The Battle for a New Space Age Begins

The Battle for a New Space Age Begins

February 12, 2010 Opinion, Our Policy Voice

Isn’t it ironic that the agency which is supposed to be challenging the edge is taking so much heat for trying something new? I find myself teetering between laughter,  slipping into a Lewis Black moment and fear that this tiny step towards a pro-frontier space policy will be slaughtered the same way so many good ideas are in Washington and for the same reasons: It threatens the cash flow to entrenched interests, and the control of those who are used to calling the shots. None of which have anything to do with our success or failure as a nation in the areas of exploration, science, job creation or lest we forget, opening the grandest frontier of all time…

Fact: The Constellation plan was a dead end, and would have resulted in a disastrous failure to return to the Moon, let alone put humans on Mars. That was an illusion, powerpoint pioneering at its best, smoke and mirrors at its worst. Back in the nineteen sixties even Von Braun called for the US to build infrastructure in LEO lest we not be able to sustain or conquest of space. He was over ruled in favour of a race to the Moon in the form of Apollo and in the end we got flags and footprints on the Moon and a generation that so can’t believe we aren’t still there that they question if we ever went. And NASA was going to do it again.

Thank god that this time they were stopped. For now at least. And as weird as it may have seemed just a year or two ago, I find myself and many in the Space Frontier movement on the side of the agency’s leadership. Strange days indeed my friends…but allies we are, and prepare we must.

Now we wait for the counter attack as parochial NASA leaders more concerned about the “welfare” of their own centres than the above mentioned goals will now conspire with members of congress who have vested interests in the status quo and their corporate donors and either do not understand that this new direction will mean more jobs, more missions and more overall good stuff for everyone or simply do not care.

And it is coming. Don’t doubt it. Behind the snow piles in Washington the forces of darkness are gathering and working on all new sets of powerpoints. The attack will come in the form of trying to cast doubts on people, companies and vehicles that represent change, and a push for a “new and improved” giant launch vehicle that will be touted as a minimally evolved use of the existing space shuttle architecture.

Let the dance begin! A battle of maneuver it will be indeed. The more weak kneed folks at NASA and the White House politicos who don’t give a dam about space may well be moved to support this new counter program to placate the congressional delegations from Florida and Alabama in particular. After all, one Alabama Senator can trump a whole passle of forces by simply holding up a budget…(or can he? see note about Maryland below.)

The Arizona Sub-Committee Chairwoman whose husband helped develop the now discredited “stick” known as Ares 1 will also weigh in – although with that program gone, she might be able to see the light that like ex-military pilots now flying business aircraft and airliners her husband and his ex-astronaut friends will have at least a chance to fly again if the commercial option to LEO survives and virtually None whatsoever if it does not.

The Texas and California delegations will at first be tempted to support the HLV concept, but with a bit less gusto, as California has the innovative Ames Space facility and of course JPL – which is going to win in the form of more funds and chances to fly its robotic exploration missions and is home to some rising star commercial firms as is Texas. Also, Johnson Space Center in Houston is a bit more of a mission oriented facility (ie – what you do when you get somewhere) than a launch vehicle design bureau like Marshall or flight facility like Kennedy. At some point its people will come to realize if they want to roll out their projects on the Moon and Mars they better line up behind Mr. Bolden and the New Space Age.

And with any luck a couple of powerhouses may step up to save the day, such as the nice lady from Maryland who may recognize that a win for the dinosaurs is a loss for her own state, especially her own Mid Atlantic Spaceport and its potential commercial spaceflight customers – ironically in competition with that same Florida launch facility being protected from evil commercial alternatives by their own senator….hmnnn…irony…hmnnnn.

And this little internet of ours will be flooded with debates, arguments and lies and half truths and of course my own complete truths. Let loose the blogs of war!

My words and wisdom aside, we will see what happens to this bold new initiative in the coming months. Will it “fly” or will it flounder. Will the White House and those with Vision stand their ground or will they run away, content to say they tried. Will one or two powerful Senators stand in the way of this attempt to reforge our space program into something exciting and viable and in the name of short term protectionism slam down the gavel on creativity to protect a socialist dinosaur, or will common sense and the true American ideals of enterprise and creativity win the day?

