Saturday, May 15, 2010

Is America lost in space?

(The final planned launch of Shuttle Atlantis,
May 14, 2010. From NASA.)

After STS-132, now in orbit, there are just two more planned American civilian spaceflights left. (The Air Force still has the unmanned X-37B program; a successful launch of the new vehicle was made on April 23.)

There will still be Americans in space, for a time at least, after the Shuttle is retired: American astronauts will continue to rotate to the International Space Station as passengers on board Russian vehicles. And President Obama says our outer space goals should be reconfigured: Instead of returning to the Moon and going next to Mars, as President Bush had proposed (and Congress had approved), we should head straight to Mars. Future flights in Low Earth Orbit should be privatized, with NASA becoming more FAA than the owner-developer-operator of all American space technology.

But this is a cloudy vision. While Mr. Obama's plan has some support among space scientists, many of our surviving lunar explorers are strongly opposed. (Here is a link to Neil Armstrong's written testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation this past week.)

The problem with Mr. Obama's vision -- aside from the fact that it flushes billions of dollars already spent on developing vehicles and logistics for the now-scrapped return to the Moon -- is that it comes with no guarantees whatsoever. The Mars program is off in the distant future. The only upcoming tangible goal is for a new 'heavy lift' rocket to come on line in 2015 -- and that's because the development of this vehicle was part of the lunar program. Eugene A. Cernan, the last man to walk on the Moon, who testified with Armstrong before the Senate this week, said, "Nowhere do we find a commitment in dollars to support this national endeavor.... [T]his budget proposal presents no challenges, has no focus, and in fact is a blueprint for a mission to nowhere."

And then there's the question of privatizing LEO flights. In theory, this is a fabulous, long overdue idea. But... who will be allowed to fly? Low Earth Orbit is a crowded place; it's not just Hubble Telescope and the International Space Station up there, there are lots of satellites and lots of debris, too. Traffic has to be regulated to prevent collisions. Also... there's no place to go in LEO. There's up... and there's down. Entrepreneurs aren't being invited to hook up their own modules to the ISS... which would be the outer space equivalent of building a trading post outside the fort.

If you follow all the links here, you'll read that Mr. Obama's plan proposes an increase in NASA funding. But politicians do weird and wonderful things with budgetary numbers. Mr. Armstrong says the prior plans were never funded as they should have been, so comparisons are unfair. And who's to say whether Congress, in a time of soaring national debt, will supply the dollars Mr. Obama has requested.

By the way, this is not a Republicans vs. Democrats issue -- at least not for me. I think it just has to do with rotation in office: It was Richard Nixon who scrapped the last several moon flights. I suspect that each administration comes into office determined to undo everything its predecessor has done. Kennedy wanted to go to the Moon, so Nixon wanted to stop going (at least after he'd milked the PR value of Apollo XI). Bush II wanted to return to the Moon, so Obama was against it.

There is an attitude in this country that our manned spaceflight program is simply an obsolete relic of the Cold War. That's the attitude taken by Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg yesterday. He concluded:
Will it sting us to see Chinese astronauts joyously waving streamers attached to sticks, doing that running dance of theirs on the surface of the moon? Absolutely. Does that mean we must be square dancing one crater over? No way.
As an old history major, all I know is that, in the 1490s, the Pope divided the whole unknown world between the Spanish and the Portuguese. These were the major world powers then, and the leaders of global exploration. They quibbled over the Pope's line of demarcation, eventually moving one of the lines west, which may... or may not... have given Portugal its claim on Brazil.

Meanwhile the Dutch and, soon after, the English, were ramping up exploration programs of their own. And England set up shop in North America where our forefathers brought forth a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Portugal regrouped. It consolidated. Bottom line: Portugal stopped exploring; England did not. We are -- America is -- the result. Today, Portugal is a lovely place that exports cork and wine and constitutes the next biggest threat to the euro after Greece.

America may not control space. No terrestrial nation will, not in the long term, because all of us here are at the bottom of a big gravity well and space is the ultimate 'high ground.' But we can choose whether we want to be England... or Portugal.

I vote for England.

Friday, May 14, 2010

A possible explanation for this Louisiana oil mess?

Click to enlarge.

From Fake Science ("for when the facts are too confusing"). Hat tip to Popehat for the link to the site.