Obama's Change to NASA's direction and budget
U.S. Becoming a Space-age Hitchhiker
U.S. Becoming a Space-age Hitchhiker
Gwynne Dyer, April 22, 2010
I agree with Obama on most things but he is absolutely wrong on
trading the Moon destination for Mars while cancelling the
Constellation Program. First off, there is a misperception that two
boosters (Ares 1 and 5) were a waste of money. Not true: One flight of
each booster doubles the maximum lift capabilities of a single Saturn 5.
Ares 5 was designed to lift much more hardware (like the four-passenger
Lunar Lander called Altair, a larger lunar rover, and sections for a
segmented lunar habitat). After a successful launch of Ares 5, four to six astronauts
would be launched via Ares 1 into Earth orbit. Next, the two vehicles would need
to rendezvous in Earth orbit (EOR) before proceeding to the moon.
In the movies, all the spacemen are Americans, but that’s just because
Hollywood makes the movies. In the real world, the United States is giving
up on space, although it is trying hard to conceal its retreat. Last week,
three Americans with a very special status — they have all commanded
missions to the moon — made their dismay public.
In an open letter, Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the moon,
Jim Lovell, commander of Apollo 13, and Eugene Cernan, commander of Apollo
17, condemned President Barack Obama’s plans for the National Aeronautics
and Space Administration as the beginning of a “long downhill slide to
mediocrity” for the United States.
The letter was timed to coincide with Obama’s visit to Cape Canaveral to
defend his new policy, which abandons the goal of returning to the moon by
2020, or indeed ever. Obama insists that this sacrifice will allow the U.S.
to pursue a more ambitious goal, but his plan to send Americans to Mars by
the late 2030s has the distinct political advantage of not needing really
heavy investment while he is still in office — even if he wins a second
The “Constellation” program that he scrapped had two goals. One was to
replace the aging Shuttle fleet for delivering people and cargo to
near-Earth orbits. The other was to give the U.S. the big rockets it would
need to meet George W. Bush’s target of establishing a permanent American
base on the moon by 2020 where rockets would be assembled to explore the
That program’s timetable was slipping and would undoubtedly have slipped
further, as such programs often do. It would have ended up costing a lot:
$108 billion by 2020, as much as the Pentagon spends in three months, with
the possibility that it would have ended up costing one or two more month's
worth of the defence budget. But it would have kept the United States in the
game. Obama’s plan only pretends to.
He says all the right things: “Nobody is more committed to manned space
flight, to human exploration of space, than I am, but we’ve got to do it in
a smart way.” He talked about a manned mission to some asteroid beyond the
moon by around 2025, and another that will orbit Mars for some months in the
mid-2030s — “and a landing on Mars will follow.”
Those are indeed ambitious goals, and they would require heavy-lift
rockets that do not yet exist. But the “vigorous new technology development”
program that might lead to those rockets will get only $600 million annually
(the price of four F-22 fighters) for the next five years, and actual work
on building such rockets would probably not begin until 2015.
In the meantime, and presumably even for some years after Obama leaves
office in 2016 (should he be re-elected in 2012), the United States will
have no vehicle capable of putting astronauts into orbit. It will be able to
buy passenger space on Russian rockets, or on the rapidly developing Chinese
manned vehicles, or maybe by 2015 even on Indian rockets. But it will
essentially be a hitch-hiker on other countries’ space programs.
Obama suggests that this embarrassment will be avoided because private
enterprise will come up with cheap and efficient “space taxis” that can at
least deliver people and cargo to the International Space Station once in a
while. And he’s going to invest a whole $6 billion in these private
companies over the next five years.
No doubt they will get various vehicles up there, but if they can build
something by 2020 that can lift as much as the ancient Shuttles into a
comparable orbit, let alone something bigger that can go higher, I will eat
my hat. Space technology eats up capital almost as fast as weapons
technology, and these entrepreneurs have no more than tens of billions at
Does Obama know this? Very probably, yes. One suspects that he would
actually be cutting NASA’s budget, not very slightly raising it, if its
centre of gravity (and employment) were not in the swing state of Florida,
where he cannot afford to lose any votes. What is going on here is a
charade, which is why normally taciturn astronauts — including the famously
private Neil Armstrong — signed that open letter.
