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White House Panel Considers New Paths To Space 151

Neil H. writes "The White House's Human Space Flight Plans blue-ribbon panel (the 'Augustine panel') has posted the material from their first public meeting on the future of NASA's spaceflight program, which was held on Wednesday. NASA officials presented their Ares I rocket plans and their belief that they can work around its design flaws, with projected development costs ballooning to $35 billion. The panel also heard several alternative proposals, such as adapting already-existing EELV and SpaceX rockets to carry crew to orbit; these proposals would have better safety margins than the Ares I, be ready sooner, and cost NASA less than $2 billion to complete, but are politically unattractive."
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White House Panel Considers New Paths To Space

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  • If we have to choose (Score:5, Interesting)

    by HangingChad ( 677530 ) on Sunday June 21, 2009 @08:48AM (#28409963) Homepage

    If we have to make a choice between health care and building a moon base, I say go with the less expensive lift vehicles and health care.

    The moon base will just have to wait.

  • Re:Men on the moon (Score:2, Interesting)

    by khallow ( 566160 ) on Sunday June 21, 2009 @09:28AM (#28410139)
    What near future goals are furthered by people living on the Moon? And is there a more effective way to achieve those goals than with a lunar outpost? I guess my chief problem with this sort of advocacy is that there is an obsession with far future needs (like human survival or the economic benefits of a human civilization predominately in space) with little attention paid to the gritty details of how to get from today to that wonderful tomorrow.

    A lunar colony with little to no near future return on investment won't work in the long run. It's well above the disposable cash that the US (or collectively the world which has roughly 2 to 3 times the space budget of the US) spends on such things. My view is that the economics are the chief obstacle to space development and exploration. A big space project needs to make somewhere around 5-20% of its overall cost in some sort of value every year. If your project can't do that, then the money is probably better spent on space projects that can do that.
  • by Attila the Bun ( 952109 ) on Sunday June 21, 2009 @09:28AM (#28410141)

    But even I have to question the sanity of pouring billions and billions of dollars into an organization so fscked up that they have to reinvent technology they provably had over forty years ago, and who keep losing people and equipment because they refuse to listen to their own engineers.

    Standards have changed since 1969. The Apollo programme was expensive and dangerous. Building another Apollo mission today would still be expensive and dangerous, and worst of all it wouldn't meet modern ambitions. NASA is looking at building an inhabited lunar outpost, visiting an asteroid, launching a large deep-space telescope, and a mission to Mars. It might be a short hop from the Moon to Mars on a poster of the solar system; in real space it's a whole different prospect. Doing new stuff requires new technology.

  • by isolationism ( 782170 ) on Sunday June 21, 2009 @09:40AM (#28410215) Homepage
    The Manifold series predicted many of the problems we have here today; the aging Shuttle fleet, the private entrepreneurs trying to step up to the plate to supply heavy lifting capability, and all the political BS from "The Gun Club" (NASA) cock-blocking the private entrepreneurs.

    There's also no small mention of how asteroids are flying goldmines. If we want to head off-planet, it would be wise to take advantage of resources that aren't already at the bottom of a gravity well that costs what, $30,000/lb. to LEO?
  • by Celc ( 1471887 ) on Sunday June 21, 2009 @09:51AM (#28410265)
    If it's a grand project you want I suggest you go manhattan-project on fusion power, the costs would be enormous and the benefit likewise.
  • Re:Men on the moon (Score:5, Interesting)

    by camperdave ( 969942 ) on Sunday June 21, 2009 @09:55AM (#28410291) Journal
    That means both reusable capsule technology and low-cost fuel.

    Fuel costs are at the level of noise in the costs of running a rocket. Liquid hydrogen costs $3-$4 per kilogram. The shuttle goes through 10600 kg of liquid hydrogen, so thats only $40,000. Liquid oxygen is about ten cents a kilogram, or $60,000 per launch. It costs an average of $450,000,000 to launch a shuttle, so even if fuel prices quadrupled, they'd still be less than 1% of the total cost of a launch.

    The problem with the fuel is that it is in the wrong location. We need fuel depots in strategic orbits: Low Earth Orbit, Lunar orbit, etc. The bulk of the mass that you lift to do a space mission is fuel, and the more massive the payload, the bigger and more expensive the rocket you need. You may be able to reduce the cost of a mission by launching several smaller rockets rather than a single large rocket.

