Go Falcon 9!

First: Go Atlantis!!!

Now, on to the purported topic of this post: The SpaceX Falcon 9 is slated to launch in less than a week!

Beautiful photo of Falcon 9 on the pad (SpaceX)

Ever since the FY11 NASA budget came out, I’ve been anxious to see the success of the Falcon 9, SpaceX’s heavy-lift vehicle, and the Dragon capsule. A good Falcon launch and successful Dragon flight demo would be like jumping NASA’s Constellation program straight to an Ares I/Orion system prototype. This is the rocket and capsule that the new budget banks on for ISS resupply and astronaut transport. Of course, SpaceX had already won the ISS resupply contract before the new NASA budget came out, so this really isn’t that big a change from the status-quo solution to the space access gap – except that a successful man-rated Dragon would close that gap entirely!

For the bajillionth time, Mike Griffin’s Constellation Program was on track to do what we did 40 years ago, with what we used 30 years ago, 20 years from now. I know the program says “by 2020,” but it ain’t gonna happen, even with billions of extra dollars.

The new budget focuses NASA on in-space vehicles. Vehicles for carrying people throughout the Solar System. Vehicles for building colonies in space. Vehicles for taking people to planets. Vehicles for exploring planets. The kinds of vehicles that cannot be built on Earth and launched, whole, on a Saturn or Ares rocket. The kinds of vehicles that nobody but NASA would try to build. The kinds of vehicles that would move the human spaceflight program forward!

But, in exchange, NASA is not going to develop boosters. The space agency is going to send its astronauts – still NASA astronauts, dammit! – up to LEO on board  vehicles bought from commercial providers. The outcry against this concept is based primarily on the objection that the commercial space access providers are “unproven.”

Well, phenomenal success of the Delta and Atlas lines aside, this is the proving ground. There’s a lot riding on the Falcon 9 flight test; the space community consensus could go dramatically one way or the other depending on the outcome. If SpaceX makes it, we can almost consider NASA fast-forwarded to what Constellation would have done in 2015, or later. (And we’ll be much closer to buying tickets to space!) They just have to buy their launchers from SpaceX, instead of….contracting to ATK to build them.

Good luck to the SpaceX launch crews! Hope the launch is spectacular!

4 thoughts on “Go Falcon 9!”

  1. “The new budget focuses NASA on in-space vehicles. Vehicles for carrying people throughout the Solar System. Vehicles for building colonies in space. Vehicles for taking people to planets. Vehicles for exploring planets……”

    Odd. What I hear Obama’s people speaking about “doing more science sooner.” The planets are to be reached “someday”. There is no talk about colonies in space.

    I think you’re describing the program you’d like rather than the one we’re signed up for.

  2. I will freely admit that my view of the new program is rosy. (That may be because I think the focus on new technologies and capabilities is much better than Constellation’s limited focus and hamstrung implementation – my opinion of Constellation since Mike Griffin imposed it can be best summed up as, “well, at least NASA’s doing something.”) However, I don’t think I’m stretching much. My rosy view just comes from taking Obama and Bolden at their word! For instance, here’s an excerpt from the speech Bolden gave first outlining the new NASA budget:

    “…the president has laid out a dynamic plan for NASA to invest in critical and transformative technologies. These will enable our path beyond low Earth orbit through development of new launch and space transportation technologies, nimble construction capabilities on orbit, and new operations capabilities. Imagine trips to Mars that take weeks instead of nearly a year…. Imagine enabling hundreds, even thousands of people to visit or live in low Earth orbit, while NASA firmly focuses its gaze on the cosmic horizon beyond Earth.”

    Thousands of people living in Earth orbit sure sounds like a space colony to me!

    One of the most common criticisms I’ve seen of the new plans is, roughly, “Obama’s just saying these things. It would be nice if they were true, but I don’t believe him. We’ll have to see what he actually does.” That strikes me as an artificial and facetious criticism – first, ALL politicians “just say” things. Second, what reason do we have not to take Obama at his word, especially since this policy comes with things like budget increases? (Compare that to the Bush Vision for Space Exploration, in which he “just said” that we’d get to the Moon by 2020, but what he actually DID was slice the NASA budget.) Third, this is the policy. Why not take it at its best and let people like Charlie Bolden do a slam-bang job of implementing it?

