Thursday, February 18, 2010

We Just Need Some Space

In the past few weeks, there has been a growing rumble as to the future of one of the flagship American entities, NASA. In essence, we're seeing a serious reevaluation of the entire structure of NASA and the way we're allocating our energy, funds, and focus on space exploration generally.

The idea here is to shift a lot of the routine (routine being a relative term, of course) operations to private companies for the low Earth orbit stuff and shifting NASA's main focus onto deep space exploration and Mars (I believe Hobbits would still be in charge of Middle Earth transport). The corporate elements would generally entail moving scientists and astronauts back and forth between Earth and the space stations that currently orbit the planet. My guess is that this would also cover the possibility of Russian oil tycoons paying to go into orbit, but we'd have to see.

The argument in favor of this privatization is mainly that it isn't that complicated since it's what we've been doing for years, and requires such a substantial outlay of maintenance and operating costs that it's draining too much money from the major exploration projects like getting to Mars. Obama is actually pushing this pretty hard now, and I can understand his point. Getting to Mars and potentially beyond is clearly the on cutting edge of modern space discovery, and it's something that can only be attained through bold actions designed to make it happen. We're not going to just stumble onto Mars, folks, and we need to start now to get there in the next 20-30 years.

In 2004, President Bush initiated a program called Constellation that was focused on getting us back on the Moon by 2020. It was noble in terms of being a "rah rah! We're the Best!" thing, but it wasn't actually going to be that useful since we don't really need to be on the Moon. We've been there, and there's really not a heck of a lot of reason to go back. It would be like refocusing the Navy for 10 years on checking the Pacific for new islands--even if we find a new small one, so what? There's no substantial belief that there's some magic rock or secret on the Moon that's going to be useful, so why spend 10 years and tens of billions of dollars going back, except for all the back slapping that could result.

Obama's already made it clear that he's scrapping Constellation because it's a waste of time and money. The idea is that by dumping this program and moving NASA out of the ferrying game, NASA can really key on developing technology to put astronauts on Mars and potentially futher (although we're talking at least 20 years). It's going to be a completely different type of technology that gets humans on Mars and beyond. The petroleum combustion operations we've been using to get us to the Moon and into orbit aren't going to be enough, since we need a much larger vehicle capable of greater speeds. By reallocating our focus, we can more effectively get to places like Mars that could be useful down the road, instead of spending 10-15 years trying to get somewhere that we know isn't going to be of use.

Why Mars? Because it's the only planet we could reasonably colonize and make use of down the road, and because there are potentially enormous sources of minerals that we could use both now and in the future. It's the greatest potential source for human expansion into space and it could be the way mankind survives in case of a crazy global disaster in the next century (like an asteroid or nuclear war, not another "Jay Leno Show" or the Detroit Lions). That's why.

So what are the drawbacks? Well clearly, there is a huge potential problem of quality control. This plan looks a hell of a lot worse after a sloppy private company kills 15 scientists because nobody looked into the "check engine soon" light or because Rocketmart duct taped on a discount booster. There is going to need to be some sort of quality control oversight from NASA or another agency to make sure everything is done technically sound and without cutting corners. My guess is that this could be done reasonably effectively, but you get nervous when you see things like this Toyota brake recall. The good thing is that the technology isn't novel and NASA has been contracting out a lot of the work for years, so it's not a secret how to shoot a rocket into space.

The other element is how to control cost and try to maintain actual competition. You can't make the argument right now that it's going to follow a model like commercial air transportation because you don't have the enormous number of consumers who would actually use the services. For awhile, it would really be just the governments of the United States and a few other major nations who would be using this. As a result, we may be looking at a scenario where one private company does almost all of the flights and serves only a handful of consumers at a huge price. Not an ideal situation at first, but in this case I guess we'd have to hope that it becomes more financially efficient down the road.

In total, we're on the verge of a change in the way the US handles space exploration unlike anything since we decided we were going to the Moon in the 1950s. That plan took over a decade to come to fruition in 1969, and this one certainly will as well, if at all. Although I have concerns over the functionality of turning over the low-tech transports to the private sector, it appears to be the best way to reach the larger goal of exploring Mars and deeper into space. The American space program has taken criticism in the past for becoming somewhat complacent, and this may be the best way to ultimately kick-start the entire field into gear as we progress into this century.

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