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NASA Administrator, Charles Bolden, testified before the Senate's Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee on Feb. 24th. He was there to present President Obama's plan for NASA, particularly for Obama's decision to cancel the Constellation program. Constellation was George W. Bush's human exploration program that included the development of two new rockets, the Orion human module, everything it takes for a trip to the Moon and an eventual but vague goal of landing on Mars some time after 2020.

President Obama's plan for NASA is to cancel the Constellation program in favor of promoting the already booming private rocket industry. NASA also escapes Obama's freeze on discretionary spending; indeed, NASA is seeing a better than average increase – significant given the fiscal environment and election year. What Obama's plan does not have is a goal, no American flag on Mars.

The Senate grilled Bolden mostly on the lack of a goal. Bolden would later conceed, “Mars is what I believe to be the ultimate destination for human exploration in our solar system.” His comment is not reflected in Obama's plan in any specific form and may have been more of a personal statement.

-- more below the fold --

The AP's take:

Skeptical senators are telling NASA's chief that the space agency lacks a goal and destination.

Earlier this month, the White House killed the previous administration's plan to back to the moon. The space shuttles will soon be retired.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden says his agency has an ultimate goal: Mars. But he says it's more than a decade away and NASA needs to upgrade its technology before astronauts reach the Red Planet.

Bolden says that on the way to Mars, astronauts will probably stop first at the moon, an asteroid and other places but with no particular order.

Three senators and the agency's former chief astronaut said that without a specific goal, NASA is going nowhere, wasting time and money.

It is worth pointing out that the loudest Senators on the subcommittee were those representing states that would see significant lay-offs in the absence of shuttle or Constellation operations. David Vitter among them. It's a shame that Senators with NASA centers in their states are the most vocal proponents of space exploration. Maybe it's because NASA has truly failed to inspire in large part because it is encrusted with unimaginative, bloated corporations like Lockheed and Boeing.

The Senate subcommittee is missing the point of Obama's decision. While they are laboring over whether we're going to the Moon or Mars and regional jobs, Obama is taking the first whack at what has crippled NASA for decades: the contract and procurement process. His space strategy is characteristic of Obama's general approach to science: prudent and unflashy.

Constellation was flashy. It included the design, testing and development of (1) not one but two new huge rockets, one of the which, the Ares I, would have been taller than the Saturn V; (2) a manned vehicle, the Orion capsule, which sat on top of the rocket the old-fashioned way; (3) everything it takes to go to the moon: a lander, spacesuits, tools, rovers; and (4) eventually what it takes to go to Mars sometime after 2020. Lofty stuff and not all that imaginative.

And just like every other significant NASA initiative in memory (the X-33 comes to mind), Lockheed Martin, Boeing and their joint United Space Alliance (don't get me started) were waiting by the door. In some small part, the Ares rockets were to benefit from the shuttle technology that was incorporated. But rockets aren't Lincoln logs and you still have to assemble and test them. But it really just insured more contracts for NASA's abusive cousins, the famous military industrial complex.

Could Constellation be NASA's last mistake? Learning about all the crushing defeats for NASA (all the times the MIC ran behind, over-budget, failed to complete and walked away with more than the original contract) was a real disappointment for this space enthusiast. I've never known any different and, no doubt, NASA is 100% complicit in the failures. It's the shame clouding what should be a lofty enterprise.

Turns out, all this while, the private rocket industry has been a-boomin. Private enterprisers and rocketeers have been coming out of the wordwork. Whether it's PayPal founder Elon Musk's Falcon 9, a cheaper version of the staged rocket or Jeff Bezos' (of amazon.com fame) hush hush Blue Origin project, likely a vertical launch and landing vehicle, there is rocket innovation everywhere. Burt Rutan's suborbital SpaceShipTwo drops from the bottom of a plane and blasts into a space – a genuine reimagining of how we get to space safely and affordably.

