A recent comment on Space Politics got me thinking about ESAS again. I realized that I’m probably one of the most vocal ESAS critics in the blogosphere, and figured that it would therefore be worth trying to summarize a couple of my key thoughts on the matter.
- Ares I Technical Feasibility: I’ve actually backtracked a little bit on this one since my earliest posts on this blog. I think there is a good chance that given enough money and time, NASA can probably get the Stick flying. There is no reason why you can’t make a solid first stage, LOX/LH2 upper stage vehicle fly. There’s no reason why any rational human being would want to make such a pig fly, but there’s nothing preventing irrational people from possibly succeeding. There’s a chance that the vehicle might underperform and force Orion to be rescoped, or require drastic last minute kludges to meet performance requirements. But there’s also a non-zero chance that in spite of having such thin margins this early in the development program, they might just pull it off.
But it’s still a bad idea.
- Ares I Reliability Predictions: While I think Ares I can possibly be made to work, I think that the reliability predictions bandied about are completely unrealistic. Thinking that you can accurately predict the future reliability of a new system, before it has flown is the height of hubris or naivety (or both). I’m skeptical that somehow a team that hasn’t developed and fielded a successful orbital launch vehicle in decades is somehow going to make an expendable launch vehicle that will be several times more reliable than any other expendable launch vehicle ever flown. Saying that “we have to build Ares I because a paper study shows that it will be the most reliable launch vehicle ever” just doesn’t hold water. Or it shouldn’t for anyone who has taken a reliability engineering course. Quite frankly if they can retire the thing without killing anyone, I’ll be impressed.
- Highlander Fetishism: There seems to be a large number of people I’ve run into on the internet who expect that an alternative to ESAS has to provide the exact same capabilities in the exact same way that the ESAS vehicles are supposed to provide in order to be considered valid. One common example of this is the belief that somehow the crew capsule has to have built-in long-duration living facilities in order to do “exploration”. Which leads them to believe that a space station servicing earth-to-LEO capsule like Dragon or whatever the Atlas V team might come up with are useless for exploration because they don’t have all the long duration hardware built-in to the capsule itself, as though there was no other way such capabilities could be provided. There are ways to go to the moon without using an “Earth Departure Stage” or an “LSAM” or a “CEV”. There are literally thousands of different mission modes and options one can choose from. I’ve tried to mention some of the alternatives here on the blog, but people need to remember that “there can only be one” is a motto best left out of engineering.
- Opportunity Costs: My biggest beef with the ESAS approach is that even if it accomplishes absolutely everything it initially claimed, it will still be a waste. The goals of ESAS are so meager compared to the costs and the time, and the other opportunities that are being abandoned in their favor, that it just isn’t worth it. The point isn’t whether it can be done or not, or whether exploring the moon is worthwhile or not, the question is, is this the best way to be going about this? By spending so much money and time developing new NASA-only boosters, what are we forgoing? By trying to retain a shuttle workforce that couldn’t compete in the real world of the market, what futures are we selling? If NASA had chosen a more commercial approach, what could that $50-60B over the next decade and a half have gotten us?
There definitely are benefits that will come from ESAS. A lunar base isn’t a bad idea. Even a lunar base with a transportation system that’s so massively expensive that it can only deliver 8 people to the moon per year has some value. Maybe even a couple hundred million dollars worth of value. Maybe even a billion. But $50-60B?
- Risks: There’s almost nothing worthwhile in life that doesn’t have some risk attached. Many people that argue for ESAS compared to more commercial approaches to implementing the VSE like to gloss over the fact that Ares I and Orion are hardly low-risk options. NASA has botched a large number of “Shuttle Replacement” projects over the years, and is perfectly capable of botching this one too. Government failure is just as much a reality as market failure. Especially when you look at the odds of budgetary failure, I think I can safely say that the odds are probably in favor of COTS or some other commercial US venture flying people into orbit before Orion does.
- Fiduciary Responsibility: Someone who invests other peoples’ money has a responsibility to those people. But the responsibility isn’t to avoid taking risks, it is to provide them the best return possible. Avoiding stupid or unnecessary risks is part of that. Hedging one’s bets is part of that. However, completely avoiding risk at the cost of providing no reward is just as fiducially irresponsible as betting it all on a high-risk investment. A lot of the discussion about Mike Griffin’s fiduciary responsibility comments remind me of the Biblical parable of the talents. One servant was so afraid of losing the money his master gave him that he buried it. When his master came again, he presented the unused talent to his master, who needless to say wasn’t too impressed. Why hadn’t he put it out to usury? Why hadn’t he done something to provide a return?
Fiduciary responsibility is more than just avoiding loss. There are risks that need to be taken and opportunities that need to be pursued in this life. Now, having not worked in the financial world, I’m only guessing here, but I imagine there are some places you can put your money that have a higher “risk tolerance” than others. For instance a hedge fund manager and a company managing people’s retirement money probably have very different expectations when it comes to what balance of risk is acceptable.
But putting most of the taxpayers money into a program to build a vehicle that costs way too much, delivers way too little, and directly competes with private alternatives sure doesn’t sound like sound fiduciary decision making to me.
I could go on, but I need to get up early tomorrow for work. But I think I’ve remade my key points.
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