Innocent Bystander

A little tech, a little current affairs, and my view on whatever has my attention at the moment...

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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The Future of NASA

Well, even if NASA resolves the problem with debris falling off the fuel tank in enough time that Atlantis could still launch as originally scheduled there would still be only 15 or so missions before the fleet was retired according the President's plan for future space exploration.

There are parts of the President's plan I agree with... We need to return to the Moon, the fact that it's been 33 years since we've been back is tragic. I remember reading in elementry school all the books that predicted that there would be permanent space stations in orbit by 2000 and colonies on the moon by 2005. Instead we got the ISS.

Don't get me wrong, unlike the President's vision I think the ISS is important and that the station should be the jump off point for our future exploration of our solar system and not the dead end that the President's vision has made it. Ironicly, the ISS was the first President Bush's vision for the future of our space exploration, he wanted the station in orbit and operating before 2000.

When the shuttle fleet is retired in 2 or 3 years the US won't have any vehicle able to take people into space. There were be a gap of several years before a replacement for the shuttle goes into service. Given NASA's history for designing vehicles over the past 30 years, my guess is that a replacement for the shuttle won't go into service for another 15 years. Let me say that again, the US will be out of the manned spaceflight business for as many as 10 years, maybe even longer. Heck it was 5 years between the last SkyLab flight and the first shuttle flight.

Over the last 20 years I think NASA has lost it's way. The agency has plowed itself into a rut thanks to the Challenger disaster and budget cuts. Challenger scared NASA to start acting in a very risk averse manner, and as we've seen by the exhaustive inspections Discovery has undergone since getting into orbit, they've gotten even worse.

Back in the '80s NASA was working on a project called the National Aerospace Plane or NASP, this was supposed to be a "single stage to orbit" craft that would augment the shuttle fleet and act as a bridge between the shuttles when they were retired and whatever replaced them. Single stage to orbit means that the craft would be able to launch itself into orbit without the assistance of additional booster rockets and such. By comparison the shuttle is a two stage launch system stage one is the external booster rockets and stage two is the shuttle itself. The NASP was cancelled after several years of research, NASA decided that not enough of the needed technology had been developed enough to be incorporated into the NASP.

When NASP died, so did most research into any other vehicle to augment or replace the shuttle fleet, and that's where we are now. The fleet is on the brink of retirement with a replacement currently nothing more than some artists daydream.

NASA then fell into the trap that they called smaller, cheaper, better. They just left off less-risk... NASA started launching small robotic probes for exploration, it was this movement that brought about the successful Mars Rover and the highly unsuccessful Mars Surveyor (the one that crashed...). Since they were unmanned missions they were much cheaper and could move from design to launch much faster than a manned mission. Plus it's not a national tragedy if you loose an unmanned probe...

So we end up where we were just 3 years ago, with a manned spaceflight program whose mission is no longer to explore, but to build, restock, and maintain the ISS. Putting satellites in orbit? That's done by unmanned rockets now, after Challenger none of the satellite owners are convinced that the shuttle is worth the cost and risk as a launch platform... NASA has dreams of sending a manned mission to Mars, but research is moving at a snail's pace at best... The moon, forget it.

I've got to give credit to the President, after the loss of Columbia he could have shut the manned spaceflight program down. He could have decided that manned spaceflight was too risky and decided that we didn't need to go back. I know he's from Texas and the Johnson Spaceflight Center is a huge piece of the Houston economy, but still he could have called the whole thing off. Instead he came up with a plan, that while somewhat misguided, gives NASA something to shoot for again with manned spaceflight. President Bush has decided that we need to become less involved in the ISS (which I think is a mistake) and has directed NASA to get us back to the moon... eventually (i.e. 2020) and from there to Mars. Of course he didn't identify funding, but I guess it's a start...


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