Monday, February 01, 2010

New Direction for Space

OK, the budget for FY2011 is out. Here is the NASA budget release with statements and related information and some media links.

The announcements accompanying the release, headed by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, described the new direction NASA is taking. In summary:

-Cancellation of the ongoing Constellation program aimed at a return to the Moon by 2020.

-Extension of the International Space Station to (at least) 2020 with a major push to enlist American commercial providers to transport crew and cargo to the ISS. Several companies were awarded funding to assist development of such projects under an existing program.

-Major investment in technology research and development including heavy lift vehicle (apparently no rapid Shuttle derived development though), in space propulsion (e.g. VASIMR), in -space propellant depots, radiation research and mitigation.

-Continuing unmanned exploration and science along with other miscellaneous initiatives.

So, the loss of the specific exploration goals and program is sad though the program was running into technical and budget issues that may have prevented its realization in the long run anyway. The Ares I/V launch vehicles were particularly troubled by design changes, escalating costs and delays. I think that a DIRECT type Shuttle derived launcher might have been workable and may re-emerge through Congressional action or, better yet, even as an initiative of a commercial consortium.

Needless to say, the reaction across the Internet space community is at such a high level that is virtually impossible to keep up with it all. Opinions range from exuberant enthusiasm for the new initiative to apocalyptic pronouncements of the end of (US) human spaceflight. Alan Boyle has a summary of the new direction and the ensuing debate here.

As for me, I think the initiatives to enable commercial human spaceflight and fund a range of frontier enabling technology developments are overdue and have my strong support. It will be exciting to see the additional initiatives of new and established space companies that may emerge in response to the new direction in space. I understand the cancellation of the troubled Ares I/V vehicles but had hoped that a more affordable heavy lift vehicle might have emerged. As I've said above , that may re-emerge one way or another.

It must also be understood that there is some amount of risk in this new initiative and that some thought should be given to what happens if the the commercial transport services are delayed, leaving us reliant on Russian transort for an extended time.

I am concerned that while the dispersal of space activities into a diversity of innovative initiatives can be a very promising development, there is a risk that the smaller programs might be vulnerable to future cuts by Congress or the Administration (Obama or a successor) to fund other priorities. I hope the space community will not remain so divided over these changes that it cannot come together to ensure that our space development efforts are not diluted

Finally, even a transition to a wider future involves traumatic dislocation so I am concerned about the many fellow workers in the space industry that will be affected. I haven't seen or heard anything specific about the satellite servicing project I'm working on now but it would seem to fit in well with the enhanced technology development program.

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