The Demise of a Well-Informed Public

The newly completed (and now abandoned) A-3 test stand at NASA Stennis.  How symbolic?

The newly completed (and now abandoned) A-3 test stand at NASA Stennis. How symbolic? (NASA)

Two recent pieces published in the bellwether of Beltway conventional wisdom, the Washington Post compel me to respond. The first article focuses on the demise of the aerospace manufacturer North American Aviation (founded in 1928), the company that built the Apollo and Space Shuttle spacecraft. The author’s intent is to explore how and why America’s middle class became “lost.” The second piece notes the completion of a new rocket engine test stand (followed by its immediate “mothballing”) at Mississippi’s Stennis Space Center. Seemingly unconnected, they collectively illustrate a breakdown in the competence and reliability of modern American news reporting. Due to inadequate research, the writers do not produce thoughtful, logical analysis and thus, have failed in their duty and obligation to inform their readership.

The article on North American’s operations in Downey California is part of a broader series that looks at changes in the American economy, so one might not expect a thorough analysis of the history of the space program. On the other hand, such history is relevant (as is often the case) to the topic addressed and thus, vital to the questions asked in the series – especially when the author begins by asking, “How did this happen?”

North American Aviation was one of the giants of the nation’s aerospace industry. Although famous for its involvement in the Apollo program, North American developed several historically significant military aircraft including the P-51 Mustang fighter, F-86 Sabre jet fighter, and the X-15 rocket plane –vehicles that set new records for performance and versatility. With the advent of the space age, North American not only built the Apollo Command Module, but also the groundbreaking S-II second stage of the Saturn V moon rocket. Practically hand-made, this large cryogenic hydrogen-oxygen stage was a technical milestone, functioning near flawlessly. North American used this technical and human expertise to develop and build the Space Shuttle, a vehicle initially intended as one part of a larger transportation system meant to extend our reach throughout cislunar space.

Much more than simply a manufacturing plant, North American’s presence in the Los Angeles area was symbolic of the large-scale, dispersed high-technology aerospace industry in southern California. Jobs were plentiful for skilled, competent workers returning from the war and they flocked to the West coast to settle and raise their families (many of whom also went on to work in the aerospace business). Numerous small aircraft, space, and technology firms could be found in the region, supplying parts and subsystems to North American and other major space contractors. In part, this activity was responsible for the expansive job and economic boom of the Pacific coast – activity driven by the defense needs of a nation now locked in a global geopolitical struggle with the Soviet Union.

With the collapse of the Berlin Wall marking the end of the Cold War, it was inevitable that the aerospace industry would contract. Recognizing this – and also recognizing the critical importance of this technology and research sector to America’s security – in 1989, President George H. W. Bush proposed the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI), featuring a permanent return to the Moon and a human Mars mission. Such an ambitious set of space goals would revitalize the nation’s civil space program (giving it a renewed sense of purpose and direction) and maintain a minimal level of the technological-industrial infrastructure and the skilled workforce necessary to innovate and ensure our national security. After President Bush lost his bid for re-election, Congress and the Clinton administration abandoned the SEI and shifted the so-called “peace dividend” (i.e., the funding previously allocated for national defense in the Cold War) into entitlements. The aerospace industry (and the jobs therein) subsequently underwent a major collapse and through a decade of mergers and acquisitions, emerged in the diminished form it takes today.

None of this is mentioned in the Washington Post article. Instead, it wistfully recounts that once there was a factory in Downey that built spacecraft and provided good paying jobs for people straight out of high school. The piece fails to note that once there was an entire high-tech industry in southern California, one that enabled America to become a superpower and prevail in a 50-year struggle against what was undoubtedly an “Evil Empire.” Rather than focusing on the ramifications of those historical facts, the author instead meanders into a rambling, Occupy Wall Street-type class warfare diatribe about the lack of jobs in Downey paying a “living wage.” New Space guru Elon Musk makes a cameo appearance in this doleful tale, but only to double-cross the city fathers when he decides to build his new Tesla electric car plant in the Bay Area, rather than at the old North American Aviation site.

The other Washington Post story explores the construction and then near-immediate abandonment of the new $349 million A-3 test stand at NASA Stennis Space Center. This facility, designed to vacuum test the new J-2X rocket engine (a modern variant of the engine that propelled astronauts to the Moon in the Saturn S-IVB stage) was built as part of the now-cancelled Constellation program. The story relates how – even after Project Constellation had been “cancelled” – decisions were made at several points to go forward with the construction of the test stand. The piece repeats several myths about changes done to the space program under the current administration, something we have now come to expect in this reworked “news” coverage.

The article relates the fiscal difficulties of building the facility (including the inevitable cost growth associated with changing requirements and realities) but then re-writes the history of President Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) – the 2004 program designed to return Americans to the Moon and prepare for missions to Mars and other destinations. It is implied that Bush called for missions to the Moon by 2015 (true enough – mentioned in his speech), but it does not note that date was not a deadline, but a guideline. It repeats the standard erroneous interpretation of the 2009 Augustine committee that lunar return was so under-funded that NASA might never get there. In fact, that committee used cost-estimating rules and accounting techniques almost guaranteed to give inflated-cost, late delivery results. In consequence, the President had the cover of “expert analysis” to do what he had desired to do from the beginning – cancel the VSE.

