We’re on a road to nowhere…

Howdy all, Ken here. I know I’m not supposed to post on Sundays, but today is our NSS-NT Holiday Party so I’m feeling a bit spacy as I bundle together the gifts for our Santa Space Toy drive for charity, the kids space picture books for the Frontiers of Flight Museum reading library (a really cool bookshelf made by the local Civil Air Patrol), various documents and projects for our 2007 ISDC efforts, and so forth.

I happened to cruise by NASAWatch this morning, and noticed the posting on What Mike Griffin Really Thinks About NRC’s Space Station Report

I’ve been following Mr. Griffin’s reactive strategy that generally feeds off of the criticisms raised at various space websites on the web. I’ve been troubled by the seeming lack of overarching strategy in the bits and pieces that have been coming out of NASA. The latest PR push on orbital fuel depots is a good case in point, as there doesn’t really seem to be a sense of connectedness with anything else. Reading through the e-mail exchange called to mind the old Talking Heads song from my younger days whose title I appropriated for this post. I then made the mistake of going back and looking up the lyrics.

“Well we know where we’re goin’
But we don’t know where we’ve been
And we know what we’re knowin’
But we can’t say what we’ve seen”

Griffin: ‘We’ve got the architecture in place and generally accepted. That’s the “interstate highway” analogy I’ve made.’

“We’re on a road to nowhere
Come on inside
Takin’ that ride to nowhere
We’ll take that ride”

He’s right in the context that the shuttle-derived vehicle seems to have significant traction politically and within the engineering community. There seems to be little that those of us who have glimpsed the depths of the horror of what is likely to be under this regime can do other than continue to air our objections. Folks like Jon and myself, the folks over at the Space Access Society, Rick Tumlinson and the Space Frontier Foundation, and others.

Griffin: ‘So now, we need to start talking about those exit ramps I’ve referred to.
-What ARE we going to do on the Moon?
-To what end?
-And with whom?’

This reminds me of something that happened at the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group/Lunar Commerce Roundtable event down in Houston back in October. The two groups had a joint session on Thursday, and I sat in on the Lunar multi-user facility workshop during the afternoon. This was a group of folks in areas like large-project real estate, law, media, engineering, and I was there sort of from the investment banking angle, though I was not representing my employer.

At one point a NASA researcher from Langley went on a 10+ minute soliloquy asking effectively “So what are we going to be doing on the Moon? How do we know we can make money at it? What sort of useful stuff is there? What is the science that will be of benefit?”

There were many rolled eyes exchanged around the auditorium, and my own cold and cynical response was “Who is this person that they think its our responsibility to school them on this stuff?” (I diplomatically kept that thought to myself).

But here’s the deal. One thing you learn in business is that your product has to be useful to the customer. This architecture serves no customers but NASA. No one was asked “So what do you need from space?”.

The guys running mid-deck locker experiments don’t need 100+ mt delivered to orbit twice a year. They need regular and frequent access to space for payloads and people.

The guys running logistics services for points beyond LEO don’t need a disposable Lunar lander. They need a multi-purpose tug and operations vehicle and fuel depots.

What I need, as a banker, is access to the billions of dollars of assets that we already have up there, so I can begin financing them on an asset basis. (Our bank is the financing step after a company can no longer get credit or cash-flow based financing).

So how was the infrastructure designed if they didn’t know what it was going to be used for?

Griffin: ‘Now is the time to start working with our own science community and with the Internationals to define the program of lunar activity that makes the most sense to the most people.

I keep saying — because it’s true — that it’s not the trip that matters, it’s the destination, and what we do there.

We got to get started on this.’

“And we’re not little children
And we know what we want
And the future is certain
Give us time to work it out”

I’m sorry, but I firmly believe that this should have been figured out before the whole ESAS architecture was foisted upon the American people. NASA probably would have gotten a much more enthusiastic response, and the individual pieces would probably make a lot more sense.

Why is NASA calling back the greybeards for advice? Because we don’t trust our children, and haven’t trained them for this. This is not Griffin’s fault, it’s American society’s fault, and he just has to lve with the consequences. Nevertheless, it’s another example of our flawed approach to the whole situation. There’s really no overarching strategy for making the U.S.A. a competitive presence in space, but rather a cobbling together of legacy systems and thinking that anchors us to the status quo.

“There’s a city in my mind
Come along and take that ride
And it’s all right, baby, it’s all right

And it’s very far away
But it’s growing day by day
And it’s all right, baby, it’s all right

They can tell you what to do
But they’ll make a fool of you
And it’s all right, baby, it’s all right

We’re on a road to nowhere”
Talking Heads

And I’m off on the road to our Holiday Space Party, which is leading NSS-NT at least to many interesting destinations with lots of projects to do when we get there.

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4 Responses to We’re on a road to nowhere…

  1. Kelly Starks says:

    Agreed.