Interestingly, and something that should give our friends on the other side pause – it is important to note that in the end the frontier is going to be opened, and the New Space revolution is going to occur with or without NASA on board. Be it China or India or a huge fleet of American commercial rockets and hotels and rovers, and powersats and miners and labs and more… The real question is whether this once proud icon of American guts and glory gets it an gets on board and helps us do it by getting out there and blazing trails rather than trying to design and build the trucks and vehicles that will travel them, or is left behind on its own decaying launch pad.

I hope wisdom prevails…as this could be a lot of fun!

19 Comments

  • Kelly Starks says:

    While I completly agree that

    "The Constellation plan was a dead end, and would have resulted in a disastrous failure to return to the Moon, let alone put humans on Mars. That was an illusion, powerpoint pioneering at its best, smoke and mirrors at its worst…."

    I wuoldn't be so quick to crow about the post Obama proposal future. Its not like we got a exlporation program using commercials. We didn't get any maned program other then to the ISS studying climate change, and a couple extra COTS-D flights contracted to SpaceX or Boeing isn't going to revolutionize space access. As is the Air Force is already fearing the loss of the US industrial base related to space launch technologies.

    However, another point is what is the odds of Congress adopting the recomendations? Granted Congress has been very open to all presidential requests – but this is gornig a lot of personal sacred cows.

    • Rick Tumlinson says:

      Totally agree, Congress is going to try and hack this to pieces.
      Again, I still want NASA to keep going out the edge and exploring.
      I love the Mars robotic missions and am a huge fan of space science and astronomy.
      If we can begin to increase our ability to access space then we will get more of everything.

      Rick

      • Kelly Starks says:

        What would be idea – and politically impossible -would be a NASA that had a DARPA like part just contracting for cutting edge X craft and tech demos. Not the laughable "HLV tech demonstrator" (didn't Von Braun do that demo a HALF CENTURY AGO?!) or fuel transfer, but things like SSTO or BlackSwift. And another part that does cutting edge exploration or production demo. Contract for launch services – but demand something state of the art. More like a fully reusable, rapid turn around, low margin cost craft. Give a couple bidders enough contract for that delivering material to Luna or orbital assembly, or something, so NASA eats all their R&D and fixed costs as a anchor tenant. Rather then the $100B they were planing on Ares/Orion/Altair, spend $20B-$30B and leaving CATS, low cost to Luna, etc in their wake.

        Yeah I know. I worked at NASA for about 16 years. CATS is there nightmare scenerio. But this is looking worse.

  • Paul Spudis says:

    Hi Rick,

    quote: Will one or two powerful Senators stand in the way of this attempt to reforge our space program into something exciting and viable and in the name of short term protectionism slam down the gavel on creativity to protect a socialist dinosaur, or will common sense and the true American ideals of enterprise and creativity win the day?

    Speaking of "enterprise," perhaps you can explain something to me. I'm just a dumb scientist, but as I recall, business involves coming up with an idea, finding investment capital (either your own or from investors), building the operation to make something or provide a service, and then making a profit (or taking a loss, depending on how it goes.) It seems to me that what is proposed in the "new path" is replacing one group of government contractors (e.g., Lockheed-Martin, Boeing) with a new bunch of government contractors (e.g., Space X, XCor). Hmmm… I guess that really IS different!! That's quite a revolution you have there!

    quote: Interestingly, and something that should give our friends on the other side pause – it is important to note that in the end the frontier is going to be opened, and the New Space revolution is going to occur with or without NASA on board.

    If all that's going to happen anyway, why do you need NASA? I would think that regulatory relief and tax incentives would be better for New Space business. And would it not be much better to abolish the agency and give the people some tax relief? These would seem to me as true libertarian kinds of positions.

    But as I say, I'm just a dumb scientist. Just wondering…..

    • Kelly Starks says:

      Sadly. The public – and hence Congress – see only two things of value in the space program. NASA was really cool once and still prestigious, so don't kill it. NASA brings jobs to our districts so use it for that. From that you get "design for pork" things like "Apollo on Steroids". Which cost several times what even a bloarated government program sould need to to get back to the moon.

      NASA has managed to convince the public that space is impossible, and useless, and only NASA can manage to do anything in it but only for staggering amounts of money. Perhaps someday if commercials can find a market in space they can develop real space capacity. Which could excite folks to invest in space. But its hard to see why comercials would ever do a lot of cutting edge exploration?

  • Rick Tumlinson says:

    Thanks for your post. And golly you aren't just a dumb scientist or you wouldn't have the wisdom to read our stuff.

