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August 07, 2005

The State of NASA

An excellent take on the current state of NASA's manned spaceflight programs:

Idle Words: The [space] station's inordinately expensive modules have mainly come from foreign space agencies, ensuring that even a NASA administrator foolhardy enough to let the thing drop into the sea would contravene a fistful of international treaties. And the station requires a permanent crew, a trick NASA learned from the Shuttle, so that there can be no question of mothballing it or converting it into an unmanned research platform... a perfectly self-contained manned space program, in which the Shuttle goes up to save the Space Station (undermanned, incomplete, breaking down, filled with garbage, and dropping), and the Space Station offers the Shuttle a mission and a destination.... This closed cycle is so perfect that the last NASA administrator even cancelled the only mission in which there was a compelling need for a manned space flight - the Hubble telescope repair and upgrade - on the grounds that it would be too dangerous... thereby detaching the program from its last connection to reason and leaving it free to float off into its current absurdist theater of backflips, gap fillers, Canadarms and heroic expeditions to the bottom of the spacecraft....

To the uneducated mind, it would seem we could accomplish our current manned space flight objectives more easily by not launching any astronauts into space at all -- leaving the Shuttle and ISS on the ground would result in massive savings without the slighest impact on basic science, while also increasing mission safety by many orders of magnitude. It might even bring mission costs within the original 1970's estimates, and allow us to continue the Shuttle program well into the middle of the century.

But NASA dismisses such helpful suggestions as unworthy of its mission of 'exploration', likening critics of manned space flight to those Europeans in the 1500's who would have cancelled the great voyages of discovery rather than face the loss of one more ship.

Of course, the great explorers of the 1500's did not sail endlessly back and forth a hundred miles off the coast of Portugal, nor did they construct a massive artificial island they could repair to if their boat sprang a leak. And we must remember that space is called space for a reason - there is nothing in it, at least not where the Shuttle goes, save for a few fast-moving pieces of junk from the last few times we went up there, forty years ago. The interesting bits in space are all much further away, and we have not paid them a visit since 1972. In fact, despite an ambitious "Vision for Space Exploration", there seems to be no mandate or interest in pursuing this kind of exploration, and all the significant deadlines are pushed comfortably past the tenure of incumbent politicians.

Meanwhile, while the Shuttle has been up on blocks, a wealth of unmanned probes has been doing exactly the kind of exploration NASA considers so important, except without the encumbrance of big hairless monkeys on board. And therein lies another awkward fact for NASA. While half the NASA budget gets eaten by the manned space program, the other half is quietly spent on true aerospace work and a variety of robotic probes of immense scientific value.... And when some of those unmanned craft fail, no one is killed, and the unmanned program is not halted for three years....

NASA is convinced that stopping the Shuttle program would mean an indefinite end to American manned space flight, and so it will go to almost any length to make sure there is a continuous manned presence.... But this attitude... do[es] damage to... real manned space exploration. Sinking half the NASA budget into the Shuttle and ISS precludes... [other] work... their upkeep and safety requirements are becoming an expensive antiquarian exercise, forcing engineers to spend their ingenuity repairing obsolete components and devising expensive maintenance techniques for sclerotic spacecraft, rather than applying their lessons to a new generation of rockets. The retardant effect the Shuttle has had on technology (like the two decades long freeze in expendable rocket development) outweighs any of its modest initial benefits to materials science, aerodynamics, and rocket design...

Posted by DeLong at August 7, 2005 08:43 PM