Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Monster Rocket

An Associated Press video clip of Senator Bill Nelson's comments at the September 14 press conference. Click the arrow to watch (it may be preceded by an advertisement).

Imagine if in the early 1960s the design for the rocket that would one day take astronauts to the Moon was determined not by Wernher von Braun and his team of scientists, but a group of politicians who ordered von Braun to build the rocket they had designed.

Imagine if these politicians had called a press conference to congratulate themselves, relegating NASA Administrator James Webb to a subservient role, with no von Braun in sight.

That's what happened on September 14, 2011, when Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) called a press conference at the Dirksen Senate Office Building to announce the official design for the Space Launch System. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden was allowed to speak for five minutes, but otherwise he stayed in the background.

Nelson opened the press conference. If you watch the above video, he personally described the SLS for the press, using a pen to point out its features. He touted how much bigger it will be than the Space Shuttle, the implied phallic symbolism apparently lost on him.

Later in the event, Nelson referred to the SLS as a "monster rocket."

Demonstrating the bipartisan nature of this event, he was joined by Hutchison. The Senate Commerce Committee web site page for the event lists the "Republican Press Office" as the official media contact for the press, even though the Senate has a Democratic majority.

(That link also has the complete video of the press conference.)

Other Congressional members of both houses and partisan stripes showed up to join in the self-congratulatory backslapping.

But little was said about the justification for this program.

Hutchison said:

This is the piece that, I believe, is going to be the true long-term future. You can't have the pre-eminence in space that we have enjoyed over the past decades without seeing beyond the immediate-term goal which of course is the Space Station and ensure that we fully use the Space Station. That is the intermediate goal. The long-term goal has to be what's out there that we haven't discovered yet.

What is its mission? They didn't say.

What is its destination? They didn't say.

How does building a "monster rocket" preserve U.S. "pre-eminence in space" without a mission or destination? They didn't say.

Why did the Senators take it upon themselves to dictate the basic design? They didn't say.

Why didn't they allow NASA to propose a design? They didn't say.

Why isn't the money being invested in safer and cheaper robotic probes that have proven they can explore the solar system? They didn't say.

They did talk a lot about the jobs they claim to have saved.

But they never questioned if those jobs should be saved.

Science fiction author Jerry Pournelle.

Science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle calls it, "The Standing Army Full Employment Program."

It proves that NASA has learned nothing and forgotten nothing, and the purpose of NASA is to provide work for NASA employees. Given the task of coming up with a new national space program now that the Shuttle has eaten much of the dream, NASA comes up with a giant expendable that uses hydrogen fuel, Shuttle Recoverable (Solid Fuel) Boosters — SEGMENTED Shuttle Recoverable Boosters — monopropellant boosters on a giant expendable rocket. This bird is optimized for employing the NASA standing army.

The Shuttle was enormously successful. I think of no other large project that so thoroughly did the work it was designed to do — which was to employ a large standing army of development scientists, engineers, and technicians, and give them plenty of meaningful work to do.

A review of articles published by the hometown newspapers of NASA space centers shows the main focus isn't on what value the SLS brings to the American space program. It's the preservation of local jobs.

Florida Today, September 16:

Preparations for a 2017 test flight of NASA's giant new rocket for deep space exploration could add up to 2,000 jobs at Kennedy Space Center, the center director said Thursday.

"Those folks will need to be here processing the rocket for the launch," KSC chief Bob Cabana told reporters.

Cabana expects the jobs to start coming online in 2014 or 2015, reversing the sharp drop in contractors that accompanied the shuttle fleet's retirement this year.

Houston Chronicle, September 17:

The unveiling of what could become the most powerful rocket ever built by humans provides insurance that the Johnson Space Center at Clear Lake will remain a hub of the U.S. space program and a bulwark of the Clear Lake economy.

Now that NASA has revived the former Orion Crew Capsule as part of the SLS while extending the life of the International Space Station controlled from JSC, there should be plenty of work training astronauts for the new missions.

That's reassuring for the space center's workforce (currently around 14,000), which has lost some 3,800 employees and contractors in the last year and a half with the cancellation of Constellation and the end of the space shuttle program.

Huntsville Times, September 18:

Huntsville's Marshall Space Flight Center is the program office in charge of developing the new rocket. "It's going to be a pretty important piece of our portfolio," Marshall Director Robert Lightfoot said Thursday.

But the new rocket isn't all Marshall does. It supports the International Space Station and has pieces of NASA's science and technology programs. Lightfoot is also establishing the National Institute of Rocket Propulsion at Marshall to serve as a center of expertise in rocket propulsion.

Those missions add up to 2,500 civil service jobs and 3,500 contractor jobs for a total of 6,000 jobs attached to the Marshall center today, a spokesman said last week.

In the next five years alone, before the SLS even flies a test flight, it's estimated that the project will cost about $3 billion a year, or $15 billion over those five years.

Let's assume that each SLS employee is handsomely compensated with a salary and benefits of $100,000 per year.

Divide $15 billion by that number, and it works out to 30,000 employees per year over five years.

Apollo at its height employed 46,000 in 1969.

Much of the $15 billion will go to capital expense, of course.

But if the real mission of the Space Launch System is to preserve jobs, and the income that goes with it, certainly there must be a far cheaper and more efficient means of investing $3 billion a year over the next five years.

Space sector jobs are treated as if they're magical and mystical, a secret known only to a chosen few. But how many of those jobs are so unique and specialized that those employees must be well-paid to keep polishing the chrome — the "standing army" as Pournelle calls it?

When the horseless carriage was invented, should the federal government have intervened to preserve the "standing army" of stagecoach builders?

Space worker skills might have been unique and specialized in the 1960s when Apollo began, but they're not so unique now. Several companies — from established aerospace firms such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin, to startups such as SpaceX and Blue Origin — have been able to hire space engineers without much difficulty. Other nations hire them too.

The Apollo generation also had a mission. Every U.S. human space flight vehicle has had a mission. For Project Mercury, it was to determine if a human could fly in space. Project Gemini taught us spacewalks, long-duration flight, and rendezvous-and-docking. Apollo walked men on the Moon and returned rocks. The Space Shuttle built the International Space Station.

The SLS will do ... what?

President Obama has proposed a mission to an asteroid in 2025 and a Mars mission in the 2030s, but Congress hasn't followed up on that proposal.

For now, the SLS appears to be only a monument to everything that's wrong with the American political process.

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