Friday, May 20, 2016

Mars Barred

The May 16, 2016 edition of “This Modern World” by Tom Tomorrow. Click to view at full size. Image source: Daily Kos.

The 55th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's human lunar spaceflight proposal is in five days.

On May 25, 1961, Kennedy delivered a speech to Congress titled, “On Urgent National Needs.” The speech was 43 days after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin circled the Earth, 38 days after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, and 20 days after American astronaut Alan Shepard's 15-minute suborbital flight from Cape Canaveral.

I wrote in 2011 on the 50th anniversary of the speech about its context. The best resource is John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon by Dr. John M. Logsdon.

Despite the modern mythology, Kennedy's speech that day was not about proposing a “space race” with the Russians. It was a 45-minute recitation of programs he proposed to demonstrate U.S. resolve after the events of the prior six weeks. The Moon proposal was near the end of the speech, possibly so that it might be forgotten if poorly received.

Dr. Logsdon amply documented that Kennedy was not a space visionary. He was a Cold Warrior looking to re-establish American “prestige,” a word that appears throughout Kennedy administration documents.

But the mythology persists to this day, and continues to haunt the U.S. government space program.

NASA works now to complete assembly of the James Webb Space Telescope, the eventual successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.

James Webb was appointed NASA Administrator by Kennedy, serving from February 1961 through October 1968. Webb was a lifelong Democrat, a business executive who moved in and out of government depending on which party held power in the White House. He had no science background. He was a bureaucrat skilled in the ways of Washington. Unlike many, he was willing to take a job that in February 1961 seemed to have little importance.

I can't fathom why what will be the world's most capable space telescope has been named after a bureaucrat.

All the other significant telescopes have been named after astronomers or physicists. Edwin Hubble. Lyman Spitzer. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar.

Why James Webb?

Neil Degrasse Tyson calls it Apollo Necrophilia — an unnatural reverence for historically significant but technically moribund exploration.

Apollo Necrophilia is alive and well in today's movement to place a human on Mars as quickly as possible.

No one really seems to have a good answer for why. Politicians tell us it will “inspire children,” although they seem more inspired by protecting obsolete aerospace jobs in their districts and states.

Click the arrow to play “Soul of the Explorer” on Vimeo. Video source: Space City Films.

The 2015 film short Soul of the Explorer by Houston's Space City Films is an example of this justification. The turgid narrative never really answers the “why” question, although we're pretty sure the script writer worked overtime delving into the thesaurus.

My personal opinion is that children will be far more inspired by direct, hands-on learning of the skills to participate in the nascent NewSpace economy opening space to the masses.

On May 16, the International Space Station deployed STMSat-1, a small satellite built by St. Thomas More Cathedral School in Arlington, Virginia.

Educational institutions — universities, high schools and now a grade school — send experiments and deploy smallsats thanks to the Center for Advancement of Science in Space and Nanoracks.

This week's Humans to Mars Summit in Washington, D.C. was a three-day gathering of Mars exploration supporters. Their 2015 publication The Humans to Mars Report never bothers to answer the “why” question.

The cynic in me notes that the summit was primarily sponsored by the OldSpace aerospace companies that would be the likely suspects to receive guaranteed-profit contracts for a government human Martian spaceflight program. Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Orbital ATK are the no-bid contractors currently working on Space Launch System. SLS was dubbed Senate Launch System by its critics in 2011 because Congress imposed the program's design and contractors on NASA, requiring the use of Shuttle-era contractors and technologies.

The usual suspects were also on the witness panel for the May 18 House Space Subcommittee panel, “Next Steps to Mars: Deep Space Habitats.”

Click the arrow to watch the May 18, 2016 hearing. Original video source: House Committee on Science, Space &Technology.

Representatives from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Orbital ATK were on the panel, along with NASA's Director of Advanced Exploration Systems for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. Some of the panelists used the occasion to present their companies' proposed designs for a habitat module.

Conspicuous by its absence was Bigelow Aerospace, the one company that actually has a habitat prototype. The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module was delivered by SpaceX on April 10, and attached to the International Space Station on April 16. NASA will cover the habitat's expansion live on May 26 starting at 5:30 AM EDT.

Unlike the OldSpace companies, Bigelow is privately funded. The OldSpace companies won't proceed with building a habitat unless the project is funded by taxpayers.

