America’s Future In Space

Frank Sietzen and Keith Cowing, who brought us the original scoop, seem to have had inside access to the White House through the process, and have already produced an instant book on the subject: New Moon Rising – “The Making of George W. Bush’s Space Vision, and the Remaking of NASA”. They also have a 3 part series , previewing their book, on the development of the new space plan, which is definitely enlightening reading.

It’s been obvious for some time that NASA and US space efforts in general needed a clearly defined vision for guidance; without clearly imposed purpose and goals from outside, any government agency is bound to fall into default mode, where self-preservation is the primary goal. NASA has been criticized for this ever since the shuttle program started to go off track in the early 1980’s. But government programs obviously can accomplish significant things too – most importantly when they pave the way for the private entrepreneurial (i.e. not big govt. contractor) sector to expand and build upon national efforts, as happened in much of the development of the US West and industrialization of the South. Is this where we’re heading in space?

Since little new money is planned, at least at first, for the new program, other areas will have to suffer. The most notorious early victim was Hubble, though in fact its demise had already been planned after the Columbia accident. But the real victims are the Shuttle and Space Station programs, which are being radically altered, in part also in response to the Columbia accident.

A FAQ list from space.com summarizes the factors we can expect to weigh in here. Most notably, the current plan is very different from George H.W. Bush’s 1989 “Space Exploration Initiative”, with its $500 billion price tag, despite what a large number of commentators seem to have concluded.

This vision sets the nation on a sustainable course of long-term exploration. It is not predicated on getting to a particular destination by a particular date, nor is it solely focused on human exploration

An internal NASA powerpoint document describes the new policy in moderate detail. The key new elements are the new “Crew Exploration Vehicle”, which will be designed both for support of the ISS and for missions to the moon, and will likely resemble the Apollo capsules, and the really new item – lunar exploration again, with robotic missions by 2008 and human return missions scheduled for 2015-2020. Not as soon as many of us hoped, but it sounds real. The funding constraints are real too, at least through 2008; but as the document points out:

NASA annual budget is currently about 0.7 percent of the total Federal budget, with the annual cost per taxpayer equivalent to a month of cable, family trip to a movie, or 15 cents per day.

The other significant changes and realignments are there too:

NASA will reallocate resources within its existing budget in three main ways:
*NASA will realign existing programs as necessary to enable the vision.
*NASA will retire the Shuttle to free up billions of dollars in the next decade.
*NASA will focus on tech innovations that reduce the cost of sustained space operations.

Yet another presidential commission to flesh out some of the plan details is being formed, under Pete Aldridge. NASA meanwhile is going ahead with reorganization, establishing a new Office of Exploration, to include the Space Architect’s office. A new Office of Chief Engineer is being established, along with an Office of Health and Medical Systems, Office of the Chief Information Officer, and a rather bureaucratic sounding Office of Institutional and Corporate Management. This seems to be part of a centralization process that is moving independent authority out of the separate NASA centers to NASA headquarters. With a solid new vision and planning the centralization seems like a good thing; it’s possible some centers will be significantly reorganized as the process moves forward.

Meanwhile, on another note, Harrison (Jack) Schmitt, the only scientist to walk on the Moon so far, responded to some questions from Jim McDade of SpaceADG on the likely return to the Moon:

Can you suggest some scientific specialties,
other than geology, that would be suitable and appropriate for a
lunar expedition?

Schmitt- People with broad experience and knowledge in mining and processing resources contained in alluvium and other debris units.

McDade- Will
astronauts need improved suits or specialized tools to work
efficiently on the lunar surface?

Schmitt- much improved suits will be needed: my rule: 1/4 the weight and 4 times the mobility, plus hand-like dexterity.

Do you expect that the lunar polar regions hold some geological
surprises or special features for scientists to study firsthand?

Schmitt- The far-side will be of more interest than the pole relative to questions on teh origin and evolution fo the Moon. If cometary ices exist at the poles, and I have some significant doubts that they will be easy to find, then that will also be of interest.

If NASA asks you to return to the moon, are you willing to go?

Schmitt – I am willing but there will be far more able explorers and settlers by that time.

4 thoughts on “America’s Future In Space”

  1. Some of my favorite sites with further discussion of the details and links to more commentary are Michael Mealling’s RocketForge, and Clark Lindsey’s HobbySpace.
    Al Differ’s Frontier Files Online is also worthy of mention – a scoop site like Sciscoop in fact. Al’s site is part of the Space Frontier Foundation, co-founded by Rick Tumlinson (the one quoted comparing NASA to a fat balding former Olympic athlete) who is Testifying to Congress this morning.

    Michael Mealling is chairman of the board of the Artemis Project, which has long been planning a privately funded return to the Moon, costed at about $1.4 billion now.

  2. You just landed as a lead story in the bottom third of Google News’ Science Page and climbing. Page hit rate here at SciScoop went up significantly an hour ago and you’re why. Congrats!

    Curiously, if you go there and do a search for Melinda Gates, another certain SciScoop article isn’t even listed. I’ve submitted THAT one to Drudge with high hopes…

  3. It’s in the second spot now, but no longer the first article on the subject – a Fox news story about today’s Senate hearing displaced it. Still, pretty good showing if I say so myself :-)

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