Palazzopalooza ’13: A Giant Leap Backward

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edith-archie-bunker-piano

Like House Republicans, Archie and Edith Bunker yearned for an earlier, simpler era that never really existed. Well, Archie more than Edith. And, at least he was very funny. Congress…not so much. (Credit: CBS Television)

“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.

Mission Vehicles Crew Year
 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;

and

(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.

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  • Roger

    Excellent article, Doug. But how many Republicans are we really talking about? Two? Three? Can you name some names?

    Lets’ separate politics from policy, so we don’t fall into the same traps as Congress and the MSM.

    Instead of saying “Republicans,” why not name the sticks in the mud and separate them from those more enlightened, regardless of party? Let’s not throw a crowd of relatively independent congressmen under the bus in the name of the few who have shackled themselves to their jobs programs.

  • Hug Doug

    the SLS proposed missions and schedule page on wikipedia lists a launch per year from 2021- 2032.

  • Douglas Messier

    I don’t think Wikipedia is always accurate.

  • Douglas Messier

    I don’t know. The article is called Palazzopalooza, so that should give you a hint on at least one person.

    My guess is that those who fall into the category would be a very long list indeed. The list of enlightened ones would be extremely short. Rohrabacher would fall into that category, if only on space. I’ll let you know if I come up with any others.

  • Tombomb123

    Is this what it has come to? Build a big expensive rocket and capsule and then hope money show’s up to do a mission to justify it’s existence? Kind of like in the movie Wayne’s world “build it and they will come”.

  • Hug Doug

    true, but in regards to space-related topics, i’ve found it to be surprisingly useful, because space-nerds like us make sure it is accurate and has up-to-date information.

  • delphinus100

    And even so, one launch per year is still not enough to maintain operational practice and competence, or get meaningful economies of scale in manufacture of launchers…

  • mattmcc80

    The launches listed on Wikipedia that you’re referring to are proposed, nothing more. None of them have any budgeted funding, or a mission, or a payload. Every single one of them is entirely hypothetical. Aside from the two Orion “exploration missions” which are really test flights, there is no money allocated, and no mission defined, for any operational SLS flights.

  • mattmcc80

    Who are these “independent Congressmen” of which you speak? By any measure, the sessions of the last 10 years have been the most partisan, most ineffectual in the nation’s history.

    When it comes to policy that effects NASA, the general body of Congress has not exactly been influenced by any hypothetical independents. The vast majority of what the legislature considers for NASA is driven by the science committees and space subcommittees, which are very obviously stacked with representatives of districts with specific vested interests (Such as Orion and SLS, or Constellation before that)

    So, sure, before placing the blame on an entire political party, start with the committee that makes all the recommendations. But then recognize that nobody outside of that committee seems to be doing anything to present an opposing viewpoint when the issue of NASA reaches the floor.

  • Brainard

    I call flame war. Somebody else will have to take up the slack with this idiot, though.

  • Roger

    Matt said “Who are these ‘independent Congressmen’ of which you speak?”
    Key word in my comment: “relatively.” I was talking about those who have no special desire to maintain NASA jobs programs in their states.

  • Hug Doug

    the same can be said for the 4 missions that are listed in the article.

  • mattmcc80

    There is a reason: No money. A mission needs to be funded several years prior to launch, and no money is being allocated to any SLS mission yet beyond the two Orion tests. Those other two missions, 2021 and 2025, are just pencilled in. NASA has no money allocated for those either. If the budget being discussed here is carried through to 2015, then it’s extremely unlikely that SLS will fly more than two times before 2026.

  • Hug Doug

    yeah… i’m not sure there’s ever been a solid budget for anything that might happen in 8 years.

  • mattmcc80

    I don’t think adding a qualifier like “relatively” changes the situation in any measurable fashion. Party line votes on the floors of Congress are the norm, after all. If “relatively” independent representatives are worth mentioning, then I expect them to not just stand up and oppose the party line as a token display of diversity of thought, but actually put their name and (more importantly) career on the line to defend a view that contradicts the status quo. If any Congressman has done this with regards to NASA policy, I’m not aware of it, but I’d love to be proven wrong. If they haven’t, then any alleged “relative” independence is totally irrelevant, as it isn’t accomplishing anything.

