Saturday, April 17, 2010

Goodbye to the High Frontier

Let me say upfront that I am a space nerd to end all space nerds. My two earliest memories are watching afternoon repeats of Star Trek and sitting on the floor of the family room while the news reported on the first lunar landing. One of my morning-coffee "blog crawl" sites is Astronomy Picture of the Day. And one of the high points of my time here in California has been watching, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the "recovery" of the Genesis probe.

Let me also say upfront that I was never a fan of the Constellation program, President Bush's new direction for a post-Space Shuttle Era NASA. Throwing away literally decades of experience with reusable space vehicles and orbital construction and returning to an Apollo-style program of massive, single-use rockets and other vehicles -- all of which had be designed from scratch, of course -- seemed like a Great Leap Backward. Now for the Colonials in Battlestar Galactica, it made perfect sense to step away their experience with networked computers and go back to telephones powered by crank-handles on their starships, because they had the genocidal menace of the robotic Cylons to deal with. But the closest thing to a Cylon skinjob here on Earth is Lady Gaga, and I'm not aware of her expressing any interest in destroying the human race or even NASA, just good taste.

Finally, let me add that I blame administrations of both parties, Democrat and Republican, for the current mess we have regarding the U.S. space program. Each administration seemed to take the mess of the previous one and then somehow make things even worse. That NASA in the early days tried to promote the Shuttle as making space travel so common that launches would be boring non-events was a PR decision on a par with New Coke when it came to public interest and support. And that America entered the twenty-first century still using a 1970s era "space truck" that even Dennis Hopper wouldn't want to fly in Space Truckers -- and that we're now facing, at minimum, years of paying the Russians to launch Americans into space -- is in my mind unforgivable. And something that was completely avoidable as well.

We needed a top-to-bottom rethink of NASA, I agree, but when President Obama killed the Constellation program, I wasn't sure what to feel. I agreed the program was the wrong direction, but I had more than a few doubts about how -- or even if -- President Obama would replace it. And most of the explanations I saw were vague and without any real specifics, at least until President Obama's speech at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida this week:

As always, President Obama begins his speech with a rather professorial recitation about the subject in question -- in this case, the entire history of humanity's reach for the stars, much like James Michener began that book about Texas with page after page about the basic geology of that state. Then again, no actual NASA workers were apparently allowed to attend this speech about their future, so the invited academics and other officials might well have needed the refresher. Besides, this allowed President Obama to tell us how much he likes Tang, which is "very cool."

Eventually, we come to the meat of the speech, and two warning flares rise up like, well, rockets during a night launch from the Kennedy Space Center:
So let me be start by being extremely clear. I am 100% committed to the mission of NASA and its future.

The bottom line is, nobody is more committed to manned space flight, to human exploration of space, than I am.
Those are actually from near the beginning and near the end of this speech, but to me, they're two parts of a whole. Because I can't hear either statement without immediately also hearing, in the back of my mind, that President Obama can no more disown Rev. Jeremiah Wright than he can his own grandmother, that President Obama will close Guantanamo Bay within one year, and the health care reform negotiations will be broadcast live on C-SPAN. Any "extremely clear" statement by President Obama always seems to come with an unspoken expiration date. And today, more than a year into his first term, I've become cynical enough to reflexively believe that these two statements will also expire, and expire sometime soon.

This is also the same man, after all, who during the presidential campaign wanted to delay future manned space missions and use that money to pay for early childhood education instead. And who also once supported the Constellation program. Not exactly consistent, but at this point, also not exactly surprising.

Like I said, I've become reflexively cynical about whatever President Obama reads off that teleprompter. But maybe these latest statements and positions will be the exceptions to the rule.

The rest of the speech, unsurprisingly, held even more problems:
In fact, what was once a global competition has long since become a global collaboration.
Wisely left unmentioned by President Obama was the "global collaboration" of China's successful anti-satellite missile test and those Iranian and North Korean "satellite" launches.
We start by increasing NASA's budget by $6 billion over the next five years.
Because the one thing you want to hear on April 15th, in a time of $1 trillion deficits each year for the next 10 years, is that yet another government agency is getting its budget increased. Even a space nerd to end all space nerds like me doesn't want to hear this on April 15th of all days. You really would think that one of the smart people in this administration of smart people might have grasped this concept, but then, this is the same administration of smart people who announced the end of the missile defense program in Poland on the anniversary of the 1939 Nazi invasion, and who phrased it in a way that implied we had just caved to Russian pressure, and so crippled our relationship with one of the most pro-American countries in Europe, if not the world, that they had to send Vice President Joe Biden on an emergency trip to try and repair the damage.

Besides, if it's one thing we've all learned by now, it's that part of the solution to every problem is always throwing more money at it. Just look at how successful the Stimulus has been.

But enough easy snark. Let's get to the real details that, at least to me, make for one incredibly incoherent space policy.
I've directed Charlie Bolden to immediately begin developing a rescue vehicle using this technology [the Orion crew capsule] so we are not forced to rely on foreign providers if it becomes necessary to quickly bring our people home from the International Space Station.
Those would be the "foreign providers" we're going to rely on, to the tune of more than $50 million a person, to send our people to the International Space Station, and that would be the Orion crew capsule from the now-cancelled Constellation program. So I guess we're actually "un-cancelling" that part of things. But someone please tell me why we're going to spend several years and billions more dollars to develop a "rescue vehicle" for the International Space Station when we already have one -- the Russian Soyuz, which is arguably the most proven, dependable space craft that anyone, in any country, has ever built. Not only are we about to start paying the Russians to launch American astronauts into space in Soyuz capsules, these ships already spend time docked at the International Space Station as, you guessed it, rescue/escape vehicles.