However, a single Presidential speech cannot cancel a national strategic decision twice endorsed by two different Congresses (in the 2005 and 2008 NASA Authorization Acts). Congress needed to be onboard with the President’s plan to abandon the VSE. However, several members were acutely aware that by terminating NASA involvement with building and operating heavy lift rockets, a hard-won capability relevant to national security was being permanently discarded without due consideration. To patch over this gaping wound, Congress re-established a program to develop a heavy lift booster, largely on the basis of testimony that any human missions beyond LEO would ultimately require some type of heavy lift capability. Common mythology among space observers is that establishing the Space Launch System (SLS – derisively referred to as the “Senate Launch System” by its most ardent critics) was all about protecting jobs in selected states and Congressional districts. In fact, some members understood the national strategic concerns. A launch system is not simply a pile of rocket hardware – it is an industrial capability consisting of tooling, supporting facilities and infrastructure, and most importantly, human capital and experience – assets that once dissipated are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to reassemble. It must be noted that Congress never “canceled lunar return” – human cislunar missions (including to the lunar surface) are still part of the language of the 2010 NASA Authorization strategic direction (not that you will hear of it in the news coverage).

It is not at all clear that the A-3 test stand is the worthless boondoggle portrayed in this article meant to ferret out and highlight waste in our ever-dwindling discretionary spending fraction of the federal budget. We will need some type of advanced upper stage to send people on missions beyond low Earth orbit – the alleged strategic direction of our nation’s civil space program. That upper stage will have to have an engine very much like the J-2X (if not that item itself). Moreover, since new engines must be tested, NASA now has the facilities to develop it. Of course, not using a new and expensive facility is silly, but the blame for that does not lie with the people who built it but with the ones who decided not to honor the commitments of the previous national leadership.

I find these two stories – no doubt considered by some to be fine examples of investigative journalism – to be poorly thought out, cliché-ridden, illogical and suffering from a lack of understanding and an appreciation for the history of their respective topics. I would like to think such reporting is the exception rather than the rule, but alas, I find this type of coverage (especially in regard to the space program, an area in which I work) all too common these days. It is especially frustrating because there are times when journalists do the required work and get things right. Regrettably, most news reports on space are assembled by gathering some quotes from the usual go-to sources, mixed well with current conventional wisdom on how something was or is “unaffordable,” and then duly garnished with platitudes about how we’ll have people on Mars in 15-20 years. So, just go about your daily lives and try not to think too hard about the two incompatible things you’ve been told – that Congress is spending NASA money on wasteful pork and that we will have people on Mars in 15-20 years. If that doesn’t compute, perhaps further inquiry about what has been (and is being) reported is in order.

With so much being omitted or misrepresented about the space program, it isn’t much of a stretch to believe that reportage in other fields of human endeavor is also suspect. Technical shallowness, exacerbated by ignorance of history and old-fashioned laziness, leaves us witnessing the demise of yet another national security imperative – an informed electorate.

Posted in Lunar exploration, space industry, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 30 Comments

The Flight of Orion

New post up at “Once and Future Moon” on the Orion spacecraft, its upcoming test flight this week, and some observations on the program in general.  Comment here if you are so inclined.

Posted in Lunar exploration, Lunar Science, planetary exploration, space policy, space technology, Space transportation, Uncategorized | 11 Comments

UPDATED: China’s Latest Lunar Mission

I have a new blog post up at Air & Space about the flight of Chang’E 5T and its significance to the Chinese space program.  Comment here, if so desired.

Update added 10 December, 2014:

I have been directed to a news story from Chinese media indicating that the portion of the Chang’E 5T spacecraft that did not re-enter Earth’s atmosphere has looped around the Earth and returned to to the Moon, parking at Earth-Moon L-2 (a point about 60,000 km directly above the center of the lunar far side).  The story goes on to say that the plan is to bring the spacecraft back down into low lunar orbit for additional high resolution mapping next month.

Once again, this new development demonstrates Chinese ability to position assets throughout cislunar space at will and loiter there for extended periods.  No one in the American space program seems to be concerned about this capability, but they should be.

Posted in Lunar exploration, Lunar Science, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 6 Comments

The Apollo Program and American “Culture”

History through a prism - and not a particularly clear one.

History through a prism – and not a particularly clear one.

No Requiem For The Space Age by Matthew Tribbe looks at the culture of American society and how it reacted to the achievements of the Apollo program. Tribbe’s book, drawn from his Ph.D. dissertation “The Rocket and the Tarot: The Apollo Moon Landings and American Culture at the Dawn of the Seventies,” is both interesting and infuriating – interesting in that it collates much of the contemporary Luddite, anti-space rhetoric all in one place and infuriating for the same reason. The author’s thesis is that “informed opinion” at the time of Apollo held that it was significant, but no one knew why. Tribbe accepts as gospel many of the same tropes that analysts assumed then (and presumably still do) but more significantly, he attributes more credibility to the critics of Apollo than they merit, then or now.

The book is organized by chapter, with each viewing the Apollo lunar landings through the prism of various sub-groups: East Coast intelligentsia, media (print, audio and visual), the bohemian “alternative lifestyle” groups (obsessed over by many in the media), and finally, the general working and voting public. Tribbe makes the common assumption that Apollo ended because “people lost interest in going to the Moon,” even though he quotes public opinion surveys collated by Roger Launius that in fact, the American people were never very interested in lunar exploration to begin with. Tribbe claims to understand that Apollo was not a great leap into the cosmos but rather, a geopolitical contest with implications that were very much Earth-bound, yet seems perplexed that despite the success of Apollo, it was dead-end for space exploration. If he understood the former point, he would realize that Apollo was never about space exploration.

The most disturbing feature of this book is the importance afforded to the many voices of discord and complaint about the Apollo program. I am annoyed not by his coverage of them (they are after all, part of the historical record) but by the elevated significance Tribbe assigns to them and their place in society. Most large collective undertakings have their critics, but for historical significance, what matters is their net effect on the undertaking in question – was it successful or not? In the case of Apollo, what clearly was successful was that we accomplished our national goal on schedule and beat the Soviets to the Moon. What Tribbe does not explore (or does not understand) is the very tangible benefit America achieved by winning the Moon race.