So for the next decade, at least, the United States will be an also-ran
in space, while the new space powers forge rapidly ahead. And even if some
subsequent administration should decide it wants to get back in the race, it
will find it almost impossible to catch up.
Which is why the first man on Mars will probably be Chinese or Indian,
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are
published in 45 countries.
Lots of people (like Buzz Aldrin) are very critical of Ares-1. But
remember that there were also two Saturn launch vehicles: Saturn 5 and
Saturn 1B. One of the original reasons for the Saturn-1B was to do EOR
(Earth Orbit Rendezvous) until that method was abandoned for a direct
launch to the moon with LOR only used prior to the return to Earth. Had NASA ever used
two Saturn 5 boosters for EOR, the tax-payers would have screamed blue
murder. Without the need for EOR, the Saturn-1B was only used in Apollo test
missions, Apollo-7, Skylab missions 2-4, and Apollo-Soyuz. link:
Now Obama wants to cancel some/all of
Constellation Program while trading a Moon mission for Mars, but it
seems to me that NASA would still need to develop an Altair-like lander
for Mars so I see no reason why to cancel Altair. I do not see any
number of astronauts confining themselves to something the size of the
Orion capsule for a 12-18 month mission to Mars so keeping Orion seems
somewhat unrealistic (except as an emergency life boat for the ISS).
Getting back to basic human exploration for a moment, everyone knows you
need to learn to walk before you run. Europeans required many centuries
to gain sailing experience by paddling around the Mediterranean before
venturing onto the high seas. This experience included learning to live
away from civilization. Like wise, humanity's "Mediterranean of space
flight" will be the area between the Earth and Moon. We need to develop
technologies to learn how to live away from the Earth before we venture
to Mars or the asteroid belt. Rescue missions to the moon will almost
always be possible while rescue missions elsewhere will almost always be
not possible. Americans need to press congress to vote down Obama's plan
to kill any part of Constellation. Having problems paying for it? Walk
away from the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan which are currently
depleting $60 billion per year ($5 billion per month). BTW, the budget for the 30,000 troop
surge is set at $1
million per soldier per year. That's right, an additional $30 billion per year. Think
of what could be done if this destructive money was diverted to
I just learned that the U.S.
currently supports a military force of one-half million (American troops
in Germany and
Korea account for 80,000 alone). Is there any return on this investment
by US taxpayers?
Humans on Mars? Forget it
It's perhaps time to abandon the goal of sending astronauts to the Red Planet.
Simon Ramo, April 26, 2010
Nearly half a century ago, we sent men to the moon because we had to stop the
world from thinking that the Soviet Union, having put a man in orbit, had
surpassed the United States in science and technology. When Americans walked on
the moon, we were back in first place, with the Russians keeping the lead in
ballet, caviar and vodka. So we halted continued moon landings.
20, 1989, President George H.W. Bush [a.k.a. Bush-41] announced the Space Exploration Initiative,
which called for returning astronauts to the moon, this time to stay, and then
on to Mars. The initiative died when Congress decided the cost was too high, but
the national goal of putting an American on Mars remained. In 2004, President
George W. Bush [a.k.a. Bush-43] reiterated that objective.
But is this
[Mars] a worthy goal? It
appears increasingly doubtful that an astronaut could accomplish something
useful on Mars not already being done by robots at far less cost and with little
danger to humans.
The U.S. government and private industry have developed
a successful, robust partnership launching unmanned satellites. Satellites are
used daily for intelligence and reconnaissance, communications, weather
monitoring and many other things. None of these applications is in any way
dependent on the humans-in-space program.
Consider the enormity of an
effort to send astronauts to Mars. When Mars is closest to Earth [once every 26
months], the distance
is still about 200 times that between Earth and the moon, which means it would
take several months to reach Mars. The amount of food, water, oxygen and other
basic supplies necessary for such a journey would require a far larger
spacecraft than anything built yet. And it's by no means certain that humans
could survive the trip.