Admittedly, President Obama does also claim the Orion crew capsule will be used as the foundation for later deep space missions. And I might actually be able to see using Orion as a redundant "rescue" vehicle in the meantime, if only as an awkward, expensive way to aid in the development of future craft for those deeper missions. At least, I would if I thought for a moment that any of those missions would actually come to fruition under this plan rather than just being new revisions of earlier revisions that in turn will be endlessly revised -- and pushed back -- themselves. Because as President Obama continues:
Next, we will invest more than $3 billion to conduct research on an advanced heavy-lift rocket, a vehicle to efficiently send into orbit the crew capsules, propulsion systems, and large quantities of supplies needed to reach deep space.
So we're going to look at old models, and at new designs and materials, to "transform" where we go and what we can do. (President Obama does like his "transformations," whether he's talking about health care, General Motors, student loans, or NASA.) And the design for this new heavy-lift rocket will be finalized no later than 2015, President Obama claims, after which we begin to actually build it. And as President Obama says, that's "at least two years earlier than previously planned."

Maybe after reading that you can understand my hesitation to believe that any of this is ever actually going to happen. Because in this version of reality -- which is apparently the same version in which spending a lot more money means you actually save money and cut the deficit -- we're cancelling the overbudget and behind-schedule heavy-lift rocket from the Constellation program, which we've already spent years and billions of dollars developing. But by starting all over again from scratch with "breakthrough" technologies that haven't yet been invented, we'll actually have a heavy-lift rocket ready for launch at least two years before the one we'd been developing for the Constellation program was scheduled to fly! And this new heavy-lift rocket program at the same agency with the same people won't have any of the budget and scheduling problems of that old heavy-lift rocket program at the same agency with the same people!

Seriously. I'm not making this up. Just watch the video.
So, the point is, what we're looking for is not just to continue on the same path. We want to leap into the future. We want major breakthroughs. A transformative agenda for NASA.
Which apparently means transforming much of NASA into more of an R&D outfit that jumpstarts an entire private-sector space industry. I want to see a vibrant, private-sector space industry as much as the next space nerd, and probably even more. But this reminds me of how the Department of Energy was created back in the late 1970s to spur the creation of new energy sources that would end our dependence on foreign oil. We all know how well that worked out, of course, but like that new heavy-lift rocket program, maybe this time things will be different.
In fact, through our plan, we'll be sending more more astronauts to space over the next decade.
And that would be through buying space on Russian launches or through our new, transformative private-sector space industry, none of which really exists now but which will be up and running with those breakthrough technologies in just a few years' time? We'll see, Mr. President. Because people are going to be keeping count.

Then again, the Constellation program's return to the Moon has been scrapped, so where, exactly, are we going to be sending these astronauts?
We'll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history.
Chances are, visions of Bruce Willis and Armageddon just danced in your mind. I know they danced in mine when I first heard this. I involuntarily snorted in disbelief, too. Especially considering the "Tang is very cool" remark that came earlier.

Now, smarter people than I have told me that a manned asteroid mission actually does make sense. And articles are already appearing about how this very mission could actually save the entire planet. But it would have been nice if President Obama had actually given a good reason for this in the actual speech where he proposed this very mission. He's a smart man, after all. And he's surrounded by smart people. So one might think that someone, at some point, would have said, "You know, people are going to hear this, and then flash on Armageddon, and then giggle. We need to kill those giggles right at the start with good reasons for doing this asteroid mission."

Then again, as mentioned, these are the same smart people who announced the end of the missile defense program in Poland on the anniversary of the 1939 Nazi invasion, and who phrased it in a way that implied we had just caved to Russian pressure, and so crippled our relationship with one of the most pro-American countries in Europe, if not the world, that they had to send Vice President Joe Biden on an emergency trip to try and repair the damage. So maybe Vice President Biden is about to show up at the doors of America's space supporters. Or maybe they honestly didn't think they needed to give any reason, or at least give any reason other than this one:
Now, I understand that some believe that we should attempt a return to the surface of the Moon first, as previously planned. But I just have to say, pretty bluntly here, we've been there before.
Oh, you bitter clingers to your Moon! Don't you know the Moon is old stuff, but that asteroids are cool? Like Tang?

But enough about the coolness of asteroids and Tang, because then comes the obligatory "I'm creating jobs here" and "Bush was bad" portions of any President Obama speech. He's creating jobs at the Kennedy Space Center because its launch facilities will be upgraded for rockets that we won't even have a design for until, supposedly, 2015. And he's also going to spend $40 million for "a high-level team" to develop a plan for regional economic growth and job creation, because I guess that awesomely successful Stimulus just wasn't awesomely successful enough, at least in the all-important swing state of Florida. But if you're losing your job with the Space Shuttle at the Kennedy Space Center, well, that decision was made "six years ago, not six months ago." So blame George Bush, you workers who were not even invited to this speech.

Those are all just details, however. Because "the question for us now is whether [landing on the Moon] was the beginning of something or the end of something. I choose to believe it was only the beginning."

I hope you're right, Mr. President. And I'd like to believe that you really do expect to be around to see a manned landing on Mars, and that this wasn't just empty rhetoric on your part. But I remember being a young boy sitting in a revival movie theater with my father telling me that I would live to see all that we were watching up on that screen:

Forty years later, I'm still waiting. And watching President Obama at the Kennedy Space Center on April 15th broke my heart, because by the end of his speech, I no longer believed my father.