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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.

* * * * * * * * * * *

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.

* * * * * * *

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.

Mr. Simberg writes:

The Apollo Era is Over

Bob, like many, you seem to want to resurrect a time that never really existed, a time during which space was important to the nation, and unlimited governmental resources could be expended on the opening of it to humanity. You hearken back to Apollo as a model, but Apollo was the product of a unique set of circumstances, unlikely to ever be repeated, and it wasn’t about space.

There was a reason that Apollo ended over forty years ago. It had accomplished its mission, which was not to go to the moon, but to demonstrate that democratic socialism was superior to totalitarian communism in terms of technological prowess, which it did when Apollo 8 flew around the moon in 1968, and the Soviets gave up and pretended they had never been racing.

Apollo was costing billions per flight in today’s dollars, and it wasn’t viewed as worth the money, so the last missions never even flew. Space per se wasn’t nationally important, at least in terms of actually accomplishing things there, and that has not changed in the intervening decades, which is why the policy remains adrift, and driven by rent seeking of the few individuals in power who care about it only because it provides jobs in their districts and states. That was demonstrated quite vividly in the recent Continuing Resolution, into which a three-billion-dollar earmark, the Senate Launch System, was added for a ginormous new rocket with no mission, other than to maintain jobs in Utah, Alabama and a few other states. Substituting Mars for the moon of Apollo will not change this political reality.

I don’t have the room, nor do I think that our readers have the interest or patience, to indulge in a detailed debate of the value of the technologies for which you seem to have so much unjustified contempt, but I’ll focus on one, because it is fundamental to making space travel affordable, and there is no way that you or anyone else is going to get to Mars (or anywhere else) if we don’t accomplish that goal. I once had a manager at Rockwell in the eighties, whose response to my request for a computer that could do word processing was, “We got to the moon without word processors.” You say that we got to the moon without propellant depots. Well, so we did. But we didn’t stay, or develop it, because it cost more money than it was perceived to be worth.

Werner Von Braun didn’t pass on propellant depots because they’re not worth building, but because he was in a race, and he couldn’t waste time on building infrastructure that might have made it cheaper in the long run. He didn’t have time, but he had money. Going to the moon sans propellant depots meant that he had to build the biggest rocket ever made, and it meant that every bit of hardware in and on that rocket had to be expended on each mission, returning nothing but that little capsule to earth, which is why each mission ended up costing billions.

Contra your response, propellant depots are not a politically driven fetish of one member of the Augustine panel (and as far as I’m aware, no one on the panel will directly benefit in any way from their development). They are an essential element of a space-faring society, and one without which space travel will remain rare (if it exists at all) and expensive. To say that we will open up space without them is like saying that we should have had no gas stations on the interstate highway system, and should instead have had everyone drive across the country in a gasoline tanker truck, or with expendable drop tanks.

The polar explorers would not have succeeded without caching their supplies. Space transportation is not different in any fundamental way than any other kind, and in-space assembly, fueling and caching will be critical to sustainable space exploration, and even more so to sustainable space development, whether on or off planets. Even if you have an unlimited budget, you cannot build a rocket big enough that I cannot come up with a mission that needs a bigger one. So let’s stop wasting money building big rockets that cost so much that we can’t afford the payloads for them, and start figuring out how to get out there with what we have.

As for how depots get built, neither I, nor anyone else as far as I know, proposes that the government build one. The goal is to simply reduce the technological risk so that building and operating them (not it) can, like launches, be assigned to the commercial sector, with the government purchasing their services, in the pursuit of actual space exploration. This is the way for NASA to get the most Buck Rogers for its (and our) bucks.

Set aside for a moment your (unsurprising, given your history) demand that we declare Mars the goal. Declaring any such goal -- whether Mars, a lunar return and base, a visit to a near-earth object -- as a government project will always come to tears in a republic of politicians with discrete terms of office and a government of short attention span. Unless it can happen within a very few years, it won’t happen just because a president says it will, because another president can always come along and decide it won’t (as we just saw happen with George Bush’s disastrous implementation of his Vision for Space Exploration).

As I wrote above, Apollo was unique and will not be repeated. If you want a government that can declare and execute five-, ten-, or twenty-year plans, I’d suggest that you move to China. In this country, the way to open frontiers is to give individuals and businesses the affordable technological tools with which to do it themselves. We are on the verge of big breakthroughs in launch costs, and if we can keep the money from being dissipated on yet another big-rocket jobs program, we can have the in-space infrastructure necessary within the next decade, allowing the Mars Society to actually devote its resources to going to Mars, instead of lobbying fickle politicians to make it happen.

* * * * * * * * *

Mr. Zubrin wraps up the debate with a response to Mr. Simberg:

Bad Fruit from a Rotten Tree

Rand Simberg chooses to defend the Obama administration’s decision to exchange a destination-driven NASA for an unsteeered special-interest driven agency by claiming that at least one of the administration’s random set of technology programs -- the orbital propellant depot -- actually is vital. Very well, let’s use this example to judge the whole.

