Right Wing Nut House



Filed under: Government, Politics, Science, Space — Rick Moran @ 9:40 am

NASA’s new budget is out and the howls from congressmen, space buffs, and conservative pundits will begin in earnest.

No moon mission - or at least one with a timetable. Scrap the Ares I rocket and Constellation program that were sucking up space dollars, leaching support away from other vital programs while running fantastically over budget and behind schedule.

I heard it from a few of you the last time this subject came up. Jeffrey Anderson sums up the pro-NASA moon mission boondoggle position:

As Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D., Fla.) puts it, “The president’s proposal would leave NASA with essentially no program and no timeline for exploration beyond Earth’s orbit.”

Furthermore, at a time when the president claims his focus is on jobs, scrapping these programs — on which we’ve already spent nearly $10 billion — would cut public spending in one area that actually creates jobs.

You know those great pictures of Earth from outer space, showing our planet suspended against the blackness, a beautiful blue ball? No one has seen that view since the Apollo program ended 38 years ago. No astronaut has seen that view since then. We’ve all just seen the pictures.

Now, unless Congress rejects the president’s recommendations, the next people to see that view will likely be the Chinese.

Whether it’s tax cuts or defense spending; or whether it’s the courage, ambition, and sense of wonder that combine to lead great souls to great feats of exploration and discovery; one can surely say this much about Barack Obama: Mr. President, you’re no Jack Kennedy.

First, once the Chinese get there (and they have no heavy lift rockets, workable landers, or any experience with rendezvous in outer space), just what is it they will find that we didn’t discover 38 years ago? Anderson complains that we’ve only seen that wonderful picture of the earth from the moon since Apollo ended - no astronauts taking any more pictures since then. Well thank God for that. It seems a helluva waste of money to spend $100 billion to get some more pretty pictures from lunar orbit (if we’re really hard up, let’s send an unmanned orbiter) or even to simply maintain some kind of official USA government presence in our manned space program.

The Chinese have put a couple of men in space. They are about where we were in 1963. Only a crash effort on our part allowed us to make it to the moon by 1969. More likely, the Chinese and any other country, including Russia, is 10-15 years from any moon mission. I say let them spend themselves into penury to be able to plant their flag on the moon.

Meanwhile, perhaps Marriott or Holiday Inn will beat them to it. It is entirely possible that the next footprints on the moon will be sponsored by a company that wishes to commercially exploit it, and not gather up a few pounds of rocks while taking spectacular pictures. Space tourism is poised to take off this year and by decades’ end, there will be several companies ferrying people to low earth orbit hotels.

And you’ll have Barack Obama to thank for it:

Obama’s budget, according to a background briefing by an administration official on Sunday, will call for spending $6 billion over five years to develop a commercial spacecraft that could taxi astronauts into low Earth orbit. Going commercial with a human crew would represent a dramatic change in the way NASA does business. Instead of NASA owning the spacecraft and overseeing every nut and bolt of its design and construction, a private company would design and build the spacecraft with NASA looking over its shoulder.

The development of these launch systems will not be confined to taxiing astronauts to and from the space station. Reliable commercial rockets will open space travel to a lot more people. Tourism will be the initiator but commercial space stations that would exploit zero gravity conditions to make exotic metals, pharma products, and other commercially useful applications won’t be far behind.

The fact is, as Rand Simberg points out, the entire model for government-sponsored manned spaceflight has been wrong all along:

Part of the mindset that grew out of that era was that Space = NASA, and that “Progress in Space” = “Funding NASA” and that not funding NASA, or adequately funding NASA, or changing NASA’s goals, is a step backwards. But as I noted at Popular Mechanics yesterday on the 24th anniversary of the Challenger loss, that event had a good outcome, in that it allowed private industry to start to become more involved, a trend that continues (and that the Bush/Griffin administration did support, albeit with paltry funding, in the form of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to pick up slack in delivering cargo to the space station after Shuttle is retired this year or next). We have been in fact developing, though far too slowly, the sort of private-enterprise (and more intrinsically American than Soviet in nature) space program that might have evolved more naturally had we not been side tracked by Apollo in the sixties.

What the administration is doing is to finally end the model that the government will have a state socialist design bureau to build a monopoly transportation system for its own use, at tremendous cost, but politically supportable because of all the pork it provides to Alabama, Florida and Texas. It proposes to expand the COTS program to provision of crew changeout in addition to cargo delivery, encouraging competition, and providing a robust capability that won’t put us out of business when the government rocket fails (as has happened twice with the Shuttle in the past quarter century, for almost three years each time). Instead of a program projected to cost many tens of billions over the next decade for a NASA-owned-and-operated new rocket (Ares I) that will cost billions per flight of four astronauts, it is going to invest six billion dollars in developing private capability, with multiple competitors, and do it on a fixed-price, pay-for-performance basis, rather than the wasteful cost-plus model that inevitably results in overruns due to the perverse incentives.

