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Where do we go from here (about US manned spaceflight)?

Saturday, July 2nd, 2011

In about a week from when I am writing this, I will be one of those people giving space shuttle Atlantis a “go” or “no go” for launch, and if the former, for the last time.  Except for a three-year break when I wondered out to the wilds of New Mexico and then ventured back into the Big City as a technical writer, I have worked for the space shuttle program for twenty-seven years. I served the first part of my tenure as an astronaut and flight controller trainer and abort specialist.    I took that vehicle and operational knowledge and expertise and put it to work during the second part of my tenure in the Shuttle Safety organization, where I was the contractor lead engineer for Safety’s Flight Operations Group.  I have lived through and learned from both shuttle accidents.  So, suffice it to say, that as I am forced to leave this world, it has been more than a job; it has been a career, a way of life, I’m being kicked out of just as I hit 60 years old.

I interviewed for a job last year with the FAA’s AST-200 division and was offered a job I wound up turning down for reasons I won’t go into and which had to do with more than me.  If they ever open a position in Houston, I might apply again; the job seemed like fun and was another chance to make a difference, as my career choices always have.  I mention this to establish that I have no prejudices against the new guys in “commercial space” and wish them all the best.  At the same time, I am cognizant of the current regulatory environment which is designed to give them a lot of leeway.  Only time will tell whether it is too much.

When I sit down and read articles and commentary on the new age of manned spaceflight that is both dawning and being forced on the country, it seems to me, like almost every other venture in the country these days, most people are polarized into two camps.  One camp believes that NASA is a dirtbag, a bloated bureaucracy that can accomplish nothing and that the private sector will provide the saviorship of manned spaceflight that is needed. The other doesn’t trust the private sector and believes that only the government can do it right.  The truth is being lost in hyperbole and rhetoric, and neither of these views contains what I believe to be the best course for our country.

First, let’s talk about what the media is reporting is “commercial space”.  The new players in the game are Space X, Sierra Nevada Corp, Orbital, Blue Origin, and others I won’t take the time to name.  (I intend to handle Virgin Galactic separately.)  The old players are Boeing, Lockheed, Grumman, Rocketdyne, ATK, to name most of them.  While it is the new guys who are currently receiving all the press and have been named “commercial space”, the reality is that all of these companies are private companies bidding for NASA contracts.  The difference between the older companies and the newer companies isn’t their technologies but the economics driving their business models and the operating rules the companies had to compete under. The new guys have the benefit of a less restrictive regulatory environment and, because of that, have been able to develop designs that are largely their own even though they are still aimed at the same market, i.e., NASA.  The old guys grew up in an environment where their designs were tailored to strict NASA requirements, including redundancy and part specifications that contributed to higher costs.  They are also separated by hyperbole and, perhaps, hypocracy.  It’s a public game to “trash talk your opponent”, and some of the new guy CEO’s treat NASA as if it was one, even as they also talk about how they deserve to get NASA (i.e., taxpayer) funds.  It’s rare that when one of these guys talk, they actually compare apples to apples.  Usually, they’re really only hitting half the truth.

For instance, the talk usually centers around the cost per pound of payload and they zero in on how they can deliver “x” number of crewmen to orbit for less money than the shuttle.  Such a statement ignores the rest of what the shuttle can do and glosses over the national capability that is being lost with the shuttle’s retirement.  The shuttle could deliver seven crewmen to ISS and tens of thousands of pounds of payloads and facilitate the placement of much of the latter on the station’s exterior.  While many of the new commercial space or ISS international partner vehicles can deliver one or the other, there is nothing on the books that allows for the delivery of both at one time, nor is there anything that can accommodate large payloads that cannot fit though either the delivery vehicle’s or ISS hatches.  Considering that there are still rather large unknowns about equipment life aboard ISS and why some of these failures are occurring, I am convinced that the retirement of the shuttle without an equivalent replacement capability will prove to be a huge oversight and national blunder.  This is another reason why NASA’s pursuit of a Space Launch System makes sense as do Space X’s plans to develop a heavy-lift vehicle.  No one can predict the future, and 2020 is not much less than a decade away.

