(Grave)digging for dollars

Wayne Hale dropped a memorial piece this week. As he sees it, Americans sin by playing imported video games and doing finance. We’re pissing on the graves of dead astronauts with our dull everydayness. Fortunately, we can atone for our shortsightedness simply by tossing billions more at an agency that has spent $1 trillion and killed three crews in the pursuit of…well, six people in lower Earth orbit and a handful of day trips to the moon.

Tow-to-launch status?

Mike Kelly submitted two patents in 1997 and 2000 detailing a tow to launch architecture. Dryden teamed up with KST in the late 1990s for Eclipse, which demonstrated the concept’s fundamental soundness for existing lifting bodies in the subsonic regime. KST (or a descendent team after it went belly up) pursued the X-Prize, lost, and apparently reconstituted under new management. Not sure what happened to Mike Kelly, or who owns the patents.

In any case, is there any particular reason why tow-to-launch hasn’t been explored more vigorously? Not sure what the cost of the Eclipse test was, but the follow on contract went for $1.2 million at the time. Isn’t this the sort of potentially low-cost, high trial rate approach to a problem that produces breakthroughs?

Astrobotic, SpaceX go lunar

The press release:

Astrobotic Technology Inc. today announced it has signed a contract with SpaceX to launch Astrobotic’s robotic payload to the Moon on a Falcon 9.   The expedition will search for water and deliver payloads, with the robot narrating its adventure while sending 3D video.  The mission could launch as soon as December 2013.

The Falcon 9 upper stage will sling Astrobotic on a four-day cruise to the Moon.   Astrobotic will then orbit the moon to align for landing.  The spacecraft will land softly, precisely and safely using technologies pioneered by Carnegie Mellon University for guiding autonomous cars.  The rover will explore for three months, operate continuously during the lunar days, and hibernate through the lunar nights.  The lander will sustain payload operations with generous power and communications.

Gabrielle Giffords on final passage of S. 3729 NASA Authorization

Below is Ms. Giffords, in her own words, from the floor debate before final passage of S. 3729; the NASA Authorization Act of 2010.

Ms. GIFFORDS. Mr. Speaker, first of all, I would like to recognize Chairman Gordon for his outstanding leadership chairing our full committee. We are going to miss you, Mr. Chairman. It has been an outstanding experience for me the last couple of terms. And as well, to Ranking Member Hall and Ranking Member Olson for their leadership.

Mr. Speaker, I rise today in strong opposition to S. 3729, the Senate’s NASA authorization bill.

As chair of the House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, and along with the other members of the subcommittee and full committee, we care deeply about the future of NASA and the future of our Nation’s civil space program. NASA defines us as a Nation, who we are–our defense, our innovation, our inspiration, our ability to explore. We care deeply about the role that Congress needs to play to ensure that NASA will embark on an executable and a sustainable path for the future.

In contrast to supporters of the Senate bill who will say that today they reluctantly support the Senate bill because it is better than doing nothing, I have no reluctance in telling you that this is a bad bill. It will do damage to NASA if enacted, and it should be voted down tonight.

Now, I know that Members have a lot of different issues on their minds today. Certainly most Members didn’t even know that a NASA authorization bill was coming up for a vote today. So for Members who are making up their minds on whether to support this bill today, I would like to offer a couple of reasons why you should oppose it.

If you are a member of the Blue Dog Coalition or a member of the Republican Study Committee, you should oppose this bill because it lacks serious budgetary discipline. To be specific, the bill contains an unfunded mandate to keep the shuttle program going through all of fiscal year 2011, even after the shuttle is retired, which, by NASA estimates, will cost NASA more than one-half billion dollars for 2011, and it doesn’t have that money. It will bust the budget for the shuttle and jeopardize NASA’s other important science, aeronautics, and technology programs.

It also contains a rocket designed not by our best engineers but by our colleagues over on the Senate side. By NASA’s own internal analysis, they estimate this rocket will cost billions more than the Senate provides.