    I think, like the rest of ESAS, its a echo of the Apollo program. In Apollo there was no intrest in doing anything on the moon. It was just the finish line for the race. So NASA is again proposing a quick and dirty expendable based solution (to be implemented very slowly over more then 150% of the time of Apollo) to get us back to the moon. But this isn’t a race, and no ones going to throw a ticktape parade for them getting back to the moon.

    They need to understand the point now is to open up the moon for routine use. They needed to have thought about that before rushing out with Apollo with steroids.

  2. Mark says:

    There’s really no overarching strategy for making the U.S.A. a competitive presence in space, but rather a cobbling together of legacy systems and thinking that anchors us to the status quo.

    Two things very wrong with that statement, which illustrates what is wrong with all of the belly aching about ESAS.

    First, it suggests that nothing can happen until someone (I guess NASA in this case) lays out some kind of plan. I’m a little bit leary about government issued plans for the economic development of the Moon or any othe place.

    Second, it implies the great canard that ESAS somehow represents some kind of status quo. It does not. The status quo has been going around in circles in LEO for thirty years.

  3. Paul Dietz says:

    First, it suggests that nothing can happen until someone (I guess NASA in this case) lays out some kind of plan.

    This entirely misses the point, which is that infrastructure that is developed for its own sake is unlikely to be well suited to serving the customers whose needs were not considered.

    It’s as if a company decided to build a factory, and only after it was all designed and being built did they start to think what they were going to make in it.

    I also suspect NASA didn’t go looking for these customers because they believed they wouldn’t find enough of them to justify ESAS. So now we see this late effort to shoehorn uses into the already solidified architecture. It’s going to work about as well as it did on ISS or STS.

    Second, it implies the great canard that ESAS somehow represents some kind of status quo. It does not.

    Of course ESAS is going to be the status quo, assuming it gets built at all. It’s going to a gravy train funneling money to congresional districts for much of the rest of our lives. One thing that is obvious from the history of NASA is how difficult it can be to kill entrenched mistakes.

  4. murphydyne says:

    As usual, Mr. Whittington is quite creative in his interpretation of a very simple statement. The post was my first attempt at a mash-up, so the logical flow might have been thrown off by trying to figure out how the lyrics were relating to what I was writing.

    Of course, I probably wouldn’t be bellyaching about what’s going on if it weren’t giving me such indigestion. Were it any good I’d be out shilling for it as well.

    First, the statement suggests nothing of the sort. While that may be what happened once Mr. Griffin took office, when Mr. O’Keefe was running things they seemed to be moving towards a strategy in a rather obvious way. While the roadmapping and spiral approach was slow, it did allow NASA to walk and chew gum at the same time. The results weren’t much less sucky, but at least interested taxpaying Americans could see what was going on (and bellyache about it on the web ;-).

    Second, while I’m not going to duck the canard you offer, I do offer this interesting tidbit from the latest dead tree edition of Space News.

    “Northrup Grumman has tapped former NASA MSFC Director Art Stephenson to manage the…newly established Space Exploration Systems organization…In his new capacity, Stephenson will see all of NG’s space exploration work, including the company’s joint bid with Boeing to be the prime contractor for NASA’s CEV…”

    This of course is an excellent example of the non-, or anti-status quo, as it represents a transfer of NASA institutional knowledge to greenfields of American private enterprise thereby enriching the American competitive landscape to ensure economic efficiency and a bright and prosperous tomorrow for us all.

    [In all honesty I kinda liked the CEV architecture that Boeing was proposing back in 2004 in response to the initial call for ideas. They got a lot of things right, which is part of why I was willing to shill for an EELV-based approach.]

    I did not imply that ESAS represents some kind of status quo. What I did say was that ESAS is anchored to the status quo (I know, I went back and looked it up). If I had wanted to imply that ESAS was the status quo I would have said “ESAS is the status quo”. I didn’t, I said it was anchored to the status quo, which does imply that it could also have liberated itself from that anchor. A subtle distinction, I admit.

    So, in summary, I did not say stop and make a plan (that was NASA’s initiative), I did say we (NASA, Feds, American businesses and taxpayers) need to discuss and develop a strategy of what we want to do out there. From that strategy will come plans. The VSE was in a sense a strategy, and not too bad a one either. The ESAS is a botched plan. It’s as if NASA treated the VSE as a set of checkboxes and behaved accordingly.

    What American company can launch the proposed ShaftCEV? Answer: None, at least not without having environmentalists setting off stink bombs at their corporate offices.

    What pool of insurers can cover the launch of 8+ commercial satellites at a time on a Longfellow? Answer: None, we’re barely comfortable with two at a time on an Ariane.

    What private company or group of companies would launch four Nautisluses at the same time? Answer: None, because a chance (though a small one) of loss of 100% of assets int one event is an unacceptable decision outcome in business. (That’s part of why satellites and launchers are so confounded expensive, you’re paying for the forced existence of that possible outcome, and they still crap out)

    The list goes on and always with the same result: ESAS just doesn’t work for private enterprise (though in 25 years in might). I’m always willing to entertain examples to the contrary, and eagerly await any that Mr. Whittington might have to offer.

    So why again does NASA get to develop their own private launch system (…again)?

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