That said, I also believe it is time to turn over most low earth orbit activities to what the press is calling “commercial space”.  The market appears to support several different approaches to orbital flight and crew delivery, though admittedly the only current market lies in launch services that are still mostly governmentally driven.  The next budding market will probably be space tourism, which is the area that Virgin Galactic is set to exploit and will undoubtedly do so first.  However, at least for the time being, that market is relatively small.   As costs fall, that market will expand; but whether it is a sustainable market is the big question.  Secondly, the safety of the venture will largely determine whether it survives.  Law restricts the FAA to be largely “hands off” with these new companies. When I interviewed with the FAA, we had several discussions about whether I believed spacesuits were required when flying paying passengers.  I did and do; otherwise, a cabin depressurization above 65,000 feet, also known as the Armstrong line, will result in the death of all aboard even if breathing oxygen is available.  NASA’s regular access to space has, perhaps, been the failure of its success in that the average Joe Blow has no clue how risky spaceflight is and will continue to be, especially as you engage the energies necessary to put something into orbit.  Virgin Galactic’s suborbital flight is a great thing but its technical challenges are at least an order of magnitude less than those it will face if they ever turn their birds into orbital machines that have to re-enter at 25,000 feet per second.

Meanwhile, we are retiring the shuttles right when NASA and its contractors have truly learned how to repair and operate them and mitigate their operational risks.  Instead, we’re spending tax dollars on developing systems that, even though developed by American companies, won’t do anything functionally different than the shuttle did while turning the real space vehicles into museum pieces.  The new vehicles are still “taxies”, a comparison that was used by Norm Augustine to disparage the great machine the shuttle was.  It had its problems, sure, but we had learned to how to live and manage them.  That learning curve will now start anew with the new boys and their toys, and it remains to be seen how the public will react when people flying on these new vehicles die, which they inevitably will.

Indeed, it is the public’s reaction (and that includes the media) to the shuttle accidents that played such a large role in NASA becoming the bureaucracy it is today. I saw the agency change from the free-spirited agency it was to a somber, more introspective, and more image-concerned organization after the Challenger accident.  In this perfection-expected, litigious society, how the public will react to an accident and loss of life with the new guys remains to be seen, though there is no reason to expect anything else than a reaction in line with the endeavor’s political camps.  In any case, whether these new start-ups have the economic resources to weather the storm of an accident is anyone’s call, and certainly something our government needs to be looking into since we’re putting all our eggs in their boats.   And it is at the cost of losing a huge operational capability.  Anyone who thinks that all those rocket scientists just thrown out of NASA are going to be picked up by the new companies is smoking weed.  There are only going to hundreds of jobs opened by these guys not thousands as the current administration has said.   Why the auto industry deserves a bailout and aerospace deserves a beating is beyond me…

What then is the role of government?  Is it simply to bankroll these new start-ups?  No.  Part of the purpose of a free government is to provide infrastructure for free enterprise to flourish (which really doesn’t include funding it) and to provide the citizenry with those things they need that free enterprise won’t provide.  So, the government needs to be pushing space exploration forward, which means it needs to be involved in pushing us out to the moon or Mars where there is no current incentive for private companies to go.  So, while I personally consider an Earth-to-asteroid mission as more of a stunt, I do believe it is NASA’s role to expand human presence to the moon or Mars or beyond.  However, this needs to be done as part of a national space vision that integrates government and private sector efforts as one.  Failure to do this will result in more start/stops, knee-jerk reactions to the momentary political and/or economic environment, something that will not serve the long-term growth of our country or the human race.   It only makes sense that if we’re going to spend the money and take the risks that spaceflight demands, we get somewhere.  Where that “somewhere” is…is what we have to decide.

