Monday, December 29, 2008

A Newer, Safer NASA?

Regular readers of this blog—all five of you—know that in the past I have had less than kind words for NASA regarding safety issues. The agency has become something of a poster child in engineering ethics circles, mainly because of the Challenger and Columbia space-shuttle disasters. Recently, however, under the leadership of Michael Griffin, NASA has shown signs of getting its act together. It has stuck to long-overdue plans to retire the current fleet of space shuttles by 2010, which by Thursday will be only next year. And it has embarked on ambitious but generally well-considered plans to develop a new way of getting to the moon and beyond: the Constellation program, which includes the new Ares series of partially reusable rockets and space capsules. In these plans, NASA is at least trying to do what's right, which is to get away from the increasingly antiquated and hazardous shuttle system toward newly designed systems that take advantage of thirty years of aerospace progress, while embracing safe tried-and-true technologies.

For example, the personnel-transporting Ares I rocket uses liquid-fueled J-2 engines, the same kind that the Gemini and Apollo programs used. The solid-fuel boosters employed by the space shuttle were a bargain-basement compromise that led directly to the first major shuttle disaster, and it will be good to see them go.

But the best-laid plans of mice and men, at least those employed by the government, are subject to political winds. News reports of a few weeks ago carried a story about a dust-up between Griffin and Lori Garver, a former NASA public relations officer who now heads the Obama transition team in charge of deciding what to do with NASA.

According to Time, the dispute arose when Garver and Griffin met in a NASA library during a book signing. Although details of the encounter vary by source, one issue was the possibility of either canceling the Ares I program altogether or switching to a cheaper alternative using existing rockets such as the Atlas and Centaur, currently used for unmanned space projects. Griffin reportedly questioned Garver's engineering qualifications and said that Atlas and Centaur rockets are not safe enough to use for people.

Of course, it is within the prerogative of a new administration to replace Griffin with someone more cooperative. But if NASA has finally learned something from its past mistakes and is headed in a good direction, it would be a shame if the incoming administration forced it into the same nickel-and-dime mode that led to the twenty-eight-year dangerous compromise called the space shuttle.

The environment that NASA operates in now is very different than the situation three decades ago. In the late 1970s, the only credible competitor in space was the old USSR, which had pretty much thrown in the towel when the U. S. reached the moon in 1969. Today, all kinds of folks are getting into the act: China, Japan, and India all have serious space programs, and Russia, far from having abandoned theirs, will be our only link to the International Space Station from the time the shuttle is retired until we develop something better—assuming there are funds and political support to do so.

The appeal of space flight—especially manned space flight—has always been more emotional than rational, more tied to political prestige than to economic realities. From a strictly business point of view, the market is very thin—there simply aren't that many super-rich people willing to pay $20 million for a joyride in space. And while there is money to be made from orbiting satellites, that end of the business has become truly a business, in which the cheapest rocket that will do the job is used. For the foreseeable future, flying people outside the atmosphere is something that will always be a money-loser. So the agencies charged with doing it have to justify their existence on grounds other than profit.

For NASA, this means two things: science and the romantic appeal of space exploration. As far as science goes, the Hubble Space Telescope has proved very fruitful, but note that the only time we have to send people up to it is when it breaks down. With advances in autonomous robotic instruments, even exploration of other planets can be done much more economically with unmanned probes. So sending people into space doesn't really further science, except to add to our knowledge of what happens to people when they spend long periods of time in space. (The short answer to that is, nothing much good.)

So that leaves romance and a kind of quasi-religious feeling as the real basis for manned space flight. Griffin is reportedly a believer in the idea that mankind's long-term destiny is to colonize space, whether other planets in our solar system or planets in other solar systems. I have had some minor dealings with people who think this way, and it really amounts to a kind of religion. If you don't believe in the supernatural, and you think we are well on the way to trashing the only planet we can live on, that leaves space exploration as the only hope for immortality of the human species. After all, the sun is going to run out of gas here in a few billion more years, and then what?

I am generally well disposed toward idealism, if it is directed at worthy goals. And I'm all in favor of the scientific aspects of space exploration. But sending people into space costs a lot more than unmanned projects, and (needless to say) are more dangerous to those participating as well. In a democracy, public expenditures have to be justified by the economic or political good that they can achieve. These political goods include maintaining what prestige we have in the community of nations, satisfying the desires of those who see space as the final frontier, and making heroes, without whom few nations make it for long. It is up to the Obama administration and the new Congress to decide whether NASA's plans are worth the cost. Whatever happens, I hope that we end up with something to replace the shuttles that is orders of magnitude safer and will serve the public in the best way possible—whatever that is.

Sources: Reports of the Griffin-Garver controversy I used can be found at the Time Magazine website,8599,1866045,00.html
and the Orlando Sentinel website

1 comment:

  1. The Ares I does still use the ATK Solid Rocket Booster. The upper stage does use the J-2 engine, but the initial 2 minute ride to space will be on top of an SRB.