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Saturday, March 3, 2018
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When I was a kid growing up in the 1960’s, and even in the early 1970’s during my college years, the American space exploration program and its lead agency, NASA, was a really formidable institution. After all the exploding military rockets of the 1950’s, NASA managed to safely get men into orbit, and then on to the moon. They shot up plenty of orbiting satellites doing all sorts of cool things, along with interplanetary exploration probes out to Mars and Venus, even Jupiter and Saturn. And they were coming up with uses for space that had more immediate benefits, such as communication satellites providing instant phone, radio and TV signals across the globe, along with improved weather observation. And of course, there was the critical national security need to spy on our enemies with a celestial eye-in-the-sky, so that we could end our risky surveillance flights (remember the Cold War hub-bub over the Gary Powers U-2 shoot-down over Russia in 1960). NASA back then was something for Americans to be really proud of.

And yet, as the 70’s became the 80’s and 90’s, and then a new Century was born, NASA lost its luster. The Space Shuttle seemed like an interesting step, but it didn’t really go anywhere; it couldn’t get out of low earth orbit and head for the moon or points beyond. In 1970, you would have expected that by 1988 and 1998, the Shuttle would be a bit-part actor in a bigger play involving long-range missions to the nearest planets and asteroids. But that just didn’t happen. The Shuttle helped give us the International Space Station, which has done a lot of good stuff; but ISS Freedom was not the staging base for missions (manned and unmanned) to far-off destinations, as we were promised when we were children. And then of course there were the two lost Shuttles. NASA had clearly fallen from grace.

And today, NASA doesn’t even have the Shuttle. It still has a fairly robust planetary exploration portfolio, including several soft-landing robotic missions to Mars, and a recent probe that made a close pass to Pluto. Its biggest public success over the past generation was probably the Hubble telescope satellite. The Hubble returned all kinds of deep-space images of galaxies, space clouds and clusters, which amazed and intrigued so many people.

Unfortunately, the delayed and over-budgeted successor to Hubble, the James Webb observatory (scheduled for launch in Spring 2019, on a European Space Agency rocket), probably won’t capture the imagination of the public like the Hubble did, as most of its information return won’t make for pretty pictures, even though the information that it will provide about non-visual infra-red light will be even more valuable to astroscientists than the Hubble’s observations. And NASA still develops and launches a lot of other orbiting and solar system probes that address a wide variety of scientific research concerns, including earth and sun observations, along with the yet unsolved mysteries of modern physics (dark energy, dark matter, quantum gravity, anti-matter asymmetry, etc.)

Over the past 25 years or so, NASA has stepped out of the business of building and launching commercial satellites, which are mainly for communication (providing TV, telephone, radio and internet services) and ground observation (which corporations use to monitor agricultural conditions, search for drilling sites for minerals and oil, etc.). Elon Musk’s SpaceX corporation is probably the best known private corporation that has rockets ready to go (the Falcon series), but there is also Orbital ATK in the middle-weight range, along with several other ventures that are now also starting up (e.g. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin). Also, the US military moved away from relying on NASA for its spy and communications satellites (including the GPS satellite network); the USAF Space Command today oversees the building of its satellites, and usually contracts with a commercial launching company to get those satellites up. The military is starting to make some use of SpaceX and its Falcon 9 (and soon, Falcon Heavy), but for the most part the USAF has used United Launch Alliance (and its pre-merger predecessors, the private launch services of Boeing and Lockheed Martin).

ULA now builds and launches the modern versions of the Atlas and Delta rockets, which were workhorses from the golden days of NASA. Most of its business has come from the military, but NASA itself now contracts with ULA for many of its launches. Also, ULA is seeking more commercial satellite business in competition with SpaceX (although ULA is not used to the rigorous cost efficiency that SpaceX and the other commercial start-ups depend on).

So, NASA is no longer America’s “one-stop, all things space-related” agency anymore, as it was back in the 60’s and early 70s. NASA had hoped that the reusable Space Shuttle would allow it to retain its one-time monopoly on launching military and commercial satellites; but by the early 1980s, it was clear that the Shuttle was a failure in that regard. Even though it was designed to be re-usable and thus cut the costs of getting into space, the hoped-for efficiencies and safety margins were never realized. The Shuttle turned out to be like NASA’s earlier manned rockets (Atlas-Mercury, Titan-Gemini, and Saturn-Apollo): dangerous and high-cost experimental vehicles. Thus, by the 1990s, the military and commercial satellite users had deserted NASA and the Shuttle for cheaper non-manned launch alternatives (as mentioned, Boeing/Lockheed/ULA, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences/ATK, and soon a variety of other commercial space companies including Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada, etc.).

By the end of the 20th century, NASA had lost its monopoly on building and launching commercial and military satellites, and didn’t even launch most of its own space probes anymore. Its role as America’s gateway to human exploration of space came to an end with the final launch of the Space Shuttle, in 2011. American astronauts bound for the International Space Station have had to rely upon Russia’s Soyuz space capsule. By late this year, SpaceX hopes to have its Dragon 2 space capsule available to bring humans back and forth from the Space Station. NASA does not plan to get back into the “space taxi” business, and instead wants to focus on manned flights to the moon and beyond.

