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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

We’ve all played it, as kids or adults, perhaps at parties. Take a group of people, have one of them write something down on a piece of paper, and whisper it in someone’s ear. Then the whisperee passes it on to the next person via the same method of communication, and so on, until everyone has “heard” it. The last person says out loud what the message was, and it is compared with the original written version. Quite often, and hilariously, there is little resemblance between initial input and final output, due to accumulating translation errors.

The same thing happens in the news business, particularly when the reporters aren’t very familiar with the field on which they’re reporting — and particularly when they think they are more familiar than they actually are. We had a good example of this over the holidays, when Bloomberg news came out with a “scoop.” The Obama transition team was considering recommending a merger of NASA and the Air Force, to address the threat of the Yellow Peril — Chinese beating us to the moon. Shortly afterward, it was breathlessly picked up by Fox News, DBTechno, and the Register in the UK, probably among others.

The story was nonsensical on several levels, right from the very first paragraph:

President-elect Barack Obama will probably tear down long-standing barriers between the U.S.’s civilian and military space programs to speed up a mission to the moon amid the prospect of a new space race with China.

While there may be “long-standing barriers” between civilian and military space programs — this is, in fact, why Dwight Eisenhower originally established a purely civilian space agency half a century ago — there is nothing in the article to indicate that they are going to be “torn down.” The only evidence that they come up with is that one of the options being considered for future human spaceflight is the so-called Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV), specifically Boeing’s Delta IV and Lockheed Martin’s Atlas V:

Obama’s transition team is considering a collaboration between the Defense Department and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration because military rockets may be cheaper and ready sooner than the space agency’s planned launch vehicle, which isn’t slated to fly until 2015, according to people who’ve discussed the idea with the Obama team.

The only problem with this is that — unless they are talking about some other vehicles, and if so, it’s hard to imagine what they are — the EELVs aren’t “military rockets.” Their development was subsidized with Air Force funds, but they were developed with Boeing and Lockheed Martin’s money as well, and they are commercial rockets, available to the military, commercial users, and NASA. There is no need to “tear down a barrier” for NASA to use them, as evidenced by the fact that NASA is already using them. For example, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was blasted to orbit and off to Mars with an Atlas V/Centaur over three years ago.

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.

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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