Do I really even need to explain the post title? Almost weekly, I go on a cynical diatribe about the continous failings, blunders, red budget lines, broken ships, impractical goals, hyperexpensive version of rudimentary equipment, and general lack of leadership at NASA.
Honestly it isn't their fault. NASA has been used as some sort of campaign prop by incumbent Presidents for 40 years, and that isn't about to change. Bush used claims that he was going to initiate another moon mission (somehow without shuttles or the ISS, more on this later) by 2020, and Obama went a step further during his campaign, promising that "the return to the moon will be but a training run for manned missions to Mars." Right.
So NASA time and time again gets run up the White House Candidate Agenda Flagpole, and time and time again the breeze just doesn't come a'blowin'. This week a panel revealed that not only is a manned mission to the moon probably impossible, but it would take a 3 billion dollars a year increase in NASA's budget to get them there. And it'd probably cost between $100 billion and $150 billion total for a manned moon mission. That may seem like a lot of money to Joe The Plumber, who makes a comfortable $250,001 a year, and it is. But consider this: the Apollo Space Program designed and built the Saturn V rocket, designed and built the moon lander and command module, tested them both, did practice runs to the moon, then landed 6 manned missions on the moon all for $145 billion in today's dollars.
The problem here is that people aren't trying to come up with new science. Have you seen the "new" lunar lander? Makes me suspiciously nostalgic. Have you heard they are scrapping the shuttle and going back to rockets? Have you heard that they aren't going to use the ISS as a jumping off point? Why are we continuing to add modules to the ISS if not to make it an orbital construction platform?
One of the major complaints with the shuttle (and all rockets of that size) is that the fuel consumption is a massive cost. The shuttle burns (solid rocket fuel, which cannot be extinguished) the equivalent of somewhere upwards of 3 million gallons of fuel a minute. It is estimated that the shuttle program, from beginning through 2008, has cost the taxpayers $170 billion, or roughly $1.5 billion per flight. But, for $170 billion, we got 120+ flights out of those 5 birds. And a single manned moon mission will now cost us nearly $150 billion...?
NASA, clearly, has lost track of its mission statement, unless of course its mission statement is "We put your government pork into space, sometimes." or "We laugh in the face of budgets and goals." or "Accountability means...?"
But I am not just a complainer, I am a do-er. Therefore I suggest the following method to drastically reduce the cost of putting people on the moon in the near future: Launch unmanned supply convoys to the ISS and assemble the lunar modules there. Because it takes a huge amount of energy to go from the ground to the ISS, but a miniscule amount to go from the ISS to the Lagrangian point, it would save huge amounts (and I mean tens billions of dollars) if unmanned rockets were launched (like the Russians already do) that sent supplies up to the (now) 12 busy space-construction-workers on the ISS, who would then carefully assemble the parts into the lunar lander. The command module could be completely scrapped in this scenario, as a vessel to return through Earth's atmosphere is unnecessary. Once the lunar module is assembled, moon-nauts from the ISS (the magic number being three, I guess) hop aboard and begin the short journey to the moon. When they arrive there, they get to work assembling permanent colony structures, using the large chunks of materials that have arrived unmanned, having been sent from the ISS at an earlier date. Once they have assembled everything they can, or have run out of oxygen, they return to the lunar lander, and blast off back toward the ISS (escaping moon's gravity well is dramatically easier than Earth's and takes a fraction of the fuel). They dock at the ISS , and the lunar lander is refueled. A new crew of ISS residents climbs aboard and heads to the moon for their stint. All this time, unmanned (LIQUID FUELED) rockets are delivering supplies to the ISS, which assembles them and sends them off to the moon for eventual assembly.
What I am basically proposing is a "space elevator," where supplies are lifted (in this case via rockets) to an orbital platform, assembled, and then launched from there. The beauty of this plan is that NASA could easily and safely contract out the unmanned supply missions to either other countries or to private enterprises who have rocket experience. Occasionally a larger vessel (like the shuttle) could take fresh crews up to the ISS, bring some of the existing crew home, and bring home any moon rocks or whatever else.
But President Bush proposed, and President Obama hasn't halted, the retirement of the Shuttle fleet. This is to "help pay for the moon mission", but according to the figures above, it'll take 100 scrapped shuttle missions before the moon mission has been paid for. Why not keep using the shuttles, once a year, to refresh the ISS crew and take fresh moon-base builders up to orbit?
The point is, I really think it is time to just start over with America's Space Administration. I'm sure that NASA is full of wildly talented engineers who I would hate to see go, but it depresses me to think those brilliant engineers are working on goals that no one really wants to achieve, at a price no one wants to pay, for a country who doesn't really care.
NASA is far to dependent on the whim and fancy of a fickle White House, too. The death grip the Executive and Legislative branches have on NASA has turned them into at worst sock puppets for campaigning politicians, and at best idealogues with nothing to show for their dreams. Changing the administrative structure of NASA is clearly not an option. But a new space program...a new NASA, could potentially circumvent this problem.