 

The USA Plan: Fly the Shuttle Until 2017

Monday, February 7th, 2011

Last week, a news release detailed that United Space Alliance had proposed under NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program that they maintain the three remaining shuttles to fly two flights a year from 2013 until 2017 at a cost of $1.5 billion dollars per year.  That’s a very interesting idea, especially if they really can contain their costs to that amount.  It certainly does solve NASA’s immediate, unaddressed, and hidden problem of how to support ISS with heavy lift capability until the end of its life in 2020. Dragon X, for all its progress and its hype, will not be able to supply ISS with anything more than can be pushed through its hatch, and that story applies to every ISS delivery vehicle in or planned for the ISS supply inventory.

Additionally, in what seems to be a continuation of NASA’s “can’t do” spirit, the agency has steadfastly maintained it cannot produce any kind of a heavy lift vehicle before 2020, some nine years from now.  The qualifier is, of course, that it can’t do so within the current budget, and that is a problem for mainly Congress to solve, though NASA needs to do everything it can to resolve it itself.  But, if it can’t, then flying the shuttle out to 2017 does solve most of its logistical support problems, as well as leaving the door open to other endeavors.  What NASA has to decide is whether that 1.5 billion dollars is better spent on new vehicle development than on ensuring we get the most value out of the investment in ISS and the shuttle we have already made.  Considering the agency’s continuing malaise when it comes to bringing a new vehicle to the forefront, I am not sure it is.

I have to admit, though, I am skeptical that USA can manage the infrastructure required to continue shuttle flights at such a low cost figure.  Not only will some kind of maintenance facilities have to be maintained, but both operational, safety.  and training facilities and personnel will all have to be retained.  While I would personally think that’s a “plus” for the country, many people will not.  Certainly, I would expect a lot of resistance from the headquarters crowd that pushed the original Obama agenda down the road, even though it has no chance of passing on its own.  Then, again, adopting this approach might actually let them further their agenda while keeping the political opponents at bay; it all depends on how well USA can actually manage the costs.  But this program would be something I’d like to see; by 2017, you gotta hope we’d have a much better handle on a longer term direction for the agency and the country’s manned space program.  By then, there might actually be something tangible for the program to reach for.  You gotta hope; you gotta hope!

The 9/11 Conundrums: Being Right versus Being Happy

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

All of us are ultimately after happiness.  Some of us find it in the simple pleasures of life; some of us try to find it in things and people; and some of us never find it at all.  When we don’t, there is usually no one to blame but us, because like in most things, the answer is within.

Unfortunately, when it comes to religion, happiness is too often rigidly defined as only being available within the conscripts of the appropriate dogma.  This leads to trying to find happiness within self-righteousness, and that turns the quest into a lie.  My experience with self-righteousness is that it leads to the happiness of an addict, i.e., the quick fix, and never to anything substantial or lasting.  Which is why its practitioners must constantly be at the throats of the people around them.  They are constantly seeking the adrenalin rush, and they only way they can get it is to try to force their views on others.

That’s exactly what’s happening on a national scale as we watch two “holy men”, neither of whom are acting very loving, push their religious rights into everyone else’s face.  They both have a perfect right under the US Constitution from both freedom of religion and First Amendment right standpoints to do what they are doing, i.e., one building a mosque close to Ground Zero in New York where it flies in the face of the people still dealing with the loss of loved ones and defeats his message of “good will” and the other burning the Koran to “send a message” of intolerance and self-righteousness.  There is no difference in the actions of these two men; they are both choosing to be right rather than happy, and they are dragging a lot of people with them.

In reality, it’s hard to see the difference in these attitudes and those of religious terrorists except in scale.  All of them are convinced they are right and are willing to fight to preserve that self-righteousness. The terrorists may indeed be more honest in that you know they stand for violence; the others seems to be willing to be passive instigators in the vain hope that any harm they bring they can deny because of their lack of direct involvement.  Indeed, one aspect of this situation that is being ignored is that anyone who does act out of violence, even at someone else’s behest, is making a choice to do so and is totally responsible for it regardless of the motivation.  And, in doing so, they actually prove the allegations being thrown at them and their religion, in the long run doing the exact harm they are protesting.