They say no matter where you're going in space, the hardest part is the first 200 miles, getting off of Earth. The biggest obstacle to space exploration, whether it's a routine space station visit or its a Buck Rogers interplanetary mission, the budget will mostly go into escaping Earth's gravity. It would be all well and good to relive Apollo but, if we mean to have a long-term investment in human and robotic space exploration, we need to  figure out how to get off this planet cheaply and, therefore, more frequently.

Obama is making an unheard-of $6 billion investment in this burgeoning rocket industry. Not only will NASA begin to contract payload delivery to space (Bush was dipping his toe in the water), but flying humans to space will be contracted as well. The bids will be competitive (SpaceX was one of the first successful bids), the process open and payment will be on delivery. Thus, cost-control and innovation will be promoted... finally. I hope this is a model for the future.

But, yes, America has no shuttle and no new fancy rocket to the Moon. We have to depend on Russia to get to space for a few years. It's humbling; it's a crossroads for America's space exploration policy. I, for one, think Obama is doing the prudent and forward-looking thing for the long-term needs of NASA and human space exporation.

More on the Senate hearing today.

-fink

PS – I sincerely believe that space exploration should be a progressive cause; for me, it's the very definition of a progressive idea... just has to be done right.

Originally posted to fink on Wed Feb 24, 2010 at 09:24 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  What space policy? (6+ / 0-)

    I don't see anything that can be called a "policy" there.  I do see that the United States is about to be left without a heavy-lift transport come September.

  •  I agree -- let private companies go to LEO... (6+ / 0-)

    ... for a decade or so, and when we are ready to build the Aldrin Mars Cycler, they can provide the taxi service to and from it.

    In the meantime, we can continue to use unmanned probes to learn more useful information about our interplanetary neighborhood.

    •  Send more robots! (5+ / 0-)

      Robotic exploration helps lead the way. The idea is to go where there's water and probes find the water.

      -fink

    •  I want NASA out of the taxi driver business. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      HeyMikey, erush1345

      NASA has far more intersting things to do.  The moon and Mars need real colonization plans running.  Not only to provide a pressure relief valve, but to give us something new to do.  New problems to solve, new challenges.

      So I'm perfectly happy with NASA cancelling the Ares I. With the Falcon 9 ready for it's test launches this year, if all goes well, they can launch astronauts and cargo to the space station at 1/10th the cost of a shuttle launch.

      NASA can focus on a shuttle derived heavy lift vehicle (30mT), and necessary technology demonstrators that extend the life of the space station.

      Ad Astra Rocket's VASIMR engine can cut propellant cost for ISS reboost to 1/10 while testing the engine design.  Bigelow Aerospace's inflatable module (based on NASA's TransHAB) can be attached to the station and provide the astronauts real space, while testing the modules that will be the backbone of the next orbital station.

      The VASIMR test is critical because of the Lunar Tug.  If a heavy lift vehicle puts 100mT into LEO, bound for the moon, only 16mT of useable cargo lands.

      If on the other hand a solar powered VASIMR plasma drive tug hauls that 100mT out to the moon, 34mT lands as cargo.

      That doubles the cargo delivery, and cuts the shipping cost in half.  HALF!  For the cost of one 100mT launch for the tug, every launch thereafter is half price.

      That's what NASA needs to be doing.

      •  Bigelow is a well-kept secret (4+ / 0-)

        People don't realize there are two private space station modules (albeit scale models not human-rated) floating in space. We're gettin there.

        -fink

        •  Yes, except there are two creepy precedents (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          HeyMikey

          Remember MirCorp? I did a diary on them almost a year ago:

          http://www.dailykos.com/...

          As I recall, when the final word came that Mir was to be de-orbited then NASA Administrator Dan Goldin looked at Rick Tumlinson and made a throat cutting gesture.

          NASA did not want the competition.

          Second, much more recently, there are rumors that Mr. Bigelow was working with an established aerospace contractor to set up inexpensive taxi service for his modules. When former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin learned about this he called said contractor and read them the Riot Act and demanded that they stand down.

          Apparently, NASA does not want the competition.

          We need to end the monopsony.

