The Great PJ Media Space Debate

PJ Media is pleased to offer this virtual debate between two nationally recognized space policy experts. The question up for discussion:

Does the Obama space policy provide an adequate path forward for the U.S. space program, and if not, what is needed to provide America with a space program that is really going somewhere?

The debaters are both frequent contributors to PJM.

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. He is an adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Dr. Robert Zubrin, a fellow with the Center for Security Policy, is an astronautical engineer and author of Energy Victory: Winning the War on Terror by Breaking Free of Oil. He is also the author of The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must.

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Mr. Simberg is in the lead-off position. He writes:

The New Space Policy is the Right Way Forward

Space policy has been in turmoil for more than a year, with the announcement of President Obama’s new space policy last February, in which Constellation, the flawed and unaffordable plan to redo Apollo, was canceled and replaced with plans to turn over spaceflight to low earth orbit (LEO) to commercial providers and refocus NASA on technologies to go beyond earth orbit (BEO).

It was the beginning of the end of an era that lasted far too long -- an anomalous, half-century era for America, of government-centric human spaceflight with five- and ten-year plans, that was born in the panic and urgency of the Cold War. It had to end because it was both unaffordable in the new fiscal environment, and utterly ineffective in terms of actually sending people out to explore space in any significant way. It survived largely because of vestiges of national pride, and primarily because of the jobs it generated in the districts and states of the few politicians who cared much about it.

The new policy is not perfect. It was foolish of the president to dismiss the moon as somewhere we’d already been, but it doesn’t really matter where he wants to go, because if the policy is implemented, by the time we are in a position to go anywhere, he will be out of office and in no position to influence the destination. And the continued support for a NASA-developed heavy-lift Shuttle-derived rocket, driven by the need to maintain some of the jobs lost in the ending of the Shuttle program, will waste billions that could be expended more fruitfully on the in-space infrastructure needed to move anywhere BEO.

Fortunately, it’s unlikely to continue, both because Congress has neither authorized nor appropriated sufficient funds with which to do it, and because there will be a growing awareness that it is unnecessary. The recent  announcement of a new vehicle being developed by Space Exploration Technologies, with almost half the capability of the Saturn V, at a cost per pound previously only dreamed of (a thousand dollars), and flying out of Florida within three years, will put a stake in its heart, and none too soon.

If NASA can get the funding it needs for the critical technologies of orbital assembly, automated docking, propellant transfer and storage, and, farther down the road, utilization of extraterrestrial resources whether from the moon or near-earth bodies, they will go much further toward opening up the solar system, and sooner than Constellation or NASA-developed rockets in general would have.

Back before it was derailed by Apollo and the need to win a propaganda battle in the Cold War, NASA had been the old National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which had provided so much critical technology for the aviation industry from the twenties through the fifties, extended to space. If one reads its charter, to this day, human spaceflight is not mentioned. Now that we’ve finally ended that long detour and delay, it can get back to what it should be doing best -- helping develop a vibrant commercial spaceflight industry that will allow its owners and customers to explore and develop space, with government help. This will include not just launch systems, but orbital transfer systems, and the infrastructure to support them and make them affordable, just as the Interstate Highway System helped generate the gas stations and motel industry in this country.

Once this infrastructure is in place, the entire solar system will be open to us in a sustainable way, for people to seek their own dreams, and not just those of government bureaucrats. Years ago, I had a signature on Usenet: “It is not NASA’s job to send a man to Mars. It is NASA’s job to enable the National Geographic Society to send a man to Mars.” That remains truer than ever, and the new policy is a huge step, finally, in that direction.

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Dr. Zubrin responds:

The New Space Policy is a Pathway to Nowhere

It has been a year since President Barack Obama announced his new space policy. Since that time, NASA has spent something on the order of ten billion dollars on human spaceflight in order to accomplish nothing. This is not surprising. There were no plans to accomplish anything. Nor, if the plan remains in place, will anything be accomplished by 2020, after the expenditure of  a further 100 billion dollars. The plan requires zero accomplishment, it aims for zero accomplishment, and it will deliver zero accomplishment.

If we want to again have a human spaceflight program that does accomplish great things, we need to look back to the time when we did, and see how NASA operated then. That was the Apollo era. The Apollo program worked because NASA had a definite goal -- a real goal worthy of the space program of a nation constituting the pioneering vanguard of human progress, with a deadline attached to it requiring concrete action in the here and now.

