Sunday, March 2, 2014

Desperation Mars

Click the arrow to watch the hearing on YouTube.

The laughingstock that is the House space subcommittee aired its latest sitcom on February 27, holding a hearing titled, “Mars Flyby 2021: The First Deep Space Mission for the Orion and Space Launch System?”

The hearing, apparently called by science committee chair Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), was to give purpose to the SLS, which was mandated by Congress in 2010 even though they gave NASA no purpose for it. Critics labelled it the Senate Launch System, because it was championed by Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) to protect Shuttle-era jobs in their states.

Members of the space subcommittees in both houses of Congress have declared SLS to be NASA's primary mission, although independent studies have documented that Congress refuses to provide adequate funding for actual missions — whatever they might be.

Republicans, and some Democrats, on those committees heap abuse on the Obama administration for failing to tell NASA what to do with SLS, or for providing any kind of long-term space vision.

This is entirely wrong, of course.

Obama laid out his space vision on April 15, 2010, in a speech at Kennedy Space Center. Congress hated it, because he wants to end the cronyism between them and legacy aerospace companies. That cronyism directs thousands of dollars each election cycle into their campaign coffers, while perpetuating jobs in their states and districts.

Forced into accepting SLS, in April 2013 the Obama administration proposed the Asteroid Initiative, which would evolve new technology that could one day transfer into the private sector. Congress hated that too; Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) dismissed the idea as “lackluster.”

So here we are a year later, with still no use for SLS.

The supposed purpose of this hearing was an attempt by Smith and other representatives to dictate to NASA that they should use SLS and the Orion crew capsule for a two-year mission in 2021 that would send astronauts to fly by Venus and Mars, before returning to Earth. The idea was borrowed from the Inspiration Mars project run by one-time Soyuz commercial tourist Dennis Tito.

What will the astronauts do?

That was never explicitly stated, other than apparently they're to look out the capsule window and relate what they see.

We already have robotic spacecraft more than capable of doing the same thing for much cheaper. Every day, we can download from NASA's web site high-resolution digital images of the Martian surface beamed back by the Curiosity rover.

The committee members didn't explain how they would pay for this, nor did they explain where the habitat module would come from, nor did they explain how the astronauts will endure accelerated bone loss or lethal doses of radiation.

This may be why no NASA representative was invited. The committee members didn't want to hear the facts.

One of the invited speakers was Scott Pace, a former NASA executive who worked on the failed Constellation project and then went on to be Mitt Romney's space advisor during that failed campaign. The Obama administration proposed cancelling Constellation in 2010 after a Government Accountability Office audit found Constellation “lacked a sound business case.” That was followed by the independent Augustine Committee concluding that Constellation was unsustainable. Congress eventually agreed, but mandated it be replaced with SLS. Pace publicly criticized the cancellation of Constellation.

In any case, we heard from many members and witnesses the usual claims that NASA has to spend tens of billlions of dollars on SLS to inspire youth, that it will unite the nation just as did Apollo, that other nations will come running to join us, that it's vital for national security, that Russia and China will conquer the heavens if we don't do this flyby.

All of this is nonsense, of course.

A 2003 essay by space historian Roger Launius titled “Public Opinion Polls and Perceptions of U.S. Human Spaceflight” found:

Consistently throughout the 1960s a majority of Americans did not believe Apollo was worth the cost, with the one exception to this a poll taken at the time of the Apollo 11 lunar landing in July 1969. And consistently throughout the decade 45–60 percent of Americans believed that the government was spending too much on space, indicative of a lack of commitment to the spaceflight agenda.

As for other nations joining us, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher — a lone voice of sanity in these hearings — asked Pace if any nations so far have asked to join NASA in this endeavor. Pace finally said, “Nope.”

Rohrabacher also pointed out that the original Inspiration Mars idea was to be commercial, not a government program.

Quoting from the Inspiration Mars web site:

Investments in human space exploration technologies and operations by NASA and the space industry are converging in time to make such a mission achievable. The mission is being designed based on proven Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) systems and technologies that are available on the market today. We are currently in discussions with many of the leading U.S. commercial aerospace companies to tap into their existing launch engines and vehicles. Environmental and life support operations will be directly derived from International Space Station technologies, which have proven design, development and operational lessons to draw from.

After the February 27 hearing, Tito issued a press release endorsing the use of SLS for his flyby mission. My guess is he's not “inspiring” enough people to donate money to his project as he thought he would.

My personal opinion is that today's youth will be far more inspired by commercial enterprises such as SpaceX, Sierra Nevada, Virgin Galactic, XCOR, Bigelow Aerospace, Stratolaunch and other NewSpace companies developing 21st Century technology that will open space to their generation, rather than trying to do Apollo on Steroids.

The average age of a SpaceX employee is 30. In 2009, the average age of a NASA employee was 47.

As for national security, I rather doubt Vladimir Putin will reverse course and withdraw Russian troops from Ukraine just because NASA is forced to spend three billion dollars a year on SLS and Orion.

Apollo was, to be blunt, a publicity stunt. President John F. Kennedy proposed Apollo to show the rest of the world that U.S. technology was superior to that of the Soviet Union. The word “prestige” appears time and again in internal Kennedy administration memos and documents.

That rationale no longer applies, if it ever did. I can't think of one 1960s Third World leader who decided to ally with the United States because of Apollo.

As furious as I become with the members of these committees, I try to remind myself that they are largely impotent. This nonsensical idea will go nowhere. Their Congressional siblings will never approve the funding, although they may order NASA to “study” it just like all the other unfunded mandates Congress has given NASA over the years that ultimately go nowhere.

If you watch the video, you'll note that commercial space is never mentioned. The SpaceX Falcon Heavy should have its first uncrewed test flight this year (or maybe 2015) at Vandenberg AFB, and SpaceX is about to sign the lease for Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A. The Falcon Heavy will render SLS irrelevant, and eventually will raise questions in Congress about why the folks on the space subcommittees continue to perpetuate the “monster rocket,” as Bill Nelson calls it.

Like Constellation, SLS is probably doomed to waste tens of billions of dollars before meeting its demise. We might see one launch off LC-39B, just as we did the Ares I-X in 2009, declare victory and go home.

But this proposal is just a desperate attempt to defend SLS in face of the mounting evidence that it's a waste of taxpayer money.

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