The astronauts would be exposed to cosmic
radiation and other dangers when in outer space or in the Mars environment for
two years. If they could survive, consider the serious psychological
ramifications of spending two years in a confined space with little ability to
communicate normally with loved ones back home. Although traveling at the
velocity of light, a radioed comment like "Good morning, how are you?" would not
receive a response until many minutes later.
And the physical issues are
enormous. Even with vigorous daily exercise, will an astronaut be able to walk
on Earth after two years under no gravity? Will the astronaut's digestive system
operate properly? What of the heart and other organs? What if there is a medical
emergency? Finally, upon arriving on Mars, astronauts would find blood-freezing
temperatures (more than 100 degrees below zero Fahrenheit at night, even at the
equator) and a suffocating atmosphere of carbon dioxide and no air.
the logistics are overwhelming, from the massive solar arrays that would be
necessary to provide constant electric power to the challenges of resupply and
The modest International Space Station will have cost about
$100 billion by the time it is de-orbited, as planned, in 2016. The price for
designing and running the hugely more complicated array of apparatus needed for
the Mars mission could easily reach 10 times that figure. When numerous
radically new machines must operate together, it is an enormous challenge to
attain the failure-free stage. If only one mishap in 100 trips is the acceptable
performance, for instance, for a combination of 10 separate machines, then each
of those 10 machines must have an even higher failure rate of only one time in
1,000. That would require testing to failure — all the while debugging and
redesigning — of a huge amount of apparatus. It is not like finding a fault with
an airplane and bringing it back to the engineers to modify it. Americans surely
would not tolerate repeated failed trials with loss of lives while we improve
Of course, a Mars landing by an American would create world
excitement and admiration for our country, just as our lunar landings did. But
if the goal is to raise ourselves up in the world's estimation, there are
probably better ways to spend money, such as providing good education for all,
speeding up medical research to cure fatal diseases, building plants to
desalinate ocean water and boosting clean energy development.
If we don't
move forward with manned space exploration, we will always, of course, wonder
whether humans might have discovered something phenomenal that robots missed.
Gentry Lee, chief systems engineer at Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory,
has put it well: "When there are profound scientific questions that can only be
answered by multiple, adaptive interactions with the unknown environment, the
intelligence and versatility of a human being might be useful to unravel a very
important scientific puzzle. So far, no such cases have emerged in our
exploration of the solar system. And even in that special situation, the cost
and likelihood of scientific success by sending human beings should be compared
to the likely outcome of dispatching a flotilla of robotic spacecraft to the
same destination with the same objective."
Some worry that if we allow
further conquering of outer space to be by China or Russia, they will become the
most respected nations as to exploration initiative and heroism. But should
Russia put a cosmonaut on the moon, they merely will have caught up with where
America was 40 years ago. And if China tries to send humans to Mars, it is
reasonable to guess that they will be bogged down for many years, while our
unmanned missions will continue to produce valuable research results.
is conceivable that radical scientific and engineering developments — like the
invention of some sort of "safe atom bomb" rocketry to "blow" an astronaut to
Mars quickly — might someday alter the possibilities for space travel. But
without such scientific revolutions, the costs — both human and economic — are
just too great, especially since it is not at all clear that humans can do in
space what can be and is already being done by robots.
government should consider announcing that to place humans on Mars is no longer
our goal. We should be willing even to consider that the entire humans-in-space
idea may now be out of date.
Simon Ramo was the chief scientist and
technical director in the creation of the United States' intercontinental
ballistic missile system and a co-founder of TRW Inc. He received the National
Medal of Science form President Carter and the Presidential Medal of Freedom
from President Reagan.
Copyright © 2010,
The Los Angeles Times
Technical Comments by NSR
Going to the Moon was an expensive proposition (although less expensive than
going to war) but was doable and desirable since it stimulated other
technologies. Going to Mars will be astronomically expensive and dangerous.
- Compare the physics (part 1):
- Since the Moon orbits the Earth, then for navigational purposes the Earth is stationary (even though it really isn't). This means you
can travel to/from the moon anytime you wish.
