In case you’re wondering why I’m posting so much today, I’m at home tonight babysitting, and little Jon is asleep, so I have a little time on my hands.
There’s been a lot of recent discussion in the space corner of the blogosphere about the Innovative Programs group that NASA is creating to pursue “non-traditional” (aka more commercial) approaches to space exploration. There has also been a lot of discussion right now about the more “traditional” Shuttle Derived transportation architecture that Griffin and NASA are trying to push for implementing the Vision for Space Exploration. I noticed that there is a potentially dangerous conflict of memes between the programs that impede the Innovative Programs from really having a chance to get anywhere.
If you look at it, the “critical path” lunar transportation system that NASA is leaning toward uses government funded, designed, built, and operated vehicles. These vehicles will require massive development budgets, and substantial fixed yearly costs. In order to justify these costs, NASA needs to get Congress (and to some extent the public) to believe a few things:
- Space is inherently very hard
- Private companies are inherently unreliable
- Lunar travel requires building vehicles so big that no commercial company would ever do it
- Doing lunar hardware is so tough, that no private company can possibly do it without a lot of NASA money and expertise
There are probably a few other ideas that I’m not thinking of right now, but you get the general idea.
Innovative Programs, and the approach they want to take, have a contradictory set of ideas that they have to try to convince Congress of:
- Space can be done succesfully by private companies
- Private companies are competent and innovative
- Lunar travel can be done using commercially developed vehicles that have other markets they can serve
- It’s possible to build enough of a commercial market that government can get a large amount of leverage off of a small amount of initial money
- Lunar development is within the capabilities of private companies
Basically, in order to get funding, each side has to disprove the other. If the private sector is really trustworthy enough to deserve serious funding for IP, why does NASA need to build a huge Shuttle Derived booster? If there’s no way that lunar projects can possibly be done with anything smaller than an 80 ton to LEO booster, why even try to sponsor prizes or contracts to develop technologies that really aren’t useful (in NASA’s opinion)?
Are these two memes reconcilable? I’m not really sure. It’ll be interesting to see what happens, but I’m afraid that the amount of money that is at stake here is sufficient that those who benefit from the “traditional” approach are unlikely to give up without a fight.