Friday, April 16, 2010

Asteroids & Mars on the Agenda

Orion CEV with Asteroid #2
After President Obama's speech at Kennedy Space Center, I think I'm pretty much with him and Buzz Aldrin on the new direction for NASA. I can understand the view of Neil Armstrong and others who feel that by not defining a specific near-term goal for NASA to accomplish (namely to return to the moon in a government spacecraft by some target date), Obama seems to be pulling the plug on human spaceflight for the USA. But the operative word there is seems - because a specific goal without the funding to achieve it is really not a goal at all, and certainly not a near-term one. It's more like a wish, accompanied in the case of the Constellation program by the hope of keeping many of the employees and contractors who now work on the shuttle employed for the many years it would take to get Ares I and Orion off the ground, at least until some cash-strapped future president finally cancels these programs. There was no serious plan or funding for the moon lander. But maybe if enough people believed in Constellation (like Tinkerbell the fairy), it wouldn't die.

I don't know. I love the Apollo program and all it accomplished, but it really doesn't seem like a sustainable approach absent a Cold War imperative and the willingness to pump a lot more money into NASA than anyone has done since probably 1967. And as Elon Musk of SpaceX said in this statement, "The President quite reasonably concluded that spending $50 billion to develop a vehicle that would cost 50% more to operate, but carry 50% less payload was perhaps not the best possible use of funds."

So what do we have now? A couple of specific human spaceflight goals for "the next decade" (visit an asteroid as shown above, and orbit Mars) that are quite far off (2025+) and not too detailed. A reinstated and scaled-back Orion capsule which will serve as a development platform for future human spacecraft and provide a government-built option for emergency escape from the ISS, which will be extended by five years to 2020. And a plan to develop the Ares V, a heavy lift vehicle that could support a variety of programs in future years. Plus more funding to encourage privately developed spacecraft and launch vehicles - call it the "private option" (you would think Republicans would be all over this - except that it conflicts with their Prime Directive, to oppose Obama on everything). And more funding for NASA to develop advanced propulsion systems and other technologies that will be needed for future missions but are too risky for companies to handle as "product development." Note that they are actually increasing NASA's budget by $6 billion over the next five years to help support these plans.

So all things considered, I think it's a pretty good plan, and President Obama summed it up pretty well in his speech:
Fifty years after the creation of NASA, our goal is no longer just a destination to reach. Our goal is the capacity for people to work and learn and operate and live safely beyond the Earth for extended periods of time, ultimately in ways that are more sustainable and even indefinite. And in fulfilling this task, we will not only extend humanity's reach in space -- we will strengthen America's leadership here on Earth.

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