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A clearheaded description of our current manned space program…

June 28, 2011

Nothing like this coming soon... (hat tip to Sven Knudson at ninfinger.org)

Paul D. Spudis has written a piece that sums up neatly where our current manned space program is going, or rather not going. (Hat tip to Mark Whittington.) He argues that the Shuttle, while not the best system, is a working system, and one that delivers large crews and large payloads – something none of the commercial follow-ons will be able to do. It can also serve as a “space garage” for satellite repair, can deploy satellites too delicate to be launched on their own, and manipulate (using its articulated mechanical arm) large objects in the vicinity of the ISS – or anywhere else, for that matter.

He doesn’t mention, but assumes, that NASA is also shortsighted enough that no manned presence other than the ISS will be needed in the future. That is shortsighted at best and it may be that the US government will be buying living space from another country, like China, or from commercial entities like Bigelow Aerospace.

Bigelow Aerospace will be there, even if the US government isn't.

I confess the “space garage” point was one that I missed in the past. I guess I figured it would be possible to do things in microgravity on the outside without a stable base, but thinking about it, I can see why having a way to hold a satellite or other piece of equipment in a fixed position would be immensely valuable. To do that you need a massy vehicle, not an enlarged Apollo capsule. The Shuttle, for its clunkiness, fit the bill perfectly. The Jenkins book on the Space Shuttle history called it “the truck that flies” and that’s probably a more apt description than I would have thought.

But we’re operating NASA on a tenth of the budget we once were, and expecting what we used to. Congress and the President are in a battle over what should be our manned role in space: the President seems to think there shouldn’t be one, and various Congressmen with aerospace companies in their districts and states are fighting to maintain the jobs there. Now isn’t a particularly good time to lose more high-tech jobs. These folks aren’t going to be finding private-sector employment quickly.

I’m not arguing for NASA as a Federal jobs program. Even with my libertarian leanings, I realize there are some things that can’t be done on the cheap, or need long term investment that a company can’t handle – and the benefits will be for us all, not just for Lockheed Martin or Boeing. Apollo was ten years and $ 300 billion in today’s money. That’s not chump change, but it paid itself back time and time again in all sorts of ways. If you’ve read any of my posts you know I advocate for commercial space all the time, and with far fewer restrictions than the US government places on companies trying to get into the business. But Spudis makes an excellent point:

“What we learned then was that spaceflight is difficult, unforgiving and expensive.  While one could argue that Shuttle is an inherently flawed transportation system, it still is a working system it works because we expended the time, experience and money needed to make it work.”

Unfortunately, that won’t be true for much longer. The work is being done right now to gut the orbiters now for museum display. Could they be put back together to fly? I doubt it. And there is little chance of any change before a change in Presidential administration, of course.

The Air Force has this little beast:

X-37B

We don’t really know what they are using it for. It’s unmanned, and it’s not big enough to be used to haul much. It does demonstrate that Boeing can build new space planes, though. We could have a new, improved shuttle, if we were willing to pay for it. Maybe not this, yet:

From "Autumn Rain" by David Williams

But at least closer. I think part of the problem is that the manned space folks in NASA have been so fixated on the Shuttle and the ISS – understandably, since it’s taken over a decade to get the ISS built – that they haven’t been able to sell Congress on what comes next, sort of like the post-Apollo letdown. We all know that it’s difficult and expensive to get into space, and it takes more than an election cycle to do anything. That means that we need a big, but achievable goal. The Moon doesn’t work – as Obama said, Buzz has already been there. (Apparently once Lewis and Clark got to the Pacific Ocean and came home, nobody else followed.) Mars seems pretty far away to most people. I think people today think a Mars mission is less doable, not more, than they did in 1970. (I have no data to support that conclusion, however.)

How do we capture the attention of America so that we force our Congress to take us back into space?

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