The commercial space ventures today are maturing rapidly. No longer are they shoestring operations headed up by pie-in-the-sky dreamers and fantasists. Heavy duty capital is behind many of these public companies and their plans for space travel have moved off the drawing boards and are well along in the testing phase.

While there could have been more allowances made for the commercial space sector in the budget, the monies that are earmarked for commercial rocket development and, more importantly, a change in attitude by the government toward the commercial space sector, promises more rapid progress in realizing the goal of developing a robust, practical, commercial space industry that will be able to launch man into space at far less cost than NASA’s current $3000 per pound. New rockets will be developed faster and more cheaply than NASA. Manned space flight will become much more routine and rather than having all of our eggs in one basket with Shuttle, the government will have several companies to choose from to ferry our astronauts to and from the ISS.

The era of big government manned space spectaculars that were politically popular - both for the jobs they created and the nationalistic impulses they fed - is drawing to a close. Let the socialist space programs ossify into NASA-like timidity and bureaucratic red tape. Our commercial space sector will fly rings around them.

Simberg again, writing in PJ Media:

If the shuttle is extended at all, it will be only into 2011 to allow final completion of the ISS. As for ventures beyond low earth orbit, Constellation will be replaced with a technology development program for things such as propellant depots, landers, and other capabilities needed for such future missions. These are technologies that had been defunded by the previous administrator to provide funds for the troubled Constellation program, and will now be restored to their proper priority, with billions available for them once the shuttle is retired.

The agency will also be redirected, to no one’s surprise, to more monitoring of the earth and its environment, something badly needed, given what a mess the current “science” of climate change has turned out to be, though whether it’s a job for NASA (as opposed to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency) is a debate that the nation should have.

Those technology development programs are the kinds of things NASA should be doing - basic research that can be exploited by the private sector. It may delay a moon and Mars mission but after all, neither heavenly body is going anywhere. There is no compelling national interest in rushing to develop the new technologies and perfect the engineering required to take those kinds of trips.

By decade’s end, those who are wailing about the end of US dominance in space are probably going to forget they ever thought that way. A revolution is coming in manned space flight and thankfully, NASA is finally getting out of the way so that it can happen.


  1. Rick:

    You may be right, but what a backhanded way to make a silk purse out of a sows ear.

    The One may accidentally, insulting all along the way, back into an actual real commercial space program. But don’t expect me to throw roses.

    Comment by steve — 2/1/2010 @ 11:57 am

  2. I think this is a great move. The budding commercial space industry has a growing momentum that no government-owned space program is going to be able to compete with. At some point someone is going to be able to make money going to the moon, and until then I’m not sure I see much reason to go there.

    Comment by Aaron — 2/1/2010 @ 1:39 pm

  3. >> It seems a helluva waste of money to spend $100
    >> billion to get some more pretty pictures from
    >> lunar orbit (if we’re really hard up, let’s
    >> send an unmanned orbiter)…

    No need–the Japanese already did, in HDTV!


    Comment by John Walker — 2/1/2010 @ 3:50 pm

  4. The One may accidentally, insulting all along the way, back into an actual real commercial space program. But don’t expect me to throw roses.

    Because where would be the fun in admitting Obama is better at actually running things than the tongue tied frat boy who nearly lost two wars.

    Comment by Richard Bottoms — 2/1/2010 @ 4:03 pm

  5. Let me start out that I work within the current Space Program. I’m not a NASA employee…I work for a contractor of NASA at the Kennedy Space Center. I ready the Shuttle’s for launch. I am also a fan of spaceflight in its many forms. This is important so everyone can see where I’m coming from.

    I’m one of the few people in the space program that actually thinks the Shuttle and the Space Station were mistakes. I didn’t in my younger days starting out there (of course), but after seeing how things are and learning how the programs were sold, I quickly changed my mind. When the shuttle was sold to Congress and the Nation, it was claimed to be able to launch 50 times a year and that ALL of the nation’s satellites (government AND commercial) would be launched from it. This was the big mistake. When the government said it would launch ALL satellites, that greatly deterred true private enterprise from developing launch capabilities since there is now way one can compete with the government and unlimited money. As a result, our unmanned rocket fleet withered away. I firmly believe the shuttle program caused us to lose 20 years in space exploration. Similar arguments can be made against the space station, but there really isn’t that much of a market for microgravity, at least none that is economically feasible enough for private industry to even think about entering. Launch services, however, there is definitely a marketplace and the shuttle ruined that because of its over-exaggerated claims.

