NASA and Space – The Future vs. the Past


In covering the uproar over the just-released NASA budget and its implications, the major media headlines have been trumpeting: “Lunar Program Can celled”. Yes, sadly the budget has canceled the current lunar program, based on the NASA designed Ares boosters and Orion capsule. However, as some other writers have pointed out, the Vision for Space Exploration program (VSE), which was conceived by a true government consensus after the Columbia disaster, was in effect hijacked in 2005 by the last person anyone of us would have ever suspected, the greatly respected aerospace engineer, Dr. Michael Griffin. That the VSE envisioned by the White House was hijacked is in little doubt, since the only representative of the space advocacy community specifically invited to attend the former President’s 2004 speech was Rick Tumlinson, no friend of business-as-usual in US space policy. The White House shares no blame for picking Dr. Griffin, since many in the space community saw him as a very good choice. Other writers have pointed out that the VSE and Constellation which supposedly implemented it are very different programs. In an interview, Brett Alexander said “I was a primary author of the Vision for Space Exploration…..But they chose the most expensive architecture (for Constellation) and they had cost and technical issues with it. The cost overruns are astonishing.”(Amy Klamper – Space News 2-1-2010).

Under Admiral Craig Steidle starting early in 2004, the VSE was a forward looking program that was open to new ideas and the development of fundamentally new, innovative technology. Griffin shut the door firmly on most of those new ideas in 2005. Instead, he looked backward at what had been stolen away from him and the space community by politics 40 years ago – a continuation of the Apollo Program, and tried to re-create it as “Apollo on Steroids”. Any studies which had been underway involving re-usable rockets or spacecraft were apparently ruthlessly suppressed, so that the public and most outside experts never got to see the results. Critical long-range programs were cancelled and their funds raided for the short-term goal. Everything that possibly could be made expendable to save a few pennies was. MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics professor David Mindell says in a Space and Earth article posted on physorg (2-5-2010) that “NASA is eating its seed corn for Constellation”. The result was exactly what I warned about in 2005 (Return to the Moon p. 137 – 2005) – the use of “giant expendable LEMS” (Lunar Modules) in the new program, itself only symptomatic of NASA’s institutional mindset under Griffin.

I have had the experience of being laid off and I know what an terrible impact this has on a person and his family. I have also experienced the frustration of having a project taken away from me. I thus totally commiserate with any and all of the employees who may lose their current NASA jobs, and who have expended herculean efforts on trying to make the Constellation program work. But we need to think about the whole purpose of the space program. The concept of NASA as a short-range jobs program has to end, since it is politically and economically unsustainable. The unwillingness of Congress and the previous President to adequately fund the program that they superficially publically supported proves this beyond a doubt. Dr. Griffin also consistently and massively underestimated the development and construction costs of all the single use vehicles that would be needed for any lunar program and the program’s annual operating costs. All of the jobs currently about to be lost would have been eventually lost, but with even greater trauma and distress at the additional wasted effort.

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