Also on the panel was Andy Weir, author of the novel The Martian that was released as a movie in 2015. Weir is a software engineer, not an aerospace expert, but received much of the attention from committee members who wanted to be seen with a celebrity.

To his credit, Weir brought a dose of sobriety to the hearing, reminding them of many lethal dangers facing humans going to Mars. Weir repeatedly emphasized the need for the committee to support commercial space exploitation, citing how the government invested in commercial aviation in the 1920s and 1930s.

This committee had a collective freak out six years ago when in February 2010 it held a hearing to review the Obama administration's commercial crew proposal. Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), the Democrats' ranking member on the subcommittee, had this to say in that 2010 meltdown:

Just in terms of risk, the commercial sector is never going to absorb the kind of risk that it really takes to get these vehicles off the ground. And at the end of the day, the taxpayer will always have to absorb that risk. And if that's true, then why not really take it on by continuing to have NASA fully engaged in human spaceflight because, when it's all said and done, it's going to be on us anyway.

History proved her to be totally wrong.

Robert Bigelow, who developed BEAM with 100% private investment and 100% absorption of the risk, was not on this week's panel to remind her of that.

In my opinion, the politicians can't let go of the Apollo paradigm. They grew up with the mythology. They believed the rhetoric about inspiration, ignoring the many polls over the years showing a majority of Americans do not support massive government spending on an Apollo-style program. Even in the 1960s, a majority of Americans opposed the Apollo cost, except for one poll in July 1969 when Apollo 11 landed.

I think that humans will go to Mars ... when it's meant to be.

History teaches us that human exploration usually has one of two motivations — commercial or military.

Christopher Columbus set out not to discover North America, but to find a shorter trade route to the East Indies. In a sense, it was the first “commercial crew” mission, because the ships were merchant vessels. Columbus was given ten percent of the revenues from new lands he claimed for Spain, and a percentage of the profits from any commercial ventures in those lands.

But that wasn't the Apollo model.

Apollo was to prove to the world that American technology was superior to the Soviet Union. It would be 100% financed by U.S. taxpayers. The goal was to place a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s. Kennedy never said anything about a permanant human lunar base, or commercial exploitation of the Moon. It was all about prestige.

The unintended consequence was that NASA built an infrastructure colossus intended to achieve that goal. It wasn't efficient. It wasn't competitive. But it did employ a lot of people.

Apollo created an unholy alliance of NASA bureaucrats and labor unions, legacy aerospace company lobbyists, and congressional members eager for re-election.

For a half-century, the space-industrial complex has been the major impediment to human expansion beyond the Earth. It assured that access to space was rare, expensive and controlled by the government.

In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed a NASA leadership who ordered the agency's bureaucracy to get out of the way and work with the private sector. Even as his administration comes to a close, pockets of resistance remain, especially those tied to the Space Launch System.

NASA assures us that the SLS will launch its Orion capsule on an uncrewed test flight around the Moon by the end of 2018, two years behind the Congressionally mandated first test flight by December 31, 2016.

SpaceX, meanwhile, announced on April 27 its plan to land a crew Dragon capsule on Mars by the end of 2018. The mission, called Red Dragon, would be uncrewed but it would demonstrate that the NewSpace company has the ability to land humans and other payloads on Mars.

Just add a habitat.

A conceptual model of a SpaceX Dragon docked at a Bigelow B-330. Image now on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

That habitat very well might be a Bigelow habitat, as demonstrated in this conceptual model now on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

Red Dragon is 100% privately funded. The Falcon Heavy launch vehicle is based on the Falcon 9, which was 100% private investment. The crew Dragon was part of NASA's commercial crew program that went unfunded until the Obama administration did so in Fiscal Year 2011. Some NASA money is in Dragon, but much of the cost and risk is absorbed by SpaceX. The cost of the Red Dragon mission is 100% SpaceX. NASA will provide technical advice and access to its deep space communications network, in exchange for the data collected by Red Dragon on its mission.

Why does SpaceX want to go to Mars?

SpaceX founder Elon Musk says it's to protect humanity from an extinction event.

I suppose that's as good a reason as any, but it's his money.

If SpaceX succeeds, perhaps Apollo Necrophila will be dead and buried, once and for all. Then we can be serious about humans to Mars.

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