“Boy the way Beatles played
Songs from Sgt. Pepper’s parade.
Guys like us we had it made,
Those were the days….”
By Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor
In this edition of “Palazzopalooza: We’ll Bamboozle Ya!,” we look at how the House’s nostalgia for the past is preventing it from dealing with the realities of the present.
Today’s conservative Republicans are by far the most nostalgic of Americans. They yearn for a earlier, simpler time when America was a far more perfect union. Unfortunately, their visions are often rather selective, ignoring unpleasant realities of the past and the limitations of the present day.
This is, sadly, what we see in the NASA budget the House passed last week. Just how far in the past are Congressmen living? Decades.
Just consider the following:
- the $16.6 billion NASA budget is the lowest funding level since 2007 (or 1986, when adjusted for inflation)
- the funding will remain flat for FY 2014 and 2015, further eroding NASA’s purchasing power;
- the House rejects a new and relatively affordable asteroid retrieval mission proposed this year designed to develop technologies needed to bring asteroids back into the vicinity of Earth, where they could be mined by commercial companies;
- instead, it restores the hideously expensive Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), a plan that George W. Bush launched in 2004 to send astronauts to the moon and Mars;
- VSE was itself an echo the Space Exploration Initiative that Bush’s father launched in 1989 which itself was an attempt to resurrect the glories of the 1960’s era Apollo program.
So, the House’s vision is 50 years old. Even older, if you consider that Wernher von Braun was pushing a similar plan back in the 1950’s.
Now, what is the problem with all this? Shouldn’t we be exploring deep space and sending astronauts to other worlds?
Sure. If we’re willing to spend the money on it. And, therein lies the problem.
The Augustine Committee took a careful look at Bush’s vision back in 2009 and decided it couldn’t be supported with any realistic budget scenario for NASA. This led the Obama Administration to cancel the program, only to have Congress save its two most expensive elements, the Orion capsule and heavy-lift vehicle.
Today, with sequestration, massive budget deficits, a weak recovery, and a much increased national debt, there is even less money to sustain a program of human settlements on the Moon and Mars than when the Augustine report came out. And the forecast for the rest of the decade is scarcely any better.
But, since the House’s nostalgia is of a highly selective kind, the Augustine Committee’s report has been blocked out entirely. It’s as if it never existed. And it was an initiative of the Obama Administration, which Republicans believe can’t do anything right.
“And you knew who you were then,
Girls were girls and astronauts were men.
Mister we could use a man
Like JFK again….”
The House budget is quite explicit in its instructions to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden as to what he must do concerning the vision.
“The Administrator shall establish a program to develop a sustained human presence on the Moon and the surface of Mars, including a robust precursor program that follows the stepping stone plan required in section 70504 to promote exploration, science, commerce, and United States preeminence in space,” the document reads. “The Administrator is further authorized to develop and conduct appropriate international collaborations in pursuit of such program, but the absence of an international partner may not be justification for failure to pursue such program in a timely manner.”
The House also requires the following actions:
- the development of “a Mars Human Exploration Roadmap to define the specific capabilities and technologies necessary to extend human presence to the surface of Mars and the mission sets required to demonstrate such capabilities and technologies.”
- the launch of the Space Launch System (SLS) with a crewed Orion spacecraft as close to 2020 as possible.
The House declares SLS to be “most practical approach to reaching the Moon, Mars, and beyond,” which has led some observers to wonder if they have actually looked at NASA’s launch schedule for the massive heavy-lift rocket and its spacecraft.
|Orion Test||Orion, Delta IV||No||2014|
|Orion/SLS Test||Orion, SLS||No||2017|
|Asteroid Rendezvous||Orion, SLS||Yes||2021|
|Deep Space||Orion, SLS||Yes||2025|
The clear implication here is that while the House is forcing NASA to spend $3 billion per year on SLS and Orion, not counting construction funds for ground facilities, the space agency will only be able to afford to launch them about as often as the Olympics, World Cup, and Presidential elections.