- Since both the Earth and Mars are in orbit around the Sun, then for
navigational purposes the Sun is
stationary (even though it really isn't). Since the Earth and Mars are
constantly moving with respect to each other, you can only travel
between them during a 4-6 week gap (or so) every 780 days (26 months).
- Compare the time-delay of communications:
- Speed of Light:
299,792,458 m/sec but let's use 300,000 km to keep the math simple
- the average distance from Earth: 384,399 km / 300,000 = 1.28 seconds
(one way) so the message "Houston, we've got a problem" is possible
- the average distance from Mars to the Sun: 227,939,100 km / 300,000
= 759 seconds or 12 minutes.
- the average distance from
Earth to the Sun:
149,597,887 km / 300,000 = 498 seconds or 8 minutes.
- the minimum time is 5 (12-8) minutes
- the maximum time is 20 (12+8) minutes (although the Sun will be
in the way for about a month)
- in either of the two scenarios, a help message could be sent to
Earth but there is little that anyone on Earth could do about it.
- Politics (part 1)
- In January 2004, the Bush-Cheney administration requested that NASA
should begin planning manned missions to the Moon by 2020-2024. This led
to the creation of the
Constellation Program which included the creation of:
- two new boosters (Ares
1 and Ares 5)
which are derived from the SRB technology used on the Shuttle.
- contrary to popular belief, one launch of each of these
vehicles would double the payload capabilities of a single
Hardware destined for the moon (like Altair) would have been
launched into Earth orbit via an Ares 5. Then the astronauts
would follow in an Ares 1. Next, the two spacecraft would do an
Earth Orbit Rendezvous (EOR) prior to heading to the moon.
- a larger crew capsule known as
- could hold 4-6 astronauts
- a larger lunar lander known as
- could hold 0-4 astronauts (zero means that the vehicle could
land autonomously while bringing supplies from lunar orbit down
to the surface)
- Now it is true that the Bush-Cheney administration underfunded NASA
over the years (probably related to tax cuts combined with increases in
war expenditures related to Iraq and Afghanistan). This underfunding led
to some delays and cost overruns in the whole Constellation Program but
the delays associated with Ares 1 were the most visible
but was this NASA's fault or the fault of the administration and
congress? That said, wouldn't cancelling Constellation after five full
years be flushing tax-payer dollars (US$9 billion) already spent by NASA since 2004?
- Analyze decision logic.
- President Obama has suggested retargeting NASA's moon mission to
Mars and/or nearby asteroids. So he is cancelling Altair (the lander)
while keeping Orion (the crew capsule). If NASA goes to Mars then they
will need a lander so why cancel Altair? Meanwhile, a mission to Mars
will average 9-18 months. There is no way that anyone is going to live
in a capsule that small for that length of time. Why? Astronauts will be
travelling to Mars in zero gravity which means the astronauts need lots
of physical exercise so they can arrive at Mars able to walk via muscle
power. Exercise equipment including additional food and oxygen will
require more space. So Obama should have cancelled Orion and kept
Altair. (on the flip side, contract cancellation fees may be in control
- Politics (part 2)
- We all know that Jack Kennedy was talking to Werner Von Braun for
a year prior to making this speech:
"I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this
decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the
Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to
mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space, and none
will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish."
President John F.
Kennedy, speech to U.S. Congress, May 25, 1961.
- But I get the feeling that the Obama Administration didn't talk to
any specialists prior to retargeting NASA towards Mars. Cancelling the
Constellation Program because America is fighting a two-front-war is one
thing, but the idea that any human can go to Mars anytime in this
century is just sheer fantasy. Where was science advisor
Steven Chu during
- On top of this, I hope the Obama Administration didn't kill
Constellation because it was first proposed by a Republican. If so, this
is almost as dumb as the catholic-protestant swing seen in European
history depending upon who was sitting on the throne.
- Compare the physics (part 2):
- The radius of the moon (at the equator) is roughly one quarter the
size of the Earth. At the moon's surface, gravity is approximately 1/6
that of Earth.