The whole chain shows only one thing, i.e., that it is a lose-lose proposition for everyone involved.

The devil is as devil does.

More on the US Manned Space Plans…

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

It’s not often I agree with what Mike Griffith, the former NASA administrator, has to say; but I find myself in total agreement with his statement during a recent interview that the Senate’s plan for a heavy lift vehicle is sizing the vehicle too small.  The Senate plan for a vehicle that will lift only 75 tons is only slightly larger than what the shuttle can lift today and is too small to support lunar or interplanetary manned programs.  This would be a “make-do” heavy lift vehicle that would be able to support ISS or most Low Earth Orbit needs but would be too small to support any other missions without multiple launches.  Griffith thought the lift capability ought to be along the lines of a Saturn V, about 120 tons, and I agree.  I’d target the 130-140 ton range, just to make room for expandability, i.e., the capability to lift more than we ever have before to lunar orbit.

Frankly, the heavy lift concept I’d like to see explored would be a configurable vehicle that could be used to boost payloads in the 70 -140 ton range.  As you needed the bigger payload capability, you simply added more tankage or engines to the basic module.  (Yes, I do know this is the basic idea behind rocket design and jettisonable stages, i.e., mass ratios.).  Once you designed such a beast, it would probably meet your needs for several decades, with upgrades occurring incrementally as materials and engines improved.

The other thing I’d like to discuss is the idea of a manned asteroid mission, and why a direct Earth to asteroid mission is a waste of time and money.  As part of a long term vision, it makes no sense; and I’d rather see our time and money spent on developing orbital infrastructure.

If you’ve followed the symposium that was conducted on this subject, then you know the asteroids they’re talking about targeting are those that wander toward earth and therefore become more accessible than those in the main asteroid belt outside the orbit of Mars.  There are not many of those; one article I saw said there were only two.  For the billions of dollars we’re going to spend and the six months we’re going to put astronaut lives at risk, we’re going to send a crew to a rock that’s not going to be big enough to land on; we’re going to have to “dock” with it instead.   While I am a proponent of manned exploration and do believe humans can often provide insight and information that machines cannot, I have a hard time understanding why this mission needs to be manned. There simply isn’t a huge area to be explored.  The real exploration of the asteroids, and the one I believe will yield more science than a single rendezvous, will come from missions launched from Mars orbit to explore the asteroid belt, ones that will compile data from multiple sources and yield more understanding about the asteroid belt as a whole.  I’d want manned missions there so we could look for differences, i.e., those things we didn’t anticipate or think existed.

Part of the argument for the single rendezvous asteroid mission is that it serves as a “test run” for a Mars mission.  I can understand that from an operational and engineering perspective, and it does fit into that methodology.  But as the only target our manned spaceflight program is moving toward, it leaves too many gaps.  I believe we need to move away from the idea of launching everything from the surface of the earth and need to be building low earth orbit or lunar infrastructure, i.e., a continuous manned presence, instead of focusing exclusively on “single missions” as we tend to do.  I’d like to see us channeling our time and money into turning ISS into a launching point for the moon and beyond, see us return to the moon to investigate “permanent” habitation there and develop its use as a possible platform for outreach to further points in the solar system, rather than simply focusing on a single goal objective, one that will be easily derailed by a shift in the political winds.

Frankly, I have to wonder just how much of the enthusiasm for the single-rendezvous asteroid mission is generated from real scientific zeal or whether it’s real motivator is political pandering to keep some kind of manned mission going, even if it makes little sense.  For now, I’ll assume that the interest and zeal is honestly motivated.

While the current Administration is jumping on the asteroid bandwagon and saying the current Senate plan endorses it, it does not.  What it does do is simply keep the door open for it and, if properly implemented and funded, keeps the door open for a lot more than that.  That really is what we need to do until we can all agree on exactly where it is we want America in space to go and how much we are willing to spend to send it there.

