Tuesday, January 26, 2010

NASA's budget: to boldly go into a real mess

NASA's budget is continuing to leak out, and all kinds of stuff is going to change. The Ares-I might be dead. Heck, the entire NASA human spaceflight program might be put on (minimal) life support. There's support in the White House for outsourcing the most visible and costly thing NASA does, which is putting astronauts into LEO. There is a lack of support in Congress, though. Aside from the politics, we have the problem of facing the post-Shuttle future with nothing currently proven as a human spaceflight launch vehicle. Ares is a long way off if it continues at all. The existing Atlas and Delta launchers have good records and could be "man-rated" to carry the Orion capsule (itself far less capable than originally projected), although it's not a simple, quick, or cheap process.
COMMENTS: We also have startup companies. I believe Elon Musk and his people at SpaceX will succeed with their new Falcon 9 / Dragon vehicle combo, but history says everything you do in space takes longer and costs more than the best projections made in the R&D phases. So we'll have to see how well it works out. The U.S. is, by default, embarking for some years on a major international venture: hiring Russia as the sole provider to put our astronauts up. We can build on that and turn disadvantage into long-term advantage. It's time for NASA to look at everything it does, compare the goals, objectives, and technologies to what's being done overseas, and build on its praiseworthy legacy of joint missions to reinvent the agency as a core component of a global spaceflight program. This is not easy, not cheap (NASA's decision to use English units of measurement on Ares / Orion will haunt us for decades), and not politically popular. But the alternatives are...well, in the current budget climate, what are they, really?

REALLY EMPHATIC VERSION OF USUAL DISCLAIMER: I speak here ONLY as a private citizen / space historian.

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