          Governing well shall be the best revenge

          by Bill White on Wed Feb 24, 2010 at 10:30:45 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  NASA needs new management (0+ / 0-)

            NASA needs to worry about the Moon and Mars.  A commercial station in LEO is not their competiton.  The official plan still calls for dumping the ISS in only 5 years.  After 2015, or 2020, NASA won't be competing with anyone anyway.

            Short sighted, small thinking.

  •  we don't have to worry (0+ / 0-)

    Don't we know from Star Trek when the exact date of the invention of the warp drive is going to be? So why waste time chugging people from one barren rock to another, planting flags?  It's silly to expose humans to as much space radiation as a trip to Mars would entail, simply to meet a milestone? I worry about the space radiation, I really do.

    This is all in the minds of the participants. - Gen. McChrystal (powerful Afghan warlord)

    by Marcion on Wed Feb 24, 2010 at 09:44:17 PM PST

    •  Look, we're all mortal. We all die. (4+ / 0-)

      What is this endless demand that space travel be 100% safe?  We don't expect it from anything else.  A luger just died in Olympics practice.  Should we cancel the olympics?  Should we tell every single human being on this planet how to live their lives and what risks we have to tell them they're not allowed to take?

      It's a risk many are well prepared to take.  Because we all die in the end.  Want to know how I'm going to die, because it's in my genes?  I'm going to die at 90, as a vegetable, after 10 years in Altzheimer's dimentia.  I'd rather go to Mars and die of cancer.  I'm not kidding.

      It's a frontier, people will die, but that's how life spreads.  If humanity never leaves this rock then what the hell is the point.  And we need a relief valve.

      Why is it that it's okay to die climbing a mountain, but it's not okay to die climing space?

      I don't give a shit about the radiation.

      •  it's going to get creepy (0+ / 0-)

        When we start sending astronauts to die, getting final transmissions via Twitter and so on, it's not going to play well in the media. Especially after we made all that noise about the suicide bombers as representing an evil culture of death. And here you are volunteering for a suicide mission just to walk on Mars. Would you have supported the Soviet manned "unmanned missions?"

        This is all in the minds of the participants. - Gen. McChrystal (powerful Afghan warlord)

        by Marcion on Wed Feb 24, 2010 at 10:08:59 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  So I can drop dead shoveling snow? (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          alizard, erush1345

          There are a thousand ways to shuffle off this coil that really suck.  If I could go to Mars, I would.  I want so badly to go.

          If I was a 50 year old astronaut with terminal cancer and a few years to live?  Hell yes, that's the way to go.

          I repeat, why is it acceptable to die skydiving, mountain climbing, doing a Jackass stunt?  In car races, sports of all kind.

          I'm not saying to disregard safety, but I am just terrified that in my lifetime we actually will get to Mars, an astronaut will die, and we'll be consumed with grief and never set foot out of the crib again.

          It's ridiculous.

      •  I am with you ... Safety is an illusion. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Norm in Chicago

        I bet you would still have plenty willing to risk thier lives to reach the stars.

        That is one thing that drives me crazy... telling people how to live so as to live longer at the cost not really using the life you have to spend.

        I would be willing to give extra in tax dollars to get that since I understand that only a few tax dollars go to space programs. You could give me a place on my tax return where I could designate some of my refund to go for space exploration. The space program has given us so much tangible benefits I would be willing just on that basis alone.

        The triple safety crap... I always thought if they cut it down to double that would save tons of money. People still died. Scientific and political OCD about safety when people should realize when you do things that have not been done before and they are dangerous then people will die. Heck people die all the time from things that are unexpected in areas where we have tons of experience and practice.

        Fear is the Mind Killer

        by boophus on Thu Feb 25, 2010 at 12:19:43 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Imagination? (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Bluehawk, trashablanca

    Most of what "imagination" has been required for is figuring out how to perform amazing -- but also amazingly limited -- feats on a shoestring budget.  NASA could use a bit less imagination and a bit more money.

  •  A contrarian view suggests this new plan (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    fink, subtropolis, trashablanca, xgy2

    will facilitate SpaceX (for example) becoming NASA zombie-fied as they are assimilated into the NASA Borg collective.

