Like someone who just bought a new car, earlier this week
NASA proudly rolled out its next generation spaceship, the Ares I-X. The spindly
rocket looks anemic compared to its predecessors: the space shuttle, Saturn V,
and Saturn IB. But at a height of
310 feet it casts a long pencil-like shadow over the Kennedy Space Center causeway.
Ironically, the Augustine Commission report that formally
came out this week casts a black eclipse shadow over this arrow-craft that is
scheduled for its maiden test flight in just a few days.
The commission will give a
series of options to the White House for President Obama to consider for
redirecting NASA’s future human space effort.
At yesterday's new conference at the National Press Club
in Washington D.C., chairman Norman Augustine bluntly said the Ares I was the wrong vehicle at
the wrong time for NASA.
Augustine used a lot of car analogies in his dialogue with
the space press. He said the Project Constellation “Apollo-on-steroids” capsule
atop Ares was “too sophisticated” to simply be a “taxi” to the International Space Station.
NASA should be taking the Constellation “sedan” to other places in the inner
solar system. That is, except for the most coveted destination, the surface of
Mars. The energy require to land
and takeoff from the Red Planet is prohibitively expensive he said.
Augustine said that NASA should consider other ports of call that are less
demanding in terms of energy consumption. He sounded like an AAA Triptik
advisor plotting a cross-country course.
Do a flyby of the moon or Mars, land on one of the martian moons, or
visit an asteroid.
Maybe at a later date you could think of building a moon or Mars lander
he said. Augustine compared his strategy to buying a car, and later a pop-up
camper to tow along, rather that spending all the money upfront to buy a Winnebago.
As far as the upkeep of the $100 billion International Space
Station, Augustine said NASA should invest in a “space truck” by working with private
industry to develop a commercial vehicle to ferry crews to the ISS. It could be
no more sophisticated that the 2-man Gemini capsule, which NASA managed to
build and man-rate in just a few years in the early 1960s.
In sharp contrast, the Ares won't be ready for human flights until 2017. That's two years after NASA plans to dump the ISS into the ocean to save the high overhead costs (no pun intended) — though Augustine recommends extending its life to 2020. Still, it would be like Cheops dynamiting his pyramid a few years after
the capstone was added. But with ISS off the books, NASA could afford manned interplanetary forays by 2025.
He also adroitly shot down NASA’s mantra that the taxpaying public
wants to see humans in space. Only put them in space if they have something interesting
and inspiring to do he said (other than drinking recycled urine, naming a treadmill after a TV comic, and bunking a
circus clown, which were among the big ISS stories this year).
Given the state of the nation, NASA’s future is not at the
top of the president’s to-do list. What’s more, people don’t vote on space
policy – unless you work on Florida’s Space Coast, or in Clearlake,
Houston, are a member of the Mars Society,
or a Trekkie. So it's unclear how the Obama administration will act on the commission's report.
For those of us on the space astronomy side of the house, there could be a silver lining. Without moon expeditions sucking up the
entire infrastructure, NASA could think of a human presence at Lagrangian point
2 where the next generation of great space observatories will reside, starting with
the James Webb Space Telescope in 2014. Augustine talked of building a deep space “construction shack” for crews. The L2 location is a useful pit stop on the interplanetary superhighway.
Augustine also acknowledged that there is one big vehicle
missing from NASA’s garage – an 18-wheeler, a.k.a. Ares V heavy lift booster that
would loft 120 tons into low Earth orbit. This would be the muscle of manned
interplanetary travel, and could also loft some exquisitely powerful space
telescopes to search for life in the universe.
In his critique, Augustine invoked a higher calling for NASA
– to expand the human species into the conquest of space. I call it Manifest Destiny. The problem is, he
acknowledged, that the assorted ideas for human space travel are like religion – “everybody’s got his
or her own idea of God.”