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Saturday, February 20, 2010


Space X's Falcon 1

Comment about the recent Obama revision of NASA's programme has been mainly focused on the cancellation of the programme to go back to the Moon.

On the 1 hand
The Obama administration is killing Constellation, NASA's ambitious back-to-the moon program. The decision represents a thunderous demolition of the Bush-era strategy at the space agency, which had already poured $9 billion into a new rocket, the Ares 1, and a new crew capsule, Orion.

And on the other
Provides $18.7 billion for NASA. Combined with the $1 billion provided to the agency in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, this represents a total increase of more than $2.4 billion over the 2008 level.

Funds a program of space-based research that supports NASA's commitment to deploy a global climate change research and monitoring system.

Funds a robust program of space exploration involving humans and robots. NASA will return humans to the moon while also supporting a vigorous program of robotic exploration of the solar system and universe.

Funds the safe flight of the space shuttle through the vehicle's retirement at the end of 2010. An additional flight will be conducted if it can be completed safely before the end of 2010.

Funds the development of new space flight systems for carrying American crews and supplies to space.

Funds continued use of the International Space Station to support the agency and other federal, commercial, and academic research and technology testing needs.
Funds aeronautics research to address aviation safety, air traffic control, noise and emissions reduction, and fuel efficiency.

The important thing is the highlighted bit - all the rest is unchanged or reduced promises. And that bit is being farmed out. They are proposing
Spend $6 billion over five years to jump-start private companies to take over the job of launching astronauts and cargo.

What has actually happened is that the space shuttle is being closed down & America has no way to get its people onto the jointly owned International Space Station (which has cost $100/150 bn) except as passengers on the Russian one. This is not only humiliating, since the Russian space budget is 1/20th of NASA's it suggests NASA is screwing up.

So far & away the most important thing the US is going to do in space will be done not by NASA but by private enterprise using NASA's pin money.

$6 billion paid to contractors will help fund private spaceships, some of which NASA will then use to keep their own space station project going. NASA jettison any thoughts of a near term return to the Moon - Obama has promised America will do so, some unspecified day long after he is gone but that means less than the similar promises back to Nixon. For this NASA gets $18.7 billion a year, say $187 billion, inflation adjusted, over 10 years & hands over 3.2% for the real work. Could anything show more clearly that NASA is simply a massive bureaucratic parasite sucking up money & perhaps more importantly public goodwill towards space development and preventing it & human progress?

Imagine if 100% rather than 3.2% of this was given to a Space X-Prize Foundation, which should be significantly more efficient than normal outside tendering because it doesn't pick & choose preferred bidders. With a budget like that they could offer prizes of $100 bn immediately in the sure knowledge that they wouldn't all be won within 5 years. Considering that the full run of initial X-Prizes proposed by Jerry Pournelle (orbital fleet, space station, lunar base & solar power satellite system) comes in at $29bn it is obvious what a waste this is.

My guess is that $100 bn properly invested in cutting edge technology would do more to "stimulate" the US economy than all Obama's real trillion in government bureaucracy & pork barrel "stimulus".

The Washington Post did 2 articles on this - 1 from the boss of the X-Prize Foundation who sees this $6 bn as a big step forward & the other on the other side. Because the former is correct the other is thus more interesting. It starts
The private sector simply is not up for the job. For one, NASA will have to establish a system to certify commercial orbital vehicles as safe for human transport, and with government bureaucracy, that will take years
which is a quite amazing piece of double think. That the private sector should not be replacing NASA because NASA is so bureaucratically top heavy that it will destroy anything. The article does say the $6 bn will not be enough, even though private enterprise is more efficient, which is a fair point. The obvious conclusion should be that NASA should be eviscerated & the money go to people who can but this option seems ideologically off the writer's radar. This is like saying, in 1901 when the Wright brothers landed, that the private sector cannot build aircraft because the government wouldn't authorise them to - that alone can explain why, 53 years after Sputnik, we are still on the ground.

It seems to be off Britain's too but that is for another time.

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