Andy’s Plan for a Robust US Manned Spaceflight Program

Monday, August 2nd, 2010

I haven’t said anything about this in deference to my job; some of you know I work for a space shuttle contractor in the safety and flight operations world.  But recent events have really irritated me to no end, and I now feel like I’m ready to lay out my thoughts on this whole thing.  The whole thing has gotten too political and too full of both hyperbole to get anywhere of any consequence, and the country deserves better than that.

I’ve been involved in the space program for most of my life in one way or the other, whether it was through building models as a kid, presenting “current events” during the Apollo program and my high school history classes, performing public speaking in support of the program, getting my aerospace engineering degree, and finally in working at Johnson Space Center since 1984 minus a three year break from 94 through 97.  I’ve been an astronaut and flight controller trainer, an ascent procedures specialist, an SMS team lead, and a Shuttle MER Safety Console operator  during shuttle missions since 1987.  I’ve been here at JSC through both shuttle accidents and closer to both than I wanted to be.   With my own eyes, I’ve seen launches of Saturn V’s, Saturn IB’s, and the Shuttle and have seen shuttle landings.  I watched Neil Armstrong dance on the moon on TV as it happened, after watching, from a Titusville beach, his launch vehicle head for the moon.  But I never thought I’d see what I’m seeing now.  NASA’s manned space effort has been thrown into a morass of paralysis, political in-fighting, and “can’t do-ism”.

I hadn’t been doing a lot of work on Constellation, but the program seemed to me to be in trouble from the beginning.  The common wisdom said that Ares I was underpowered and the resulting sacrifices in redundancy in Orion made many of us cringe.  Secondly, the vibrational modes showing up in the solid booster were posing a challenge to the designers they could not solve but could only mitigate at best, and I never heard that we got to a completely viable and accepted solution.  Personally, I thought the dual launch concept for lunar missions was a poor one, especially the idea of launching the crew first and putting them at risk while waiting on orbit for their lunar propulsion articles to launch. How were we going to explain ourselves when we had to bring a crew home for nothing when that didn’t occur?  But that’s just me and maybe I didn’t know what I was talking about.  The thing had made it through dozens of reviews.

Frankly, as the 2008 elections rolled around and it was clear the Obama administration was looking at what to do, I expected them to probably cancel Ares I/Orion.  That made a lot of sense to me considering what I knew about its problems.    But what would we do then about supporting getting crews to Low Earth Orbit and ISS?  There were only a couple of solutions.  One was to extend shuttle out until some other means were available, and those other available means could be via the Russian Soyuz (as currently planned) or via “commercial space” transport, as many people are now promoting.   Of course, there was a lot of political fodder with the use of the Russian Soyuz (well deserved when we’re talking about putting American space workers out of work instead) and the “commercial space” sector was still unproven, even though they are moving ahead.  Either one of those two entities were and are not a sure thing, though there is hardly ever such a thing in manned spaceflight anyway.

So, when the Obama administration came forward with a proposal to use “commercial space” to try to close the gap left by cancelling Constellation, that made sense.  I don’t believe that Ares I / Orion is any closer to being ready to fulfill the LEO crew support mission than Space X with a manned Dragon capsule is, considering the progress that Space X has recently made.   However, development programs often don’t proceed at the envisioned pace, and there is quite a ways to go before any entity can be sure to meet the desired timeline.  No matter what happens on the U.S. side, though, the Russians have a viable if politically unpopular means of supporting ISS crew transfer and our Japanese and European partners have the capability to assist in ISS re-supply.  Still, all those solutions leave open the need for ISS heavy lift support, which the current Obama administration plans appear to completely neglect.  Any one who thinks ISS can survive until 2020 without heavy lift support isn’t paying close attention to its malfunction history.  If I were in ISS management, I would be unhappy about playing the Roulette game that leads to.

