In the weeks since the precise layout of the Moon-Mars program was made public, the wailing and gnashing of teeth over its imperfections has gone just about as predicted.
The criticisms of the plan are mostly valid, and mostly irrelevant. It is absolutely true that in the best of all possible worlds we would have a program that looks different — one with more reusability built into the front end of the hardware, for starters. But we are not living in that perfect world, and NASA Administrator Mike Griffin (and anyone else who might occupy his position) has to deal with some unpleasant political realities .
First, nothing NASA proposes can be allowed to touch the Boeing-LockMart rice bowls — the big boys have to get their corporate subsidy, and not a single shuttle-related job can be lost.
As a result, a lot of shuttle hardware is getting recycled into new designs: the solid rocket booster (SRB) is being used as a first stage for the Crew Launch Vehicle, and shuttle main engines and SRBs are being used for the Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle (cargo carrier). This may save some up-front development costs and time, but it certainly will make the systems more costly to operate over the long haul.
German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck said it is unappetizing to watch either laws or sausage being made. To this list of unappetizing sights we must now add “government technology programs.” But the new program may bear some useful fruit.
Some complain this will be just another “flags and footprints” program, like Apollo — this time with a few missions to Mars, followed by declaration of victory and retreat. That outcome is somewhere between possible and likely, but it need not be viewed as tragic.
We stretched out to the Moon back in the 1960s, before the technology was ready, and just barely made it.
In our fond memories of glory days, we often overlook the fact that seven of the nine Apollo lunar expeditions had a problem that threatened to abort the mission, several of which were life-threatening. If we had kept on flying Apollo missions, sooner or later we would have lost a crew, not to mention the $2 billion that each of the missions cost (in inflation-adjusted dollars).
So, having stretched, we fell back, but only as far back as low Earth orbit. In the same way, I suspect that when we stretch out to Mars, we may very well fall back again — but this time, only to the Moon.
We will have some more technological expertise — purchased at a greater price than we would like, of course — available for later use . You must look at the likely legacies of these over-expensive, inefficient programs.
For example, Apollo’s legacy includes:
Deep space guidance and navigation. (Today you can do that stuff on a PC.)
Improved materials for building spacecraft.
Ability to handle cryogenic propellants, specifically liquid oxygen-liquid hydrogen (although this is a tough combination that may not be the optimum one for future use; if the Russians should have taught us anything, it is that “most efficient” is not the same thing as “most economical.” We may find it cheaper in the long run to stick with fuel combinations that have less-specific impulse but are easier to work with).
As for the legacies of the shuttle/international space station (ISS) era, there are very few, as far as I can see. But that may be too harsh.
We have made a little progress in materials science, and we have some hardware components that can be cobbled together to create new launch vehicles.
However, we did not learn how to integrate multiple payloads in orbit cheaply and efficiently, or how to stick closely to a launch schedule, which is what the proponents of using the Moon-Mars medium-lift launcher need in order to make the medium-lift approach a viable alternative.
There are some very useful potential legacies from the less-than-optimum Moon-Mars program that have been served up to us:
In Situ Resource Utilization capability — the ability to get fuel, oxygen and water from the rocks and/or atmosphere of the places we go. We will never get any real long-term interplanetary economy without it.
Better life-support systems for long-duration flights, with closed or partially closed loops.
Nuclear propulsion and/or energy production for the bases we build.
Whether we get these legacies depends on how vigilant we are in making sure that they get built into the NASA contracted systems. For better or worse, this program is likely to be the one we are stuck with.
This year, the Senate and House passed an authorization bill for NASA for the first time since 2000. Authorization bills, unlike appropriations bills, set policy guidelines for their respective branches of the government, and this authorization bill specifically endorsed the Vision for Space Exploration as the path NASA should take in the post-shuttle era.
Even in the event of a change in political parties at the top, that basic decision is unlikely to be overruled because there is a general bipartisan consensus that America should have a manned space program that does something other than go around in circles in low Earth orbit .
While there might be some changes around the margins, and the timeline will probably be subject to the typical slippages of the post-Apollo era, the program will move forward. The NASA budget will remain pretty flat, and the NASA administrator will have to figure out how to manage without any significant increase in funding. End of story.
But before we return to gnashing of teeth, consider one significant, unplanned and unintended legacy of the international space station. Now that we have some sort of space station — even though it is in many ways a white elephant — the U.S. government has no face-saving way to abandon it. In order to move on to the next glorious megaproject, they must determine a cheaper way to keep it supplied and in business.
Behold: a market for commercial low Earth orbit supply services.
Griffin has announced that NASA’s baseline budgeting for the next decade assumes the government will be buying ISS re-supply services from the private sector. Up to now, aside from communications satellites, there has been no market for commercial launch services . This new ISS market is small and government-owned, but it will need commercial suppliers.
I think and hope the same thing will eventually happen with NASA’s proposed Moon base; once they put it up there and decide it is too expensive to supply themselves, commercial companies will have a lunar market as well as a low Earth orbit market.
Slowly and painfully, control of the playground will shift from the big, inefficient government to smaller, more efficient corporations, who will enter the market because finally they have guaranteed paying customers. Real companies do not take new markets on faith — not when the initial investment is so high.
If that assessment is correct, the place to focus the majority of our attention is not on the implementation of the Moon-Mars initiative, but on the Alternative Access to ISS, as that part of the NASA budget is labeled . How well that government-as-customer role is managed will be a lot more important in the long run than any hardware NASA builds.
Look to companies like SpaceX to bring cost-per-pound-delivered to low Earth orbit down in order to improve their profit margins.
Would we get cheaper access to space any sooner if NASA concentrated on a second-generation reusable manned vehicle? Who knows? But the NASA experience with the Space Launch Initiative does not lead one to be hopeful — billions were spent on that program with very little progress to show for it.
What is certain is that taking that choice would postpone human breakout from low Earth orbit for a long time, and you cannot put that off indefinitely without wearing out all public enthusiasm for manned spaceflight — that would be the end of government spending on humans in space. Without that market, how long would it be before the private sector went anywhere?
Believers in free markets hurt themselves by being too dogmatic. Those members of the space community who imagine that all that is necessary is to step back and let private companies blaze the way need to get better educated.
Burt Rutan is doing wonderful things for suborbital flight. He will tell you straight out that he does not yet know how to get to orbit cheaply and safely. Neither does anybody else. Those kinds of improvements will only happen when there is a market, and the market will not get started without the government.
Clifford McMurray is a former executive vice-president of the National Space Society, and an active member of several space advocacy organizations.