The story broke yesterday that a group of scientists, astronauts, and other space enthusiasts is going to be meeting at Stanford next month to discuss an alternative to the Vision for Space Exploration. Clark and several others have already commented, but I figured I ought to throw in my two cents.
Basically, I’m skeptical.
While there are some good things in the plan, such as supposedly more commercial involvement, and destinations that tap better into some of the supposedly more pressing space-related concerns of the US populace (ie planetary defense against near-earth objects), there’s still a lot to be concerned about.
Are we going to see a repeat of what happened with the VSE, where there were all sorts of wonderful platitudes about commercial involvement at the start, that end up being effectively nothing in the end? I mean, COTS is great and all, but NASA spending $10B on its own in-house solution (that’s going to end up competing with COTS for ISS cargo/crew delivery when Ares V never gets built), while giving only $500M for more commercial approaches is not what we were led to believe back in the early days of the VSE. Once NASA gets its hands on this new plan, how much commercial content will really survive? If the only commercial involvement ends up being renting an extra Bigelow module or two, it won’t be a complete waste, but that’s not saying much.
At least from what I’ve seen, they still are talking about “giving America the Shaft”, and wasting countless billions on Ares V, and EDS. If they do that, they’re still going to have all the extremely expensive shuttle infrastructure that will have to get paid for every year. Sure, they’ll save a little on the edges by not having an LSAM line running, and possibly save a tiny bit by cutting back on the mission tempo (only one manned mission per year or every other year maybe)–though with how much of the money will be going to fixed infrastructure, the savings won’t really be that great.
What this new approach probably won’t do (any more than what we’re getting with the ESAS implementation of the VSE) is actually be relevant to the commercial development of space, or helping our civilization become a truly spacefaring one.
I guess people just get way too hung up on the destinations. Quite frankly, where NASA goes over the next 20 years is of almost trivial importance compared to how it goes there. For all I care, they could set their sites on performing manned exploration of Europa, just so long as they do it in a way that actually helps promote the development of the infrastructure we need to become a truly spacefaring society.
I know I keep hitting on these concepts over and over again, but that’s because while the meme is spreading, it still hasn’t really sunk in among those in power. There’s nowhere in the solar system that’s of such pressing importance as to justify a NASA designed and operated transportation system.
On the flip side, almost anywhere in the solar system is a good enough destination if NASA were to go with a truly commercial transportation system. One using commercial propellant depots in orbit that buy propellants from whoever can launch it cheapest, and sell it to whoever wants to move something around in space (both NASA, commercial entities, and other governments). One where NASA “astronauts” are passengers flying on commercial vehicles alongside cosmonauts, taikonauts, UKnauts, Koreanauts, ESAnauts, private (or government) customers going to Bigelow stations or on CSI or Space Adventure operated trips around the moon. One where NASA only builds and operates the actual spacecraft, not the launch vehicles. Because if NASA helps build up a commercial industry like that, we’ll end up getting not just whatever the destination de jour is, but everywhere else as well. Maybe NASA ends up spending most of its resources focused on putting boots on Mars, but with a propellant depot on orbit, and NASA acting as an anchor tenant with enough demand to help close the business cases for future RLVs, you’re going to see space travel cheap enough that a lot more people can get in the game, and a lot more destinations may be visited. While NASA’s off planting flags on Mars, some groups will be exploring NEOs, others will be offering tourist trips to and around the Moon, and others might even be building cloud colonies on Venus.
Anyhow, I think you get my point. We’ll see what this new group comes up with. They might surprise us, but for now I remain skeptical.