Secondly, change for change’s sake is not necessarily a good thing.  The biggest problems the American manned space program have are a lack of vision, long-term goals to work toward, and the political will and courage to commit to them. While a manned visit to an asteroid might be a valuable thing to do at some point, I can see no real strategic reason at this time to do so.  Automated missions to the asteroids make a lot more sense to me from a cost, risk, and scientific return standpoint; let’s save our manned efforts for other more strategic interests.  The argument that we don’t need to go back to the moon because “we’ve been there and done that” makes about as much sense as saying that the U.S. didn’t need to push west to the West Coast after Louis and Clark had already been there.  We’ve only done the most basic exploration of our nearest neighbor and returning there and establishing a “permanent” human presence makes long term sense and may provide scientific returns we cannot anticipate. The cancellation of the rest of the Constellation did not make sense, though a near-term direct return might not either.   But it does make sense to continue working to get there while we do other things.  What other things, you ask?  Build infrastructure, I say!

One of government’s basic tasks is to build infrastructure to support our way of life.  This is now where NASA needs to go, i.e., to build infrastructure to expand our access to and explorations of outer space.  NASA’s job is to go where “commercial space” will not, to build the infrastructure that private and commercial enterprise may someday use to expand our influence (and I’m not going to get into the argument now about whether that is a good thing to do).  This is why turning LEO access over to “commercial enterprise” makes sense.  What doesn’t make sense is the Obama plan to throw the baby out with the bath water and abandon all government manned space operations.  JSC learned the hard way about fifteen years ago what happens when you run off all your space experience and how hard it is to get it back once it’s gone.  It’s not a mistake anyone here wants to repeat.

So, tired of all the paralysis, I came up with a 7-point plan I felt would give the U.S. a robust manned space program.   In proposing this, I ignored any immediate concerns about budget though I did take budget into account when looking at the plan strategically.  I had to leave the politicians something to do, and figuring out the budget is what they get paid for.

Here’s what I would have done had I been the guy calling the shots:

(1) Continue flying shuttles until 2015.  (Anyone who thinks ISS is not going to need logistical and even heavy lift support has never looked at the failure history of the station.  Shuttle can be there for replacing almost any ISS component and supplying logistics until the commercial sector is ready to do so.  To stand down shuttle without a heavy lift vehicle to service ISS risks shortening the ISS lifetime.)

(2) Continue stimulus of commercial low earth-orbit lift capability with the explicit target of handing over all LEO duties (except heavy lift) to the commercial sector by 2015.  This will include development of manned capsules/spaceships capable of a visit to ISS or any other LEO host.

(3) Aim Orion development toward lunar missions and perform preliminary design studies on variants for interplanetary travel.

(4) Continue lunar lander and habitat design studies.

(5) Proceed with NASA development of a heavy-lift vehicle that will first launch in 2015.  This heavy-lift vehicle will be capable of LEO, lunar mission, or interplanetary mission support.

(6) Proceed with design studies and building of NASA-sponsored manned craft to be launched from ISS to the moon or other planetary destinations.  This ship can include Orion as a component.

(7) Continue with technology studies (as the current administration desires) that will enhance spaceflight in the future.

Now, admittedly, flying the shuttle out to 2015 was a long shot, especially considering that many vendors and supply sources are ka-put.  Yes, I had heard the estimates that if we turned on the money tap today, it could take two to three years to get everything shuttle going again. What I hadn’t heard was whether that timetable could be compressed to closer to a year and, if so, how much money it would take. Despite its flaws, the shuttle is here and flying now and is the only vehicle that can supply both ISS crew and logistical support, including what I’m calling “heavy-lift”, i.e., bring aboard major station components or even a whole new section, if needed.  As I said earlier, I believe this type of support has not been publically anticipated and could likely be necessary within ISS’s projected lifetime.

