Wednesday, November 13, 2013

One Way or the Other

Click the arrow to watch “Removing the Barriers to Deep Space Exploration” on YouTube. Video source: NASA.

Two media events held November 12 in Washington, D.C. offered complementary visions for NASA's future.

One event touted a big government rocket as the key to humanity leaving low Earth orbit.

The other acknowledged the reality that Congress will not fund a big government rocket adequately to perform any significant missions.

The common link between the two events was William Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations. Present at both events, “Gerst” as he's known at NASA did his best to walk the politically correct line, knowing that members of Congress have their knives sharpened for any NASA executive who questions the wisdom of the big government rocket.

The Space Launch System, dubbed Senate Launch System by its critics, to this day has no missions or destinations. NASA proposed the Asteroid Initiative in April to give SLS a purpose, but Congress has failed to act on it — along with the rest of the Fiscal Year 2014 budget. (FY14 began on October 1.) When last debated, the Republican House had voted to ban NASA from doing an asteroid mission, while the Democratic Senate left it to NASA to decide which program is best.

When questioned by the media present, Gerstenmaier and other speakers — all executives with the aerospace contractors building SLS — described the big government rocket as a “capability” rather than an actual mission. One referred to SLS as another “tool in the toolbox.”

Boeing Space Vice-President John Elbon claimed an independent group “quickly came to the conclusion” that the big government rocket was “the efficient and affordable way to do a mission into deep space.” He didn't name the group, nor did he say where we could find their report to judge for ourselves.

Click the arrow to watch the CNBC report on the NASA/Bigelow event. You may be subjected to an ad first.

In the afternoon, Bigelow Aerospace founder Robert Bigelow joined Gerstenmaier for a media event at a local hotel. Unlike the SLS event, which was telecast live on NASA TV, the Bigelow event was not. All I've found so far is the above CNBC report.

As reported by Florida Today, Bigelow stated the obvious for those who've been paying attention:

NASA's share of the budget could shrink even more in January if a budget deal a congressional committee is working on does nothing to prevent another round of sequestration spending cuts.

The agency's role as the world's trailblazer in space could disappear within a decade because it lacks the resources for missions beyond low Earth orbit “without significant help,” said Robert Bigelow, president of Bigelow Aerospace, which produced the report released Tuesday.

“If there is no outside help over the next 10 years, only a very modest human exploration effort is possible,” Bigelow told reporters at a Capitol Hill news conference.

Jeff Foust at NewSpace Journal has an excellent write-up of the Bigelow report presented yesterday.

A report prepared by Bigelow Aerospace for NASA concludes that the commercial approach that the space agency used successfully for developing commercial cargo transportation to the International Space Station should also be applied to developing transportation beyond Earth orbit, including in the vicinity of, and to the surface of, the Moon.

The report, prepared under a Space Act Agreement between NASA and Bigelow Aerospace announced earlier this year, is being formally released today at a press conference in Washington. It recommends that NASA pursue a partnership with industry to develop beyond-LEO transportation systems, given NASA’s constrained budgets and the record of success by NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to develop launch vehicles and spacecraft to supply the ISS.

“America is facing a fiscal crisis of unprecedented proportions making the likelihood of increased funds for human space exploration highly unlikely,” states an advance copy of the report provided by the company. “Therefore, the only viable option for the U.S. to reach cislunar space is to leverage the efficiencies, innovations, and investments of commercial enterprises.”

During the event, Bigelow raised his concern that China might make claims on the Moon. He said he would approach the Federal Aviation Administration and other federal agencies to amend the 1967 Outer Space Treaty to give private companies property rights on the Moon and other celestial bodies such as asteroids.

Writing this morning on his Space Politics blog, Jeff Foust posted:

Robert Bigelow indicated that the company plans to press their case for lunar property rights in the near future. “Bigelow Aerospace will be making an application to the FAA/AST [Office of Commercial Space Transportation] for a policy review pertaining to lunar property rights before the end of this year,” Bigelow said.

That policy review would take advantage of the FAA’s ability to perform a policy review of a license application, which involves interagency consultation. “I think it’s abundantly clear that, in terms of establishing lunar property rights or even making that request, that the FAA/AST is the proper gateway to begin that process,” said Mike Gold, Bigelow Aerospace’s chief counsel and head of the company’s Washington office, citing that interagency review process. “I know it sounds like a lot for one company or one request, but that is actually the way the process goes from a legal perspective.”

Bigelow Aerospace doesn’t have immediate plans for a lunar base, although it is a long-term goal for the company; it’s focused for now on developing orbital habitats and awaiting the developing of commercial crew transportation systems before launching those modules and lining up customers for them. So why press for it now? “We think that, first of all, this is not an overnight process, and that is probably the main reason why we are starting on this,” Robert Bigelow said. “We want to galvanize support where we can, and find out where the most significant support is derived from.”

“I have a more pessimistic view of the need for property rights,” he added. He cited an unnamed foreign country that has “significant ambition” in space and “significant financial resources” — a not-so-veiled reference to China. “It’s very possible that, in another dozen years, America could have quite a surprise.” Bigelow has previously stated his concerns that China could claim the Moon as its territory, although that view is not shared by those that closely follow Chinese space efforts.

According to NASA, the surface area of the Moon is 37,932,000 square kilometers (14,658,000 square miles) or 9.4 billion acres. Good luck, China, trying to protect all that in one-sixth Earth gravity from other spacefaring nations who won't recognize your claim anyway.

Jeff also tweeted that Bigelow was asked if Space Launch System was a possible launcher for his inflatable habitats. Bigelow said it might have a possible use for larger habitats he has on the drawing board.

Taking the larger view, Gerstenmaier's remarks at both events attempted to present a more generic vision that combined both government and private programs. He did not say how NASA would use the Bigelow report. My speculation is that NASA intends to quietly pursue more commercial initiatives without raising red flags that would draw further ire from a Congress which views SLS as pork for their states and districts, and that any other NASA human spaceflight program poses a threat to their porcine funding.

NASA has an event scheduled today at 11:30 AM EST to celebrate the successful conclusion of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. I'll be listening to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden's remarks to hear if he drops any clues about new commercial initiatives.

Click the arrow to watch a Florida Today excerpt from the NASA/Bigelow media event. You may be subjected to an ad first.

UPDATE November 13, 2013National Geographic published an article about yesterday's Bigelow event that focused mainly on the subject of lunar property rights.

The Man Who Sold the Moon? A private space company's chief, Robert Bigelow of Bigelow Aerospace Inc., called for the Federal Aviation Administration to allow property rights for lunar mining, at a Tuesday NASA briefing.

The North Las Vegas, Nevada-based firm already has a contract, announced in January, to provide the U.S. space agency with an experimental inflatable habitat for the International Space Station in 2015.

Now Bigelow, 69, wants private space companies (such as his own and Elon Musk's SpaceX rocket firm) to take a larger role in expanding NASA's astronaut explorations to beyond the space station's orbit.

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