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Lost In LEO

by Bruce Moomaw
San Francisco - Feb 23, 2003
In my most recent piece on the implications of the Columbia accident, I said that "Whether or not it turns out that NASA is indeed still seriously underestimating the risk of fatal Shuttle accidents -- as they unquestionably did before Challenger -- that is not even the main scandal in this case."

I stand by that statement. And while I gather that accusations are now flying that I am opposed to the human spirit of exploration or to the potential of commercial exploration of space, those accusations are -- to put it bluntly -- pure twaddle. I've been personally fascinated by space exploration for 38 years having caught the bug from Arthur C. Clarke.

I am no more "anti-space" than Freeman S. Dyson, who is considered sufficiently "pro-space" that he's on NASA's Advisory Council. And the comments he made about space exploration in the November 1997 Atlantic Monthly deserve careful consideration:

"In the future, the two aims of the space program will be pursued separately. The twenty years since the birth of the Shuttle have seen spectacular progress in the technologies of data processing, remote sensing, and autonomous navigation. With these technologies almost all the practical needs of science, commerce, and national security, are better served by unmanned missions, rather than by the Shuttle.

"The future shape of a manned program pursuing idealistic aims is the great unknown... Does the manned space program have a future?

"The confusion of aims afflicting the space program from the beginning was in essence a confusion of time frames. The practical aims of scientific and military activities in space made sense in a time frame of ten years; the basic technology for unmanned space missions took only ten years to develop.

"The aim of opening the skies to human exploration and adventure makes sense in a time frame of a hundred years -- what it will probably take to develop the technologies needed for significant numbers of human explorers to roam space at a price that earthbound citizens will consider reasonable.

"The Apollo missions, tied to a ten-year time frame, gave a false start to human exploration. They were far too costly to be sustained, and at the end of the ten-year program they had reached a dead end.

"If it had been made clear from the beginning that manned exploration would be a hundred-year program -- one with a stable and affordable budget -- we might by now have a light two-passenger spacecraft instead of the Shuttle. We might already have a few people learning how to live permanently on the Moon, using only local resources.

"We are now at the beginning of a revolution in space technology, when for the first time cheapness will be mandatory. Missions that are not cheap will not fly. This is bad news for space explorers in the short run, and good news in the long run...

"The essential step in making either unmanned or manned operations cheap is to eliminate the standing army of people at Mission Control who take care of communication with spacecraft day after day. Spacecraft and the instruments they carry must become completely autonomous. The second step is to develop new technologies for launching payloads into space cheaply...

"The coming age of cheap space operations will begin with unmanned missions, which will exercise the new technologies of propulsion and operation. Cheap manned missions will come later. Cheap unmanned missions require only new engineering; cheap manned missions will require new biotechnology...

"No law of physics or biology forbids cheap travel and settlement all over the solar system and beyond. But it is impossible to predict how long this will take. Predictions of the dates of future achievements are notoriously fallible. My guess is that the era of cheap unmanned missions will be the next 50 years, and the era of cheap manned missions will start sometime late in the 21st century...

"My date for the beginning of cheap manned exploration and settlement is based on a historical analogy: from Columbus' first voyage across the Atlantic to the settlement of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts was 128 years. So I am guessing that in 2085, 128 years after the launch of the first Sputnik, the private settlement of pilgrims all over the solar system will begin.

"The main lesson I draw from the history of space activity in this century is that we must clearly separate short-term from long-term aims. The dream of expanding the domain of life from Earth into the universe makes sense only as a long-term goal. Any affordable program of manned exploration must be centered in biology, and its time frame tied to the time of biotechnology: a hundred years, roughly... is probably reasonable."

Exactly.

The central scandal of NASA consists of three parts:

  1. NASA always knew that there would be enormously less need for manned spaceflights at all, for whole decades after the Apollo flights, than it has made out.

  2. NASA always knew that, on those relatively infrequent occasions during the next few decades when manned spaceflight may be justified, it could be accomplished with a vehicle both cheaper and far safer than the Shuttle -- using technology that has been available to NASA even before the Shuttle, which it knew to be unavoidably and uncorrectably a very dangerous vehicle because of its fundamental design.

