Questions from the HSF committee... a running monologue

Vision Restoration is a blog dedicated to... well, if I say it it will sound trite or corny or jargony. The "Vision" stands for W.'s Vision for Space Exploration, which was a very promising roadmap for building up the nation's civil spacefaring infrastructure in politically palatable chunks. The "Restoration" is because NASA lifers and congressrodents with NASA centers quickly gutted the positive parts and turned the whole thing into a long-running jobs program. Obama commissioned a panel to find out what the fuck happened, and they returned pretty much the same recommendations that the VSE people came up with 6 years earlier... and, for that matter, pretty much the same suggestions that a similar commission in 1994 came up with. Namely:
  1. NASA does not have enough money to do anything meaningful outside low Earth orbit (LEO), at least not the ways NASA has to do things thanks to aforementioned b's & c's.
  2. We will never develop the infrastructure and technology to change that fact unless NASA loses its literal deathgrip on the LEO launch and space-station market and lets commercial companies do what they do - try, fail, and then try better.
Vision Restoration has a series of Deep Questions for the HSF Committee in a sort of open-letter format. I'm just going to scat while I read the music.
"1. Are beyond-LEO exploration and fitting the budget really incompatible?

Two of the goals in the Committee's
charter were to fit the budget and to enable beyond-LEO exploration. However, only two of the options presented by the Committee fit the budget, and neither of these options enable beyond-LEO exploration in a meaningful time frame.
True enough. But let's be real: what is "meaningful time frame?" I would argue 4 years, maybe 6 if we're lucky. It took the VSE about 2 to get fully gutted, and that was with the same party in the WH and both HoC's. Apollo was essentially dead in the cradle after 9 years, and even that took an assassinated war-hero President followed by a spendthrift from the South who couldn't imagine his good fortune at having a massive industrial cock-off to throw money at his region. Either of the two budget-fitting options are going to lead the same place due to economical realities; one of them gets there sooner.

The big-ticket potatoes in the current Constellation soup are as follows:
  1. A medium-lift rocket to get humans into orbit (Ares I)
  2. A pod to carry those humans into orbit, and also into deep space (Orion)
  3. A heavy-lift rocket to lift supplies and the lunar lander (Ares V)
  4. The lunar lander (Altair)
Of these, there is only a pressing nationals need for #1, and the first half of #2. It is politically unacceptable and economic seppuku to keep buying rides to the ISS from Russians. These are what we're really deciding on. Everything else is gravy on the gravy train that is NASA jobs. The committee presented 5 options and 3 sub-options, but there were really only 3 realistic choices.
  • The first was the program of record. It is an "option" because DC might have just gotten to the point where they see literally no point to NASA beyond buying votes in districts with NASA centers. This would be a quick, silent kill of the US civil space program. It would continue on in budget alone, but American space capability would essentially be done until the military or private industry took it up.
  • The second was the second choice, with budget constrained to current sizes. It assumed that the civil human spaceflight program had some utility besides graft, and therefore it arranged for basic human spaceflight capabilities to LEO to be picked up by competent organizations (not NASA) on a fixed-price basis. At the same time, it still managed to throw the majority of taxpayer money down the rathole of a heavy lift vehicle we won't need for a hundred years, a deep space capsule that we can't launch, and a moon lander that... well, it's a fucking moon lander and we can't even get to LEO after 2011, so figure out how serious they are about that one.
  • The third option wasn't presented because it was as much a political fairy tale as #2 was a technical and economic fairy tale. It was discussed in some of the meetings by Jeff Greason and Sally Ride, though, and it was as follows: shut down NASA centers that design vehicles. Contract each vehicle out to 3-4 commercial vendors on the COTS model. This is how a private company would do things. Private companies probably aren't quite there yet. But it was what could be if this was a market.
"2. Why wasn't a Phase I EELV HLV or similar HLV included in any options?
...It also wouldn't be bad if a smaller HLV encourages us to perfect our skills at refueling, ISRU, reusable space-only craft, frequent low-cost launch, docking, and assembly. All of these skills may find productive use outside NASA exploration. Enabling such capabilities may prove to be more important than NASA's actual exploration itself.
That's an easy one. Because it might work. The committee knew, as anyone who takes an honest look knows, that HLV's are the exact opposite of what is needed. We need more launches. A lot more launches. Since there's no obvious demand for lots more launches, that means we need to launch smaller things, more. And that means that we need to pour our effort into on-orbit assembly, on-orbit propellant storage, and clustered smallsat technologies. A working HLV would destroy NASA. If they had an HLV, not only would they need the huge overhead required to maintain it, but they would need something to launch on it to justify the expense. And they can't pay for both the overhead and the mission.

NASA's ideal is to only pay for one of them. Given the choice between overhead and mission, overhead is clearly the safer option. Missions can fail; the worst thing overhead can do is not succeed - at which it is very successful. NASA wants to pay people to design rockets that will never fly at anything beyond experimental capacity and flight rates. That is why the only serious HLV options were NASA-made. And if NASA senses themselve getting too close to an actual operational system, we will find that the requirements creep every higher. Unlike with medium lift, no private entities are in a position to call that bluff, and if I'm right about the economic drivers of space exploration, they won't be for at least a hundred years. So it's a nice, safe kitty.
"3. Should Earth orbit be included in the Flexible Path?
there are Earth orbits beyond LEO that could be useful for satellite servicing, remote sensing, and other purposes.
This is an interesting bit of foreshadowing. The answer is, of course, yes. Once there is an infrastructure in LEO, and some more long-term paper projects are inevitably cancelled in a fit of righteous congressional dollar-smelling, NASA will find itself in much the same uninspiring place as it finds itself now, only pushed out past the Van Allen belts. NASA will someday cling to MEO and GEO manned missions like it does today to LEO manned missions, after it fails miserably to even dent Lunar or deep-space manned missions. And once again, private industry will outpace NASA's capabilities there, just as it is currently doing in LEO. And then NASA or whatever or whoever plays the role then will bounce to the next place, maybe the Lagrange points or the Moon or NEOs, and so on ad infinitum. That may sound cynical, but it's the ad infinitum that is important.
"4. Should Venus orbit be included in the Flexible Path?
Cool idea. Obscure and over-reaching, but cool nonetheless. Let's tackle this one again in 2060. When I am... 80 years old. Sigh.
"5. What is the real goal of human space exploration?

The Augustine Committee's report states the following:

A human landing followed by an extended human presence on Mars stands prominently above all other opportunities for exploration.
I guess all government space committees have to come through with some sort of sci-fi geek vaseline like this. To their credit, the HSF committed kept it short. Their real stated ultimate goal was not Mars - it was permanent human settlement of space. Now that is a real goal. The concept of going to Mars, or even the Moon right now, is ridiculous and arrogant. We are not close. It is almost too bad we managed Apollo; it distorted everyone's view of what is really possible. You can climb a mountain, and you can build a road up the mountain. If you climb it, it will be quite quick and easy. But if you want to make it a routine, you have to build a road. And building a road is phenomenally, incomparably harder than climbing.

I love climbing mountains, don't get me wrong. And maybe it's the proper thing to do in space. Perhaps space is so hostile and foreign that living and working there is not a reasonable thing to expect to be able to do, ever. In which case, save up some money and take a trip to Mars, by all means. Or, you know, mortgage your country's future, whatever. Lots of suicidal people climb Everest. But if you believe that settlement and commerce are the true reasons for the frontier, then you need to start building that road. And that's not glamourous. It took a lot more work, and no doubt killed more people, to build the road from Kathmandu to Base Camp, than it did to climb from Base Camp to the summit. But without the first, the second was not possible.

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