    I agree with the reusability aspect, although I'd rather see an HL-42 [astronautix.com] style crew module rather than the Orion. Ideally, that would only be to "shuttle" the crew from planetside to orbit and back. Once in orbit, they'd go to the Moon or Mars in a much larger Trans-hab/Bigelow styled craft.
  • by cjsm ( 804001 ) on Sunday June 21, 2009 @10:03AM (#28410365)
    In a NYT article in the Sunday Magazine, Buzz Aldin thinks the Russians have a better idea in going to Phobos as a stepping stone to Mars. The moon..."is not promising for commercial activities."

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/21/magazine/21fob-q4-t.html?ref=magazine [nytimes.com]
  • Re:ownership (Score:5, Interesting)

    by hey! ( 33014 ) on Sunday June 21, 2009 @10:15AM (#28410435) Homepage Journal

    There's considerable truth to what you say. However what exactly is being claimed doesn't have to be the space equivalent of real estate.

    In the 1960s, a race to claim thenational prestige of doing things first drove the space race. The early goals, being relatively simpler and more closely spaced in an absolute difficulty, encouraged a leapfrog approach to competition. Going to the Moon earned the ultimate "shut your mouth" bragging rights. It was a huge jump, and the Soviets had no chance of beating us to it. All they could do is watch, knowing that sooner or later they'd have to send a message of congratulation to whoever the US president was going to be. The Soviets were forced drop their sights to Earth orbit -- more practical in countless ways, but a loss in the prestige race.

    Now I happen remember the Moon landing. I was only eight, but I read the newspaper every day. Not a few folks wondered why we didn't claim the Moon. We were planting our flag there, after all, in the time honored colonial fashion, so in their simple-minded way of looking at things it ought to be ours, fair and square. What those people didn't realize was that if we'd done that, we'd have wasted all the money we spent getting there. We weren't staking a claim to the most barren land ever trod by human feet. We were staking a claim for leadership of our species. Not absolute leadership of course, but a kind of first among equals status. That was worth far more to America than ownership of lunar real estate might have been. The only way to get it was to plant our flag there in the name of all humanity.

    One wonders if the course of the Cold War would have gone differently if we had turned the Apollo Program into a land grab. Even decades later, as the great technology transfer program that is the H-1B visa program got into full swing, I'd meet young foreign engineers who were delighted to be in the US, because they imagined America to be the great driver of human technological progress.

  • by jstults ( 1406161 ) on Sunday June 21, 2009 @12:25PM (#28411353) Homepage
    I'll agree with you about lack of vision/leadership, but that is a symptom not a cause. The system rewards and promotes a certain type of manager, right now NASA's system promotes and rewards bureaucrats (like most gov orgs, I'm not just picking on NASA) rather than technically competent leaders. You get the leadership that the system gives you, this has nothing to do with funding levels. I've seen really great leaders do awesome stuff on a shoestring. I've consistently been impressed by the technical competence of NASA engineers in my field (especially out of Langley), but as a taxpayer I've been consistently disappointed by their management (you're right, many other orgs have the same problems).
  • Mass driver (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 21, 2009 @12:47PM (#28411487)

    If we're going to be blowing away massive amounts of money how about a mass driver? At least it's reusable.


  • by Graymalkin ( 13732 ) on Sunday June 21, 2009 @01:09PM (#28411693)

    NASA's highest budget years (in today's dollars) were 1963-69 and topped out at 5.5% of the federal budget. In the 70s this dropped to below 2% then below 1% where it stayed until the late 80s early 90s where it went back to 1%. It then went back down below 1% and has stayed there since. The total cost of Apollo was somewhere around $145b in today's dollars. For comparison the ISS is at about $150b with about $100b of that being paid by the US. The Interstate highway system between 1956 and 1991 cost about $500b and World War II cost about $288b. The Big Dig doesn't even come remotely close to these so your sense of scale is a little distorted. I wonder though which megaprojects do you think we should have taken on after Apollo but neglected to because we all decided to be pussies? Apollo only had as much funding and Congressional interest as it took to beat the USSR to the Moon. Once we landed there everyone stopped giving a shit and cut NASA's funding in half. Don't kid yourself, Apollo was an awesome project that advanced many fields of science significantly but it was undertaken as a dig swinging contest with the USSR.

