I’ve recently been accused of suffering from the “quixotic notion” that I can “sell my idea to NASA in lieu of their own plan”.
I’m mostly a private space oriented guy. I’m also rather strongly libertarian leaning. So why am I wasting so much time pointing out flaws in the Exploration Systems Architecture Study? Why am I wasting time talking about alternative lunar architectures? Why am I wasting so much time suggesting how NASA could do things differently? Shouldn’t I just let them do what they want to do and focus on my own stuff?
There actually is a little method to my madness. I do have ideas for private space exploration that I’m constantly rethinking, evolving, and maturing. And I’ll get to some of those soon. But I feel compelled to try and tie up what I’ve started here for several important reasons.
One reason is that as a US taxpayer, I have a right to demand accountability from public agencies. NASA has no more of a divine right to my money than does the Department of Education, the Social Security Administration, or any of a number of federal agencies that seem to act as though us citizens were peons that exist only to fund their grandiose schemes. Many people act as though NASA gets its money “from the government”, but the reality is that it gets its money from us. Each and every one of us that is a US citizen is being forced, at pain of jail-time or worse, to support NASA and other government agencies. In return, we have the right to demand oversight, and to try and make sure that that money they get from us is spent wisely, and in a way that is beneficial to the nation as a whole, not just beneficial to politicians or the connected few.
Another reason is that NASA has a lot of potential to impact things in the space industry for good. As the now ULA guys pointed out in one of the papers on the Lockheed Atlas site, NASA’s exploration program is going to increase the demand for space launch by about a factor of four. Most of that is propellants. If they actually tried to you know, follow the rules given to them in their charter to “seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space,” they could have a massive positive influence on commercial spaceflight. That much extra demand (and helping to prove out and develop the technologies they would need to exploit that possibility) would help draw badly needed investment dollars into this industry, and would open up many opportunities for entrepreneurial ventures. But instead, they want to develop their own vehicles, which are going to mostly be used to launch LOX, LH2, Methane, and hypergols, oh, with a little side of space hardware. NASA could greatly lower their costs, allowing them to achieve far more for far less, by leveraging off of the capabilities and catalyzing the development of the private sector. They could build a lunar base, explore the moon, do unmanned and manned Mars expeditions, and explore beyond even that, all within their current budget. And it bugs me seeing them sell their birthright so to speak for a mess of political pottage.
But I guess the biggest and most critical reason why I’m doing this is because in a way this is a war of ideas. At the very core of ESAS is the claim that the only way to safely and effectively reach the moon is by using massively expensive government built Heavy Lift Launch Vehicles, and that any method using off-the-shelf transportation is fundamentally expensive, complicated, and unworkable. In order to justify spending $50B to develop two new vehicles, NASA has to make a strong case that there is no other way of doing things that would get as good or better results for less money. At the very heart of the rationale for ESAS is the belief that we can’t do on-orbit operations in a cost effective, safe or reliable manner.
How on earth do you think private companies are going to be able to raise investment money to do stuff that NASA feels is too complicated, too risky, too expensive, and too unreliable? If you look at the public discussion, there is a large amount of the public that just believes whatever NASA says. They’re the guys with the PhDs, the steely eyed missle men after all, what makes you think that you know better than them?
If we ever want to see these critical technologies (on-orbit propellant transfer, surface rendezvous, multi-launch technologies, rendezvous and docking, reusable transfer vehicles and landers, ISRU, etc) developed, we can’t afford to allow the conventional wisdom to remain that such things won’t work. Basically, in a way, NASA has put us in a position where if we shut our mouths and toe the line, we’re almost guaranteeing that the future will just be a repeat of the past. They’re putting us in a position that if we actually want to see a future with those capabilities, that we have to fight in the arena of ideas to convince people that they are wrong.
Now, I don’t think that Griffin and company are evil, or have malicious intent. Hardly! I sincerely think that their hearts really are in good places. Doug Stanley talked Griffin into how good of an idea it would be to buy commercially delivered propellants on-orbit if the technology ever gets developed. They have good intentions. Look at COTS. That was a fundamentally good idea. If they go through on their promise to use commercial products as they become available, that will also be great (though I’m not holding my breath–look how tough the Shuttle constituencies are fighting for their continued existance–Do you really think they’ll give up without a fight once a solution better than the Shaft is in operation? Do you really think that political power won’t be brought to bear in that situation? That ATK is really going to say “aw shucks guys, they got a better system. We’ll just pack up our bags and go home”? That NASA won’t be able to find some sort of excuse to keep using the Shaft anyway?) As I said, it’s not that they have bad intentions, it’s just that they don’t seem to see the logical results of their actions, or that their actions and intentions are in conflict.
How are we going to find investors willing risk the money to develop on-orbit propellant transfer when they’re being told that multi-launch architectures are too unreliable? That the best way to get back to the moon is building Ares I and Ares V, and that any EELV or light launcher based system would require too many launches to be practical?
Who’s going to fund a commercial lunar transportation system if we’ve abandoned the field to those who claim the only way you can do lunar transportation is using HLVs?
Honestly, as much as I would like to see NASA change to a more commercial aligned position, I don’t really think it is likely to happen. But if we can sway the conventional wisdom that these other, more commercial approaches really are not only technically feasible, but technically and economically superior, it doesn’t really matter. In the end, NASA will do what NASA will do, but if we can convince potential investors that there really are more cost effective ways of doing things, it will have been worth it.
But if we abandon the field of ideas, and stick to our knitting, we’re setting ourselves seriously up for failure.
Making a commercial venture work is a daunting enough task in the best of times and in the best of industries. It requires not only talent, but a lot of luck. It requires convincing investors to risk large chunks of money that they or others have worked and sweated many years for. Fiduciary responsibility is real. If we just allow people to think that what ESAS is saying is gospel truth, that money will never be raised, those technologies will never be developed (or at least nowhere near as soon as they could be).
But I want to end by cutting back to the original comment that set off this post. Mark accused me of being quixotic. But I have to say that I’m glad that he accused me of that, because it reminded me of one of the most inspiring songs I’ve ever heard, and one that I feel is rather aprapos
To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go
To right the unrightable wrong
To love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star
This is my quest
To follow that star
No matter how hopeless
No matter how far
To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march into Hell
For a heavenly cause
And I know if I’ll only be true
To this glorious quest
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm
When I’m laid to my rest
And the world will be better for this
That one man, scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star
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