  • mattmcc80

    One launch per year is an absolute fantasy. Anyone who suggests that pace of launches of SLS could be achieved is tragically divorced from reality. One launch every four years is highly optimistic, but not impossible.

  • Brian Straight

    “Three meter tall astronauts…” Wow! I guess something is getting bigger at NASA, if not the budget. The unfortunate fact is that the American public is no longer willing to fund expensive space missions and the politicians are articulating a vision that they know will never be achieved at current funding levels. A standup comedian (I forget who) articulated the problem from the person-in-the-street’s perspective very well when commenting on images from a Mars mission. He said something like: “There are 500 billion rocks in our solar system and our scientists will not be happy until they have taken a picture of each and every one of them.” These are incredible achievements, but they mean little to the people who have to fund the missions and that is the real crux. After Apollo 11, look at how quickly interest in the moon missions collapsed. What is missing is an integrated vision that can reignite interest in space exploration. Unfortunately the attractiveness of such a vision depends on the receptivity of people in the time it is formulated and the interests of the American people are elsewhere. We’ve taken our collective eyes off the sky and, for the foreseeable future (unfortunately) someone else (China, Russia, India) will take the lead.

  • getitdoneinspace

    To Matt: You are following the path that has never worked, that is to blame a big group so that no single individual feels the least bit threatened therefore has no motivation to be accountable for their pathetic legislation.

    To Roger: I think you are on to something. We need to make this debate personal. We, those that support a commonsense sustainable exploitation of space, must generate a top three list or top five list of legislators who are the most pathetic. Then we could focus our dismay on those individuals. Furthermore, we could encourage the press and blogs to also focus their disgust and condemnation of those specific individuals.

    For full disclosure, I am a 50 something lifetime Republican. But I see both Democrats and Republicans behave very poorly so that we, the people, get the absolute worst. Sustainability should be the word of the next decade in every aspect of legislation. Democrats do not think sustainability with entitlements (example, life span has increased dramatically yet social security/medicare eligibility age is locked in stone). Republicans are just as bad (example, fund space projects that do not even consider how to include non-government players that would utilize, maintain, and improve these tracks made to space to exploit the infinite resources of our universe).

    Bottom line, we will never win fighting a whole party. We need to direct our wrath upon specific legislators and show them for the idiots they are. At the same time, we should identify those individuals that our enlightened and give them praise.

  • Roger

    Again, my post was about separating policy from politics.
    If you want to talk about politics, we’ll have a flame war
    about Republicans this and Democrats that, and we’ll stomp
    all over the fact that we would rather work together for the good of NewSpace. And in the process, we’ll end up blaming
    everyone in Congress for turning NASA and NewSpace into
    political footballs, all the while ignoring the mirror and the mud
    on our own faces.

    Let’s put the mud away and go wash up.

    BTW, FWIW, I am not a Republican.

  • mattmcc80

    I would love to see individual legislators be taken to task for their bad decisions regarding NASA, but that will be difficult since the people who elected them (and keep re-electing them) don’t think they’re making bad decisions. The representatives in question, the Frank Wolfs, the Steven Palazzos, they’re not doing a bad job in the eyes of their constituents. What voter is going to be mad at their Congressmen when they bring jobs and money into their district?

    This is why it’s such a terrible idea for Congress to play the role of NASA administrator: The committee members aren’t acting in the best interests of the nation, they’re acting in the best interests of their individual districts.

  • getitdoneinspace

    Unfortunately I have to agree with you. It would take the right person to frame the right argument to persuade these constituents that the short sighted self interest is much less beneficial to them than the far sighted national interest. Ask them to be smarter than their legislators. The argument should be framed with emphasis on the WHY rather than the WHAT. WHY the commonsense sustainable exploitation of space will be far more beneficial to them individually than the WHAT of the next contract of pork on a dead end project with no future.