Thursday, January 1, 2009

Thoughts On Ares, Constellation, and Beyond

Article Link (from the International Herald Tribune): The Fight Over NASA's Future

Apparently there is a bunch of growing tensions between Michael Griffin, the current head of NASA and a Bush appointee, and the incoming Obama administration. The two apparent bones of contention are whether Griffin will keep his job, and the future of the ARES rocket program. More detailed info is in the linked article, above.

First, I can't say I've been a fan of just about any of Bush's science policies. But one of the (very) few things I think he did right was re-focus the country's space efforts back into manned exploration. After the ISS was completed, it was the next logical step anyway.

Griffin, however, had it exactly wrong when he said the US space policy was misguided post-Apollo. Not at all. What NASA did was outline a long-term approach to exploring the solar system, first by sending out probes and robotic emissaries as scouts, and at the same time building a kind of 'step ladder' of outposts and waystations for human explorers into the Great Dark. I've heard this plan occasionally called NASA's 'Grand Architecture' for space exploration.

The shuttle was the first component; intended to haul heavy loads cheaply into iorbit for construction of the first of these outpsosts, which later became the ISS. Both systems in turn would help build the later generation of stations, including an outpost at the Earth-Moon L-1 point to facilitate future lunar exploration, outposts at L-4 and L-5, and more into the future.

It was a measured, smart man's plan that unfortunately came to maturity in a stupid man's political climate. Most people don't realize that rockets, re-entry capsule, and other such hardware are only part of the equation of human space exploration. The other is building long-enduring, human-friendly habitats away from Earth, a capability we are still very much struggling with. The presence of these stations and outposts would basically allow for a permanent supply chain of needed resources to anywhere human explorers would go in the near future.

Unfortunately, money for very complex rocket science is controlled by populist anti-intellectual luddites, aka Congress, and NASA found itself making many compromises just to hold onto its funding. As a result, the general mission for both the Shuttle and the ISS have been diluted to the point that NASA's old 'Grand Architecture' scheme is all but unrecognizable today.

Griffin, perhaps justifiably in the light of this, wants to return to an Apollo-style overall plan, which I guess could be called the 'Space Direct' scheme. If you want to go anywhere in the solar system, you launch directly from Earth, no waystations (theoretically) needed. This is the whole point of his baby, the Constellation program.

However, Griffin has gone about trying to achieve this in what is reportedly a very hard-headed, politically-charged, and heavy-handed way, very typical for a Bush appointee. Details can be found in the article. This is why I think he should be scuppered; he'll butt heads too many times with the Obama administration, and nothing will get done. The Constellation program should continue, even the embattled ARES I rocket, but perhaps following an independent review to see what could be done better.

One thing I would like to see happen is extending shuttle flights until the Orion capsules can start flying crews itself. The US should NOT go without manned spaceflight capability, dependent on other countries, for half a decade as Griffin wanted to happen. We have the shuttles, they're flight-worthy and useful still, so let's use them. Yes, two shuttles met with disaster. But then again, so did two Apollo missions (Apollo 1 and 13.) And the Russians, who we were supposed to be dependent on from 2010 to 2015, have had a far worse safety record with space flight (well over 100 casualties--that we know of.)

I do want to see the Constellation program succeed, but I think it inevitable some changes are going to have to be made, and I really don't think Griffin should remain as part of the equation.

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