Sunday, June 26, 2011

Something Old, Something New

The Sunday Florida Today has several articles related to NASA and Kennedy Space Center.

In a column titled "Politics Won't Stop Space Innovation," John Kelly dishes out plenty of blame for the sad state of today's government space program.

The agency is under assault from Congress for not fielding a shuttle follow-up program. The politicos are too focused on micromanaging the "ship-building" or, more specifically, rocketship-building that best benefits their state or district or — cynics might say — their favorite contractors. Little of their guidance seems focused on what makes the most sense for the United States or humankind.

The big contractors armed with the brightest minds and most experienced aerospace engineers are stuck lobbying politicians and bureaucrats to protect their piece of a multibillion dollar pie, often it seems at the expense of what might make the most long-term sense engineering wise.

NASA purports to spurring competitive innovation, but the dollars devoted to that kind of "commercial" space work are chump change compared to the billions ball-and-chained to old-school projects and contractors.

Kelly foresees "visionaries like Robert Bigelow in Las Vegas and Elon Musk in California" as the way out of the dilemma. I personally agree with him, but I try to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism for any program, government or commercial. SpaceX's multiple delays give me pause, although as Kelly notes, "Draw out a timeline of [Musk's] progress and compare to one for the space agency and its traditional contract model and you'll feel better."

Space beat writer Todd Halvorson explains what will happen if Atlantis arrives at the International Space Station too damaged from falling foam to survive re-entry.

Since Columbia and seven astronauts were lost during atmospheric re-entry in 2003, when heat shield damage went undetected, NASA always has had a second shuttle ready for a rescue mission.

But this time, there's no backup. Atlantis is outfitted with NASA's last shuttle external tank and solid rocket boosters.

So NASA developed an alternate plan: The crew would stay on the station and make staggered returns on Russian Soyuz spacecraft. To accomplish that, NASA would forgo the launch of U.S. astronauts to the station to free up seats on the Russian ships.

The extra launch was planned in 2010 and fulfilled an August 2008 campaign pledge made by Barack Obama in Titusville to "add at least one more flight beyond 2010."

The drawback is that NASA has no more external tanks. ET-138 was intended to be a spare in case of a rescue mission. Now that it's being used for STS-135, there will be no way to launch another orbiter.

Patrick Peterson's "Bracing for Impact of Shuttle's End" observes:

As the last shuttle flight approaches, engineers and technicians are considering leaving Brevard County to continue their careers. They will take their college degrees, their skills and their families with them, leaving the Space Coast with less of the talent pool that officials hoped would be a big draw for companies that can help rejuvenate the economy.

Many more jobs in Brevard County were lost after the end of the Apollo moon program in 1972, and it was nine years until the first Shuttle flight in 1981. About 23,000 jobs were lost at KSC and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station between 1969 and 1974. It's estimated that 7,000 to 9,000 will lose KSC jobs due to Shuttle's retirement.

When I moved here two years ago from California, I was fully aware of Shuttle's pending demise and its potential impact on the local economy. What I still fail to comprehend is why local and state officials waited until it was nearly over to attempt a diversification of the local economy to minimize the impact. Their inertia resulted in trying to address the problem at the same time the nation was struck by the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Having served in local government back in California, I was well aware of the consequences if a municipality is dependent upon one employer. I saw cities go boom and bust along with their primary employer. All I can surmise is that Brevard County leaders failed to learn the lesson of Apollo. But they seem to have figured it out now, better late than never.

UPDATE June 27, 2011A guest editorial by S. Alan Stern in the June 24 Orlando Sentinel echoed my above sentiments.

For too long, the economy of Florida's Space Coast has been too heavily dependent on a small number of huge government projects. This narrow business model calls to mind the adage "if you only own one stock, you probably deserve what you get when it goes down."

Tragically, the state and the nation failed to learn this very lesson when the end of the Apollo program devastated Central Florida's economy in the 1970s, and as a result, the Space Coast is now losing 9,000 shuttle jobs.

Fortunately though, the dawning era of commercial American space efforts is giving rise to a far wider variety of new space systems and projects with refreshingly diverse markets and backers. The opportunity is there to create a Florida space economy that will be far more robust than any in the past 50 years.

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