    I actually have a company of my own and yes, I do understand how these things work. The Key element you are missing is that the goal is pay these new carriers for services Not effort as we have in the past. Very simple concept really. Also, these carriers (be they SpaceX, OSC or ULA will be able to use their vehicles for other purposes and payloads such as carrying people to and from private facilities. Which is…revolutionary…when it comes to NASA.

    Regarding getting rid of NASA…lol…well now your just teasing me aren't you? Seriously, I am not a libertarian, I see a role for taxpayer funding of some activities such as leading edge research, exploration beyond the pale of commercial investment and pure science…like you do.

    I hope this helps, as I know scientists really are smart people.

    • Paul Spudis says:

      Thanks Rick. Yes, that was very helpful. I really appreciate the explanation, especially in simple words that I could understand.

      Funny — I always assumed that all federal contractors were obligated to deliver on contracts, lest they not get paid. Oh yes, there are sometimes additional costs they get paid for — that doesn't seem too unfair to me, as the agency often (sometimes constantly) changes requirements or decides it wants a widget made this way, instead of that way. In any event, it's a good thing that we'll no longer do that. The new way will save us tons of money, as these new companies deliver ahead of schedule, under cost, and with superior performance. That's a good thing. That's a REAL good thing.

      I also appreciate your point that we need NASA for some things, but not for others. Yeah. Got it. Leading edge research. Technological development. By golly, we're just going to get all kinds of new and innovative stuff from this approach. I can say that because we have in the past. Just pour money into technology. You don't need a plan or a destination or even any particular use in mind. Just pour money into it. It'll be better.

  • Fred Willett says:

    PAUL Spudis said "It seems to me that what is proposed in the "new path" is replacing one group of government contractors (e.g., Lockheed-Martin, Boeing) with a new bunch of government contractors (e.g., Space X, XCor)."

    What gets replaces is government designed Ares 1 with $9B spent so far for next to nothing built. In it's place you put 4 (count 'em, 4) commercial rockets. Atlas V, Delta IV, (both existing,) Falcon 9, already at the cape preparing for launch and Taurus II, about 12 months away.
    ULA has a CCDev contract to upgrade flight software which will go a long way to human rating both Atlas and Delta for just $20M.
    The bottom line is that against the estimated $30B development cost of Ares 1 NASA pays next to nothing for vehicle development. Nothing. Atlas and Delta exist. Falcon 9 cost NASA $278M already funded under COTS cargo. Dittl Taurus II which costs $171M for their COTS cargo development. Compare these vehicle development costs against the $30B Ares 1 was going to cost.
    But of course just having a vehicle doesn't get crew to orbit.
    There are a number of crew carrying options which NASA will able to flesh out with COTS style deals within the expected 5 years.
    Dragon (SpaceX) already exists. The qualification unit is at the cape to be launched on the first flight of Falcon 9 within months. This vehicle will be carrying cargo to the ISS next year and SpaceX asserts it has been designed to carry crew and needs only the addition of an escape tower. SpaceX was looking for about $350M under COTS-D to do this development.
    An Orion Light is already being designed by Boeing/Bigelow to carry crew for Bigelows commercial space stations. Do you really think Boeing couldn't possibly do this? Or don't you consider Boeing a commercial company?
    There are lots of other commercial companies who would jump at the chance to develop commercial crew given some funding.
    The question you need to answer Paul is how can a single government program, and an incredibly expensive one that that, be considered for more than a second in the face of the multiple low cost commercial paths on offer.

    • Paul Spudis says:

      Hi Fred,

      Thanks for the offer of the double-helping of your Kool-Aid. I'll pass on it, if you don't mind.

      quote: The question you need to answer Paul is how can a single government program, and an incredibly expensive one that that, be considered for more than a second in the face of the multiple low cost commercial paths on offer.

      Because your "multiple, low cost commercial" paths go nowhere, do nothing, and have no mission objectives.

      • Does your car have a mission objective? How about your bicycle? Use the vehicle available for whatever is possible.

        As a scientist you ought to understand the core mission objectives come from the science community. When NASA announces opportunities to launch an instrument on a spacecraft headed to the Moon, will you refrain from putting in a proposal if the launcher is purchased on a fixed-cost basis rather than a cost-plus basis?