Some view the Apollo Moon landings solely as a “stunt” – a demonstration of American technological prowess. In this view, the lunar landings achieved little except for global public relations. While this aspect of the program is true, it certainly is not the entire story. The real value of Apollo was that it demonstrated to the Soviets both our technical abilities and our national resolve. A human lunar mission is an enormously difficult technical undertaking, something that the Soviets themselves had seriously attempted and failed to accomplish. That failure, underscored by America’s success, led the Soviets (and other aggressive regimes) to conclude that Americans could achieve any technological goal that they set as their goal. A decade later, to defend America and our allies against nuclear annihilation, President Ronald Reagan announced an effort to develop a shield in space. Many of the same American intelligentsia who thought Apollo to be “silly” loudly proclaimed the idea of a ballistic missile defense system as ludicrous and unworkable, calling it “Star Wars” and labeling Reagan an out-of-control “foreign policy cowboy.” However, the Soviets took “Star Wars” development very seriously. In fact, an opportunity for a major breakthrough in nuclear arms control was missed at the Reykjavik summit in 1986 solely because Reagan would not trade away SDI for a proposed elimination of Soviet nuclear missiles. With prospects of Reagan’s “Star Wars” neutralizing their nuclear arsenal, the Soviets commenced on a self-imposed race to develop their own missile defense system, which in turn sped up their nation’s eventual fall into financial collapse.

Why would the Soviets have insisted on such a provision at Reykjavik if SDI were merely some cowboy fantasy? Tribbe completely misses this concrete, substantive benefit of Apollo – American technical credibility and the power it wielded. In his mind, although the Apollo “stunt” was successful, it had no lasting effect on the state of the Cold War and even less effect on long-term spaceflight (to which it was only incidentally relevant). In fairness, this is a common perception in the current academic community; I simply find it a pity that someone who has studied this period so intently could miss a development of such an obvious significance.

Which brings me to my last point about No Requiem –Tribbe’s over-reading of the lasting significance of the counter-culture and its criticism of both Apollo and American society. It is certainly true that many über-sophisticates and literati were disdainful or openly contemptuous of the Apollo program, and of the people who made it all work. Thomas Paine, Administrator of NASA at the time of Apollo, famously described its success as the “triumph of the squares.” This clearly got the goat of the chattering classes, who to this day continue to spin tales of massive quantities of money “wasted” on things like human space missions.

In part, Apollo and the space program in general was a victim of its own success. The famous and beautiful “Earthrise” picture taken by the Apollo 8 crew became an icon for the burgeoning environmental movement, which as Tribbe demonstrates, quickly took an anti-technology, Luddite turn from which it has never fully recovered or disavowed. Lest you think that such a development is irrelevant to current issues with our civil space program, I note that Presidential Science Advisor John Holdren (who reportedly has had a significant role in the gutting of civil space under the current administration) is a disciple of Malthusian overpopulation alarmist and eco-loon Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University. Thus, one of the extremist “green” movement’s own is helping to set the current U.S. civil space agenda.

While Tribbe commits the common blunder of assigning nearly all of the Sixties generation to the bin of the counter-culture, nearly all of my high school classmates in flyover country (Kansas City, MO) were normal, middle-class teens, more interested in cars and girls than Vietnam protests. Moreover, virtually all of my friends and personal acquaintances went on to finish their college degrees, got ordinary jobs in the trades and professions, and married and raised families. The idea that there existed a rebellious generation that rejected the norms and values of American society is a myth perpetrated by a small group that engaged in these things (then and now). Although a minority, they have disproportionate representation in the media and academia, and thus play an outsized role in educating others. Those of us privileged to be alive at the time of humanity’s first steps onto another world remember it clearly and distinctly, recalling both the excitement and elation of those distant times with fondness.

The public did not “lose interest” in Apollo – it never had more than a passing interest in Apollo to begin with. Naturally, the first lunar landing drew unprecedented attention, as befitting any such event. But most people got neither too excited nor too offended about subsequent trips to the Moon. As with most historically noteworthy things, their importance at the time was not well understood, but that should not detract from their significance. In this country, things happen not because an outraged or excited public demands it, but because a few key people see an unmet need and take it upon themselves to address it. America has a nuclear navy today not because there was a grass-roots public movement to create one, but because a few visionaries, such as Admiral Hyman Rickover, saw the need for such a development and doggedly took the necessary steps to implement it.

Tribbe’s book is a concise and comprehensive compendium of negative, critical contemporary opinion about the Apollo program and a good reference to the historian for this purpose. But it is a distorted view of both the legacy of the space program and of America in the 1960s. It is illustrative of what the academy thinks of this country and would have others believe is an accurate reflection of those times. This is the past through a glass, and darkly – incomplete, distorted, and unreliable.

Posted in Lunar exploration, space policy, space technology | 17 Comments

Quinquennial Follies

The Big Three -- useful?

The Big Three — useful or useless?

About every five years, a committee is trotted out to report on the status and future of human spaceflight. Each of these reports generates a lot of disruption, press reports and head scratching. When it all dies down, very little (if anything) is accomplished. The last three of these ponderous tomes generated over the past ten years nicely document the decline and fall of the American civil space program. I thought it might be instructive to examine them on a comparative basis, showing how the initial promise and optimism of each report led ultimately to disappointment, with the space program becoming less capable and less secure – a continuous downward trajectory for human space exploration.

Let us begin ten years ago with the emergence of the report that I was directly involved with – the Aldridge Report. This document was the product of a Presidential Commission. (Each succeeding report was produced by a group with less bureaucratic stature but increased scope of responsibility, which should tell you something right there.) The Aldridge effort was chartered to study and report on how the new Vision for Space Exploration (the VSE, articulated by President George W. Bush in January, 2004) should be implemented. Our task was not to question the direction or strategic aims of the VSE, but merely to understand how NASA should organize itself to execute it.