  3. It methodically concealed truths and presented false claims as facts for decades in order to maintain the flow of American taxpayer funds to the agency for the Shuttle and for the Space Station.

These facts have been obvious to virtually all observers of the manned spaceflight program for decades, and there is very little I can say about them that hasn't already been said by many other journalists, engineers, and scientists in many other places.

A good starting point is Glenn Easterbrook's series of articles that began 23 years ago with his April 1980 piece on the Shuttle in the "Washington Monthly" (which foresees, with eerie accuracy, virtually every terrible thing that would happen to the program in the years since), running through his series of pieces in the New Republic, and through to his latest piece on his interpretation of the meaning of the Columbia disaster in "Time" (Feb 10).

Most of these articles (including the 1980 one) are available on the Web. They should be required reading for all space analysts and Congressmen.

I also recommend William E. Burrows' book "This New Ocean" (a runnerup for the 1999 Pulitzer Prize in History), and experienced aerospace engineer T.A. Heppenheimer's equally good 1997 history of NASA, "Countdown".

Among shorter pieces, I recommend Heppenheimer's articles on the Space Station in the May 1991 "Reason" and on NASA in general in the Nov. 1992 "American Heritage".

I also recommend Alex Roland's series of book reviews in the March 12, 1998 "Nature"; Sen. Dale Bumpers' bitter op-ed on the Space Station in the August 10, 1998 Aviation Week; and Dennis Overbye's equally bitter and lethally prophetic column in the June 10, 1991 "Time".

Through these books and articles and the countless reports that have documented the cost overruns and reduced performance results of so much of the shuttle and station program, a reader can find everything he needs to know about the bizarre -- and spectacularly dishonest -- path by which NASA first tricked Congress and the White House into narrowly approving both the Shuttle and the Station.

And ever since narrowly persuaded them to continue that support through a combination of continuing deception and wholesale political bribery that has kept legions of Congressmen happy with gilt edge pork for their home state.

The entire story, however, can be nicely summarized by two comments: The first is from an anonymous ex-NASA official to a "Time" magazine reporter after the Challenger disaster: "We hated to do it, but we were getting SO many votes."

The second is from President Reagan's chief science advisor George Keyworth several years before that tragedy: "All government agencies lie part of the time, but NASA is the only one I know of that does so routinely."

Keyworth later had his nose rubbed in that fact, when then-NASA Administrator James Beggs told Reagan and Congress that the Space Station would cost only $8 billion -- despite the fact that his own engineers were setting the price at $30 billion -- simply because Beggs' PR specialists had told him that $8 billion was the most Congress and the White House would be willing to pay at the time.

Beggs also used his personal ties with Reagan advisors William Clark and William French Smith to make sure that Keyworth and OMB Dirctor David Stockman were kept off the board appointed to judge the Station's feasibility, and that the board was instead stuffed with his personal allies.

Afterwards, NASA simply resorted to the time-honored "Camel's Nose" technique that had worked earlier with the Shuttle: raise your estimate of the project's cost and lower your estimate of its utility a little each year, while arguing that it must be continued anyway or the money already spent will have been wasted.

Regarding the form America's space program should take at this point, I recommend "Veteran Designer Offers Reconfigurable Alternative to NASA Space Station" in the January 13, 1992 Aviation Week -- and I very strongly recommend Robert C. Truax's "The Future of Earth-to-Orbit Propulsion" in the January 1999 "Aerospace America".

Truax -- the very experienced engineer who was the main figure in conceiving the Polaris missile back in the late 1950s -- is perhaps the wisest Cassandra of all. He accurately predicted the physical and fiscal disasters that would riddle the Shuttle program all the way back in the mid-Seventies; and had his "Sea Dragon" alternative launch system (or at least most of its aspects) been accepted, both America and the cause of space exploration and commercial exploitation would have been spared an enormous amount of grief.

But before I talk about possible workable designs for manned spaceships, we should get back to the more basic point made by Dyson and so many others: why do we need manned space missions -- and, in particular, why do we need large numbers of them in the next two decades?




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