NASA’s New Rocket Won’t Reach New Frontiers

September 16th, 2011 at 1:35 am | 12 Comments |

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There’s been lots of news about space exploration lately, but it has little to do with spacecraft flying anywhere. Rather, there’s much legislative maneuvering and political bickering about spacecraft that may never get built or launched.

NASA just unveiled its design for a powerful rocket called the Space Launch System, or SLS, which may bring— if adequate funding and any definite missions materialize — astronauts to explore asteroids or Mars.

The impetus for this rocket was congressional pressure. First the Obama administration scrapped the Bush administration’s Constellation project of renewed lunar exploration, and as the Space Shuttle Program began to end. In response, lawmakers pressed for a new heavy-lift rocket that, far from incidentally, would preserve some NASA and contractor jobs, particularly in states such as Texas and Florida that are heavy with space facilities.

There is tremendous uncertainty about future space funding and whether any future administration — or for that matter, the Obama administration — will take seriously the President’s stated goal of sending humans to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars at some later time.

Given such uncertainty, NASA has taken a cautious approach to SLS, relying on elements of Space Shuttle and Constellation technology and proposing initially a relatively modest version of the rocket and only later the real McCoy if funding allows.

NASA unveiled the design after missed deadlines sparked congressional subpoenas of agency documents. Moreover, controversy about what SLS might cost heated up recently when a figure of $62 billion (through 2025) appeared in the Wall Street Journal, spurring a rejoinder by SLS backers Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R.-Texas) and Bill Nelson (D.-Fla.) that this was a “wildly inflated” number leaked to undermine the project.

One sign that the Bush administration’s Constellation project would never be completed was that President Bush rarely, if ever, mentioned the project in public after the initial announcement. It would not be surprising if President Obama shows a similar reticence about SLS, and if the project eventually is quietly scrapped.

In other space news, the James Webb Space Telescope, the political travails of which I wrote about recently for FrumForum, has gotten a reprieve — for the moment — from a Senate subcommittee after being zeroed out by a House subcommittee. The telescope’s fate awaits a vote on the Senate floor and negotiations between Senate and House.

Securing the future of space exploration in the current fiscal environment will require policymakers to show more creativity than they have shown so far. It is not just innovative technologies that are needed to advance the space frontier but innovative funding and institutional arrangements. One possibility would be for the government to issue space bonds, securities with values linked to space exploration and development.

Another would be for NASA to greatly expand its focus on issuing monetary prizes to organizations that achieve specified targets in space exploration. Mars exploration proponent Robert Zubrin proposes one such system of prizes, culminating in a $20 billion award for a human mission to Mars and back, in his book The Case for Mars, which recently came out in a revised edition.

A sign that a mission to send humans into deep space will actually take place is if a president speaks about it (more than once) and embraces some plausible way of funding it (other than leaving the heavy lifting to future administrations). Large-scale, multi-decade space projects cannot be fueled just by the enthusiasm of legislators from sun-drenched states that happen to have a large share of space infrastructure.

Recent Posts by Kenneth Silber



12 Comments so far ↓

  • Kevin B

    I want you to be wrong about this, but I fear you are correct.

    This is like Rachel Maddow’s Lean Forward promos by Hoover Dam. Are we still a country that can do big projects where the benefits are mostly going to be for future generations (rather than a short-term capitalist profit)?

    Are we still willing to build a few “bridges to nowhere” on the promise that the so-called “nowhere” will someday be “somewhere” because there is now a bridge to get there?

  • Carney

    I could not be a bigger fan of Robert Zubrin and “The Case for Mars”, but his prize-oriented suggestion is a mere alternative footnote in the book, and in my view less viable than a traditional program.

    A prize means a big pot of money being set aside and left untouched by the politicians, waiting for the possibility that someone will complete the requirements and win it. A traditional program means an affirmative decision has been made from the get-go to get this done; if not guaranteed results than a guaranteed good-faith serious effort for results. Which do you think is more likely to get the funds appropriated, and less likely to be cut later in the event it is appropriated?

    You’re of course correct that for such a traditional program to succeed it needs top-down leadership of the JFK “before this decade is out” model.

    Here’s the inspiring documentary “The Mars Underground”, which has aired on the Science Channel and the Discovery Channel, about the struggle to make this happen.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-WppRQQld10

  • zephae

    Meanwhile, DARPA can just decide, as it recently has, to begin a 100-year starship program. Isn’t that exactly the kind of thing that could re-invigorate NASA?

    • shinnok

      You get the feeling that while NASA tries to build orbiters and craft that can go to Mars DARPA is working on Wormholes. Could it be that the DARPA’s project selection process is much more efficient or is maybe its just the huge money we though at Defense.

  • Graychin

    John Boehner and Mitch McConnell won’t fix crumbling bridges in their own districts. They say we can’t afford it.

    Obama isn’t quite crazy enough to open a dialogue about going to Mars with these guys.

    Maybe we could send Boehner and McConnell to Mars?

    • Oldskool

      I’ll second that.

      Right now we don’t have the economic foundation to do the things we used to do; no huge workforce of people educated under the GI Bill, etc, all the things listed in other threads that have left us with 3rd-world status in a lot of areas.

      If we went to the moon or Mars or an asteroid today, we’d have to plant a white flag instead of our own. We should learn to live with what robots on other planets are doing along with astronomers and physicists, which is awesome stuff.

  • ProfessorHowie

    This is an absolutely bad idea, and will be a catastrophic failure along the lines of NERVA, NASP, X-33, and Ares.

    Why does the government, especially Republicans who should know better, always opt for socialist approaches to developing space, as opposed to a free market approach?

    http://www.strategicsourceror.com/2011/09/nasas-space-launch-system-sls-just.html

  • willard landreth

    Since our republican congresspersons are convinced that a “committee” consisting of Bolden, Nelson and Hutchison can build a better mouse trap than experts. Too bad republicans haven’t tried to create jobs – oh – maybe they’ve put that to committee too.

  • baw1064

    Actually, it would be fun to start asteroid mining just to crash the price of gold…

  • Balsack

    One of the very greatest things which might bolster America’s economy and provide hope to America’s young people would be to just spend 2 Trillion Dollars on Space. We could have easily done this if we had not wasted our misallocated resources on recently fighting a few useless wars.

    Instead of building beautiful pyramids which go up into the sky, we instead chose to build pyramids which go down, instead of up.

    Speaking as one who, many years ago, was truly enthralled with the American space program, I find this new penchant for digging deep holes in the ground to be just another symptom of the fcked up thinking which is now guiding our country, in general.

    There are many in America who would give almost anything to see our country, again, gain its stride and just take off like greased lightning. There are many among us who would just love to see every single person in the United States put to work contributing to our common cause, which is to better our society for the common good.

    But, this cannot happen in a society, even an American Society, one in which there is so much true inequality. We could have continued to be a CONTENDER! But instead, we are now becoming fckd over.

    This whole situation is so extremely disheartening for people who, when we were young, thought that we were truly on the way to VERY GREAT THINGS!

    Fck, inequality, and Fck any Gini more than about 0.2. And fck you too if you do not agree with me!
    But. Just joking, of course. Because, I am Gandhi.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wz6YMrJt7xk

    Listen, Charlie. America could have had CLASS!
    America could have taken Red China, APART!

    But, now, what do we get?
    A one way ticket to Palooka Ville!