The Aldridge Commission members (who met for 6 months) were in agreement with the long-term aims of the VSE. However, there were individual differences over how to implement it, which generated extensive debate on exactly what steps were most important and critical, as opposed to which were merely optional and desirable. The Aldridge Commission report strongly favored a more streamlined and efficient space agency, including innovations such as creating incentive prizes and awards for technology development, contracting with commercial entities for launch services, and converting the NASA field centers into federally funded research and development centers (FFRDC) – a model similar to that of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is run for the government by Caltech. One of our most important (and ignored) recommendations was to re-create the National Space Council, a White House-level body to oversee and periodically review agency progress on implementing the VSE – a step deemed vital to ensure continuity of purpose and as protection against any unraveling of the direction of the program. The VSE had strong bi-partisan support and had been blessed twice by the Congress, once under Republican Party leadership, once under Democratic Party leadership.

My personal disappointment with the aftermath of this report was the agency’s deft shrugging off of the oversight recommendation. Commission members were invited back to NASA Headquarters six months after the report had been submitted to receive a presentation on how well the agency had implemented our recommendations. Judging from the dog-and-pony show we received, it was clear that it was to be pretty much business as usual, which I suppose is not too surprising. No Administrator wants someone looking over their shoulder, criticizing their performance, or reminding them about what they were tasked to do. Thus, no executive oversight was created, a deficiency that would be felt sharply in the years ahead.

Five years after the Aldridge report, a new Presidential administration established the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, a.k.a., the Augustine Committee (named for its Chairman, retired former CEO of Lockheed-Martin, Norman Augustine). Note that this was a committee (not a commission), which placed it one rung lower on the bureaucratic totem pole. (Our commissions were signed by the President; this committee’s appointments were from the Administrator of NASA. See this.) This group was chartered not only to review and evaluate NASA’s progress towards the implementation of its human spaceflight mission, but also to assess that mission and make recommendations as to whether a shift in goal, destination or emphasis was warranted. Like the Aldridge Commission five years earlier, the Augustine committee was to expire after 6 months.

Reportedly, this group used detailed technical analysis (by the Aerospace Corp.) to support their conclusions, although many of their ground rule assumptions could be questioned. Of course, one can always get the answer one is seeking by defining the boundary conditions accordingly. The Augustine Committee received presentations on the status of Project Constellation, NASA’s implementation of the VSE, derived from their own internal architecture study – the ESAS in 2006. They concluded that while the Constellation approach was technically sound, it would require more funding (an additional $3 billion per year) to meet its announced schedule (note: schedule, not deadline). They suggested that a better approach would be to pursue what they called the “Flexible Path,” in which technology would be pursued now and destinations would be picked later. They also introduced the possibility of a human mission to a near-Earth asteroid as a destination alternative to the lunar surface (green eyeshade thinking, as no lander would be required with that choice – and thus, a lunar return would be eliminated).

The consequence of the Augustine report was a foregone conclusion. The administration provided the committee with artificially low budget numbers (the “FY 2010” budget line; see page 81 of Augustine), essentially guaranteeing that almost any forward path would be found to be “unaffordable.” It’s not like this administration had a problem with spending money – they had almost doubled the national debt through spending well over one trillion dollars per year on “economic stimulus,” none of which found its way into NASA coffers. Moreover, while it was often pointed out that the retirement of the Shuttle had been ordered by the previous administration, what was usually not also noted is that its retirement was being done as part of a process to replace the existing human spaceflight system with a new one. So, while development of the new system was terminated (with no replacement in sight) the old system was retired on schedule and sent off to museums with great fanfare. Agency direction and money was redirected to private companies to encourage the development of a commercial human spaceflight capability, and a vehicle(s) with which NASA would (ultimately) be able to purchase Earth to LEO transportation. We were (and remain) unable to transport astronauts into space and are dependent on Russia for a ride to our space station.

Congress did not stand idly by during this strategic confusion. After considerable whining and foot-dragging by NASA, Congress included specific direction to continue building the trans-LEO Orion spacecraft and a new, Shuttle-derived heavy lift vehicle. This effort is proceeding, although NASA still has no well-defined strategic horizon or destination that would make sensible use of this vehicle. A human mission to Mars (the “ultimate goal”) is both technically and fiscally distant; agency “happy talk” about the imminence of such a mission is meaningless drivel. Because human missions to near-Earth asteroids were also determined to be infeasible, an “asteroid retrieval” stunt mission was presented as the next new destination – a make-work fig leaf to cover the embarrassment of having no place to send Orion and nothing to do once we got there (making it an easy target for criticism and future cancellation).

Now, five years after the Augustine Report, comes the National Research Council’s Pathways to Exploration. This report, chartered by the Congress in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, is a product of the Committee on Human Spaceflight, an ad hoc group appointed by NRC staff – and another rung down the bureaucratic ladder. Taking over three years (unlike the 6 month timeframe of the two earlier reports), this report canvassed the widest cross-section of the space community and American society to address the questions of “where and why” humans should go in space. The effort produced a massive 258-page book, delving into questions of possible destinations, public opinion, architectural variables, necessary technologies and the “pathways” that combine these variables into executable programs.

The most notable feature of the NRC report is its framework assumption: the purpose of a national human spaceflight program is “exploration.” Thus, the guiding questions of the NRC study are “how far can humans go?” and “what can they do when they get there?” This greatly circumscribes the actual possibilities of human spaceflight. One can imagine people doing many different things in space. Most certainly, scientific exploration is one of them, but it is by no means the only thing. The NRC report spent almost no time considering the broad field of space applications and utilization, in which people go to and come from various destinations in space, in order to accomplish a wide variety of tasks – to build, to provision, to mine, to remain, to observe, to prosper, to live. The entire field of creating wealth from space appears nowhere in the NRC report; it is only concerned with continuing the existing paradigm of launching self-contained missions from Earth, collecting data, and returning safely. Sustainability of the program – not human presence in space – is the objective.