And, finally, if you are a Blue Dog or a member of the Republican Study Committee, or any Member of Congress, you should strenuously oppose a $58 billion funding bill that is being brought up on the last day before adjourning with no House input on its creation and no opportunity for amendment by Members of the House. This is not the functioning bicameral legislature that our Founding Fathers fought to create.

Next, if you are a Member who cares deeply about STEM education or minority education programs, you need to know that this bill is written in a certain way that NASA’s STEM education programs and Minority University Research and Education programs will be cut in excess of 30 percent.

What does this mean? Well, it means if you represent a Historically Black College or University or Hispanic-serving institution, a tribal college, this sort of institution, you will be affected by these cuts.

In addition, if you care about the future of NASA’s human spaceflight program, you should oppose this bill. As I mentioned earlier, this bill contains provisions that will force NASA to build a rocket designed by Senators and not by engineers. Contrary to assertions that this bill’s supporters talk about, this rocket will be too large to economically serve as a backup commercial crew transport to the space station. It may also prove to be too small to effectively undertake human missions beyond low-Earth orbit. Not only do NASA’s own internal studies indicate that it will cost significantly more than the Senate is budgeting, but they also estimate that it will become operational years later than the Senate plan assumes.

So we are looking at this gap and, in short, the Senate bill forces NASA to build a rocket that doesn’t meet its needs, with a budget that is not adequate to do the job, and on a schedule that NASA’s own analyses says is unrealistic. That is not my idea of the executable and sustainable human spaceflight program that we all desire.

And, finally, if you care about corporate responsibility, if you care about safety, and if you want to prevent us

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from being in the position a few years down the road of having to choose between sending more money to Russia or bailing out the would-be commercial crew and cargo providers who fail to perform in budget and on schedule, you should oppose this Senate NASA bill. The Senate bill gives an additional $1.6 billion to would-be commercial cargo and crew transport companies who have yet to demonstrate that they can do either. There is no obligation that these commercial companies put any “skin in the game” of their own, and the safety requirements on their rockets are vague at best.Since the Senate bill provides no credible government backup capability to the would-be commercial providers, approving the Senate bill today would inevitably put NASA in the position of relying on these companies that will become too big to fail. The American taxpayers will then have to bear the responsibility and the burden of bad public policy if we vote on this bill tonight. I think that the public deserves better.

Now, I know that in the Senate there is a lot of debate, and some Members will fall back on the argument that they have to approve this tonight before the end of the fiscal year because the contractors are facing layoffs. And no one has more sympathy than members of our subcommittee about the workforce, but the reality is different. It is different than the rhetoric.

Aerospace jobs are tied to funding, and funding for NASA for the balance of this calendar year will be set by the continuing resolution that we will be voting on tonight, not this authorization bill. Funding for the remainder of fiscal year 2011 will be determined by the appropriations bill that we enact after we return for a lame duck session, not by this authorization.

The bill before us today cannot change the fact that the funding level for NASA’s workforce, and any layoff that will result from that funding level, will be the result of the continuing resolution and subsequent appropriation bills and not this authorization. So Members should not be fooled by this red herring argument. The truth is that you will not be doing anything to stop layoffs tonight by voting for the Senate bill today.

Does the aerospace industry need certainty? Absolutely. But they need certainty in an executable and affordable program that the Senate bill does not provide.

Could the problems with the Senate bill be fixed? Of course they could. But that is what the legislative process is about, not under suspension of the rules with no amendments allowed.

The fact of the matter is that there was a compromise NASA Authorization Act of 2010 that Science and Technology Chairman Bart Gordon proposed and is the direct result of lengthy discussions with the Senate and the House Members. Of course, that isn’t perfect, and no bill is, but flaws can be fixed by discussion between the Chambers. But if you vote tonight positively on this Senate bill, the democratic process that has been the cornerstone of our democracy will be undermined and that will not occur.

So let’s take the time to get this job done, and done the right way. Let’s vote down the Senate bill tonight so we can work with Chairman Gordon, Ranking Member Hall, and the Senate on a compromise bill so that we can have a responsible NASA bill that can be acted upon when we return for the lame duck session.

