Just wanted to post a link to a good article by Shubber over on Space Cynics.
Shubber’s basic hypothesis is that the combination of economic pressures on the country, and NASA’s current Constellation plans will likely lead to a cancellation (or at least gutting) of NASA’s manned spaceflight program. While I sometimes disagree with the Space Cynics (or their tone), I think Shubber’s hypothesis in this article is probably spot-on.
But I had a few comments I wanted to share.
First off, I share Shubber’s amusement at those who think that we aren’t in a serious economic downturn. I don’t think I’ve blogged much about this, but I’ve pretty much been convinced for the last five years that the housing bubble was an unsustainable farce, and that when the market was finally allowed to clear out some of these malinvestments, that things were going to get ugly for a while. My problem has always been timing–when I am right, I tend to be right a little too far in advance (for instance, I figured that the tech bubble was a bubble all the way back in ’97 or ’98, even though it took another few years for the bubble to actually burst). Unfortunately, I think this downturn is going to be very hard on the entrepreneurial space industry as well. It wasn’t just the collapse of the LEO comsat market that doomed the last wave of alt.space attempts–the general slowdown of the market at the same time was also a major contributor.
Second off, I think Shubber’s point about Weldon retiring is also important. A lot of people who are defenders of Shuttle Derived HLVs (the Shaft, Longfellow, Shuttle-C, DIRECT, etc) like to fall back on parochial interests to save the day. The argument goes that the Shuttle program just provides too many jobs in important places to ever be canceled, regardless of if it makes any technical or economic sense. However, I wonder how true this really is. With Weldon retiring, will there really be anyone with clout on the manned spaceflight side of things that could stand-up to canceling or gutting the program? Especially if the funding is competing with bio-ethanol, entitlements, or funding the Great Important Super-Duper War Against IslamoNaziHitlerFascism?!!!!1!eleven!!1!
Third, while I agree with Shubber’s overall point about the utility of the ISS, I think a caveat is worth mentioning. While I agree that ISS was very overhyped as far as its commercial potential, I think it also provides insufficient evidence on whether or not there is potential for commercial orbital research. Without frequent, reliable, low-cost access to space, there isn’t any chance that orbital research can compete very well with terrestrial research, and ISS hasn’t done anything to help solve that problem. Now, it may turn out that even with frequent access to an orbital facility (say weekly flights, ticket prices below $5M per person), that the case for orbital microgravity research just really isn’t that compelling. But until we’ve resolved the access situation, I don’t think we can truly pass final judgement on microgravity research.
My last thought deals with Shubber’s last two paragraphs, where he says:
One thing that may give some of you heart, though, is that if NASA officially leaves the manned space game the door is wide open to you private sector proponents who have long claimed that they were the main obstacle to the successful private development of the sector.
… of course, if that wasn’t really the reason, then I suspect you aren’t going to be quite as happy about my prediction coming true as one might expect you to be.
I do have to admit that I did once think this way–that NASA manned spaceflight was holding us all back. I still think that NASA is hurting things, but mostly in the form of opportunity costs. By them blowing billions on playing steely-eyed rocket boys and Apollo reruns, they forgo the opportunity to really help the private space market blossom in a way that would benefit everyone in the long run. Just getting rid of them isn’t going to change the financial difficulty of raising money for commercial space launch, and it isn’t going to make the engineering any easier either.
That’s not saying that the end of NASA’s manned spaceflight program would necessarily be a total tragedy–just that it isn’t going to really directly help private space development either.
Anyway you face it, we’ve got a long hard slog ahead of ourselves. NASA could have made some real progress during the window it had over the past four years, but that opportunity is pretty much gone. Whether NASA manned spaceflight goes on, or ends, it’s still mostly irrelevant to the kind of work that needs to be done in order to become a truly spacefaring civilization.