Saturday, June 10, 2006

Lost In Space

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled. ~Richard P. Feynman

Space.com had an article about the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) that will replace the shuttle, take us to the Moon and Mars, and generally go where no man has gone before. The story is essentially upbeat, but it contains some information that should give those who have hopes for revitalizing manned exploration considerable pause.

Lockheed-Martin and a Northrop-Grumman/Boeing consortium are vying for the opportunity to get lots of government money to build something that will replace the space shuttle. It's doubtful to me, based on what I'm reading here, that it has little chance of succeeding as any kind of interplanetary vehicle.

Here are a few gems from the article:

-- The CEV has to fly by 2014 because it "is vital to what's dubbed the Constellation Systems, the spaceship, boosters and interrelated hardware needed to tend the International Space Station, return to the Moon by 2020, and plant footprints on Mars in future years.” Yet later we're told that the shuttle will be out of business by 2010. So evidently we're going to outsource support of the ISS to the Russians or the Chinese.

-- “ 'NASA is not pushing a lot of technology around the exploration program at least I don't see it," said Art Stephenson, Sector Vice President, Space Exploration Systems, Northrop Grumman Integrated Systems. 'They are more interested in getting the job done. To do that you need to reduce risk and that means using existing technology,' he told SPACE.com.” With this kind of attitude, we'd have tried to get to the Moon in 1969 by using a modified Wright Flyer.

-- Stephenson then qualifies his statement to say that NASA will be embracing some new technologies, but he then puts his “management hat” on and says, 'But when budgets are tight, its hard to bring in new technology. That adds risk and cost to the program.' ” He justifies the use of old technology by saying that Apollo technology was far less than what's available now, conveniently omitting to mention that it was light years ahead of what was available THEN.

-- A bit of praise for Lockheed-Martins development of heat shields states that the Genesis and Stardust probes “hit right on target” when returning to Earth. In the case of Genesis, that's a particularly apt description.

-- The CEV is old space capsule technology (hence all the references to Apollo). Here we are, 50 years after the X-15, 40 years after designs for Dyna-Soar, and what are we talking about? Space capsules. Why? Because they're proven technology.

So, basically, space exploration is going to be driven by MBA's instead of Ph.D.'s.

Somehow, these people (and presumably NASA) have determined that using technologies that have resulted in two failed space stations, two shuttle disasters, and astronaut deaths in Russia and the U.S. during the race to the moon is somehow now going to to be all safe and warm.
My god, has the Enron management team taken over NASA?

If spaceflight is ever going to become practical, the current methods of sending people up and getting them back is going to have to change drastically. Ironically, new technologies have been tested by NASA, most notably Deep Space 1. But that's science stuff, and NASA and the government have decided that space is business, not science.

Interestingly, there seems to be no tie-ins with the private sector rocketry. These guys are all using old technology, and most of them can't even get off the ground. Even Burt Rutan hasn't even run a test flight since winning the Ansari Prize. So, evidently, that supposed we-can-do-it-without-federal-money philosophy has proven to be nothing more than fantasy.

Without a radical change in technology, spaceflight is going to be very costly. The only sensible way to pursue manned exploration is with international efforts. The ISS has shown it can work, unless one of the main partners has a bankrupt space program and the other has an aging one. The main reason that the ISS hasn't lived up to its promise is that the main delivery and maintenance vehicle, the shuttle, has become a liability. The U.S. has let its partners down. Now, CEV promises to be another let down. If all we want is a glorified Apollo capsule system, we might as well buy Soyuz capsules from the Russians, which might help their solvency problems. Or maybe wait for the new improved version from the Chinese.

When it comes to learning what's out there, we found that robots can do the job amazingly well. The reason for sending people out into space should not be for gathering some rocks; it should be for colonization, as a stepping stone to the stars.

And we're not going to the stars with yesterday's technology.

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