Back To The Moon…When?

March 5, 2011

In December of last year Baen Books published this book, a fictional account of America’s return to the moon, using the Constellation system NASA had been working on. Travis S. Taylor, whom I’ve spoken about before, is a not only a “hard science” kind of science fiction writer, but a for-real rocket scientist, with multiple degrees in engineering, optics, and physics. Over the years Doc has worked for a variety of companies on space flight programs, and is based out of Huntsville, Alabama. Besides, he still looks like a college kid:

Doc Travis

He co-wrote this one with Les Johnson, who is the Deputy Manager of the Advanced Concepts Office at NASA Marshall. It’s as close to the way a real flight might be as possible, written by two authors with such great credentials in the manned space flight business.

Les Johnson

You would expect the book to be dry, the characters cardboard, the dialog forced. Sorry, not so – Doc doesn’t have the poetry of language of Harlan Ellison or Spider Robinson, but he does a darned good job of writing a fine story. It has a lot going for it, and the fact that it is based on real, or planned-to-be-real hardware just makes it that much better.

The book was written just before Obama and his minions essentially killed the Constellation program last fall. In the Afterword, Doc talks about the funding NASA receives. Essentially, NASA has received about fifteen to twenty billion dollars a year every year since the mid-1960s, with the peak being in 1965, when the hardware was being built for the Apollo missions. Doc ran the numbers. To maintain that kind of funding today, NASA should be receiving OVER ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY BILLION DOLLARS A YEAR to make up for inflation over the last 40 years. Yep – we’re running it on one-tenth the funding it used to have, and about a third of that is servicing the ISS, and another third the unmanned missions.  It didn’t leave much.

NASA’s plan was to take longer. More money, progress faster. Less money, go slower. That’s why getting to the moon took eight years the first time and was projected to be fifteen to twenty this time. (I won’t even get into the story that supposedly the plans for the Saturn V were destroyed to keep it from competing with the Shuttle.) We have no heavy-lift capacity; we have to build that. We have some newer technology, but it has to be applied, tested and man-rated for reliability. We don’t want to send two men on a shoestring and bring them back with 200 pounds of rock. Three or four men, staying a couple of weeks on the lunar surface, makes more sense. Constellation was a cheaper follow-on to the Shuttle to service the ISS as well as serve as the backbone for all travel up to and including the moon – and using that as training and R&D for Mars missions.

The Altair lander on the moon

Then Obama drove a stake through its heart. This was just after throwing hundreds of billions of dollars around in the “stimulus” programs. I’m not covering all of that. Buy Doc’s book, and read the afterword. (You can get the book as an ebook from Baen Books for six bucks!)

Luckily, some of the contracts NASA had with contractors didn’t allow them to just shut Constellation down immediately. They had to finish delivering some hardware and NASA had to pay them, so some hardware is still being built. It’s possible to turn this thing around. In fact, with another few billion a year, it could be kickstarted and really be going again inside of twelve months.

Or two years, at least, after an election. I’ve not heard a Republican presidential pseudo-candidate say anything about space exploration, though. It’s our only chance – we know where Obama stands.

“But Stimps, you say you lean far Libertarian? How does that connect with wanting to spend more tax money?”

There are a few things we should spend tax money on: national defense. Maybe a system of national roads – I see the strategic importance of the Eisenhower highway system. Embassies, passports, immigration control, border control, etc. I think probably we can spend a little on things no private company can finance, either because of no profit motive or it’s too big to handle, but that’s the slippery slope, isn’t it? We built a strategic missile defense, then used the same technology – the same missiles – to put weather and communication satellites into space. It’s a major spinoff of defense spending nobody ever talks about. They just bitch if the weathermen don’t predict a snowfall down to the inch.

How about GPS satellites? Granted, they could have been lofted by a private entity, but how would you charge people for their use? Each device would need a way to monitor GPS activity. It could be done, but practically everything from cats to trucks is trackable by GPS now – mainly because your tax dollars put the satellite system in place and doesn’t charge anyone for its use after that.

Companies like SpaceX are developing their own hardware but all the R&D done by NASA has helped immeasurably. I mentioned a few weeks ago a 1920s wind tunnel study of wing airfoils by NACA, the forerunner of NASA. It provided the data used by designers of aircraft for the next forty years at least.

On the other hand, they didn’t use that data to regulate which airfoils you could use on your planes, did they?

It’s the regulations that strangle us…

Constellation Ares Launch - but when?


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