re: Questions on NASA’s Future

This *almost* made me register for Twitter, just to respond. But I am still resisting the “service that nobody knew they wanted!” I hope a pingback goes through…if not, I bet I can rely on a retweet from @aerognome. ūüėČ

Here are my answers:

1) Should Constellation be saved?

No; at least, not without a lot of major changes. CxP is drastically underfunded, horribly over budget, way behind schedule, and myopically limited in technology and innovation. It wasn’t going to get us to the Moon before 2030 and wasn’t even going to get us to ISS before 2018. I’d very much like to have Mike Griffin’s Constellation fetters come off.

2) Should Shuttle be extended to close the gap?

No. Not only is that infeasible (there are no more STS external fuel tanks left, and we cannot make more) and uneconomical (due to high launch and recovery costs), but the Shuttle is thirty years old. It was never designed to fly for this long and should have been replaced in the early 90’s. In what other industry do people go around with 30-year-old vehicles and devices, still saying that they are the cutting edge? In what other industry is the 30-year-old vehicle the cutting edge? This is your own damn fault, Congress. Where’d the X33 go when we had the chance?!

3) Should NASA perform exploration missions while developing new R&D technologies that will get us to Mars?

Yes, and I don’t think this point is at issue. The problem is that the Obama administration chose to release their NASA budget without a corresponding space policy speech – it’s not that exploration missions have been cancelled, it’s that we don’t have any information on exploration targets and goal dates. I suspect that Obama’s rumored speech in April will remedy this. At least Charlie Bolden thinks we’re going to Mars!

It is important for me to say that there is a corresponding question, “should NASA develop new technologies while performing exploration missions?” The answer to this question is also “yes,” and critically, it was “no” under Constellation.

4) Is a heavy-lift vehicle required to leave LEO?

Let me instead answer a more general question: “Are new technologies or vehicles required to leave LEO?”

To that, I say yes. Either that means we need an economical heavy-lift capability, or tech development related to in-orbit deploying and assembling of large structures from small components. A detailed trade study should show which of those options to pick.

5) Why is inspiration important to the future of NASA?

Our nation is increasingly facing challenges that must be approached by scientific or engineering methods, and so it is generally in our national best interest to get students studying STEM fields. One way to keep them interested in science and technology is to make sure that there are really high-profile science and engineering project being done on a national level – the kinds of projects that happen at NASA. Even if those who pursue STEM fields don’t work for NASA itself, they may tackle related problems that have national repercussions, from more efficient solar cells to better medical technologies to indefinitely preservable foods.

And of course, NASA needs a pool of motivated, educated, capable recruits in order to pull off such projects. So NASA itself has a vested interest in inspiring students to remain interested in STEM fields during and after their educations.

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