Because it had a real goal with a real deadline, NASA was forced to come up with a real plan to accomplish it, requiring the building of real vehicles, enabled by the development of those real technologies really required to enable them. (I apologize for the repeated use of the word “real.” However it’s really important in this context.) Operating in this way -- with goals defining plans defining vehicles, defining technology development -- NASA reached the Moon within 8 years of program start.

Not only that, during the 13 year period from Kennedy’s speech to the final Apollo/Skylab mission,  it successfully developed nearly the entire assortment of technologies needed to open the solar system to humanity, including hydrogen-oxygen rocket engines, multi-staged heavy lift launch vehicles, in-space life support, spacesuits, space navigation and communication technology, rendezvous technology, soft Lunar landing systems, reentry and landing systems, Lunar rovers, RTGs, space nuclear reactors, nuclear rocket engines, robotic space probes -- the works.

It also flew, in addition to the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab human spaceflight programs, some 40  robotic space probes including the Ranger, Mariner, Surveyor, and Pioneer series, and did nearly all the development required for the Viking and Voyager missions as well.

All this was accomplished on an average NASA budget over the 1961-1973 period of $19 billion per year in 2010 dollars, essentially the same funding level as NASA has today, and has had for the past two decades. Yet while NASA’s robotic space exploration program -- which has remained mission driven -- has continued to accomplish great things, its human space flight program has neither gone anywhere, nor developed any important new technologies enabling it to go anywhere, for several decades.

It is clear that a mission-driven space program should be more optimal for actually accomplishing missions, but why should it be so much better at technology development than one that allegedly purports to be technology-driven? The reason is, that in the absence of a defining plan which identifies the required technologies, the “technology-driven” plan actually becomes a constituency-driven plan, with various communities lobbying NASA HQ or Congress for funding their own pet projects. These are not necessarily relevant, don’t fit together, and thus merely constitute a random set of time and money wasters that don’t enable us to go anywhere.

Several good examples of such pork projects are provided by Rand Simberg in his piece, where he says that the new policy will enable us to develop the “critical technologies of orbital assembly, automated docking, and propellant transfer and storage.” In fact, none of these technologies were needed to go to the moon in the 1960s, and none are needed to send astronauts to the moon or Mars today. In fact, the project of building an orbital propellant depot is not merely a huge time and money waster, such a program is harmful to any prospects for a lunar base because it will create a constituency which will want to require a lunar base program to make use of its services, which will drive it to a very suboptimal mission architecture.

The only reason why this project has been put on NASA’s plate is because it was the pet idea of one of the members of the Augustine commission, a politicized panel created by the Obama administration for the purpose of justifying its decision to wreck the Bush space initiatives.

Another example of the defective nature of Obama’s constituency-driven approach to random technology development is the decision of the administration to make a fetish of the so-called VASIMR plasma electric thruster, which has been championed by its inventor, Franklin Chang Diaz, a former crewmate of the current NASA administrator. In fact, VASIMR, while probably workable, offers no compelling advantages over ion electric thrusters which already exist, and neither offer any utility for human Mars missions without the development of large space nuclear power reactors to drive them. These, however, are not part of the plan, because nobody who wants them currently has a political inside track.

And even if we had multi-megawatt space nuclear power reactors (so that the VASIMR would not just be an electric rocket without a socket to plug in to),  there is no evidence that nuclear electric propulsion (NEP) offers any clear advantage for accomplishing human Mars missions over the chemical rockets we already have.  Indeed, using chemical rockets we can get a crew to Mars in 6 months. If realistic numbers are used for reactor and thruster weights, a one-way NEP trip would take at least two years.

Under the Obama policy, it’s not whether your technology is useful, it’s who you know.

To put the human space program into park (with the taxi meter running at a rate of $10 billion per year) while we waste decades and fortunes on such a scatterbrained assortment of makework/wastetime pet pork programs is insanity.

If we are going to have a space program that actually accomplishes great things, we need to have a great goal, and a schedule that compels action to achieve that goal in the real world of the here and now. The goal should be humans to Mars. The schedule for its achievement should be ten years. If we embrace that goal and accept that challenge we will then be driven to choose, develop, build, and operate systems and technologies that actually make sense, and which will get us to Mars before this decade is out. If we do not take such an approach, then another decade will pass, and a hundred billion more will be spent, and we will be no closer to sending humans to Mars in 2020 than we are today.

In the beginning, there was the Word.

The debate continues on the next page.