Monday, March 15, 2010

Obama's Visionary Space Policy

I would like to congratulate President Obama on his visionary new commercial space policy. While the dramatic change in direction embodied in the new policy will be painful in the short run. It will ensure American leadership in space in the long run.

To lead in space we in space we must have cheap access to space We will never have cheap access to space, as long asspace is a jobs programs. If trucking and trains were jobs programs the US economy would grind to a halt. To ignite the space economy we must stop treating space as a jobs program. While it is less than an ideal to cut jobs in the middle of a recession, maintaining programs which are unaffordable will just throw away money.

Many are uncomfortable with the lack of a destination, but right after a major shock is not the time to make major decisions. Spending a year or two winding down the Shuttle, Constellation and Ares, seeing if commercial space is on track to pick up the slack, while developing technologies which will be needed for any destination beyond earth orbit isn't a bad way to spend a year. After a year or so of discussing options, then a destination can be chosen. We must avoid the problem of premature choice described by Freeman Dyson. "When a project is sufficiently large that the "waste" of exploring more than one engineering alternative becomes embarrassing to public officials, they find the urge to immediately select one alternative and to kill all the others almost irresistible."

We must avoid premature choice and rash decisions, and explore all the options, so we can avoid having to shut down programs after several years of heavy investment, again when we realize we have taken the wrong path.

Does waiting for a destination mean we do nothing, hardly. Many of the options have need the same technologies we do not presently have. These include heavy lift launch, long term life support, in situ resource utilization. We need these technologies whether the destination is the Moon, Mars, an asteroid or Phobos. These technologies will also be needed for deflection of Earth impacting objects or space solar power.

Some argue that it will be cheaper to fly lots of small launch vehicles than fewer heavy lift launches. The problem with small launchers is they may not be able to carry items which can not be broken down into smaller pieces. There are also safety concerns due to launch pressure when a mission depends on a series of launches, personnel may be reluctant to voice concerns because the launch can not be delayed without jeopardizing parts already launched. Also multiple smaller vehicles may not actually be cheaper than a large vehicle due to range safety and labor costs being fixed regardless of the size of the launch vehicle. A heavy lift launch vehicle would make missions to the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, as well as planetary defense, space solar power, and large space telescopes much easier.

The inclusion of development funds for a heavy lift launch vehicle is a key to Obama's visionary space policy. The acknowledgement that the Ares and the Constellation were too expensive is another sign that Obama truely understood the issues. NASA has been going down the wrong road. We have to try a different path, a path which may actually get us to the Moon faster.

1 comment:

Al Globus said...

Great! Hit the nail right on the head.