Although the NRC report contains much solid analysis, it ultimately presents us with a future that is largely unattainable. Repeating the ingrained meme of “Mars is the ultimate goal” does nothing to chart the correct path forward from where we are now – a billion miles and a trillion dollars away from any human Mars mission. Instead, they could have endorsed an incremental and gradual extension of human reach – from LEO to cislunar to the lunar surface to trans-lunar to the planets. At each step, the capabilities and facilities needed to enable the next step are developed. In other words, we need to build a sustainable path using the resources already in space. If the alleged technical and policy “experts” on space do not advocate a logical and sensible path, why should we expect it from our political leaders? In order to assure private investors that their capital has some reasonable protections – that their involvement is worth taking a considerable risk for a suitable reward – a long-term, sustainable national effort in space must be demonstrated. Without it, neither program will be implemented, nor remain sustainable.

Our civil space program (and the future for commercial space) is diminished as each major report comes and goes. The impact of the latest NRC report was virtually nil – NASA continues to plan its asteroid retrieval stunt mission and the Potemkin Village “commercial space program” is trotted out to demonstrate that we are accomplishing something. Press releases and debuts of product mock-ups have replaced actual flight hardware and experience. The NASA budget remains static, while the agency and Administration have given Congress and the public no particular reason to believe it is going anywhere or doing anything to deserve any more funding than it’s currently getting.

Once America and her partners took on, executed and achieved great and challenging tasks – a hallmark of vibrant, healthy countries guided by interested, knowledgeable leadership. Now, challenges are being denied and death by committee has replaced hard work and breakthroughs. National advancement and achievement is stymied. Americans recognize that this is the wrong trajectory for the country and wince as the nation retreats further down the ladder. There will be no pride or excitement surrounding a program that continues in total disarray. There will be no great wave of interested students clamoring to excel and achieve. What’s up next for our national manned space flight program? What shape will the wrecking ball take and who will be tasked to deliver the deathblow? I shudder in anticipation of the next quinquennial report.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 22 Comments

A Lunar Road Trip

I have a new post up at Air & Space that describes an imaginary road trip across the surface of the Moon sometime in the no doubt distant future.  Comment here, if so inclined.

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

The Fog of Space Policy

Our national space policy -- clear as a bell.

Our national space policy — clear as a bell.

NASA recently announced its “down-select” of the two space contractors who will receive additional federal money to further develop a space vehicle to transport human crew to and from the International Space Station (ISS). Perhaps not too surprisingly, they chose the two companies whose vehicle concepts most closely resemble NASA’s own Orion capsule: the Boeing CST-100 and SpaceX’s Dragon 2. A truly innovative design, the Dream Chaser lifting body of Sierra Nevada Corporation, was not selected. The ramifications of the selection illustrate some important facts about the current state of our national space program and the future of true commercial human spaceflight.

Conventional wisdom holds that we’re on the cusp of a new age of human spaceflight – a revolutionary transformation whereby space is opened to many users, rather than being available to only a few. It is proclaimed that with the development of commercial human transport to LEO and the accompanying advent of low cost launch services, the general public will soon be able to voyage into space. We are told that this follows an expected, natural progression, as private sector facilities and services always follow on the exploratory trail blazed by government or large, government-chartered efforts. NASA says that New Space companies are prepared to rush in where government has already trod. With this handoff, Mars is now the official exploratory horizon of our civil space efforts and all work shall be directed to that end, including the missions within the critical strategic arena of cislunar space, now deemed useful merely as a testing ground for “deep space vehicles” being designed to take us to Mars.

So, where are we in this “transformational” scenario? Let’s begin with a reality check on our current situation, as well as the likely prospects for the coming decades or so, a.k.a. “the near future.” Looking around, we see that the advent of commercial human spaceflight has yet to occur and, despite the hype, is not likely to occur for some time. Commercial operations have markets driven by needs and (to a much lesser extent) desires. At the moment, there is very little commercial demand for human flights to LEO. The belief of many New Space advocates – that there is an unrealized demand in space tourism or simply joy-riding into orbit – is not tenable. It’s been ten years since Space Ship One captured the Ansari X-Prize and we’ve yet to see a single, regularly scheduled commercial spaceflight company carrying paying passengers. True enough, seven people paid Russia for trips to space on the Soyuz, but these occurred on an ad hoc, non-scheduled basis and were more a procession of stunts than the purchases of a commercial service from a provider.

A notable effort to establish human spaceflight commerce in LEO is being undertaken by Bigelow Aerospace, with the aim of providing orbital facilities than can be leased out for whatever purpose a customer has in mind. Many hold the mistaken impression that Bigelow wants to build orbital hotels (probably because that’s how he made his fortune on Earth). However, his intention is to provide pressurized, human-qualified facilities in orbit without specifying how such facilities should be used. In technical terms, Bigelow’s company has made significant progress – they have successfully fabricated, launched into orbit and operated two prototype inflatable space structures. Yet no commercial flight to a Bigelow space station has occurred. The current focus of the company is to provide and operate an inflatable module to be attached to the ISS.

People should ask what’s holding up commercial human space efforts – that flood of commercial enterprises they’re being told are just itching to follow and fill the void left by NASA. One answer is that despite their best efforts to encourage its development, Bigelow Aerospace has been frustrated by the fact that no simple, inexpensive transportation system to and from LEO has emerged. In 2004, Bigelow offered a $50 million prize to find a provider who would develop such a system; that prize offer expired five years after its announcement without a single attempt to win it. So a commercial orbital facility remains a dream. To survive organizationally, Bigelow Aerospace has fallen back on the traditional venue of “Old Space” – being a contractor for NASA.

