Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Obama versus Romney in space.. will cost kill the mining company?

A friend on a listserv commented on the Planetary Resources announcement yesterday:

> Hmm. Cant help but wonder what the costs of these asteroid resources will be. l wonder - will they be intended for government purchase, corporate purpose? A fair price would incorporate the cost of transport. .

That certainly is a real concern, which I mentioned briefly in my blog account.

In many ways, the technical and business plan is much better and more intelligent than other things I have seen
in the space industry space (not counting communication satellites or use of GPS). They have revenue
streams in place more than just selling nonterrestrial material (NTM). They rely on robotics to do the job with
lightweight payloads, which can hitch a ride at relatively low cost on any of a variety of other launches. It also turns
out to connect to a lot of technologies I've been directly involved in.

HOWEVER ... to bring back X kilos of nonterrestrial material to earth does involve a transport cost, and it does make me slightly queasy
that their plans do not seem to involve any effort at all to turn around the crisis we are facing on the cost of getting to space (low earth orbit) in the first place.
That crisis worries me a lot, as I've probably said here before.

Back in 2009, I tried to warn people that the Ares rockets which were the backbone of NASA's "return to the moon"
and space exploration in general were badly conceived antiquated technology, soon to expose huge excess of cost over what had been promised back in the days of Michael Griffin's 90-day plan which was grossly politically biased to come up with "the right answer" -- the answer which would
send the most jobs to Decatur. I found myself wondering whethe r Senator Mikulski understood that she is the chair of the relevant appropriations committee,
and did not have to put up with such incredibly gross waste. Ares didn't REALLY experience cost overruns; the problem was that the initial promises
were grossly dishonest. Expendable rockets are NOT cheaper than partially reusable systems like the space shuttle.

What surprises me now is that people have made such strong commitments to a "new" Space Launch System which takes the same approach, which is
a virtual clone of Ares, and just as expensive and wasteful.

There is a debate raging now. SHOULD the big aerospace companies and the space community offer to NASA something which has more
than twice the capability for the same development cost, since they do in fact know how to do better? Boeing was even brave enough
to put out feelers on a MUCH more cost-effective alternative, wh! ich would substantially enhance national security, in a story in Aviation Week
which I cite in my recent paper on this subject. (I wrote an invited paper for a Russian aerospace journal which just came out; the draft in English is posted

But the feeling out there is:

1. The politicians will not tolerate discussion of an option which would give the US more capability for the same cost.
They forwarded me a message from Launchspace which expresses the feelings of experts quite well:


Shuttle - RIP

(Launchspace Staff)

The Space Shuttle Program has ended on a sad note. Last week Discovery took a "victory lap" around the Washington Mall, riding on its carrier Boeing 747. However, this was hardly a victory for America's space program. After 30 years and well over 100 flights into space, shuttle orbiters are to become museum pieces. These will forever remind us of the once magnificent flying machines and the daredevil astronauts that rode them into the black vacuum of space. The sad part of this in that the end of the Space Shuttle Era is also the end of a once great US human space flight program. NASA has promised many follow-on exciting human space adventures, but credibility of the space agency is at an all-time low. NASA has devolved into little more than a jobs program, trying to keep thousands of excellent engineers and scientists busy, but with little vision or Administration support for continuing human exploration of the solar system and beyond. Once proud astronauts are now relegated to begging the Russians for rides on Soyuz launch vehicles, and at a very high price.

NASA is reduced to hoping that commercial space companies can replace the Russians and ferry astronauts to and from the ISS. Flights beyond ISS will await some new and undefined architecture that will require a new and very expensive expendable booster system, SLS, a booster system that will easily exceed the cost of operating the shuttle. It is not surprising that no one wants to pay for this new system. It appears to be a giant step backward to the days of the Apollo Saturn V. We might go so far as to say: "This is a small step backward for NASA, but a giant step backward for America's space program."


2. There is a debate about what Romney would do about this. Is he in his heart a guy from Bian Capital who loves to fire people who don't perform, who
wants to get rid of any large-scale wasteful spending, who would be happy to zero out such a gross waste of money in the blink of an eye?
Or in his heart, is he the most compliant servant of fat cats and corruption in decades, a kind of new Taft, who has brought on the same old Griffin to
be his space advisor, who will continue to maintain the status quo of money going down the same rathole producing nothing, even as our real technical capabilities here go closer and closer to the cliff? In these discussions, I initially said the first... and cited Romney's speeches in Florida... but I have to admit that this is a kind of optimistic slant! on Romney, and the folks here overwhelmingly tend to assume the latter view... and are basing their actions on that assumption.
I(I wonder if Griffin has had a few quiet discussions with them behind closed doors.) No reduction in corporate welfare here, they all assume.

3. Still, the Administration itself is far form blameless. Maybe it was a lower level functionary being too clever...
I recently received an inquiry from Israel about the incredible scandal

Of course, you know about CYA: "We intended our new vehicle to explode in mid air. That was our plan all along."
because of security, I do not really know the true story, but I have been able to piece together a pretty good possibility.
DARPA HAD decided to go ahead with a global reach vehicle, to cost about $300 million, which would have incidentally solved our fundamental problem of affordable access to space (or at least made us capable of getting there cheaply, and prevented the imminent loss of that capability.)
But some idiot at a middle level thought they were clever by reducing costs, and getting rid of the effort to get the skin really right.
So they made a vehicle th! at melted.

Will Romney or Obama or their people ever lift a finger to get us back on track, in DARPA even if NASA is a lost cause?

For now, it looks more likely to me that Russia or China will make us look like incredible weak fools sooner than we expect...
but one can always hope... and make just a little noise...

Best of luck,


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