Thursday, April 15, 2010

The New NASA

In a bizarre twist, a liberal Democrat President is urging privatization of a government-run entity, and the Republicans are upset.

President Obama releases his new vision for NASA today in a speech at Cape Canaveral, where it is expected he will outline the following changes to NASA's current plans:
- Ferrying astronauts to the ISS shall be privatized ASAP.
- Research will continue on a large rocket to transport cargo to space.
- No moon mission planned.

Obviously, I love this. Obama wants to invest $6 billion into stimulating private spaceflight. Of course, the Old Guard is pissed, probably because this means space might become democratic. Just think of it...orbiting the Earth no longer would require a government entities' prior approval!
The old NASA stalwarts, like Chris Kraft, are understandably mad. Their entire careers were built in a world where space was dominated by the Americans, and namely the American Government.
Now at some point, the internet was declassified and pushed into the private sector. No longer could the government completely control the flow of electronic information around America! NO!!! But look what the internet has done; wikipedia, my blog, news articles about President Obama's speech about NASA all come to your eyeballs instantly, for a nominal monthly fee.
Is it so hard to believe that privatization of spaceflight will be any different? Maybe for a while - even a long while - plebs like me won't be able to afford a ticket up there, but you can bet during my daughter's lifetime, the price of admission to zero-G will fall. And that is a good thing. Because there is no engine of technological evolution ever witnessed like the mighty power of the United States Economy.

Of course, that doesn't mean I support manned exploration of space. I hold to my belief that astronauts exploring the stars is as unrealistic as sending humans to the bottom of the ocean to explore there - only the marine biologists are smart enough to accept that robots can do it better; NASA hasn't. Or more specifically, Tom Jones, Buzz Aldrin, Gene Cernan, and a cadre of old, patriotic men who don't want to see "their era" end cannot accept that manned spaceflight will be great for setting up an orbital economy, but is a pointlessly dangerous and obscenely expensive way to explore the deeper heavens.
President Obama's promise to "extend the space station's life by five years and put billions into research to develop the big new rocket ship capable of reaching a nearby asteroid, the moon or other points in space. Those stops would be stepping stones on an eventual mission to Mars" doesn't seem to me very smart, or cost-effective.
Look, President Obama, you are uber-smart (as evidenced by the fact that you regularly read this blog), and I support most of your policies simply because I know you think about them. So please, hear my suggestions and then think about your space policy.
1. Develop a heavy lifting rocket as planned, but for the sole purpose of lifting mechanical components up to the ISS, where they can be stored and assembled.
2. Privatization of astronaut ferrying is perfect, and I laud you for adopting this as policy. However, the purpose of these astronauts is to be space construction workers, not scientist/explorers.
3. Use the ISS as a workshop for building LEO (low earth orbit) to Mars spacecraft, and launch as many as possible containing any number of robotic explorers. Any astrophysicist will tell you that the energy required to reach Mars is trivial compared to the energy required to go from the ground to LEO, because once you get into space, moving around up there is relatively easy.
4. Sell the Moon. Given that the Moon is technically owned by the United States (there is no legal ownership of the Moon, but given legal precedent, it can be potentially assumed by the U.S.A. that being the first and only ones there, we effectively own it.
5. Pour as much money as possible into advanced propulsion technology.

The MSNBC article I reference implies that the new NASA plan will appeal more to a "younger generation." I suppose this is true. While I do not intend to personally insult Buzz Aldrin &Co., and owe them a debt of gratitude for their risk-taking during my parents' childhood, I must admit - I don't give a rats' ass about what they think. Buzz Aldrin has a hard time checking his email. This is my generation's turn to make the choices.

I love my grandfather. I listen to his advice, which is usually "worship God and save as much money as you can." But although he was a retirement consultant for many years, I would not ask his advice as to which internet companies deserve my investment dollars. The market is just to fast-moving, the technology has just outpaced him, and the economy is just too different now.
The same is true for these Old Guard Astronauts. I value their advice on patience and fortitude, and on America needed to explore the stars. But when they start giving specifics my eyes glaze over. They really aren't qualified, anymore.

I'm starting to that the proper allegory for NASA is a tree. The first 30 years was like a full growing season for the tree. At the end of the 80's and into the 90's, the summer got late, and the tree growth slowed. Then the last decade was the winter. Now it's Spring again, time for the tree to move up to higher heights, greater goals, and loftier aims. The old leaves need to be shaken off, and discarded forever, so that better, healthier, more productive leaves can take their place. And think of privatization of space not as the end of the tree, but rather the scattering of its seeds in the wind, ensuring that tree's legacy will blossom on forever.


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