Thursday, April 23, 2009

Fast or slow, Constellation's cost is the same

Orlando Sentinel staff writers Robert Block & Mark K. Matthews write this evening "NASA moon landing could be delayed."

"NASA's plans to return astronauts to the moon are quietly being revised and are in danger of slipping past 2020."

"In meetings over the last few weeks at Kennedy Space Center, agency managers have told employees and contractors that they are delaying the first lunar launch of the Ares V rocket -- a cargo hauler slated to be the most powerful rocket ever built -- by two years.

NASA's internal plans had called for Ares V to go to the moon in 2018, though the agency had announced a public goal of 2020. Internal deadlines are used by NASA to keep programs on track and to provide a margin of error for developmental problems.

But because of growing budget woes, the agency is resetting its internal date to 2020. And privately, engineers say that means the public 2020 date to send humans back to the moon is in deepening trouble."

Big surprise?

Just how do national technology programs, dependent as they are on long-term planning, operate within the priorities of governments built on short-term thinking?

When the Apollo program was shut down and Congress began funding the Space Shuttle in 1971, Columbia was slated for its first launch in 1976.

Whether or not there were more than just operational problems, like development of the heat shield tiles in the delay, we should remember that aside from the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975 no manned space program was carried out by the United States for nearly nine years from December 1972 until April 1981.

Fretting about the possible five year delay between Shuttle retirement and manned testing of Constellation always seemed a bit optimistic to the Pioneers. NASA is seen as low-hanging fruit for many in Congress. And just this week we learned that the testing alone of the new Regenerative Fuel Cell (RFC) technology planned for use on the Moon by the lunar electric rover may take a nominal six years.

But our skepticism is really not based on American ability or on the technological challenge. It is instead based on Congress, which is designed to be nearsighted, with eyes that can't see beyond two years. The whole of the House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate must account to their voters every two years, and we would not have it any other way.

But NASA was gutted by Congress and the Nixon administration in 1971, and the agency ultimately solved its long-term manned program budgeting problems by enshrining them in an all-but-permanent Space Shuttle, that could be throttled forward or backward but became too beloved to ever consider defunding, its original reason for being and that fact that its cost never matched the original expectations long forgotten.

For the past six years following the harsh lesson of Columbia the limitations of the Shuttle cannot be ignored or "worked around." It is long-past time to move on, and quickly.

In 1971 Congress faced the cost of the remaining Apollo missions and NASA's plans for the years that were to follow and instead were sold the Space Shuttle because of those hoped-for efficiencies and savings.

Without denigrating the twenty-eight years of Shuttle operations it's a good time to remember the fact that time and cost of its development and operation far exceeded what Congress had hoped. It was the same for the Interstate Defense Highway System, originally projected to cost $3 million a mile in 1957, but before its completion in 1990 cost $100 million a mile and often far more.

Dreaming, for a moment, consider: If national commitment were made to return to the Moon by 2014 there would be many saying it couldn't be done.

Many more would know, from experience, that not only could it be done but that it should be done, and further, the United States is still singularly qualified to make it happen.

Sure, it would be expensive. It's going to be expensive regardless. Experience, particularly when comparing the differences between developmental and operational costs of the Shuttle as projected in 1971 when tallied against the cost by 1981, and the cost per mission over over the decades that followed also has shown there are reasons to be cautious and methodical but there are big disadvantages to the slow approach too.

Open-ended time allotments can become a fool's trap. The cost of Constellation is going to similarly grow and long before the first manned launch of Orion, already slipping, as expected, closer and closer to a decade from now and perhaps more.

The haste that led to the Apollo 1 fire and that later crowded out safety ahead of the loss of Challenger in 1986, and the maybe the loss of Columbia six years ago has made us too cautious.

Other lessons, learned from development of new defense programs and spacecraft including the Shuttle seem to have been forgotten.

There are vested interests, "rent-seekers" economists call them, camp followers who make more money in slowing development of certain programs which always seem to double and triple and redouble again before the shaky Roll-Out, and sky-rocket a program's projected development's costs.

It's likely Constellation will cost roughly the same over the long run whether held to a schedule or methodically introduced on an essentially open-ended schedule. We should be looking at those hard-won and expensive lessons, also.

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