Friday, February 05, 2010

Lead, Follow, or ...

Well, that didn't take as long as I thought it would.

Truly, Constellation's fate was sealed with the release of the Augustine report last fall. Without a major increase in funding, there was no way they could pull it off as written, and that increase in funding just wasn't going to happen. I was surprised that the decision was taken now, as opposed to after November's elections. But, taking it all in, I have to say that this is the best news we've had on the manned spaceflight front in years. This isn't the end. It is, in fact, a new beginning.

Let's start with the fact that Orion/Ares wasn't flying anyone anywhere anytime real soon. The erstwhile Shuttle replacement wouldn't fly until at best 2014, and more likely 2017 after the schedule marched to the right a bit. And what would eventually end up flying would be driven more by what the Ares I could lift than by what its intended job would be. That's putting the cart before the horse, with a vengeance.

Now, let's look at what's taking the place of Constellation. Instead of the world's biggest Roman candle, R&D money will go towards development of closed-loop life support systems, high-efficiency rocket engines, and in-space refueling techniques. In short, the Obama Administration has directed NASA to pursue the "Flexible Path" called for in the Augustine report.

The previous NASA Administrator once wrote that spacecraft, like turkeys, are bought by the pound. He was exactly right. And these three technologies will greatly reduce the weight of a manned interplanetary spacecraft. Without closed-loop life support, you'd have to carry along all of the water and air the astronauts would consume during the mission, which can amount to several years' worth. Without high-efficiency engines, a much higher fraction of your vessel must be devoted to fuel. And without in-space refueling, you not only have to loft the tanks fully filled, but once they're empty that's it. If you can transfer fuel, not only can you loft the ship in segments, but you get to use it more than once.

Taken together, this move is a very positive one. This change of policy isn't taking the Moon away, it's giving us the rest of the Universe. As Rand Simberg once said, NASA's job isn't to send people to Mars, it's to develop the technology to let the National Geographic Society send people to Mars. If NASA goes down this path for about twenty years, we might see exactly that.

The future just got a lot more interesting ...

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