    As one commenter at space politics dot com said:

    Another gem from the hearings: Bolden et. al. have leaned on SpaceX and OSC to hire lots of workers from NASA or its contractors and keep them in Florida.

    If the overwhelming dose of NASA money doesn’t do it, and if the man-rating bureaucracy doesn’t do it, the massive influx of NASA people bringing their culture to SpaceX will. Slowly but surely, SpaceX is turning into a NASA zombie.

    A few decades back Orbital was a lean mean alt-space machine, until the NASA money spigot got turned on. Then they became cost-plus zombies, too.

    If Administrator Bolden and Senator Bill Nelson demand that SpaceX hire laid off NASA workers and use the to-be-abandoned NASA facilities at Kennedy and comply with NASA human rating requirements for Dragon flights and all the other NASA paperwork requirements, then what makes SpaceX SpaceX will be lost.

    Governing well shall be the best revenge

    by Bill White on Wed Feb 24, 2010 at 09:51:24 PM PST

    •  It'll be the man rating (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Bill White, erush1345

      It'll be the paperwork.  It's what I'm talking about.  In the guise of absolute safety, NASA will require an abort launch tower to be put on top of the capsule.  If the booster explodes, the crew doesn't have a chance in hell to abort.  It's fake safety.

      I don't have an ejector seat on an airliner.  Do you get a parachute in case your plane is crashing?  No, you sit tight and die.

      The man-rating will drown them in paperwork, and it'll drive up the costs, and accomplish very little.  SpaceX doesn't want their rockets blowing up either, they're on it.

      I saw the note about the cost-plus contract, and that scares the hell out of me.  Because that's when companies balloon with dead weight until they get their program cut, and the whole thing collapses in a ponzi scheme.

      But I have faith in Elon Musk.  He's on a mission, he wants to go to Mars and is planning to build his own rocket to get there.  I think SpaceX has a good chance to stay lean.

      And the retirement of the shuttle means they'll be different than Orbital.  And everyone knows LEO travel needs to get cheap to be frequent.

  •  Burt Rutan blasts new NASA plan (0+ / 0-)

    http://online.wsj.com/...

    I suspect the fear that NewSpace will become "NASA zombies" plays a role in this.

    One excerpt:

    Commercial space pioneer Burt Rutan has sharply criticized Obama administration proposals to outsource key portions of NASA's manned space program to private firms.

    * * *

    Such comments are unexpected from a maverick engineer long identified with pushing the boundaries of commercial space projects, and the man who designed the first commercial suborbital rocketship.

    "From my past comments on NASA's" lack of direction and success, "an observer might think that I would applaud the decision to turn this important responsibility over to commercial developers," the letter says. However, he adds, that's "wrong."

    Mr. Rutan has prided himself on avoiding being tied to federal funds, and his company, Scaled Composites, is currently developing a fleet of space-tourism rocketships entirely with private funds.

    Governing well shall be the best revenge

    by Bill White on Wed Feb 24, 2010 at 10:33:38 PM PST

  •  I think public-private partnerships are bunk (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Bluehawk

    I want government out of the contracting business completely. Just straight public operations. Otherwise it is just asking for corruption. Privatizing NASA seems just to continue the policy of privatization starting in the seventies which have led to our crumbling public services and public infrastructure. Contractors soak up the money, money that deserves to be used efficiently by government.

    I personally could care less about private space flight. I am sure once these private companies have had enough tax breaks, loans and contracts from the tax payer for technological development and research, it could reach your common man. But not after they have robbed him blind and complain about regulations.  

    "What is the robbing of a Bank compared to the FOUNDING of a Bank?" Bertolt Brecht

    by thethinveil on Wed Feb 24, 2010 at 11:47:25 PM PST

    •  You do know that (0+ / 0-)

      most of NASA's stuff has been done by private industry?  For example, Saturn V was partially built by Chrysler?