        Employing a 50,000 person standing army on a cost-plus contract is not sustainable for any kind of human exploration program. The U.S. Antarctic program contracts services from Raytheon. Flights on commercial providers gets scientists most of the way there. The U.S. Air Force does the final hop for NSF funded scientists. The U.S. would not continuously occupy McMurdo base if it cost billions of dollars. Raytheon, the U.S. Air Force, the commercial air providers have no mission objectives regarding Antarctica. The NSF and its funded scientists do. Yet Raytheon, the airlines and the air force certainly go somewhere, do something. If you cannot see your science objectives thriving under such a system, you ought to talk to other scientists who have experienced it.

    • MP_Walsh says:

      I haven't been active in these discussions for quite a while but things have certainly__changed. From the point of things won, it would appear that the Space Frontier organization__has won, at least at the presidential level.____The numbers don't match. It is a classic apples vs. oranges situation. The amount of money__scheduled to be spent for commercial access to the space station not only is not yet completely defined__but much more will be required for manned access.____The high 30 billion dollar figure for Ares is a part of a much larger program aimed at deep__space ventures and requiring long mission times and either earth orbit insertion prior to__reentry or very high reentry at planetary speeds. The commercial manned operations are__short term to the ISS and will still require considerable funding from somewhere.____I doubt that it will be fronted by the commercial operators and paid back as the cost__of shuttling passengers to and from orbit, but I really don't know.____Not too much left to comment on. We just don't know a lot about what is going to__be done, how it is going to be done and how it will be paid for.

  • […] fight” in the blogosphere over who has the best rocket and the best architecture.  Many “New Space” advocates are ecstatic, viewing the cancellation of the Constellation program as vindication of their view that:  a) this […]

  • Rick Tumlinson says:

    How could you so miss the point as to say:
    "Because your "multiple, low cost commercial" paths go nowhere, do nothing, and have no mission objectives." and some of the things you say in your Air and Space blog?

    Let me put it simply: Ports Do Not Go Anywhere. Industries Do Not Go Anywhere. They enable people to go places, and to build and operate machines that can carry them there – and if they are economically viable, they allow those people to go to those places and do it repeatedly.

    Constellation was not going to get you back to the Moon, and again, even if in some farfetched powerpoint pioneering artistically rendered dream world it did, you would not have been able to stay as the costs to repeat the voyage would have been too high – and would not get lower over time. Our approach builds the infrastructure necessary to not only get you there, but by offloading some costs into other sectors such as commercial markets and allowing the chance for profits to be realized along the way thus drawing in new providers and creating competition, will not only allow you to stay, but to expand your access over time.

    The bottom line, no matter how you argue it is that the previous model failed and failed repeatedly at a cost of billions of dollars and decades. Heaven forbid we try something different in the very domain of activity dedicated to discovering new things.

  • Paul Spudis says:

    I am not defending either Constellation nor the ESAS architecture and if you had ever read anything I have written on this you would know that. I think the "new policy" (if it can be dignified with such an honorific) is wrong not because of the MEANS it chooses (although there's lots of room to debate that), but because it has discarded the ENDS — the Vision's goal to go to the Moon and learn to use its resources. We now have no "mission," regardless of what you guys think. My point is that NASA as an organizational entity does not handle non-direction well. My proof: the last 30 years of space history.

  • Bob Lancaster says:

    Dr Spudis,
    I read your article at SpaceRef, 'The New Space Race', and concur with your points. I agree with restoring the original Vision for Space Exploration; should NASA re-launch VSE as a more commercially-enabled (and commercially-competitive) effort, integrating the establishment of Buzz Aldrin's Lunar Infrastructure Development Corporation Surface Facility?

  • Paul Spudis says:

    Bob,

    Yes, I do think that the Vision should be retained as the strategic direction of the agency; the VSE is national policy now and will be until Congress changes NASA's authorization. Inclusion of commercial opportunities for industrialization was always part of the VSE plan for the Moon; it was supposed to be NASA's job to determine if lunar resource utilization was feasible and if so, what the choke points might be.

  • Great Article Rick! I think a lot of what you have to say is spot on.

  • […] by Rick Tumlinson on February 12, 2010 · 19 Comments […]

  • […] fight” in the blogosphere over who has the best rocket and the best architecture.  Many “New Space” advocates are ecstatic, viewing the cancellation of the Constellation program as vindication of their view that:  a) this […]