Obama's Conservative Plan for American Leadership in Space

02/01/10 00:00:00    

By Michael Mealling

or “How a Democrat out-Republicaned George Bush on Space Policy

Two links that help with the background:

Just to get it out of the way early: I'm a conservative leaning libertarian with the street cred to prove it. I helped organize the first Tea Parties in Atlanta. I helped Harry Browne around Atlanta during his Libertarian Party campaign for president and was even one of his electors for Georgia. I left the Libertarian Party after 9/11. I'm not sure how involved in the GOP I want to be but that seems to be a general issue with all conservatives these days.

The point of all that is to say this:

President Obama's new policy for NASA is the most fiscally conservative and downright capitalist policy to come along since the agency was founded.

What the President is proposing is that NASA follow with the Augustine Commission called "Flexible Path”. The commission made several observations that are key to understanding why what the President is doing is so important to NASA's future:

  1. We explore to reach goals, not destinations. It is in the definition of our goals that decision-making for human spaceflight should begin. With goals established, questions about destinations, exploration strategies and transportation architectures can follow in a logical order. While there are certainly some aspects of the transportation system that are common to all exploration missions (e.g. crew access and heavy lift to low-Earth orbit), there is a danger of choosing destinations and architectures first. This runs the risk of getting stuck at a destination without a clear understanding of why it was chosen, which in turn can lead to uncertainty about when it is time to move on.  
  2. After a list of things that space exploration returns such as spinoffs and science, the Committee had this to say, “… human exploration also should advance us as a civilization towards our ultimate goal: charting a path for human expansion into the solar system. It is too early to know how and when humans will first learn to live on another planet, but we should be guided by that long-term goal.”  
  3. Commercial involvement in exploration: NASA has considerable flexibility in its acquisition activities due to special provisions of the Space Act. NASA should exploit these provisions whenever appropriate, and in general encourage more engagement by commercial providers, allocating to them tasks and responsibilities that are consistent with their strengths.  
Now, while the committee was instructed not to make recommendations, it was obvious from the meetings and the scoring that the Flexible Path option best matched the goals of what we would like our space program to accomplish.

What the rumors and leaks are suggesting is that President Obama has embraced the committee's findings and is redirecting NASA to implement the Flexible Path option, including the use of commercial providers for manned launch to Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

What is Flexible Path exactly and why is it preferable to NASA going back to the moon using its own rockets? The gist is that Flexible Path is about building up the capability to go anywhere and do it without going broke. Flexible Path is about going to Venus, Phobos, Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs), Lagrange Points, and yes, even the Moon and Mars when you can figure out how to do it without killing yourself from radiation poisoning. So no, we're not abandoning the Moon, we're not abandoning manned spaceflight, and we're not turning it over to the Chinese. Here's one example of what a Phobos landing might look like.

flexible-path-destinations Flexible Path Destinations
Here are some of the interesting features of Flexible Path:
  • Multi-vendor This means that there is no one critical path vendor for launch and possibly on orbit assembly and fueling. One of the problems with Shuttle and even Russian launchers is that if there is a problem the entire line is shutdown while the problem is fixed. With multiple launch providers you can keep flying even if one is having problems.  
  • Multi-capable This means that you're not stuck with one design that can only do a few things well. Shuttle does a few things well but it can't stay on orbit very long and it is monstrously expensive to fly when all you want to do is deliver water.  
  • Multi-destinational This means your launch architecture is flexible enough that you use the same systems, people, and infrastructure to go to ISS, an NEA, or Phobos. Each new destination doesn't need a custom designed one-off system (what in business we call a silo).  
Even after this discussion many wonder *if its a good idea to outsource the responsibility of America's leadership in space to a bunch of untried Internet billionaires that haven't put anything in orbit yet? *

The easiest way to answer that is to compare what is being done commercially and what NASA has done lately. First lets take NASA. What many people don't realize is that NASA hasn't designed a rocket in over 30 years. The people who did that are long gone. NASA has built the International Space Station, though. That means it has a lot of current knowledge on how to do in space assembly of very complex hardware. The Constellation program which is NASA's plan for building its own system of rockets is WAY over budget and behind schedule. This partly due to Congress limiting its budget but also due to NASA not designing the system to be operationally efficient. With rockets about 80% of your operational costs are fixed before you ever bend a single piece of metal. NASA simply has no incentive or desire to design something for operational efficiency.

Now lets look at the commercial side. There are numerous companies who have been or are about to fly new rockets:

There are more out there such as Masten Space Systems (my company), Virgin Galactic, XCOR, Blue Origin, Armadillo Aerospace, Dreamchaser, etc. All building hardware and flying it on budgets that combined are smaller than one years budget for Ares I.

_The final point of all this is to encourage all of my friends on the “right” to take this gift from Obama and run with it. We may not agree with the President on much but on this we can. _

If you're curious what you can do about this you can call your elected representatives about it. There are parochial interests out there that are looking to derail this effort because it threatens politically connected jobs in certain districts. Some of even Republicans who twist themselves into the most contorted kind of logic in order to justify spending billions of taxpayer money on a big government program. Yes, I'm talking about you Senator Shelby.

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