Halfway to Nowhere


SLS: going somewhere, doing something. ‘Merica. Credit: NASA

The great Robert Heinlein famously postulated that Low Earth Orbit is “halfway to anywhere,” meaning that it takes almost as much energy to send a spacecraft to its final destination (say, Mars) as it did to put that spacecraft into Earth orbit in the first place. In some cases it actually requires less energy.

After years of development and who knows how many billions spent, NASA’s Congressionally-mandated Space Launch System is nowhere closer to having a clear mission than it is to actually launching. Literally, a “rocket to nowhere.”

So we have a massive booster launching a stupidly expensive spacecraft with no clear destination. There’s talk about a circumlunar flight, maybe a jaunt out to EML-2 or a near-Earth asteroid – they’ll figure that out later since the first manned flight won’t happen until at least 2020. NASA expects they can only afford to do that once a year. Maybe two. Again, later. Because reasons. Continue reading “Halfway to Nowhere”

Deep Space Whine

Deep-Space Vehicle concept. Credit: NASA

This Aviation Week story describes a “Deep Space Habitat” engineering mock-up built from old Space Station components before it meanders off into another eye-glazing discussion of Space Launch System, J2X engines, advanced solid boosters, and other pieces of flight hardware that will likely never make it to the launch pad. Oh, and unicorns. With rainbows.

Yes, I’m venting. This concept (the vehicle, not the venting) isn’t entirely new, so at least NASA gets credit for putting some hardware together to actively study the concept instead of consigning it to PowerPoint Purgatory. And the flight-ready items already exist as ISS modules that never made it to their intended destination. Far as I know, they’re still taking up space in Houston.

Sounds great. But having said that, what’s the likelihood of DSH becoming a reality? Because in all honesty I’d love to see it. This is exactly the kind of stuff NASA should be doing: pushing boundaries, exploration…and all the R & D work that goes along with it. But why oh why do we insist on them building another Big Dumb Booster to get the crap up there? Why do we insist on throwing that money down a hole instead of using it to build something really useful like DSH? Or for that matter, developing a couple of different propulsion options to push the thing around?

If you wanted to build a new boat, would you also feel the need to design a new flatbed truck from scratch just to get said boat to water? Because that’s pretty close to what we’re talking about here.

Couldn’t these modules be lofted into orbit by a Delta IV or Falcon 9 heavy? Couldn’t Orion, for that matter, if it’s being flight tested on a Delta IV-Heavy anyway?

Perhaps there’s a good reason they can’t but it’s hard to think of. Then again, why not just buy space on a manned Dragon once they’re available?

And while I’m aware it sounds like I’m all rah-rah fanboy over SpaceX, in truth they’re just at the leading edge of a new industry about which I am very enthusiastic. By all means cheer them on, as more are sure to follow (Blue Origin looks particularly interesting).

Maybe these frustrations will solve themselves as the “old model” of space exploration plods along. It’ll inevitably be leapfrogged by the private sector, at which point there will be no choice but to recognize the paradigm has already shifted.

In the meantime, something like this deep-space hab concept will be featured prominently in the sequel to Perigee, wherein stuff’s about to get real

When Pigs Fly

In which I kinda, sorta, defend the President.

Now pick yourself up off the floor.

Obama caught a lot of grief from conservatives over the decision to end the space shuttle program, when in reality this decision was made (correctly) by George W. Bush in 2007. Once enacted, it couldn’t be easily undone – supply chains and tooling were pretty much gone no matter what the Big O might have wanted.

The difference is that W had also directed NASA to develop a cheaper manned space capability that was supposed to be flying, well, this year.

Not seeing anything out there that looks like a new NASA vehicle? Nope, me neither. And that’s where the criticism comes from: along with the shuttles, Obama deep-sixed Constellation, which was Bush’s follow-on program. More accurately, it was the hobby horse of Bush’s NASA Administrator Mike Griffin – who literally wrote the book on spacecraft design – and was described as “Apollo on steroids.”

Which it was, sadly. Though a stupendous achievement and a source of great national pride to this day, Apollo was also a money sink that corrupted the thinking of an entire generation as to “how we do space.”

Constellation was deeply flawed and could only be fixed with a money injection that simply wasn’t going to happen. An independent review board composed of former aerospace execs and NASA astronauts determined that even if the whole program was dropped in their laps, fully developed and ready to go, that they still couldn’t afford to operate it. And in the meantime, Griffin was still diverting funding from other programs within the agency to prop up his personal favorite.

So yes, Obama was right to can it. He was also right to direct NASA to contract out their access to low-Earth orbit. In other words, as I’ve always preached: getting to and from orbit is well enough understood that it’s past time to let the private sector take over (while driving costs down, to boot). Let NASA save that money to buy rides into low orbit so they can develop the technology to routinely go beyond it. Maybe one day I’ll be able to afford a ticket. Maybe not. But it was never going to happen by doing it the NASA way.

Others have surmised the Prez did it because he doesn’t understand either spaceflight (most pols don’t) or the private sector (too many pols don’t; he’s just the worst example). It’s really the only substantially pro-free market decision he’s made, so “why” doesn’t really matter. It was the right call and he deserves credit for it.

Credit: NASA

So it pains me to see ostensibly “conservative” politicians trying to tar him with it – because if Obama’s for it, they’re agin’ it I suppose. While stubbornly refusing to accept the likes of SpaceX or Blue Origin, they still insist on throwing money down a hole to mandate that NASA build another big-@$$ rocket. While a new Saturn V-class launcher would be cool as heck to see, we don’t really need it. It would make a lot more sense to use smaller Atlas and Delta heavies with more launches and develop some kind of propellant depot capability in orbit. Given our experience in orbital rendezvous and construction, it’s hard to see how that’s not doable.

Fortunately, there are voices of reason on the (R) side who see things as they are. Here’s Dana Rorabacher (R-CA):

The bottom line is, in order to have steady funding, we’re going to have to defund every other space project that we have! Nobody here wants to face that! Maybe if we’re going to provide safety, maybe if we’re going to provide reliability and do this professionally, maybe we should set our goals to something we can actually accomplish within the budgets that are possible, without destroying every other aspect of the space program. I think that’s what’s happening here today. That’s what we’re really discussing.

I’m pretty sure SpaceX is in his district, so don’t discount the fact that he’s just advocating for the local gentry. That’s what congresscritters do. Fortunately, he’s on the right side of this debate.

In the larger picture, I’ve met a few politicians here & there and am convinced that most of them are just clueless. Maybe 10% are the real thinkers and visionaries, while the rest are followers who parrot the party line. They may more or less believe in their party’s platform, but for the most part are just along for the ride and know how to make people like them.

Once and Future Past

Gemini 9. Credit: NASA

The Atlantic recently posted a couple of really nice photo essays on the space program. The piece on decommissioning the space shuttles isn’t too surprising; that’s a big and fairly recent deal. The Gemini story is more surprising, as it happened nearly 50 years ago and is generally only thought about by space geeks like me.

Gemini was the gateway drug that hooked me on the space program, maybe because they were the first missions I was conscious of. I remember being fascinated by the big silver rocket with the little two-man tin can on top. And spacemen were cool. How could I not be drawn to something that looked just like my favorite G.I. Joe? Continue reading “Once and Future Past”