Thursday, March 15, 2007

Space Futures 2: I Still Like Mike

I've said it before, but I like Mike Griffin. Government could certainly use more people like him. In his role as NASA Administrator, he knows what his job is, he has a grip on the practicalities and the constraints, and he has a vision of where this whole space thing is headed.

This week he published a long essay called Human Space Exploration: The Next 50 Years. Without claiming to have any sort of crystal ball, and while giving extensive credit to the potential contributions of commercial space and international players (partners and/or competitors), he first reviews the past 50 years and then lays out some logical ideas about how the next 50 years will play out, based on some reasonable assumptions. These include that the U.S. government will continue to be the single biggest player in space, that NASA funding will remain roughly level (adjusted for inflation), and that NASA and the industry will try to achieve some sort of stability. By this he means several things - stability in purpose, strategy, requirements, and funding. He points out that Apollo funding was "unstable in both directions" - huge growth followed by rapid and destructive reductions once the main goals were reached. This led to virtual abandonment of both the hardware and the team that were so expensively built. Kind of like going in with all guns blazing in a blitzkrieg war, "winning" as expected, and then having no plan for what to do after the war (that's just a hypothetical analogy, of course).

This actually gave me pause. When I think, "the Moon by 2022, Mars maybe by 2037, why is NASA so slow?" I now have to ask myself, slow compared to what? Apollo? Apollo was war! Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead, and once we win, melt it all down and discharge the troops. Griffin advocates more of an aviation model for the next generation. Airplanes serve for decades. If an astronaut returns from a Mars mission in 2042 and gets into a 30 year old Orion capsule to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere, so what? B-52's have flown for 50 years, and the basic Soyuz spacecraft design dates back to the sixties. You should design your hardware, your systems, and your programs for the long haul, not for 16 missions. Refine and upgrade, sure, but don't throw it all away and start from scratch if you don't have to. Of course this assumes that you've got a solid design that's worth keeping around for a while (DC-3, B-52, C-130, Soyuz, etc.).

That's only one of many points that Griffin makes in this excellent essay. I like the way he leaves it open for private space and international partners to play a major role, but doesn't assume that they will. That's not in his control, but the resources of NASA currently are, and while there's a lot of less glamorous "stuff" to do for the short run , in the big picture, Griffin sees a slow and steady progression to a sustainable presence in the solar system as a spacefaring civilization. And if the hare should pass Mike's tortoise (apologies for the primitive photo editing!) in a Dragon or some other private spacecraft, I think he will be cheering him on. Let the private guys win whatever races they choose to run. There's plenty of other good stuff to do with NASA's future budgets. Whatever your feelings on NASA's strengths, weaknesses, and direction, this essay is worth reading for a variety of useful perspectives.

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