Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Spudis and Zubrin Don't Understand The Problem with NASA

SPUDIS & ZUBRIN: NASA's mission to nowhere Big, fat, pointless and expensive describes plan to twiddle our fingers By Paul D. Spudis and Robert Zubrin Monday, May 31, 2010 for The Washington Times.

It is shocking that Dr. Paul Spudis and Dr. Robert Zubrin are fighting so hard for a program which will only delay their dreams, as long as it exists. The Vision for Space Exploration at first seemed a miracle, that NASA had finally seen the light but it soon became corrupted by shuttle culture. The Vision soon lost all talk of permanence, and insitu resource utilization and developed into a jobs program which used the Moon and Mars as an excuse for continuation of the shuttle architecture with its extraordinarily high costs because of its standing army. The dependence of the shuttle architecture on it standing army justifies its existence while assuring neither the Moon or Mars will ever be developed due to so the extremely high costs of continuing to maintain the standing army.

Jobs programs are by definition more expensive then the alternative which isn't a jobs program. Jobs programs will also always be expensive. The reason launch costs are high is that launch is a jobs program. High launch costs are the main reason we have not developed space. Space development requires space commerce and high launch costs assure there will be no space commerce.

The root of the problem with NASA today lies way back before the Apollo 11 Moon Landing when NASA used the funds to Maintain THE Saturn 5 ASSEMBLY LINE to do the INITIAL DESIGN STUDIES FOR THE SPACE SHUTTLE. Let me emphasize, NASA traded the capability to build any more Saturn 5 rockets for the first study into building the Space Shuttle BEFORE WE LANDED ON THE MOON. That meant they bet the entire future of human space flight on making the shuttle work when they hadn't yet done a design study and assured that the path of lunar development and Mars, after Apollo was not an option.

NASA lost that bet. The US has paid for it for forty years with high launch costs since the shuttle costs more per pound to launch than the Saturn 5. We paid for it the lives of 14 Astronauts.100% of US casualties in space were shuttle accidents directly caused by that decision. We have paid for it with 40 years of being stuck on the road to space development. Far worse the shuttle has poisoned th whole US National System of Innovation. By teaching several generations of engineers and scientists to compromise, lower expectations and avoid truth.

It used to be that "Good is the Enemy of the Best" meant don't settle for a good solution go for the best solution, but in the shuttle Era this has developed into meaning go for the good solution because the best solution costs too much. In reality the best rarely means the most expensive since cost should always be part of the calculus and the best usually is far cheaper over the long run. To build the shuttle NASA developed a culture of compromise- political compromises, compromises with safety, compromises with the truth.

It used to be that we expected progress, that each generation would live better than the last. But now we are barely hanging on as a nation. We are falling behind. NASA has convinced the US it is doing, hard stuff but that is only because it is doing everything the hard way. Instead of bringing the US the vast resources of space, NASA, has been puttering around in Low Earth Orbit for decades.

NASA has devolved to the point where a conference is considered infeasible and unpractical. The following line is from the NASA Open Government Plan Appendix, discussion of the Ideascale results, it most likely refers to the idea of having and Interagency Conference on Space Solar Power which was the most popular idea for NASA as well as the US Government as a whole on Ideascale, "Some of the ideas submitted to the site were infeasible or otherwise unpractical for NASA to address, yet received a high number of votes." A conference on any subject should not be considered infeasible and unpractical. If the sentence refers to Space Solar Power it really shows the lowering of expectations because the NASA of the 1970's didn't consider space Solar Power to be infeasible or impractical. In the 1970's space solar power seemed the natural next step which would be taken by the commercial energy sector, as soon as the shuttle was flying, the promised 50 flights a year.

The unfortunately truth is that each space shuttle turned out to be only capable of 2 flights a year each at enormous cost and considerable danger. So right now space solar power may be infeasible and impractical because launch capabilities have dropped so much and launch costs rose so high. Space solar power wasn't infeasible and impractical when the US still had a Saturn 5 Assembly line. Instead of being dependent on terrorists and polluter for our energy which we send billions abroad for every month, the US could have been not only energy independent but an energy exporter. We could have pulled our troops home and not worried about Iraq, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. Instead we have been fighting oil wars. We could have been free from foreign debt and foreign entanglements, beaming terrawatts clean solar of power down from space 24 hours a day, as much as we could sell. Science fiction? No, the truth is this is the path not taken because of NASA's choice to gut the Saturn 5 assembly line for the money to study the possibility of building a shuttle.

It used to be that truth was valued above all else in the US science and technology community but decades of the best funded civilian technical agency claiming to be making progress in space, when they obviously are not and using draconian means to assure compliance with the party line have severely diminished the value of truth and reality in our National System of Innovation. As a result scientific studies are often questioned for good reason as science is warped to say whatever researchers like and the technological community stands for it because they have been trained pointing out that the powerful are misstating the truth can end your career.