- The radius of Mars (at the equator) moon is roughly one half (53%)
the size of Earth. At the surface of Mars, gravity is approximately one
third (37%) that of
- These differences don't seem like much but remember that a booster
is required to get into orbit after a launch from the Earth. I am not
aware of any lander-style craft getting off the Earth's surface (or even halfway off).
- Politics (part 3)
- Defence contractors (and the military industrial complex) naturally
stay busy creating technology for war. These same contractors are
probably the only people capable of creating technology to the moon or
Mars. If we can keep contractors busy on creative pursuits like going to
the moon, then maybe we can limit our exposure to destructive pursuits
like going to war. Maybe we should make the contactors choose between
the two goals.
- One final point about Mars
- It is going to be very difficult to go to Mars followed by a return
to Earth (at least with current technologies). For those people who
absolutely feel it necessary to go there, humanity should consider
one-way colonization missions. The initial Mars base could be built
using numerous robotic landings with people landing only when it is safe
to do so.
- One final point about Moon Missions (from a post I made at several
- I agree with Obama on most things but he is absolutely wrong on
trading the Moon destination for Mars while cancelling the Constellation
Program. First off, there is a misperception that two boosters (Ares 1
and 5) were a waste of money. Not true: One flight of each booster
doubles the maximum lift capabilities of a single Saturn 5. Ares 5 was
designed to lift much more hardware (like the four-passenger Lunar
Lander called Altair, a larger lunar rover, and sections for a segmented
lunar habitat). After a successful launch of Ares 5, four to six
astronauts would be launched via Ares 1 into Earth orbit. Next, the two
vehicles would need to rendezvous in Earth orbit (EOR) before proceeding
to the moon. Everyone knows you need to learn to
walk before you run. Europeans required many centuries to gain sailing
experience by paddling around the Mediterranean before venturing onto
the high seas. This experience included learning to live away from
civilization. Like wise, humanity's "Mediterranean of space flight" will
be the area between the Earth and Moon. We need to develop technologies
to learn how to live away from the Earth before we venture to Mars or
the asteroid belt. Rescue missions to the moon will almost always be
possible while rescue missions elsewhere will almost always be not
possible. Americans need to press congress to vote down Obama's plan to
kill any part of Constellation.
How to pay for it? Exit the war
in Iraq and Afghanistan ($5 billion/month or $60 billion/per year). Did
you know that the budget for the 30,000 soldier troop surge has been
additionally budgeted at one million dollars per soldier per year? Calc:
1,000,000 x 30,000 = $30 billion/year. Imagine what NASA and its
contractors could do with $90 billion (or even $9 billion).
I just learned that the
U.S. currently supports a military force of one-half million (American
troops in Germany and Korea account for 80,000 alone). Is there any
return on this investment by US taxpayers?
Congress could still save Constellation (and
Ares, Altair, and Orion)
- On February 1, 2010, President Barack Obama announced a proposal to
cancel the Constellation Program effective with the U.S. 2011 fiscal year
- Remember that American political power is
shared three-ways: Executive Branch (headed by the
president), Judicial Branch (headed by the supreme court),
and the Legislative Branch (Congress which includes the
senate as well as the house of representatives).
- Even though the president proposed killing the
Constellation Program, congressional approval
- Don't believe me? NASA
was created by
act of congress in 1958 and then signed into law by Dwight D.
Senate Testimony by Neil Armstrong (2010-05-12)
Neil Armstrong: Obama's New Space Plan 'Poorly Advised'
Quote From Mr. Armstrong's Testimony:
"A plan that was invisible to so many was likely contrived by a very small group
in secret who persuaded the President that this was a unique opportunity to put
his stamp on a new and innovative program," Armstrong, 79, said in a statement
to a Senate subcommittee reviewing NASA's new space plan. "I believe the
President was poorly advised." The United States is risking losing its
role as a leader in space exploration with its new plan, Armstrong said, adding
that he was concerned with the looming gap in American human spaceflight.
Kitchener - Waterloo - Cambridge,