NASA can’t sustain any human activities in deep space with this type of launch rate. It’s just insane.
Now, if the House has its way, the asteroid missions will be refocused on the moon. And Congress will demand that SLS and Orion fly much more frequently. But, again, where will the money come from to support such missions? Or to fund the capabilities and facilities needed to “develop a sustained human presence on the Moon and the surface of Mars”?
The House has no idea. And neither do I.
The prospects are that if we ever got construction of a moon base underway, it would be a repeat of the space station experience: a perpetually underfunded, constantly behind schedule monstrosity that would take a quarter century to complete before anyone figured out what to actually do with it. At least that would be the result if Congress forces NASA to do things the traditional way.
The truth is that Congress doesn’t care that much about getting much done in space. They are much more focused on Earth. Decades-long programs that keep billions of dollars flowing into their districts and states are good for employment — theirs and their constituents. As long as the money keeps flowin’, they’ll just keep goin’.
“Space was all done by the state,
“The Cold War just couldn’t wait.
Gee our old CSM ran great.
Those were the days.”
NASA’s Asteroid Retrieval Mission would, in theory anyway, be much less expensive and avoid the gravity wells (literal and financial) of a human lunar settlement. The asteroid would be retrieved using an automated spacecraft, and a human crew would rendezvous with it at a location just beyond the moon’s orbit. No expensive lunar infrastructure would be required.
Now, the prospects of a couple of three-meter tall astronauts standing on a 7 to 10 meter long asteroid has understandably attracted its fair share of derision. Neil and Buzz it ain’t. But, to repeat, it’s probably the only deep space mission NASA can afford under any realistic budget scenario. And there are other benefits as well.
Over the past two years, a pair of companies have launched with the intent of mining asteroids for minerals, water and other volatiles. These ventures have the potential to establish a trillion dollar industry that would bring valuable materials back to Earth and help support the space infrastructure needed to establish human presence in deep space.
It will be much easier and cheaper for NASA to identify candidate asteroids to retrieve if it can partner with these companies, which already have plans to send out fleets of small spacecraft to conduct detailed surveys.
Partnership opportunities are also possible on the technologies needed to bring asteroids near to the Earth, where they would be a lot easier to mine. This would be an excellent way for NASA to support an industry that eventually be worth trillions of dollars and provide fuel and water depots in deep space needed for human exploration.
Alas, the House is having none of it. Not only can’t NASA spend money on the mission, it can’t even look for asteroids small enough to retrieve for the next two years.
“The Administrator may not fund the development of an asteroid retrieval mission to send a robotic spacecraft to a near-Earth asteroid for rendezvous, retrieval, and redirection of that asteroid to lunar orbit for exploration by astronauts,” the funding measure reads. “The Administration may not pursue a program to search for asteroids of 20 meters or less in diameter unless the survey program described in section 322(c) is at least 90 percent complete.”
However, the House has not closed the door entirely on the idea. The bill requests that NASA provide it with a report on the Asteroid Retrieval Mission that would include:
(1) a detailed budget profile, including cost estimates for the development of all necessary technologies and spacecraft required for the mission;
(2) a detailed technical plan that includes milestones and a specific schedule;
(3) a description of the technologies and capabilities anticipated to be gained from the proposed mission that will enable future human missions to Mars which could not be gained by lunar missions;
(4) a complete review by the Small Bodies Assessment Group and the NASA Advisory Council that includes a recommendation to Congress on the feasibility of the mission as proposed by the Administration.
It will be interesting to see what NASA comes up with if this provision remains in the final NASA budget approved by the House and Senate. The clear requirement is that the asteroid mission would have to be more valuable than sending astronauts to the moon for supporting the human exploration and settlement of Mars.
That could be a tall order given the House’s nostalgia for the Apollo era and the actual benefits of going to the moon. My fear is that no matter what arguments NASA put forth, Congress would reject them.