Friday, July 22, 2011

Lasting Relief

I had been planning to write a post on the end of the Space Transportation System (STS), a.k.a. the Space Shuttle once the Atlantis landed successfully.  But mistermix beat me to it, hitting all the points I was going to make.
  • Thank FSM it's over.  Ever since the Challenger disaster, and even more so after the Columbia disaster, I gritted my teeth during each flight.  The STS program ended up being the most deadly manned program in history (not counting related on-the-ground accidents), killing 14 astronauts, vs. 4 during the entire course of the Soviet Union/Russian program.
  • It was a Frankenstein.  I don't know the history of how the program evolved, so I don't know if the Shuttle could have been designed better.  But the additional weight of a man-rated reusable vehicle made launches of satellites and robotic missions much more expensive.  The Shuttle was approximately three times heavier than its payload capacity.
  • Ease up on the jingoism.  The pride element of objecting to using a Russian rocket is silly.  They have a reliable launch vehicle and space capsule, so it makes sense to use it now that there is no requirement to launch large ISS components.
  • Kill the ISS already.  The International Space Station is the most expensive thing on Earth built by humans, and is unlikely to yield scientific or technological results that will come anywhere close to justifying its immense cost.  It should be flown into the Pacific Ocean.  But because it's an international program, doing the sensible thing won't happen until at least 2020.
  • Crowds are no fun.  Money is always an issue, and the extraordinary expense of the STS and ISS probably crowded out a lot of more rewarding robotic missions.  The caveat is necessary because there is no way of knowing if any of the money spent on the manned missions over the past three decades would have been spent otherwise, but I think it's likely that a good portion of it would have been.
  • It ain't over 'til its over.   Space is still out there, and there are incredible things yet to discover.  The gee-wiz factor of putting men into space is gone, at least for the time being.  But robotic mission can yield fantastic results, as programs like Voyager, Hubble, and the Mars Rovers have shown.  There's no reason to equate the end of the Shuttle program with the end of space exploration.
 So what should NASA be doing in the near future?  This is how I see it:
  • Minimal support of the ISS.  Because it is an international program, keeping the ISS alive is necessary for political reasons.  But the US should do no more that meet its obligations.
  • Minimal development of COTS capsules.  Currently, three different unmanned supply vehicles are available to take cargo and fuel to the ISS: the European Automated Transfer Vehicle, the Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle, and the Russian Progress vehicle.  They have completed 2, 2, and 46 trips respectively.  Since there is no immediate need, NASA should provide limited funding to American companies for developing similar capabilities, or manned capsules.
  • General spaceflight research and development.  This would be NASA's slush fund for interesting but not immediately applicable technology development.  One specific goal I would recommend is to find a way to capture and de-orbit space debris.
  • Aeronautics research and development.  The first "A" in NASA is usually an afterthought.  But given how important air travel and freight are, some effort should be put into research applicable to atmospheric vehicles.  The emphasis should be on fuel efficiency.
  • Robotic exploration.  This should be the main focus of NASA for the next decade.  While there have been mishaps, the list of successful missions is much, much larger.  The missions can be divided into three categories
    1. Solar system exploration.  This includes missions to planets or other bodies, and Sol observation.  Dawn and SOHO are two such missions.
    2. Earth observation.  Any mission to observe the Earth not undertaken by NOAA or the military falls here.  The Aqua/Terra satellites comprise one notable program.
    3. Astronomy and physics.  The Hubble is the most famous example of this type of mission, but there are many others.  The James Webb Space Telescope is the next big one scheduled for launch, but it may be canceled due to budget cuts.
  • Heavy lift development.  This is admittedly the most dubious item in the list.  As of 2011, the Atlas V HLV is the largest available launch vehicle, with a claimed capacity to LEO of 29,000kg.  In contrast, the Saturn V was able to launch 118,000kg into orbit.  The STS was able to launch as much as 109,000kg to LEO, but most of that was the Shuttle itself.  There has been talk for years about developing an unmanned launch vehicle from the STS components, and NASA appears to be on the verge of announcing they intend to do just that.  But no one has identified a need to lob anything that weighs 70,000kg or more into orbit, either right now or in the foreseeable future.  So there are reasons for putting the program on hold.  To me, there are two arguments for the program.  One is that nobody else is likely to do it.  Other space agencies and various commercial organizations have slowly raised the capacity of their systems over the years.  But a much bigger rocket would have to be designed from scratch, and I think it's unlikely that anyone but the Chinese government would be willing to make such a huge and largely speculative investment.  The other is that most of the components are already available in the US from the existing Shuttle infrastructure.  They would have to be re-integrated after a new fairing system is designed, and then tested.  But if NASA plans and executes wisely, it should be able to have the new system ready in less than a decade and for a reasonable-ish cost (leaving aside the issue that it is pointless right now).
No discussion about NASA is really complete without noting that it still receives indirect support from the Department of Defense.  The two programs are largely separate, but they often use the same contractors and the same launch vehicles, which reduces NASA's costs over being the sole customer government customer.  Occasionally there is some direct cooperation, though its nothing like what took place in the 1960s.  In addition, NOAA is in charge of a satellite fleet, but they are purchased, not built in-house, and are launched on commercial rockets.

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