    I’m excited to see technology development take center stage in the new plan. I’m also excited to see Obama and Bolden reiterate, over and over again, that this tech development will be done by astronauts on crewed missions. I picture a Gemini-like program with “first” after “first” of American space achievements, setting the stage for crewed visits to other planets. Obama did say, explicitly, that he wants to see humans in Mars orbit in the 2030s. That certainly takes new technology, and is not something that either the Space Shuttle or Apollo on steroids could achieve. We need this tech development program if we’re to expand beyond LEO in a sustainable fashion, and that is exactly what I want to see happen.

  3. Ah…. the point is _Obama_ is not saying those nice things about future thousands of people in orbit, nor is his science advisor, Dr. Holdren. Charles Bolden is saying those nice things, describing them as neat possibilities.

    Neat possibilities are not policies, nor plans with schedules. The sad fact is that in over 50 years, the US government has never once even mentioned its intention of building colonies in space or on the moment or anywhere else. (There have been NASA studies of such things, but nothing that got past the study stage). The closest I can recall ever to hearing someone in the US government mention such a thing was John Marburger’s remark that if we were serious about future space programs we should endeavor to bring the resources of the solar system into our economic sphere. This was Bush’s scientific advisor, back about the time of Sean O’Keefe, and he got jumped upon afterward for those “unauthorized remarks”.

    As far as I can tell, the US government absolutely opposes colonization or commercial use of any celestial body by any government or any other entity. Sample taking for scientific analysis is all right, but that’s about it. Period. (I forbear explanation; I can speculate but it’d sound real cranky.)

    Let me steal a bit from Scott Pace at GWU Space Policy Insititute, in some Congressional testimony last year:
    “Dr. Harry Shipman posed two questions in his 1989 book Humans in Space whose answers lead to very different human destinies. The first is, “Can extraterrestrial materials be used to
    support life in locations other than Earth?” And the second is, “Can activities of sustained economic worth be carried out at those locations?” Or as I shorten it: “Can we live off the
    land?” and “Can we make it pay?”
    “If the answer to both questions is yes, we will see space settlements and the incorporation of the Solar System into our economic sphere as former Science Advisor Jack Marburger has
    suggested. If the answer is no, then space is a form of Mount Everest – good for personal challenge and tourism but nobody really lives there. Other answers might see Antarctica-like
    outposts or perhaps a North Sea oil platform exploiting space resources but without sustainable human communities in space.
    “Many people seem to have faith?based answers to these questions but I would suggest a greater humility in admitting that we don’t really know. And therefore our efforts should be
    to answer these questions as in the course of human and robotic exploration beyond the Earth.”

    Shipman’s book came out in 1989. The Space Age was 30 years old then, and we couldn’t answer his two questions. The Space Age is now over 50 years and we still can’t answer those questions. With success in everything Obama has promised, we’ll reach the 2030’s with humans still in orbit, and only in orbit — with the Space Age over 70 years old and those two questions still unanswered.

  4. I think those are excellent points, and I agree that we ought to be investing in answering those questions. If we want to explore the Solar System – as I feel we ought to do – then we certainly need to be able to live out there.

    A point of clarification: President Obama did say some of these things in his speech at KSC a month ago. He did put us well beyond Earth orbit before 2030:

    “Early in the next decade, a set of crewed flights will test and prove the systems required for exploration beyond low Earth orbit. (Applause.) And by 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the Moon into deep space. (Applause.) So we’ll start — we’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. (Applause.) By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it. (Applause.)”

    In the conclusion of the speech, he also made the statement:

    “Fifty years after the creation of NASA, our goal is no longer just a destination to reach. Our goal is the capacity for people to work and learn and operate and live safely beyond the Earth for extended periods of time, ultimately in ways that are more sustainable and even indefinite.”

    I agree that his KSC speech was missing particular destinations (i.e., which asteroid?), and particular dates for the technology demonstrations in propulsion, life support, etc. However, the broad outlines of the program are there, at least, and I feel that my optimistic interpretation fits within them.

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