What do these facts say about possible markets for commercial human orbital flight? To me it says that despite slick New Space marketing, no robust demand for commercial human spaceflight yet exists. Both the Boeing CST-100 and the SpaceX Dragon 2 are prototype contractor space vehicles; they are specifically designed to service the International Space Station – and are funded by NASA. In the broadest sense, they simply represent space business as usual, albeit with a slightly modified contracting instrument.

And what of our national space program? Do these new developments (or more precisely, the lack of new development) in “commercial” spaceflight pick up where NASA left off? It’s hard to believe that commercial entities are back-filling capability in old areas (like cislunar space) for NASA when no capability is yet evident. However, this remains the agency’s attitude as they proclaim – “We’re on the critical path for Mars!” So, let’s examine that proposition.

The Orion spacecraft and SLS launch vehicle are designed for “deep space” exploration, i.e., human flight beyond LEO. When discussing these vehicles, NASA implies they are the pieces needed for future human Mars exploration. However, while they may be necessary pieces (that is debatable), they are not sufficient for a human mission to Mars. The SLS core stage can put about 70 metric tons into low earth orbit; a yet-to-be developed advanced version could ultimately put 120 tons into orbit. Yet, a human Mars mission powered with chemical-propellant requires at least 500-700 metric tons in LEO (perhaps more, depending upon the mission architecture and the opportunity provided by planetary alignment). Thus, at least 5 to 10 SLS vehicles are needed simply to get the required total mass into orbit (logistical problems of subdividing and packaging, preserving cryogenic propellant from boil-off, and assembly in space are left as an exercise for the student).

Next, envision the Orion spacecraft’s habitable volume, a space similar to a large walk-in closet – about 9 cubic meters (300 cubic feet, or a closet 5 by 10 by 6 feet in dimension). This volume must accommodate the 4-5 astronauts living in the spacecraft for almost three years. Clearly, Orion is not a suitable habitat for long-term living in space; it is simply an Earth-return vehicle designed to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere at escape velocity (about 11 km/sec). Its limitations recall its origin – the Orion vehicle is a spacecraft designed for missions to and within cislunar space, i.e., trans-LEO missions of short duration (up to a month), with a high-velocity, aerothermal entry at the end. Thus, some type of habitation module (probably of ISS derivation) will be needed. I have not addressed the (currently unresolved) problem of entry, descent and landing on the martian surface (these problems are also left as an exercise for the student).

In short, we are still a considerable distance from a human Mars mission, an event so far in the future that I contend it literally makes no sense to discuss at this point how these pieces will be used. The current penchant of NASA to discuss hypothetical missions, like asteroid retrieval, is a de facto recognition of this situation. NASA – now “on its way to the stars” – has created a void in cislunar space. This condition must not be confused with a vacuum about to be filled with commerce. It is instead a playing field of unfulfilled promise, now abandoned, for which no commercial market of any potency or necessity yet exists.

The down-select of the two commercial vehicles for crew transport to ISS continues the lacuna in which we currently find ourselves. It remains neither a program with a sustainable destination nor with the means to get anywhere, yet one that insistently and repeatedly proclaims a firm possession of both. Once NASA had a vision that would demonstrate the economic potential of cislunar space but they retreated before it could happen. Regrettably, we find ourselves stranded in this relentless fog of space “transition,” arguing over rockets with no place to go, while other nations clearly see the potential that awaits in cislunar space and are firmly fixed on obtaining it.

Posted in Lunar development, planetary exploration, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 18 Comments

American Space Program Reflects Standing in the World

Astronaut Jack Schmitt and flag on the Moon, 1972.  Once unquestioned, now questionable.

Astronaut Jack Schmitt and flag on the Moon, 1972. Once our dominance of space was unquestioned.  Now, it is questionable.

Graphic international news reports are testament to the fact that the world is an unstable and dangerous place. Because of Russian aggression and intransigence toward Ukraine, the state of relations between the United States and Russia continues to deteriorate. Half a world away in the East China Sea, a game of strategic cat-and-mouse is played where Chinese fighter planes buzz American surveillance flights in international waters and the Chinese navy throws its weight around in confrontations on the open ocean, including harassment of off-shore oil operations owned by Vietnam, the Philippines and other nations. American influence and reliability is increasingly doubted, mocked and challenged around the world. Relinquishing leadership has emboldened our enemies and worried our allies, forcing many countries to look to those projecting strength and resolve for their security. Because the U.S. has assumed a posture of withdrawal, we have created the power vacuum that is destabilizing the world.

These ongoing events place the current state of the American space program in stark relief. We continue to be dependent upon Russia for crew transport to and from the International Space Station (ISS). A former NASA Administrator, who is not alone in his assessment, characterized this dependency as being “held hostage.” While we do have the ability to supply the ISS with procured cargo flights from American contractors, they have delivered only a fraction of their promised mass, leaving the vast bulk of ISS re-supply the domain of the Russian Progress (unmanned Soyuz) spacecraft. China has shown their resolve to dominate cislunar space. They are actively pursuing a program of missions to the Moon. The Chinese have demonstrated their ability to fly anywhere throughout cislunar space and to rendezvous, loiter and encounter other satellite assets on station or en route to other destinations.

Our international space partners were blindsided by America’s unilateral decision to abandon the Moon – an agreed to destination and goal upon which they had been working. Meanwhile, our space agency continues to promote a stunt human mission to a “lassoed” asteroid, an idea nearly universally panned. And contrary to the realities of budget and capability, NASA continues to regale the nation with endless “happy talk” about eventual human missions to Mars, a goal that is well beyond the time horizon of any reasonable projection.