With that set, it made sense to continue support for “commercial space” efforts to provide LEO ISS crew support.  The companies would be tasked with supplying all US ISS crew support beginning no later than 2015, so they would be in place when shuttle was finally stood down.  This would eliminate the “gap” in US capability to provide this support.  This is also a timetable I would expect Space X to be able to meet and one in which other commercial entities could be ready as well.  How much support should they get?  Just what they need to meet this deadline with this capability and no more.  If they can’t do it with this, than maybe they’re really not as “commercial” as they’d like us to think.  (NOTE: I consider Burt Rutan’s suggestion made during AirVenture 2010 of 10% to 15% of NASA’s budget to Space X (and with no strings) as out of line and hypocritical.   This is taxpayer money.  In this market, Space X is no different than Boeing, Lockheed, Northrup Grumman, or any other private company that competes for government contracts.  And the big guys have a lot more experience…)

As for salvaging what the taxpayers have already spent on Orion, the best use of that would be to support what NASA’s mission needs to become, that of going boldly where private interests are not ready to go. Forget any LEO use of Orion but investigate how it could be used to go to the Moon and possibly be part of a vehicle that goes beyond (as an Earth re-entry vehicle, perhaps).  To this end, too, continue with studies that will support expanding human presence to the Moon or Mars so that when we find the will to actually do so, the design phase of the job is done.  You can throw an asteroid mission in here, too, if you want.

In any case, whether for heavy lift support of ISS, going to the Moon, building another more lunar-logistically capable space station, or whatever, a heavy lift vehicle is needed.  Target the capability for 2015 so it is in place when shuttle stands down.  No new technologies are necessarily called for here.  Just put the capability in place and spread out your development costs so they don’t pile onto your mission costs later.

Continue, also, with design studies of a craft capable from launching from our dream space station.  Make it a vehicle built and operated in space.  This will help drastically lower launch costs and provide routine access to the Moon.

Lastly, as the Obama administration desires, fund technology studies of any new technologies that could enhance capabilities and reduce costs. Frankly, some of these may pop out of any mission studies NASA undertakes as it pursues the rest of the initiatives, as spelled out here.  And there are some private enterprises like Ad Astra that may come forward with their own.   The Congress and the Administrator can have fun figuring out which funding pipeline to use to get there.

That’s my plan, and the reasoning behind it.  It combines some of both proposals that have been making the headline news, and the best of them from my perspective.

Now, go look at the Senate plan and compare it to this one.  I think you’ll find it is remarkably similar.  I don’t find that incredible since I sent this plan to Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson’s website via their e-mail form on May 25th (or 26th) of this year.  I also sent the same plan in a letter to Representative Pete Olsen the next day.  I was happy to see what Hutchinson did and not so happy with what Olsen did.  The House’s restrictions on commercial space efforts and having an Orion back-up are a waste of time and money.  The Senate’s plan is much better, and I urge you to support it.

As for shuttle, it looks like we might get one extra flight and that’s it.  That’s sad but understandable considering where everything is.

There is a sentiment out there that the government can’t do anything right and that the private sector does everything better.  Sometimes that’s true.  Sometimes, it’s not.  It’s true I admire and respect the accomplishments of Burt Rutan and company, Space X, and all the other “commercial” space companies out there.  But there is also a lack of perspective here.  NASA’s accomplishments have all been made by the government walking hand-in-hand with private industry.  Some of these companies have worked with NASA so often they have become associated with the agency in the public’s mind, and that is both a good and bad thing.  I’ve seen commercial interests lose perspective when it comes to balancing risks against profit, and that conflict will shape the new “commercial space” industry every day.  There will be redundancy (though not always safety) sacrificed in the name of profit, and there will be deaths associated with those compromises. How well the public tolerates those losses remains to be seen, and whether they will sing a different tune and scream for more government oversight would not be a surprise.  Additionally, there are several magnitudes of difference in risk, cost, and technical challenges between suborbital and orbital flight efforts.  The latter is what many of the “commercial space” companies have yet to tackle, and it is also what NASA has been tackling successfully for some time.  I would not count NASA out yet.  Indeed, NASA still has a lot of trailblazing it can do, if it is correctly funded and correctly managed.

No matter how we proceed, there is one thing that will be for sure:  it will be interesting and probably not turn out like any of us exactly planned at all.

Welcome to Andy’s Blog!

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

Welcome to Andy’s Blog!  (And for those of you who have read my blog before, welcome back!)  Hopefully, you’ll find a different viewpoint than any you’ve ever seen before.  Hang on!  You’re in for a ride!