    Now, you might think I’m all for the new Obama “plan” for NASA. Lets look at it for a bit. The claim is that NASA will have a new direction that will be promoting commercialization of the space industry. Hmmm. OK. That needs to be addressed…

    Currently, NASA itself does absolutely nothing right now. Contractors do all the work of designing vehicles, satellites, maintenance of the orbiters and launch site equipment, and launching the orbiters. What you say? NASA does nothing??? Yes, that is true. Well, that might be a bit harsh, they do develop requirements that a vehicle or spacecraft needs to meet, but the actual design is far beyond the NASA personnel’s capabilities. If you were to work with some of the NASA folks that “oversee” my work, you would know how incredibly inept many are in the systems they sign off on.

    So, today, NASA gets funding for a project and they “contract” that work out to “private” industry. Hmmm, seems kinda similar to what Obama is proposing. Today, Congress (and the Prez) define the projects on which NASA farms out to industry. These various satellites, space shuttles, stations, etc are all line items in congressional budgets. What will be the case in Obama’s “plan”???

    NASA will no longer have a defined direction. So, congress will no longer need to put line items into the budget for various missions. All the NASA money will go into generic line items such as “commercialization” or “r&D” etc and nothing specific. What do you suppose will happen to much of this money if its in non-specific categories??? Sounds like another bureaucratic slush fund to me.

    Without a defined direction, NASA becomes simply another bureaucratic black hole. Nothing will be produced and even more money will get wasted and given to powerful congressional “friends”. Sure, private industry will still launch rockets with telecom satellites on them, but they do it now. Private industry might create a crew capsule to launch on a current unmanned Atlas or Delta rocket if NASA gives them the money to do it, but how is that different than the way NASA currently contracts to a private industry to develop the Obama-killed Orion spacecraft?

    I believe this is the first step towards killing the space program. Sure, additional funding is being added to NASA’s budget, but the launch of the big rockets is not there any longer. Seems like NASA is getting more money to do less. Hmmm, what will the public think of that? What will the public think of all that money being sucked up by NASA and NASA isn’t even launching anything? I think that answer is obvious. Public support will inevitably wither away and Obama will accomplish something that he mentioned during the primaries. To paraphrase “I would eliminate NASA’s funding and give it to education”. Only, this current “plan” gives the appearance of support due to extra funding, while setting the stage for the public to become totally disinterested.

    Killing the space program might be fine, believe me, I understand how bad the government runs it right now. But, the gov’t will still be running it under Obama’s plan. Private industry will not invest their own capital into manned space flight if the gov’t is giving them some money to do so anyway. We won’t see any truly private endeavors until Richard Branson get get some hookers up to Virgin’s Hotel Galactica and he’s well on the way to doing that now without ANY gov’t assistance.

    What made the space program work in the past was that NASA had a clear, defined goal to solve a specific problem…get a man to the moon. Problems had to be solved and technology was developed to solve specific problems. Those technologies went on to benefit private industry in a plethora of ways and quite possibly paid for their development thru increasing GDP thru the years. NASA lost its way with the shuttle and station because there was no longer a clear defined goal. They always had the nebulous “create new technologies” or “perform r&d” type things. As a result, they never lived up to their potentials.

    Obama’s “vision” repeats those same mistakes. His only vision is NASA should develop some vague technologies without a true use for that technology. There is no defined direction. He says the future will use the technology. Great. I’m sure that will be true to some extent. But it doesn’t capture the imagination, and without that, NASA is dead. It will lose public support. Without the pure and simple goal, NASA will end up wasting its billions each year pursuing the pipe dreams of individual congressman or executive. Those pipe dreams will never be listed in the congressional budgets. All will be done at the discretion of the executive and NASA bureaucracy and the people will have even less influence.

    Sorry if this rambles a bit. But I disagree this is the right direction for NASA. I think it is NASA’s death knell. There is an arguable point that NASA should be killed and I won’t debate that. NASA should do basic reasearch, but that research is best developed by having a simple goal to achieve. This budget gives NASA more money to do less and it will be completely uninspiring to the youth of today.