Why has it come to this? One might argue that the current strategic confusion about goals and destinations is merely a continuation of the ongoing struggle of human spaceflight to find a long-term, sustainable rationale after the end of the Apollo program. But this calculus would misread the past thirty years of space history. There has never been any doubt about the logical path beyond low Earth orbit for humans – it leads incrementally to high orbits in cislunar space, to the Moon and then to the planets beyond. Yes, it is physically possible to skip one or more of those steps (as Apollo demonstrated) but those detours lead to architectural shortcuts that, while perhaps necessary to meet short-term political considerations, do not lead to or drive long-term, sustainable human presence in space.

Many chalk up the current state of upheaval as the inevitable consequence of the end of Apollo, but we cannot remain in this spin cycle if we ever plan to move forward with a workable strategy. A current debate in space circles is not where to go, or what to do, but rather, how to do it.   Issues dividing the space community – the arguments keeping us stuck in low Earth orbit, focus mainly on means rather than ends, and rockets rather than destinations. Such debate reflects a paucity of national leadership and the natural movement by others to fill the vacuum left by this strategic confusion.

Human spaceflight beyond LEO can be pursued through one of two means – a large, fully fueled vehicle can be launched directly from Earth (requiring the development of a heavy lift rocket) or a trans-LEO spacecraft can be launched as smaller pieces and built and fueled in space. The Apollo architecture used a heavy lift vehicle (Saturn V) to conduct a lunar landing mission with a single launch. This development accelerated the schedule by avoiding the need to construct a large infrastructure in Earth orbit to support a lunar mission. Thus, we fulfilled President Kennedy’s challenge and won the Moon race in less than a decade but left no lasting legacy infrastructure in space. An alternative approach would have been to incrementally build systems and emplace assets at increasing distances from Earth, including way stations, assembly points and fueling depots. Such a system is more complex and takes longer to build, but it creates permanent spaceflight infrastructure that would allow us to make repeated trips to the Moon and elsewhere. The success of Apollo has made it difficult to wrap our heads around going back to square one and building a space faring system in a permanent, sustainable way.

The new heavy lift launch vehicle (the SLS system) came about not as a result of a carefully thought-out strategy for space exploration but through an act of Congress who, faced with agency intransigence, acted to save a vital U.S. capability. The SLS launch vehicle currently being built will put about 80 metric tons into LEO, less than the older Saturn V but much more than any current or envisioned alternative. A future version could put roughly the same payload mass into LEO as the Saturn V. Critics of this program argue from two perspectives – first, that the SLS system is too expensive, both as a program and (because of projected low flight rates) by individual launch. Moreover, they claim that development of the SLS keeps spaceflight as an exclusive conclave of the federal government, requiring enormous resources to keep the program going. In fact, there is nothing (except the availability of additional federal subsidies) stopping the private sector from proceeding with their own vehicle development, at whatever pace they choose.

Thus, as framed by many in the space community, we are presented with these alternatives – do we want a human spaceflight program operated largely as it has been in the past – as an Apollo Redux, run by the federal government, with large rockets sending people to Mars for flags-and-footprint missions and other entertaining space “firsts?” Or, do we want a de-centralized program run by private corporations, providing many long-term opportunities for a variety of players to do different things in space? A line has been drawn in the sand and many advocates on each side remain intransigent and vociferous.

To ensure that the U.S. retains and grows a strong space program, we need a federally run human space program that promotes decentralization as capabilities are proven to the point that the private sector can invest in it with confidence, knowing markets and profits will exist going forward. History bears out the importance and necessity of cooperation between business and government. We have vital and pressing national concerns in space and the federal government represents our collective needs and desires as a nation. The fact that we are falling behind both Russia and China in spaceflight (witnessing the reality of how that impacts others understanding of our nation’s vitality and as a force in the world) bothers some not a whit, but it should. Earthly conflicts and tensions in international relations inevitably spill over into space and any other theater in which countries compete.

Recent events demonstrate that conflict escalates when the U.S. projects impotence in international affairs. The downsizing of our military has projected weakness, raising concerns about our national security and commitments abroad. Coupled with indecision over our national and international policies, such weakness has invited aggression around the world. Likewise, our civil space program is very visibly being dismantled just as the theater of cislunar space assumes more economic and military importance globally. Cislunar is the zone of near-Earth space where all of our national security and commercial space assets are located – and currently, they have scant protection from hostile action. A strong, robust U.S. presence in cislunar space supports and protects the nation and the world through situational awareness, asset protection and power projection.

In space we’re faced with the same options as on Earth – accept our role as a world leader and protect the interests of our allies and ourselves, or shun confrontation and accept the dictates of others. Some argue that cooperation in space leads to better relations and harmony on Earth; tell that to the Ukraine and their nervous neighbors. Many applaud this disruption in American power and influence. That type of thinking is very dangerous to the peace and prosperity of the world. We must resume a leadership role – one that looks after our national interests, wherever they are found – here on Earth or out in space. Instead of drawing down and retreating, we must stop the bleeding, retain what is left, build it back up and design it for permanence. We need to stop wasting time and money toying around with stunts and too-far-in-the-future wishful thinking. Our leadership must get down to the basics of moving our economy and national interests into space. Other countries projecting power and influence are already many steps ahead and set on a clear path to cislunar dominance.

Posted in Lunar development, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 34 Comments

Is Doing Something Better Than Doing Nothing?

Papa's got a brand new bag -- NASA's ARM mission.

Papa’s got a brand new bag — NASA’s ARM mission.

Ideas can come from anywhere and sometimes institutions are created with the express purpose of generating ideas from which advanced technologies, products or capabilities may eventuate. These “think-tanks” have occupied a prominent place in American history since World War II, a time when science and technology emerged as a critical part of our national intellectual infrastructure. A remarkable series of concepts were developed out of such efforts, including the transistor (Bell Labs), game theory (Rand Corp.), and the Internet (ARPA). Less well remembered are ideas that for various reasons didn’t pan out, such as the Picturephone (Bell Labs) and atomic bomb-powered spaceships (Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Institute for Advanced Studies).