In closing, if you care about budgetary discipline, protecting STEM education, minority education programs, if you care about NASA’s human spaceflight program, you should vote “no” on the Senate authorization bill.

Assassination attempt: Representative Gabrielle Giffords, D-AZ and wife of CAPT Mark E. Kelly

As of this post, she’s still in surgery according to CNN and Fox.  Ms. Giffords is wife to  STS-134 commander Captain Mark E. Kelly, USN.  Twelve others are reported to have been shot, though it’s unclear as to whether there are any fatalities.

Update: Giffords is in critical condition.  At least one victim reported as a fatality is Judge John Roll, appointed by President George H. W. Bush.  Early reports identify Jared Loughner, 22 years old,  as the shooter.  Hot Air is keeping up with the noise.

On Self-Licking Ice Cream Cones

This so-titled, 1992 break down of America’s fumbling of national space policy should be required reading amongst advocates in all corners.  S. Pete Worden, former Deputy for Technology at the old SDI Organization takes a belt to every player involved in NASA’s budget process, detailing each step of the way from formulating the budget request to expending the funds.  Main points to take away:

  1. NASA’s primary mission is to continue its bureaucratic existence.
  2. Appropriators–not the President nor the authorizing committees–are the key determinants in formulating national space policy.
  3. Appropriators don’t give a crap about science or space.
  4. Appropriators do care deeply about pork.
  5. There is great synergy between NASA’s instinct to survive and appropriator’s instinct to earmark.

No President has ever vetoed a NASA appropriation.  Appropriations frequently pass under suspension of the rules in the House and by unanimous consent in the Senate, meaning the underlying authorizations generally don’t matter a whit.  The authorizations themselves are generally rubber stamps of NASA’s budgetary aspirations, often more generous than the Executive’s requests.  The President, who is nominally tasked for setting the direction of space policy,  is reduced to contributing little more than unenforceable mission statements.

Worden blames the budget process for the woes befallen American space policy.  I disagree.  The process surely exposes and picks at the scab, but it’s not the underlying wound.  What NASA, the President and Congress lack is a detailed understanding of our interests in space.  Americans clearly understand space is worth something; we keep throwing tens of billions at NASA annually.  But beyond that the public is largely indifferent to what we do in space.  With a political safe stream of revenue but no pressure to actually achieve something, NASA and the appropriators set themselves to the serious business of scratching each others back.

That is how we ended up with a 50-state supply chain for a  spacecraft that cost $1 billion and change to launch and had a nasty tendency of exploding.  That’s how we ended up with $100 billion space station that exists solely to justify the existence of its supporting launcher.  That’s how we ended up in the business of Muslim outreach, 15 ton Earth Observing Satellites, and billion dollar telescopes for cosmic navel gazers.  And that is how we ended up with a space policy that can’t put more than a handful of people in space and returns nothing of value for our trouble.

This is how the conquest of space dies…

From the NYTimes:

An ambitious $1.6 billion spacecraft that would investigate the mysterious force that is apparently accelerating the expansion of the universe — and search out planets around other stars, to boot — might have to be postponed for a decade, NASA says, because of cost overruns and mismanagement on a separate project, the James Webb Space Telescope. The news has dismayed many American astronomers, who worry they will wind up playing second fiddle to their European counterparts in what they say is the deepest mystery in the universe.

JWST, of course, is already nearing $7 billion sunk with launch (by Europe’s Arianespace) already slipping by a year.

“How many things can we do in our lifetime that will excite a generation of scientists?” asked Saul Perlmutter, an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley, who is one of dark energy’s discoverers.

Apparently nothing, considering these spending extravaganzas over the past thirty years have done nothing to stop Americans from fleeing the science and engineering fields in droves.

On Euclid, the European duplication of WFIRST:

Alan P. Boss of the Carnegie Institution for Science, who heads a committee that advises NASA on astrophysics, said: “If Euclid goes ahead, [the Europeans are] going to own the field. There’s no way the U.S. can stop them.”

So what? Dark energy ain’t exactly a growth industry.  And if you want to keep up with the Europeans, here’s an idea.  Pick up a phone and offer to collaborate.