The past three Presidents have each had their own individual mandates to get NASA back into manned exploration of deep space; unfortunately, each of these mandates were different and under-funded. The Bush Administration wanted NASA to get back to the moon ASAP; Obama said no to the moon, instead shoot for some distant asteroids as practice for an eventual Mars mission; and now Trump wants to go back to the moon, followed by Mars. Unfortunately, getting people into space safely and bringing them back requires a steady mandate, lots of money, lots of time, and patience. Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon provided these. Bush, Obama and Trump have not.

As such, I am not going to hold my breath waiting for another manned NASA space mission, despite NASA’s current plans to launch a crew around the moon and back in its new SLS/Orion rocket sometime in 2022. However, given Elon Musk’s drive and progress at SpaceX, and his ambitious plans for the “Dragon 2” space capsule, I do think I will be around to see astronauts launched from the USA once again; but it won’t be by NASA.

Just a few weeks ago, there was a kerfuffle amidst the scientific community over the Trump Administration’s budget decision to cut one of NASA’s planned “flagship” space missions, the WFIRST infra-red orbital observatory. The WFIRST was supposed to follow in the footsteps of the Hubble, and soon the James Webb cosmic exploration satellite. Many scientists don’t like Donald Trump, and this move from his Administration further ruffled their feathers. Ethan Siegel, an astrophysicist and popular science writer for Fortune Magazine, thinks that the WFIRST cancellation will “permanently ruin NASA“. Siegel says that “humanity deserves a space program we can be proud of. We deserve one where scientists, working together over the span of decades, can set their own priorities for what is scientifically valuable. For the (current) 2018 fiscal year, the House and Senate both requested additional funds for WFIRST, recognizing its national importance and even demanding an additional $20M to investigate the feasibility of a starshade.”

Unfortunately, space programs cost a lot of money, and the American public’s desire for tax cuts seems to exceed their desire for a “space program we can be proud of”. NASA got its footing in the Cold War days, when the space program was seen as an extension of the fight against Communism, and money was not an object for the military and its contractors. Obviously the world has changed a lot in the generation or so since the downfall of the Soviet Union. The question is, has NASA kept up with those changes, or is its culture still living in its glorious past?

Even the liberal Atlantic Magazine had an article late last year warning NASA about the burgeoning costs of the WFIRST. In its own genteel way, the Atlantic was pointing out that NASA has not had a stellar track record in terms of keeping projects on time and within budget. Alan Boss, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science and a members of the committee of scientists who recommended WFIRST as a top priority (NASA’s 2010 astrophysics decadal survey for flagship missions), was quoted as follows: “The problem is astronomers always want to make the best possible instrument they can and engineers are happy to oblige them because engineers get their jollies making something work really well in space . . . But unfortunately, they also charge you for it.”

My own comment on the WFIRST situation is that it is unfortunate; I wish that the Trump Administration would take a long-term view with regard to public investment into scientific research. Sometimes our leaders need to go against the grain of public sentiment and invest in things that may seem frivolous, but in the long run will have great returns for the nation and for humankind; Trump, being a populist, is not likely to have such foresight. However, with that said . . . I also wonder whether NASA is the best way today to invest in the future. In many ways, NASA belongs to the past. I have to wonder . . . is a big, expensive, do-everything in one package space project, a project in the mold of the great NASA missions of the past, the only way or the best way to accomplish what WFIRST is meant to do?

I feel that space scientists need to ask the following — are big NASA missions the best way to go in the modern world, especially given all the political liabilities and uncertainties that NASA has today? Is it possible that a multitude of lower cost space probes could over time gain just about as much as WFIRST would have yielded? Today, commercial companies will put a small “CubeSat” into orbit for most anyone who can pay $40,000. A CubeSat would not have the capacity to do cutting-edge space science, due to its small size and inability to steer and point itself. However, I can’t help but ask, what would ten to twenty-five million get you? Couldn’t a number of universities and philanthropies get together and fund the development and launch of a series of observational space probes addressing dark energy and exoplanet exploration (the main goals of WFIRST) in the under $100 million range, and then pool the returned information for “big data mining” and processing?

Sometimes a lot of small “fuzzy” snapshots can be pooled and processed using super computers to give a more accurate unified image than a high-resolution photo taken with the best camera can give. Also, as with the Hubble, WFIRST would lock-in the technology of the present for its 10-20 year lifespan. A series of smaller probes launched over time allows better technology to be applied as it comes along.

One of the scientists who is concerned about the WFIRST situation seems to realize that the whole thing may need to be re-thought. Marcia Rieke, an astronomy professor at University of Arizona and co-chair of the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics, was quoted as follows:

“WFIRST was the top space recommendation in the 2010 astronomy decadal survey. That gives an indication of how important the science is to the community . . . If one canceled [WFIRST], that science still needs to be done. And it can only be done by a space mission. So, it’ll be interesting to see how we proceed … We’ll have to think through how to achieve that science starting all over again.”

