The shuttle Discovery, as everyone knows by now, made it back in one piece, no thanks to Michael Griffin. It is clear that some folks at NASA didn't share his optimism that everything was okey-dokey and who-needs-to-listen-to-safety-managers-anyway attitude. The last inspection for 'micrometeorites” was particularly interesting. Micrometeorites have never been a major concern with the shuttle; why there was so much interest in them, particularly as they might relate to the edge of the wings. But, an interest in the wing edges just might have indicated that some of the folks in Houston were more than a little concerned about those “unimportant” pieces of foam that came loose, despite their statements to the contrary.
However, what I really wanted to discuss is the Space Frontier Foundation (SFF). According to the provocatively titled article “NASA Vision Plans Doomed, Space Advocacy Group Reports” over at Space.com, the SFF has determined that the whole Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) thing is a dumb idea. Well, I certainly agree with that, but the story goes on to state that NASA is messing up implementing the President's space “vision”. Since Mr. Bush applied this vision in tandem with budget cuts to NASA, how they could actually succeed in the first place is open to debate. Further, it was obvious from the get-go that the “vision” was some political malarkey to deflect everyone from the mess in Iraq for a few minutes.
But, the SFF report shows that they've got an agenda with this NASA-bashing. This group wants a law passed to force NASA to buy ISS support services from private companies, despite the fact that the private space business isn't exactly crowded. In fact, the number of people who could launch ISS modules or supplies in sufficient quantity to keep the station operational number exactly zero.
What these supporters of private enterprise want is for the government to shift a few billion bucks from the CEV and its companion devices to the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS), meaning these free enterprise supporters want a pile of taxpayer dollars to kickstart their own underfunded, under-researched, under-engineered abortive efforts to make a quick buck.
Let's look at the state of private sector space flight. Burt Rutan is building his fleet of SpaceShipTwo's, so people say. Except that he's not testing anything, at least where anyone can see it. To me, it would be rather strange to build a bunch of space ships without doing at least one test. Some guy named Bigelow launched an orbiting blimp on top of a Russian-Ukranian rocket into space, something NASA did years ago. But, Rutan loved it because now his mythical spaceships can fly mythical millionaire passengers to mythical Motel 6's in space.
So much for the successes. Remember all those guys going for the Ansari X prize? Hasn't it gone quiet? Well, SpaceX finally launched Falcon 1, which promptly blew up. It turns out that there was a propellant leak, caused by corrosion of an aluminum nut on a steel fitting. So we have a spaceship company that doesn't have enough engineering sense to a) have sensors to detect propellant leaks, and b) doesn't have anyone with enough knowledge to know that dissimilar metals in an oxidizing atmosphere will make a nice battery that corrodes like crazy.
And then there's the Russians, who are trying to make space into a paying business. Recently, they announced that for a mere $15 million, they will let you take a space walk at the ISS. That's in addition to the 20 million bucks to get you there and, theoretically, back. I'm sure the ISS astronauts are looking forward to having to put some rich dude on a tether and drag him around outside for a while, all the time hoping against hope that he doesn't break something or get them all killed.
Just to let that potential spacewalker know how good his chances of getting back in one piece are, a Russian launched rocket managed to crash, taking out 19 satellites in one fell swoop. Gosh, the space business sure is booming ... literally.
It is ironic that the SFF, looking at this track record, is begging the government for money, given that Burt Rutan, after one of his SpaceShipOne tests, talked on and on about corporate innovation and how, by golly, he showed the government how to do it. What he did was show the space entrepreneurs how to do it: Use technology developed by the government, then neglect to tell people that. Makes for much better press than, "Thanks to years of NASA developement and the government contracts I've gotten, I was able to create something that the government was able to do in the 1950's."
The SFF goes the next logical step and demands the government pay them outright to use old technology (developed in federal programs most likely). Who is this SFF, anyway?
I checked out their web site and discovered that one of their cofounders was a real estate magnate, while the other's (a “visionary”) claim to fame seems to be creating animations for the Air Force. Other board members include:
In other words, the SFF is a group shilling for commercial spaceflight outfits. There's no vision beyond tossing people into low orbit for large amounts of money. Spaceflight in the hands of a bunch of companies trying to cut each other's throats is no different that the non-cooperation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that wasted so many years. Had the nations of the world cooperated on a common set of missions to space, we would have landed on Mars by now.
- a psychology major who is real interested in commercial space flight;
- an aerospace engineer who liked business more than engineering and who didn't much care for space “activism” (but somehow decided that SFF was a good thing);
- a “political consultant” (i.e. lobbyist);
- an investor in commercial space endeavors;
- a geologist who wrote to President Kennedy when she was nine asking to go into space;
- and a former consultant who is now owner of a company (with the catchy initials CSI) that actually was a NASA subcontractor.
The SFF wants to leave the real missions, like science and exploration, to NASA, but they want NASA's budget handed over to them gratis so they can line their pockets for a while until they've killed off a joy-riding millionaire or two. At that point, they'll be regulated or litigated out of existence, but the only ones that'll lose will be the stockholders and the taxpayers who funded the companies and their spaceports.
Poor Ken Lay; how much fun he could have had in this "industry".