The W.M. Keck Foundation privately funds the Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS). Located on the campus of the California Institute of Technology, KISS conducts “think and do studies” whose aim is to generate advanced concepts for space missions in order to revolutionize our approach to and the implementation of spaceflight. They hold workshops on a variety of study efforts, ranging from sweeping strategies for space exploration to the outline of specific mission concepts. Workshops are conducted by Caltech and JPL staff members, with a smattering of outside invitees included to give the patina of soliciting a broad range of ideas. Interestingly, two concepts coming out of Keck workshops drew the sudden attention of the keepers of our national space program: the human Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM) and the robotic Lunar Flashlight mission. Since these concepts were unveiled, the spaceflight community has been in turn bemused, amused and outraged. How does an idea (sometimes of multi-billion dollar scope) developed by a small group, with minimal input from the community at large, suddenly emerge as a national program? In the case of the ARM, it was a think-tank idea that fortuitously appeared at the right time.

In April of 2010, President Obama gave a speech on space policy at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In it, the President denigrated the idea of the United States returning to the lunar surface, advocating instead a human mission to an asteroid – allegedly as an interim deep-space step towards a human mission to Mars. It was quickly apparent that technical experts had not vetted this new policy idea and that its potential benefits (such as they are) were poorly articulated by the administration. Topping things off, no suitable near-Earth asteroid target – one that satisfied the various spacecraft, flight duration, abort and launch energy constraints – could be identified.

This was a serious embarrassment – a major re-vectoring of the human spaceflight program had been carried out by executive fiat with no suitable target destination identified (all dressed up and no place to go). Enter the Keck Asteroid Retrieval Mission. Since we cannot find a suitable asteroid to journey out to, it proposed hauling an asteroid back into lunar orbit and then going there to examine it. Never mind that the very idea largely negates the alleged principal advantage of an asteroid mission as a Mars precursor – to check out long-duration, deep spaceflight systems and procedures. Of course, one could accomplish such technology validation in cislunar space and on the Moon, but that uncomfortable fact would fly in the face of the President’s claim that there’s no national need to go back to the Moon because “We’ve been there.”

As far as scientific return goes, retrieval of an asteroid to lunar orbit does not advance the science of small Solar System objects one whit. We already have abundant samples of near-Earth objects in the form of meteorites, and we’ve conducted, or will soon conduct, extensive exploration of asteroids by a variety of robotic flybys, orbiters, landers and samplers.

To counter the growing chorus sharply criticizing the asteroid mission, and to obscure the many questionable judgments on display in the President’s 2010 KSC space speech, the ARM concept was eagerly seized upon by the agency. As a rationale for a strategic change in the national space direction, ARM is pretty thin gruel. Despite their best efforts to put lipstick on this pig, ARM continues to come in for criticism from a variety of directions, including former NASA management, space advocates, and the scientific community. In fact, about the only people strongly supporting the ARM are its original Keck workshop advocates.

A new robotic mission called Lunar Flashlight is another Keck workshop idea. This micro-sat mission concept involves sending a small package of cubesats (miniaturized spacecraft packaged as 10-cm cubes), along with a large solar sail, into lunar orbit. To look for evidence of hydrated material, the solar sail will attempt to reflect sunlight into the permanently dark areas near the poles in a bid to obtain near-infrared spectra of the soils in these craters.

Multiple scientific and technical issues can be identified with this mission concept. It is not clear that enough sunlight can be reflected into the permanently dark areas near the Moon’s poles to illuminate the soil and obtain good spectra from Lunar Flashlight. But more importantly, we already know from Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) laser altimetry that bright surface deposits occur in polar dark areas and that clear evidence of water frost is seen in UV imaging of some dark regions (although not in others). One of the biggest drawbacks to Lunar Flashlight is that a variety of evidence (including neutron spectroscopy and radar) suggests that much of the polar water on the Moon is found at depths of a few cm to tens of cm below the surface, thus rendering images of the surface spectra largely irrelevant to a quantitative inventory of polar volatiles.

In any event, Lunar Flashlight is a possible future robotic mission, probably because it is cheap (although no cost data have been provided as yet). The spacecraft launches as a secondary payload, hitchhiking a ride to GEO transfer orbit, whence it flies itself to the Moon. Lunar Flashlight is not the only possible lunar ice-detection mission considered in the Keck study, but reading through the workshop presentations illustrates a dearth of imagination. For example, the use of penetrators to obtain sub-surface polar information is discussed, but not hard-landing surface probes, cushioned by crushable enclosures. This may seem to be a “way out” idea in its own right, but this type of probe was built to fly to the Moon in the 1960s as a deployable part of the hard-landing Ranger spacecraft.

Given their influence on American space policy to date, one shudders to imagine what other ideas might arise from future Keck workshops – skywriting in orbit and hamsters to Jupiter are all in play. The space program is trapped in an irretrievable death spiral, where foolish ideas are pitched and adopted, then discarded as their public relations value declines once the concept is critically scrutinized. With each of these episodes, our nation and national space program lag further behind and lose more credibility. Instead of designing a technically credible space program that extends our reach into space, we are regaled with an endless parade of proposals for silly stunts. In regard to human spaceflight, we sometimes hear that “doing something” is better than “doing nothing.” Doing nothing might be a better option when the “something” being proposed is patently absurd. A static program might alert the public to what has been happening to our national space program.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 52 Comments

Moon First – Mine the Asteroids Later

I have a new post up at Air & Space on mining asteroids for water and platinum.  This piece extends some of the arguments I have made previously in my three-part series on lunar versus asteroid missions:

Posted in Lunar development, planetary exploration, space industry, space policy, space technology | 21 Comments