I made the mistake of reading about a Senate Commerce “hearing” held today regarding NASA’s human spaceflight plans. While some of the points made I actually agree with, one of the witnesses (Steve Cook of Dynetics) made an argument that I think merits some skepticism. The argument, which you’ve likely seen a lot recently, goes like this “If only NASA had a stable long-term exploration program, with established destinations and dates, the private sector would be jumping all over itself to create business plans supporting NASA’s exploration efforts.” At its core, this argument and others like it seem to imply that if only we hadn’t cancelled the Constellation Program, everything would’ve been better.
Of course, maybe I’m wrong. After all, don’t you remember all of those startups who were champing at the bit to support NASA lunar bases, which were totally devastated when Obama cancelled Constellation so he could funnel money to his corrupt, moneybags campaign contributors? I can still hear their cries of frustration at how all the billions of dollars in VC money they had lined up to march in step with NASA’s glorious Apollo rehash was now going to be wasted.
[Lest any readers who don’t know me better think that I’ve decided to take advantage of recent Colorado referendums regarding recreational herbage–that was bitter and disgusted sarcasm.]
More seriously, I’m curious where all the “Consistencyists” were when Mike Griffin came and completely changed course on how to implement President Bush’s VSE. I may have missed it, but unless my memory faults me, most of the loudest proponents of the importance of consistent long-term plans were perfectly fine with Griffin gutting the HR&T technology development programs, microgravity science funding and ignoring all the work that had been done by industry to-date on developing a lunar return project that leveraged existing launch assets and focused on actually going to the Moon instead of trying to force NASA to stay in the launch to LEO business.
If Congress really wants commercial industry to more actively engage themselves in NASA’s exploration efforts, and to invest private money in ways that are synergistic with their exploration goals, they could try establishing a realistic long-term plan for NASA that fits within realistic budgets, they could try to seriously work with industry to understand what markets industry sees as viable that are also synergistic with NASA’s exploration desires, and work with them to retire the technological risks that are impeding the commercial development of those markets. Leveraging existing, underutilized commercial launch systems and space vehicles such as EELVs, Falcon, Antares, Dragon, Cygnus, etc for placing exploration elements, propellant, and crew in orbit, instead of wasting most of NASA’s exploration budget building unnecessarily duplicative systems to launch stuff into LEO might also help. Ignore those elements of budgetary realism, actually working with industry, and stopping the cycle of blowing all your money on LEO launch systems when commercial alternatives exist, and all of the destinations and timetables in the world aren’t going to attract honest commercial interest and support.
To paraphrase one of my favorite posters from Despair.com, consistency can actually be a virtue, but only if your aim is actually on-target.
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