I think that these scientists need to realize that the era of NASA-funded big space missions is coming to an end. There may well be better, faster and more cost efficient ways to conduct experiments in space in the era of SpaceX.

NASA should still have an important role, however, in this new era. With reasonable amounts of funding, NASA can maintain the infrastructure that allows my envisioned “entrepreneurial” science missions to be fruitful, i.e. launch safety coordination, space orbital assignments (to avoid stuff crashing into other stuff up there), worldwide tracking and communications networks, and consultation as to how to design and manufacture a survivable spacecraft.

What about manned space exploration? Again, given the inherent wastefulness and weakness of project management at NASA in an era of limited funding and in an era of expanding commercial space capacity, I would suggest that the US consider terminating NASA’s manned program. The Elon Musks and Jeff Bezos‘ and Richard Bransons of the world seem inspired to use their own cash to get people into orbit and beyond. Projects directed by people who put up their own money generally do better in getting something done. Also, the public just doesn’t seem willing anymore to pay higher taxes in order to support expensive governmental projects like manned space exploration.

Again, however, NASA can still be very useful in paving the way for the entrepreneurial explorers. I think that NASA should in fact return to the moon; only, not with people. I think that federal tax money could be much better spent in shooting a bunch of robots to the moon’s surface, so as to explore and set up a permanent base there. The use of artificial intelligence would give these robots plenty of capacity to get things done without constant human direction.

A NASA robot research and exploration base on the moon would be a natural target for privately funded human missions (the robots could be tasked with building human shelter at the base). Universities and philanthropies would be attracted to the science potential, and commercial companies would hope to start mining ventures (e.g., the moon is a good source for helium 3, a rare gas that can power fusion reactors in the future). A robot base could find sources of ice beneath the moon’s surface, and set up solar-powered factories to convert water into rocket fuel. Such fuel could propel spaceships with precious cargoes back to earth.

So, NASA is still going to be needed in the future, but in a different and more limited capacity. A national agency is still needed to coordinate and regulate all of the rising commercial space activity along with the never-ending military use of space. But in addition to being the FCC of space, NASA should remain a conduit of federal investment into space research and development ventures, along with infrastructure maintenance (e.g., tracking and communication networks for satellites and deep-space probes). NASA should still develop a limited number of its own space missions, and maybe even have its own heavy-lift rocket (especially since NASA is expected to have its new Saturn-like Space Launch System ready for testing within a year or so). But it should defer as much as possible to private launch services such as SpaceX and ULA, and encourage continued private development of commercial satellites and educational / philanthropic funding of science missions.

And finally, NASA should totally get out of the business of sending humans into space, which is too darn expensive given modern tastes regarding government taxation. A lot more economic and scientific bang-for-the-buck can be had using robots in space. There certainly is a poetry to sending people out to explore the unknown, but it will fall upon the inspiration of “the 1%”, the wealthy entrepreneurial class — or yes, the Chinese — to write that poetry for the benefit of humankind (and maybe their own pockets).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:17 pm      
 
 


  1. Jim, I must say you have a lot of information in this post, lots of things I never knew, actually; so I found it very informative.

    Somehow or other, from what you describe (and I think you are right) it seems to me that “space travel” will be the new “in thing” to do for vacations for those who have a few million (or maybe a lot of millions) to spend on a week or two going to the moon and back. I do find myself wondering if we will leave in the wake of such travel the same ruin and havoc for those indigenous beings in space we may not be aware of at this point as we left in the settling of the continent that became the U.S. (An awkward sentence, but I think you get the idea.)

    Same goes for travel to other places, such as Mars. Seems we already have a bunch of “things” out in space already just traveling around and around, some still sending information back, others not, now they seem “junk”, so to say.

    I must say I do not know what a “starshade” is that the House and Senate want to spend $20M on. Never heard of that. I haven’t kept up with this, that’s for sure.

    I might say that I doubt the Trump administration will do much of anything other than tout his glories and make nice with people who normally would be considered “enemies”. I find myself wondering once in a while if time might prove he has made some contribution in that area. Otherwise, from what I’ve read about him, he does not have the patience or attention span to figure out the details of the space program. Perhaps it will all be left to the space scientists and those billionaires who are interested in making even more money than they already have on trips into space for “vacations”, which seems to be about the same as you said about the 1%.

    I can’t say what I think about a “permanent base” on the moon. I think before “we” would do that, a lot of study should be done re the effects such a base would have on the moon. And as to “mining” on the moon: Same thing. I tend to think that first, a “good think” should be done re what effect such mining will have on the moon in the first place. Seems we are good at not searching out and asking such questions on earth; one would think we might have learned our lesson about figuring out what questions to ask before we go ahead and do something like that on the moon.

    It also seems that this whole topic is on the back burners at the present time with the current administration. However, the 1% in the U.S. are likely interested in the topic and are pursuing it as you explain.

    And, it seems, migration will continue; if not to the U.S. then out into space. What an irony that would be. MCS

    Comment by Mary S — March 11, 2018 @ 12:08 pm

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