the Myth of Presidential Leadership, edited by Roger D. Launius and Howard E. McCurdy. The book was published in 1997, but I doubt much has changed. To quote from the publisher's web page:

Setting the tone for the collection, NASA chief historian Roger D. Launius and Howard McCurdy maintain that the nation's presidency had become imperial by the mid-1970s and that supporters of the space program had grown to find relief in such a presidency, which they believed could help them obtain greater political support and funding. Subsequent chapters explore the roles and political leadership, vis-à-vis government policy, of presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan.

Which takes us full circle to John Logsdon's books ... In fact, John has a chapter in this collection, titled “National Leadership and Presidential Power.”

So I continue to sift through these and other written works, looking for the common theme that leads us into a rational national space program ... not that anyone will give me the power to implement it ...

1 comment:

  1. Hmmm.... I bought the new Logsdon book a week or so back. I haven't read it through yet, but I've skimmed some sections and looked at the index. I'll get around to it eventually, I suppose, but I'm not feeling a while lot of enthusiasm for the task. It's going to be depressing reading, after all.

    More to the point, from what I can see Logsdon missed stuff outside his narrow focus. Yes, NASA got chopped back and had its ambitions discarded by the Nixon administration. Weep wail! But at just about that time (1970), the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration was being put together, with stern proclamations by the White House and OMB that NOAA was most emphatically NOT going to be "a wet NASA" --- the current NOAA budget is 0ne-third that of NASA, and I gather that's been the pattern for the last 45 years. Also about that time, plans to build an American SST were scuttled by Congress.

    And Congress passed two budget acts (in 1969 and 1973) authored by Senator Mike Mansfield which ended DoD funding of R&D which lacked immediate military application. Which might sound trivial, but DoD had been funding a lot of general interest "blue-sky" scientific research, and these amendments eliminated more than half of that spending. Put it this way: In 1968 the USA spent 2.75% of GNP on R&D, about 2.0 % from the federal government, about 0.75% coming from corporations and other private sources. In 1975 and since, the government pays 0.75% of GNP for R&D -- including all military R&D - and corporations and other private sources pay 1.5 to 2.0% of GNP for such research. There's general agreement that corporate research is much more focused on near-term interests than federally funded research *it's more D than R, you might say). Corporate research is also more focused on immediately practical ends rather than speculative or "far out" concepts, so it's arguable that this has had some economic effect. (Economists in the 1960's would have predicted some slowing of the economy is my impression; modern day economists wouldn't.)

    Fnally, up to the Moon landing, it could be argued that the Feds spent too much R&D money on physics and engineering and not enough on biology and medicine. Under Nixon, a reversal began, which continues to the preset.

    Also finally, Earth Day. Modern interest in ecology and the environment began about this time. We can argue about the connection with Apollo.

    The tl,dr version: The whole nature of American science and engineering shifted dramatically in the wake of Apollo 11, in less than half a decade. What happened to NASA was simply part of the transformation. And there's no hint in Logsdon's AFTER APOLLO? that any of this other stuff was going on.

    Eventually, someone's going to have to write a deeper, harder book.