The Obama space policy will end this culture and return us to a time when everything was on the table and experimentation, scientific evidence and truth determines our path forward. Rather than premature choice. The Obama Space Policy does not end human space flight it will open the door to a Renaissance of new space technology in many fields. New space technology which we desperately need for any of the numerous possible destinations and activities which can be done beyond low earth orbit. We need new launch technology, should it be reusable or heavy lift? We really need reusable heavy lift but which path takes us there? Only history will tell. So we should try them all, which is exactly the Obama plan. With the Obama plan we have SpaceX, Atlas, Delta and Orbital as well as other new launch technology development. As long as options are funded and allowed to experiment in a decade we will have an entirely new portfolio of launch technologies reflecting that we are now in the third Millennium rather than stuck in the third quarter of the last century.

The Obama plan also directs NASA to develop numerous other technologies which will make development of the Moon and Mars possible. The Vision for Space Exploration had devolved to the point that it never envisions settlement, simply flags and foot prints. The Obama plan will allow for real development of all of space. Our destination should be space development. we should let scientific evidence and business profits determine our path, not political considerations.

NASA Human Space Flight has headed down the wrong path for 40 years. The Obama Administration has called for a Bootleg Turn. A pause in US Human Space Flight is the price we have to pay for real space development. If the Obama plan survives in congress the US will be well on its way to both the Moon and Mars to stay. If Obama fails to change NASA's culture we will delay space development indefinitely.


Ray Katz said...

This is a strange alternate history. NASA didn't want a shuttle. It wanted to expand our exploration of the moon and go on to Mars.

But Nixon cut the budget and demanded something re-usable...with military benefits.

Everybody got a piece of the specs for the shuttle. So, we got a horse designed not by NASA, but by a committee. We got a camel.

The shuttle is a very dangerous vehicle, and only capable of earth orbit. Considering what they've been forced to work with, going more than a quarter of a century with only two fatal accidents isn't incompetence; it's brilliance. Imagine how many failed, fatal moon flights we would have had...no matter how competent management...if we continued that program for a quarter century.

One inevitable part of space flight: it's risky. So, let's take risks for pushing the envelope, not endlessly circling the planet.

Meanwhile, the new "plan" is to study things, and build nothing. It's great to encourage private companies to do earth orbital missions. But they're nowhere near getting us beyond earth orbit.

And since NASA is prohibited from building such vehicles, we're going to spend another umpteen years mostly 120 miles above the planet.

We'll watch Chinese astronauts go to the moon and beyond. Zubrin is right.

Karen Cramer Shea said...


NASA wanted to return to the Moon and go to Mars after they built the Shuttle and a space station station. Nixon made them choose one, but that was well after they had sacrificed the Saturn 5 Assembly line.

Now, we need new technology and NASA is only going to get so much money. NASA can not afford to do missions at the same time it experiments with the technologies needed to explore beyond Low earth orbit.

Times of trauma are not good times to come up with long term plans. Also one of NASA's prime causes for failure has been pre-mature choice.

If we continue using the Shuttle derived architecture which was designed by committee the Chinese will pass us by. If we are a little patient and spend a few years developing new technologies we will leave them in the dust.

Ray Katz said...

Research is a good thing! I favor NASA...or anyone else doing it.

However, once NASA withdraws from human spaceflight, I fear that funds will never be returned for that purpose.

This is my key objection to the Obama space plan; I foresee lots of research, and no money ever to build anything.

Furthermore, isn't the HLV yet another spacecraft built without a purpose? Isn't it just like the shuttle in that way?

I love the private space companies, but——with the possible exception of a Dragon/Falcon human loop around the moon——I don't see them getting us beyond earth orbit anytime soon.

As you know, the last scheduled Apollo flights were canceled by budget cuts. NASA was hoping to do some amazing things: land men on the far side; send them on lunar surface missions with (essentially) flying backpacks, etc.

von Braun——the true NASA visionary——hated what was happening with the shuttle. His opposition was one of the reasons he quit.

NASA, desperate to continue manned spaceflight, grabbed the shuttle and tried to please everybody. They said "yes"; but maybe they should have said "no". The could have said...come back when you're serious about manned spaceflight, and bring the needed money.

But, we were stuck with brilliant engineers, etc, operating an unnecessarily flawed vehicle. And the International Space Station was also, I believe, a mistake. A smaller one with just what we need (perhaps an enhanced Skylab?) would have done the job.

I really want to love the new space plan. But I'm afraid I won't live to see another American astronaut fly a U.S. built spacecraft beyond earth orbit. I very much hope my pessimism is misplaced.

BTW, I love your blog and put it on my blogroll at http://www.thespacebuff.com

Karen Cramer Shea said...

The withdrawal of funds from human space slight is a risk, but a risk is better than a definite waste.

I think we need heavy lift to do real space development. Not everything can be broken down and every launch requires a lot of labor to keep it safe.

Thanks for adding this blog to your Blogroll.

Ray Katz said...

I'm not convinced that Ares was "a definite waste." As far as I can tell, it had no more problems than the Saturn V...which shook violently on one of its earlier tests.

Apollo...and all new technology...has engineering difficulties and unanticipated costs. Nobody's going to, say, as asteroid for cheap.

Apollo was full of engineering problems, which smart engineers solved and great pilots flew with amazing results. Constellation could have done the same.

In any case, we're probably on the same page now: Constellation is surely dead; and once the flexible plan research is done, we'll be lobbying together to get the funds to fly.