Saturday, February 13, 2010

Confusing the Means with the ends

Our new space program. "You think that you hate it now... But wait till you drive it." [Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) gets his first look at the car he and his family will drive to "Wally World" in National Lampoon's Vacation (1983)]

Paul D. Spudis
The Once and Future Moon
Smithsonian Air & Space

The release of the proposed NASA budget and new “direction” has led to an intense “cage 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 was a stupid architecture to begin with; and b) the purchase of launch services by NASA is more desirable than the development of same by the agency. In the other corner, defenders of the existing program and paradigm see human spaceflight as still largely an experimental activity and that by contracting for launch services, astronauts’ lives will be put in danger, leading to the eventual termination of America’s human spaceflight program. Both sides are locked in a fierce battle over the ownership of the “how,” while seemingly unconcerned as to the “why” or the “what” they are fighting for.

Once again the debate focuses on launch vehicles, the need or lack thereof for a heavy lift vehicle, and all the wonderful new technical development and leaps forward possible once NASA is freed from its responsibility to build and operate a space transportation system. I agree with the New Space people that alternative options for launch and orbit are desirable and that a flexible, extensible architecture is the way to move beyond LEO. On the other hand, I agree with the “Ares huggers” that this change will not result in the space utopia its advocates promise and that an agency saddled with an unworkable approach is a ripe target for elimination.

Those cheering the new path should step back from their celebrations, take a sober look at the landscape and ask themselves, “Now what?” The “new path” has no mission. Despite what many believe or have said, Project Constellation was not same thing as the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE). Constellation was the implementation that NASA chose to carry out that mission. The VSE was both a set of destinations and a group of specific activities at those locations. The Vision’s objective was to give us new spaceflight capability by learning to use the material and energy resources of space, first on the Moon and then from other objects in space.

The new policy indicates a lack of understanding of the difference between “means” and “ends” within both NASA and the current administration. When they cancelled Project Constellation, the Vision was terminated as well. And what was put in its place?


All of the current hand wringing and angst is focused on which rocket and spacecraft to build. But to what end? The “Flexible Path” concept came from the Augustine Commission. It’s main focus was to find an affordable way to move people beyond low Earth orbit. Using their concept, we would visit places beyond low Earth orbit that had very low gravity – libration points, near Earth asteroids, and the moons of Mars. The supposed advantage of such places is that they do not require a large propulsive maneuver to land on (or more accurately rendezvous with) them. Thus, the supposed enormous cost of building a landing vehicle is saved.

The “new path” called for in the budget envisions a government funded and commercially built and operated space launch system, freeing NASA from the necessity of building rockets. The agency would “invest” in new technology. Somehow, these new and wonderful approaches will lead to the spontaneous generation of a space faring infrastructure capable of taking us beyond LEO into the Solar System – anywhere and everywhere. But to do what?

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden seems to think that a return to the Moon should be ruled out because “there are already six American flags there.” It is hard to imagine that he believes that the purpose of space exploration is to plant a flag and move on to the next destination. Such a template will exhaust possible destinations quickly. If the goals of travel beyond LEO are more significant than that, what are they? What will people do at an asteroid? What do we get from such a trip? What capability does it create? What are we buying? Again, the “means” and “ends” argument attempts to focus on outcome.

We had a considered and well crafted strategic direction in space – to go to the Moon and use its resources (which we now know are even more abundant and accessible than we thought) to create a new transportation system that will reduce costs and increase access to cislunar space. That mission was not just the proposal of the former President; it was endorsed by two different Congresses (in 2005 and 2008), under the leadership of different parties, and both times, by huge bipartisan majorities. The Vision for Space Exploration is our national space policy and will be until the Congress passes a new authorization bill, changing the mission and goals of the space program.

Currently, the proposed budget casts aside this hard-won, bipartisan policy and puts nothing in its place. This new policy is striking in that, rather than serving America’s national security, economic and scientific interests, it undermines them. The “new path” was apparently put together by a very small group of people, without significant debate or input from outside sources. Whatever the circumstances of its genesis, it is poorly conceived; if it were well considered, we would know exactly where we were going, what we would do there, and what benefits would accrue from these voyages. The idea expressed by some in the blogosphere, that we will now be able to “go everywhere and do everything” is ludicrously naïve. Given the past performance of this agency (or any agency) given no direction, random motion is a much more likely outcome, at $20 billion per year.

If the current architecture is broken or unaffordable, fix it or change it. If getting NASA out of the rocket-building business is the right way to go, do that. But don’t discard our strategic direction. The space program can survive a change in the business model of its implementing agency; it won’t survive fecklessness and a complete lack of direction.

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