      •  That's why giving SpaceX a large NASA contract (0+ / 0-)

        would probably transform them into yet another NASA zombie.

        Yes, fixed price contracts are a worthy goal however Charlie Bolden has already made it very clear to SpaceX that they MUST hire laid off NASA workers and will be expected to absorb NASA facilities such as Kennedy Space Center and conform with NASA human rating requirements.

        No one can do fixed price performance based contracts when the specifications remain in flux and you are ordered to hire people you don't want to hire.

        Governing well shall be the best revenge

        by Bill White on Thu Feb 25, 2010 at 10:21:05 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  You've Been Rescued (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Bill White, BYw, Loose Fur

    "What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them"

    by ItsJessMe on Thu Feb 25, 2010 at 08:18:55 PM PST

  •  The Goals for the Space Program (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Uncle Cosmo, Loose Fur

    It's a mystery to me why NASA is having a hard time articulating a goal for manned space flight. There are at least three goals that I think everyone could agree on (or at least put some money into researching):

    (A) Clean up space.
    (B) Protect us from killer asteroids.
    (C) Put up a sunscreen.

    Arguably, two of these require some kind of human presence to make them work.

    DETAILS

    Clean Up Space

    Space is filling up with debris, as more and more satellites go out of service and there's more and more stuff discarded. We should be collecting this stuff and moving it to an orbit that will keep it out of the way (or deorbiting it). This doesn't require a human presence, but it would profit from more advanced ion propulsion (or other advanced drives). This should be a goal just so we don't all lose our cell phones and GPS receivers. Imagine trying to navigate your car without GPS or communicate with your friends without texting them. Yeah, neither do I. But, nevertheless, plenty of people do and it would be inconvenient (if not downright dangerous) if they couldn't.

    No Killer Asteroids

    NASA is behind on its goal of even identifying them, let alone preventing a real collision if we found a big one barreling down on us tomorrow. Are they going to wait for the last minute? This probably requires humans to be able to go out and do things well beyond earth orbit. The expertise would be invaluable later if you wanted to actually create any real infrastructure because you'd likely want much of the raw material to come from asteroids. So, let's get started. It makes every bit as much sense to have an asteroid landing capability as it does to have a Mars landing capability. It's just cheaper.

    Meanwhile, it would probably be a good idea to hoist some telescopes or maybe radar antennas with the specific goal of finding everything in near space. Once they finished a thorough rock search they might be retooled for use in looking for extrasolar planets. (Yes, that's a much, much longer ways away, but if you had a swarm and used them in tandem, you could have a scope with the equivalent of a 1 AU mirror, let's say.)

    Sun Screen

    We could balance out global warming with a decrease of the sun's energy landing on earth by 1%. There are many ways of doing this, but I think the best is what I'd call a planetary band or earth band. Think of it as like a wedding ring around the earth at around 200-300 miles altitude.

    Nothing substantial (doesn't have to be 24 carat gold), but it should shine. That is, it should reflect as much of the sun's energy back into space (or deflect it around the earth) as possible.

    My rough calculations indicate it would take about $100 trillion to do this. Don't freak out. First, you don't need an entire band to have a positive effect. If you just put up about a quarter of that, it would materially push the date of runaway climate change into the future, giving us time to solve that problem. (Time we might not otherwise have.)

    Second, the U.S. economy is about $14 trillion a year and the world economy is roughly $45 trillion. A band could not be constructed overnight in any case, and if we had, say, a twenty-year program we could spend a modest $2.5 trillion a year on it and still get results.

    Naturally, this is subject to a lot of ifs, but that's what research is for. It would definitely require a manned presence to set up a ring in LEO. However, it leverages one of this country's biggest strengths, which is our towering lead in space technology. It also is a huge opportunity for international cooperation.

    At the same time, it would provide the infrastructure for further exploration by bringing lift costs down. In any case, what would it be worth to push the end of mankind out, say, 20 years? More than a few trillion dollars.

    Well, there are three goals with varying degrees of human involvement that I think are entirely compelling and doable. So, what's taking NASA so long to get their goals up?

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