Fri. Mar 24th, 2023
Artistic representation of the Space Launch System rocket.

Artistic representation of the Space Launch System rocket.


This week, the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees spaceflight presented its blueprint for NASA’s FY2017 budget. The revenue figure looks promising at $19.306 billion, up $21 million year-over-year.

Still, the Senate plan exposes two potentially fatal flaws with NASA’s journey to Mars. The US Congress continues to place funding for the Space Launch System rocket and Orion space capsule ahead of all other elements of NASA’s exploration program. And by overrunning other areas of NASA’s budget, particularly space technology, it cripples the agency’s ability to carry out the trip.

There is an old expression to characterize what is happening here: eating the seed corn. In another era, a farmer’s family might be forced to eat their seed corn for the next growing season in order to survive a long winter. These few weeks of sustenance would doom the family during the next planting season, leaving them with no seeds to put in the ground. This kind of budget eats NASA’s seed corn for the trip to Mars.

Rocket first

A few years ago I met Apollo astronaut Harrison Schmitt, the only scientist to walk on the moon. He also served a term as a US Senator, so he knows how the Beltway works. We had a long discussion ranging from Schmitt’s interest in Helium-3 on the moon to NASA’s ideas for the SLS rocket. Schmitt was baffled that NASA would be asked to build a large rocket without a clear plan to use it in the next decade.

“Historically, the SLS would put the cart before the horse,” Schmitt told me. “Certainly, the Saturn V rocket was developed, the Panama Canal was dug, and the Lewis and Clark expeditions were done because of a decisive national goal. To achieve these kinds of goals, you needed these kinds of technologies. It’s very different to say “We’re going to build a rocket and then figure out what we’re going to do with it. Apollo got support because Congress and the country agreed that we should do it. It’s not so clear now, at least not in Congress. , that the motivation is more than jobs.”

It was Congress that ordered NASA to build the Space Launch System in 2010, over the objections of an Obama White House. Since then, Congress has typically given NASA more than asked for the program. For example, in fiscal year 2016, Congress supplemented this line item with $650 million. For fiscal year 2017, the Senate budget has increased funding by $840 million, a staggering 60 percent increase over the president’s request.

“The committee has been repeatedly compelled to provide appropriate funding to prevent the human exploration program from costly setbacks and to maintain development schedules,” the Senate’s proprietors noted in the bill.

As of Tuesday, I’ve been asking communications officers from NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate for clarification on what this extra money will be used for and whether it’s needed. I have not received a response.

In any case, the Senate is proposing to add nearly a billion dollars to NASA’s rocket budget this year to accelerate the development of the SLS. Technically, there is nothing wrong with the rocket. The engineers are doing diligent work. The primary problem is that NASA doesn’t really need the rocket just yet. It has proposed a test flight in 2018, then a pair of human missions in the mid-2020s that would essentially overfly the 1968 Apollo 8 mission, in which astronauts flew to the moon and back. There are no other missions for the simple fact that NASA can’t afford to use the expensive rocket.

So the Senate tells NASA to hurry up and build a rocket that can’t really be used for human exploration in the 2020s. Unfortunately, once the rocket is built, the costs don’t stop there. Ground crews must be on standby, supply lines must be kept open, and contractors must be provided. These fixed costs can add up enormously. For the space shuttle, that cost was about $2.5 billion a year — whether the vehicle flew or not — and the SLS uses many similar components.

It would make a lot of sense for NASA to hurry up and build the rocket if it had a deadline to go to Mars, a mandate and the funding to do so. But it doesn’t. As Schmitt said, the motivation seems to be mainly to keep people in work.

Space technology

One of the pots of money looted by the US Senate to pay for the SLS “plus up” is the Space Technology program. In 2010, as President Obama attempted to reshape and modernize NASA, his advisers realized that a true deep space exploration program could not rely on the same kinds of architecture and technology the agency used to go to the moon in the 1960s. to go.

NASA, for example, would need modern propulsion so that it didn’t take astronauts seven or eight months to get to Mars in a chemically powered spacecraft, exposing them to extreme levels of radiation and other hazards. They needed advanced energy systems to survive on the red planet for a month or more. As aerospace engineer Bobby Braun, NASA’s chief technologist in 2011, once explained to me, “There’s no magic technology that will allow us to send humans to Mars; you really need a whole bunch of technologies to get there.”

The president’s 2011 budget was aimed at creating a space technology program to “enhance the nation’s leadership in key areas of research, enable long-term capabilities, and deliver breakthrough innovations to make aerospace more affordable and sustainable “. Obama’s budget indicated that NASA should now receive about $1.2 billion a year to bring these technologies to fruition.

Even then, Congress was not thrilled with the idea, and has provided only modest funding for space technology. It has continued that trend, adding an extra insult to efforts in recent years to provide adequate funding for space technology.

For example, for the 2016 budget, NASA received $686.5 million for space technology. This number doesn’t sound terrible, but as Jeff Foust reported, the funding bill directed NASA to spend $133 million on a satellite maintenance project called RESTORE-L to help fuel the aging Landsat 7 satellite.

The new Senate bill plays a similar trick. It again calls for $686.5 million for space technology and “recommends” that $130 million of the amount go to RESTORE-L. This appears to be little more than a retirement gift to Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, as NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center will oversee this project in her state.

In other words, Mikulski gets a nice Earth observation project for her backyard that has absolutely nothing to do with human spaceflight, and approves the budget increases for SLS that the chair of the Subcommittee on Space Appropriations, Senator Richard Shelby (R-Ala. ) , want to. Shelby pays attention to SLS because it is operated by the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.

All the while, it’s not clear who in the US Senate is looking out for NASA’s actual exploration programs. A sensible plan would identify a clear destination and then develop all the breakthrough technologies needed to get there. NASA would then research and develop those technologies. And once they were almost grown, we would build a big rocket – with its high fixed costs – to get us across the finish line.

But as Schmitt said, we’re putting the cart before the horse. Meanwhile, the pig farmer elsewhere in the yard has eaten all the seed corn.

By akfire1

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