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Media Botches Story on Obama’s NASA Plans

Panic over "tearing down" barriers between military and civilian space programs is much ado about nothing.

by
Rand Simberg

Bio

January 6, 2009 - 12:35 am
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There is NASA resistance to using EELVs, but not because they are “military rockets.” It’s because they are seen as a threat to the agency’s — or more specifically, administrator Mike Griffin’s — desire to develop a new NASA-only vehicle, called Ares 1, and perhaps later, the larger version of it, Ares 5. If the EELVs become viewed as viable launchers for the human missions, the case for the Ares, already weak — particularly considering its extensive development teething problems — becomes much weaker, perhaps to the point at which the program dies. (It should be noted that five years ago, prior to becoming NASA administrator, Dr. Griffin, who is apparently desperately attempting to hang on to his job, had no problems with using EELVs for crewed spaceflight.)

As for the “China space race” part, it makes little sense, either. This part is true, as far as it goes:

The potential change comes as Pentagon concerns are rising over China’s space ambitions because of what is perceived as an eventual threat to U.S. defense satellites, the lofty battlefield eyes of the military.

Yes, the Pentagon is legitimately concerned about the Chinese space threat, particularly since they have demonstrated the ability to destroy a low-earth-orbit satellite a couple of years ago, making a terrible mess up there in the process. But this part of the story is a complete non sequitur:

China, which destroyed one of its aging satellites in a surprise missile test in 2007, is making strides in its spaceflight program. The military-run effort carried out a first spacewalk in September and aims to land a robotic rover on the moon in 2012, with a human mission several years later.

Despite what some of the (non-transition) sources quoted say, there is little relationship between a human moon landing and space warfare in near-earth orbit. Guidance systems for the latter are easily developed in the absence of orbital rendezvous and docking, which have different requirements. And despite myths promulgated by science fiction about being bombarded from the moon, it is really not a militarily useful high ground against the earth.

Yes, it will save costs if NASA can use existing, or modified existing, vehicles, but this wouldn’t involve any “tearing down of walls,” and it should be done regardless of what the Chinese are doing, simply to make the program more affordable and sustainable.

How did this confusing and misleading story happen? In an email from someone familiar with the transition team’s activities, it seems pretty simple:

This story is very strange. We asked questions about EELVs; about how the DOD and NASA cooperate; and what has been discussed with China. They were unrelated questions. It seems as though the reporter tied them together for his odd conclusion.

Which demonstrates the old adage about a little knowledge being a dangerous thing. Unfortunately, to paraphrase Mark Twain, a confusing story can find its way halfway around the world — and perhaps to the moon — before the reality can get its boots on. Particularly at Internet speed.

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Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his weblog, Transterrestrial Musings.
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