    In terms of rockets, while the Titans were a relatively dependable family they were expensive and dangerous. The current batch of EELVs beats the biggest Titan IV in lifting capability and price. I can't find any specifics on the Titan V's proposed payloads or costs but if they're anything like the Titan 3L2 and 3L4 studies done in the 60s they would have been expensive but impressive LVs. As it stands though the existing Delta IV and Altas V heavy variants are cheaper and have good lifting capacity. With nominal upgrades both EELVs can be man-rated and easily capable of both ISS and Lunar Orion launches. It would also mean that NASA is opening up a market for man-rated HLVs. This fulfills your proposal for opening a factory and building rockets on a massive scale. You're not going to see SBS systems any time soon as they're impractical to build and launch from Earth but there's a lot of missions that will become tenable if the cost of HLVs comes down due to demand.

  • Re:Men on the moon (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Hubbell ( 850646 ) <brianhubbellii AT live DOT com> on Sunday June 21, 2009 @09:20PM (#28415267)
    Nuclear Rockets [wikipedia.org] are the ideal choice, but just like reactors the public is insanely averse to anything with the word nuclear in it.
  • Re:Men on the moon (Score:3, Interesting)

    by demachina ( 71715 ) on Monday June 22, 2009 @12:11AM (#28416573)

    "What we ought to be looking at is beginning construction of a moon base and the development of the infrastructure to perform longhaul transport back and forth from the Earth to the Moon."

    NASA has had a problem since Apollo of plucking a goal out of the air to use as a justification to keep the manned space program alive, without actually setting a goal that really makes sense and is worth doing. We need to figure out a reason or reasons to have a base on the moon, ideally some reasons with some benefits that will justify the massive expenditure of resources. Without that it will end up exactly like Apollo and ISS. We will spend huge amounts of money and when we finally get there everyone will be asking why did we spend all this money and what do we do now that we are here just like Apollo and ISS. Luckily for Apollo there were a lot of technology spin offs but I wouldn't count on that being the case the second time around since. There is a lot more reusing existing technology while under Apollo there was a necessity for some huge breakthroughs or it wouldn't have been possible.

    If you could mine helium-3 on the moon and solve our energy crisis that would be one such activity that would justify a lunar base but I don't think we have the way to use helium-3 to produced energy yet. If you could mine the moon for materials you need to do other things in space that might be interesting. Astronomy on the moon would be cool, but I don't think its going to win broad acceptance as justifying the huge price tag with the general public.

    Fact is the moon is pretty nasty place, severe temperatures, nasty dust that gets in to everything, hard vacuum, and I'm not sure its really that great place to put a base. You have this kind of scary possibility a moon base would end up being a very expensive and kind of useless ISS Part two.

    Most of the proposals for a moon base seem to be focused on it as just a place to practice that is close to Earth with the real the goal being a trip to Mars. The moon being just for practice isn't an entirely compelling goal either.

  • Re:Space Elevator (Score:3, Interesting)

    by c6gunner ( 950153 ) on Monday June 22, 2009 @06:40AM (#28419269)

    Without getting into the energy requirements ... the most obvious problem I can think of is the change in tidal forces. You'd be changing not only the strength of the gravitational influence between the two bodies, but also the orbital velocity of the moon. I don't have any numbers to back me up here, but it seems quite likely that you'd wipe out half the planet in the process.

  • Re:Men on the moon (Score:3, Interesting)

    by khallow ( 566160 ) on Monday June 22, 2009 @08:10PM (#28431899)
    I'd favor space tourism and ISRU studies (In Situ Resource Utilization or figuring out how to do useful stuff using local materials) myself. Orbital solar power has the problem that for most places, it's cheaper to come up with a terrestrial solution. The exceptions are notable, for example, remote locations and areas newly impacted by war or disaster (where local power generating infrastructure is in a shambles or completely destroyed). Someone like the US Department of Defense or a disaster recovery organization (like the US's FEMA) would probably both be able to exploit an orbital solar power system and have the money to buy it.

"The pathology is to want control, not that you ever get it, because of course you never do." -- Gregory Bateson