    Comment by John Galt — 2/1/2010 @ 5:37 pm

  6. I agree with most of John Galt’s reactions, but I’d like to touch on a few other things.

    I think most people can agree that when it comes to producing engineers and math majors, we don’t have many homegrown Americans pursuing this anymore. One of the many beneficial side affects of NASA has always been to inspire young people to go into these fields. The fact that we haven’t done anything remarkable in a long time I’m sure contributes to this. Politicians on both sides of the aisle complain about math and science scores in this country, yet Republicans want to defund the program because they don’t want to spend the money, and Democrats want to spend the money on welfare instead.

    NASA’s problem is that nobody has articulated a clear mission. Some of the back end stuff like commercial space flights should probably be dropped from NASA and picked up by the private sector; however, the bleeding edge of exploration like when we eventually want to make a manned flight to Mars will always have to be done by the government because it’s essentially pointless from an ROI perspective.

    NASA is responsible for taking a man off the planet we are from and landing on the moon; something I would consider to be mankind’s greatest achievement. The task ahead would to be to find a clear goal, and Obama has just made that worse.

    The reason a company like GMAC had to be bailed out was that somehow a corporation who’s purpose was to provide financing for cars got mixed up in speculation for derivatives based around housing mortgages. When an organization has no idea what its purpose is, bad things are bound to happen.

    If Obama feels that we need to spend more time looking into climate change, then make that argument to the people and get either NOAA or the EPA to do it or create a new organization with that as its purpose. NASA’s job should be something that at least sounds like to National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

    Comment by Alex — 2/1/2010 @ 6:03 pm

  7. As a kid growing up South Texas, I was fascinated by the space program and NASA growing up. Later in my adult life I lived just down the road from Johnson Space Center and saw the economic effects of Johnson and the contractors. I also know a few people that work for USA, Lockheed, and other contractors.

    With that being said, I think that NASA is in search of a mission. When the Space Shuttle came along, it seemed to be a good launch platform. After Challenger, satellites were no longer launched on the shuttle and this action gave rise to the Ariane, Proton, and other expendable launch vehicle programs. While we still have the Atlas and Delta rockets, these rockets are not man rated at this time.

    Now we are at the point where NASA appears to be getting out of the space business and the U.S. government will be purchasing services from private contractors. As John Galt noted that since this is the current arrangement where the real work is performed by contractors, we will see it again except it may not be under the strict auspices of NASA.

    It is common for satellite owners to be involved in the manufacturing process for satellites, so NASA could do the same with their next launch vehicle. But I think that private contractors may do a much better job and at a lower cost that what NASA could ever do.

    While some may look at this action as a direct swipe at three states, I think the time has come for NASA to change into something different. NASA could train astronauts for human spaceflight and may perform space traffic functions, but the NASA of the Apollo era is long gone. The politicians that bemoan Obama’s decision today show a complete misunderstanding of the space program and the new directions being pursued by commercial interests. I think what they are really concerned about is the potential loss of thousands of jobs in Clear Lake, Texas, greater Orlando, Florida, and Huntsville, Alabama.

    Comment by James — 2/1/2010 @ 8:45 pm

  8. Another thing to keep in mind that every President since Bush the Elder has stated a prime goal of NASA is commercialization. Does anyone really think this time it will be better?

    The only true market for space is launch services, and it is a limited one. If the gov’t is “creating” a market by telling a private company to build a rocket to launch NASA astronauts, it isn’t really a commercial endeavor and it is simply the way things are done now. Obama’s “plan” is no change in that with the exception that there is no “big” program to define NASA.

    That’s all fine and good, but it will destroy the image of NASA in the public’s eye (one of the few government agencies that still is viewed as positive by a majority of Americans). When that happens, NASA is finished. It will simply be another bureaucracy with a $20 billion/year price tag that doesn’t do anything.

    The debate should be if we should have a NASA at all. If so, it should be with the grand vision that inspires and cannot be done by private industry (Mars, Moon missions). Those kinds of missions develop new technologies to tackle the problems faced and those technologies have a great and varied application to the real world. Having the nebulous missions as Obama envisions leads to “technology” achievements such as learning if ants can be trained to sort screws in space (ht to The Simpsons).

    NASA hasn’t really crowded out commercial endeavors since Challenger, as stated by James. Commercial industries need few satellites and NASA stopped commercial satellite delivery after Challenger. Having the gov’t stimulate private industry via Obama is no different that what has been the case since the creation of NASA.

    Comment by John Galt — 2/1/2010 @ 9:20 pm

  9. I think John Galt has too much time on his hands… :-)

    One step in the right direction towards fiscal responsibility.

    Our national debt may be the biggest threat to our country since the Declaration of Independence. Our debt-laden economy is a house of cards and China could bring it down at any time… only self-preservation is keeping then from doing so. Hope nothing changes on that front.