Do we need orbital propellant depots to go to the Moon? Clearly not, as we went there in the past without them. Furthermore, the Apollo approach of employing a Saturn-V class heavy lift booster with a hydrogen-oxygen upper stage could also be used with equal effectiveness to directly throw the ~40-tonne payloads needed for human missions to Mars or near Earth asteroids as well.

But, if not necessary, would it at least be preferable to fly such missions using multitudes of small lifter payloads to assemble and refuel interplanetary spaceships on orbit? Certainly not. The per-pound cost of space launch decreases as launch vehicle capacity increases, so by shunning heavy lift for orbital refueling, the depot approach will increase the cost of interplanetary ventures. Worse yet, it will greatly increase the mission risk, since the more launches that are needed to mount a mission, the greater the chance that one will fail. In addition, the costs and risks associated with the construction and operation of the orbital depot itself must also be included.

Furthermore, an orbital depot will need to be in a stable circular long-duration orbit, at least as high as the 220 nautical mile altitude Space Station, and launch vehicle delivery capabilities to such orbits are considerably less than that required if all the booster has to do is lift the interplanetary payload to the 80 mile perigee temporary orbits that can be employed by direct-throw missions. Moreover, an orbital depot needs to be in an orbit at a particular inclination to the Earth’s equator. If a high inclination orbit, like that of the Space Station, is used, this will further reduce the payload that can be delivered to it by any booster. If a low inclination orbit is used instead, access to the depot will be restricted.

In addition, propellant delivered to an orbital depot will have to be stored in heavy thickly-insulated tanks, which are a waste of launch capacity and so disadvantageous for use on an interplanetary mission that duplicate lightweight flight tanks will also have to be launched, thereby running up mission mass and costs still further.

However beyond all that, the rest of the Obama administration's space program portfolio assumes that interplanetary missions will be accomplished not by chemical rockets, but by gigantic nuclear electric spaceships. These will have to operate from nuclear-safe orbits at least 600 miles up, an altitude to which booster delivery is fatally reduced. So, shall we then have two orbital depots, one at 220 miles and one at 600 miles, with ferry services running in between? The scheme is quite fantastical, and not to put too fine a point on it, utterly crazy, since everything such an elaborate futuristic mission architecture proposes to achieve can be accomplished at much lower cost, risk, and schedule simply by developing a competent heavy lift booster.

Rand Simberg claims that he is unaware of any persons on the Augustine commission who might benefit from such a skewed recommendation. This is difficult to understand, since the person on the commission who championed the orbital depot thrust was Jeff Greason, the head of XCOR Aerospace. XCOR has been developing small subsonic rocketplanes, which (despite the fact that they have yet to achieve 0.2 percent of orbital energy) it claims could someday evolve into systems capable of repeatedly delivering tiny payloads to orbit which could then be stored at a depot. So the interest of Mr. Greason in pushing the orbital depot vision is quite clear, and amply illustrates the danger of having the space program’s spending priorities dictated to it by one of its would-be vendors.

Now Jeff Greason is a businessman, and he is entitled to pursue his private interests as he will. The real question is: why did the Obama administration choose to derail NASA’s destination-driven moon effort, and with it heavy lift development, in favor of such nonsense? All of the cost objections to the Constellation heavy lift program could readily have been overcome simply by reorganizing it as a fixed-price contract put up for competitive bid to industry. Indeed, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk told the Augustine commission directly that he would develop a heavy lift booster for $2.5 billion, and Lockheed Martin’s own estimates run in the $4 billion range. Either of these could have been easily paid for using a tiny fraction of the budget the administration proposes to waste going nowhere for the next ten years. Why not take such an obviously more sensible approach and get the show on the road? Perhaps the answer to this mystery can best be found in the Bible, specifically Mathew 7:18, which wisely states “a rotten tree cannot produce good fruit.”

The man responsible for composing the Obama administration’s space policy is Dr. John Holdren, the president’s science advisor. It was Dr. Holdren who appointed the Augustine Commission, and it was to Dr. Holdren that the commission reported. Dr. Holdren is also noteworthy as being a protégé of Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich, with whom he co-authored several books in which the two characterized the United States as being an “overdeveloped country” that needs to be deindustrialized. More recently, Dr. Holdren has been spearheading the Obama administration’s efforts to achieve this objective by rationing the right of businesses to make use of fire. One can hardly expect good fruit to come from such a rotten tree.

The American space program is a unique enterprise in the history of the human race. It is the ornament of our age, and one of the things for which our time will be most highly regarded. Future ages will remember us, because this is when we first set sail for other worlds. Up until now, America has been leading the way. The United States comprises 4 percent of the world’s population, yet has been responsible for about 90 percent of the successful probes and 100 percent of the human expeditions beyond Earth orbit. In doing so, we have made a terrific demonstration of the power of freedom and creativity to transcend all limits to human aspirations.

This is an extraordinary achievement, accomplished through the ingenuity, courage, and commitment of a broad technical community with NASA at its helm. To impose a scheme to lobotomize the helmsman and leave this great venture rudderless, adrift, and wandering towards wreck is not just a mistake, it is a crime – a crime against America, against science, and the pioneer spirit itself.  Every patriot needs to reject this plan.

The American people want and deserve a space program that really is going somewhere. It is time set that goal and commit to it. Humans to Mars.