    But back to the space program… as usual, private enterprise will outperform government programs (technologically as well as financial, schedule, fraud, waste, abuse, etc.). This same concept could and should be applied to the DOE. Imagine that… competent teachers for less tax dollars.

    But I ramble. Out of coffee.

    Comment by lionheart — 2/2/2010 @ 5:56 am

  10. This is a step in the correct direction. NASA has lost the confidence of the industry. Here are just a few reasons why:

    Space Station purpose was to give the Shuttle a place to go.

    All most all of the NASA’s launch vehicles and operations are the responsibility of commercial operations.

    Both Challenger and Columbia showed NASA failed to follow its own saftey pollcies. In the case of Columbia, at least, there were several policies that were ignored. On example: concerns rasied in advance of the failure by a senior NASA safety official were put off and not pursued.

    HASA, through it contracting initiatives, has done more to stiffle the growth of the industry by controlling the direction new developments (e.g., hybrid rocket technology).

    Comment by R Gress — 2/3/2010 @ 9:54 am

  11. There seems to be an impression that things will change dramatically under Obama’s plan regarding the NASA/Contractor relationship. I beg to differ. NASA will still be the ones determining what “technologies” to pursue. This is no different than what is happening today. NASA gets the funds and doles it out to industry. Only today, there is a specific goal that private industry is tasked to achieve. Under Obama, the goal is nebulous. Yes, that could let private industry achieve wonders if they were truly allowed to be free to pursue what they thought the best technologies were, but NASA bureaucrats, and Congress, will still be telling companies exactly what to do. Anyone who doubts that really hasn’t watched the Federal Gov’t too closely for the past 50 years.

    Anyone know who designed/built the Apollo capsules??? Take a guess. It wasn’t NASA. It was McDonnell Douglas. Who designed/built the shuttles main engines??? It wasn’t NASA. Try Rocketdyne. The Shuttle itself??? Rockwell. NASA doesn’t design, build, or launch shit. They make a final go/nogo decision on launches after listening to the contractor system engineers, but thats about it.

    I have no problem whatsoever with private industry taking over all aspects of spaceflight. I don’t think we would have very much more spaceflight since there isnt much of a market, but I still have no problem with it.

    Did anyone look at the proposed budget numbers??? NASA is getting $6 billion more over 5 years. That is enormous when you couple it with cancellation of Constellation. There will be billions of dollars awaiting the direction of NASA to distribute. Congressman will simply call up NASA and have them direct the funds to a campaign donor in their district to study some bullshit thing like ants sorting screws in space. There will be exactly zero accountability of the money. We all know this is how these types of fundings work. This is a 20 billion dollar slush fund.

    Getting NASA out of the day to day space business is fine…however, they really arent in it now. Its all handled by contractors. Every last bit of it. There is no difference between what happens now as opposed to what will happen under Obama’s plan. The only difference is that there is no overriding direction for the agency. What happens with government money if there is no controlling direction (authority)??? Anyone want to take a guess?

    If there is to be a NASA, it needs that singular, inspiring direction else it will be a failure. Apollo worked for that reason. Shuttle and station failed for that same reason. Constellation’s objective was to go to Mars. There were steps along the way, but that was its objective. Like it or not, Constellation was the right idea. The specific rocket might have been wrong, but that’s beyond most folks’s capabilities to ascertain until they actually start launching it.

    I would rather see a total elimination of NASA than have one under the vague guidelines of the Obama plan. The tax money would be infinitely better kept in the hands of the public as opposed to doling out on the whims of congressman for any ole “technology” a constituent wants to pursue

    Comment by John Galt — 2/3/2010 @ 7:39 pm

  12. Certainly allowing the private sector to be more involved in space travel and exploration is a step in the right direction. I just hope the Government is smart enough to stay out of the way of the private sector here.

    While this is a step in the right direction there is still much to be done. For example, we need to focus more on space based weapons. This is especially the case if we want to remain a major world power. With the Russians and the Chinese actively weaponizing space and the United States largely standing pat in this area both countries have taken the lead over America in this area. This will need to be reversed. Real leadership from both political parties is needed here, if we are going to reverse this.

    Comment by B.Poster — 2/4/2010 @ 12:13 am

  13. John Galt did a great job in describing NASA true role in conducting launch operations. It is already being done by private industry with NASA’s role in launch ops not that much different than, say a commercial customer. Although NASA would have you think differently. I guess the question then is who should direct technical advancement? NASA has the power to kill directions by funding alternatives, in effect making it impossible to compete with a subsidized technology. So maybe it would be allowed to do only basic research?

    Comment by R Gress — 2/4/2010 @ 10:10 am

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