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Human Space Flight Initiative – My Review

Okay, here is my longer look at the Lampson bill (text available here at SpaceRef.com. The primary standard I used for judging the bill’s merit was: “Does this get us closer to settlement of Mars?”, the secondary standard was: “Does this open up space, generally, to open-ended human activity?”. By open-ended, I mean that the activity is not confined to specific programs with specific, regulated, limited, and/or “centrally-planned” objectives — markets vs. “flags and footprints”.

A BILL

To restore a vision for the United States human space flight program by instituting a series of incremental goals that will facilitate the scientific exploration of the solar system and aid in the search for life elsewhere in the universe, and for other purposes.

Okay, sounds good. But what does “human space flight program” mean, exactly? Are we talking about government-sponsored and government-directed activities? Will these be the only activities promoted by the proposed Initiative? Will all the funding and other aspects of this proposal be only applicable to NASA, or will other entities — commercial and private — be allowed to participate?

“Incremental goals” sounds like a wise idea — build on experience and infrastructure developed from previous steps along the way, rather than starting from scratch (or nearly so) for each new endeavor, as has been done in the past.

I can get behind “exploration of the solar system”, particularly if it involves humans doing the exploring directly. The search for life elsewhere in the solar system, ditto. But how can an improved space infrastructure, launch vehicles, etc. assist in “the search for life elsewhere in the universe”? Can’t that be done just as well from Earth as anywhere else in the solar system? Perhaps space-based or Moon-based radio telescopes could assist in these efforts, much as their earthbound counterparts do today — as with those earthbound dishes, however, it’s unlikely that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence would itself justify the no-way-around-it large expense involved in building such observatories.

Anyone care to guess what “other purposes” might mean? Earmarks, perhaps?

For brevity’s sake, I’ll skip ahead here to Sec. 4.

SEC. 4. HUMAN SPACE FLIGHT INITIATIVE.

(a) GOALS. – The [NASA] Administrator shall set the following goals for the future activities of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s human space flight program:

Again with the “program” language. Well, this subsection does claim to refer to NASA-specific goals. The question then becomes, are these goals that NASA should be pursuing as an agency, or should these be left to private industry, with technical support from NASA?

(1) Within 8 years after the date of enactment of this Act, the development and flight demonstration of a reusable space vehicle capable of carrying humans from low Earth orbit to the L 1 and L 2 Earth-Sun libration points and back for the purposes of assembling large-scale space structures such as would be required for scientific observatories, to the Earth-Moon libration points and back, and to lunar orbit and back.

This is basically an orbital tug we’re talking about here, and one vehicle design could be developed to accomplish all of these roles. Access to L1, L2, etc. is nice, but I think eight years from now is an optimistic estimate of when we will be ready to build O’Neill colonies.

Something to keep in mind is the fact that this vehicle is based on orbit. Thus there is an unstated requirement for a large infrastructure to support it, if only for refueling. Safety requirements regarding fueled vehicles in proximity to the ISS would likely prohibit the tug from being parked there during downtimes, which means some sort of free-flying mini-station or depot would likely be required for on-orbit refueling and maintenance operations. Not that this is a bad thing, as it expands human activities in space, and both the tug and its supporting infrastructure are multi-pupose and open-ended hardware readily adaptable (nay, designed for) support of commercial activities.

The language should be a bit more up-front about all the associated hardware and expenses, though, rather than focusing solely on the vehicle.

(2) Within 10 years after the date of enactment of this Act, the development and flight demonstration of a reusable space vehicle capable of carrying humans from low Earth orbit to and from an Earth-orbit crossing asteroid and rendezvousing with it.

This is an interesting goal, and achievable with modifications to the orbital tug design to enhance its range and mission duration. Given that a simple round-trip to an Earth-crossing asteroid would likely require a few months, such a mission would serve as a somewhat-low-risk rehearsal for manned missions to Mars.

And if the missions were not merely of the closed-ended, “visit a couple of rocks for science” sort, such craft could provide early access to the resource riches suspected to exist on such bodies. Prospecting in such vehicles could turn up resource wealth which would drive the development of larger vehicles capable of exploiting these bodies on an economically-viable scale.

(3) Within 15 years after the date of enactment of this Act, the development and flight demonstration of a reusable space vehicle capable of carrying humans from lunar orbit to the surface of the Moon and back, as well as the development and deployment of a human-tended habitation and research facility on the lunar surface.

“Welcome to Clavius Base, Dr. Floyd.” So, we get 2001 sixteen years late, but at least we get it. If you have a reusable tug capable of getting you to lunar orbit, it only makes sense that you have a vehicle that can get you that last fifty miles or so. And like the asteroid missions, this activity would serve as valuable preparation for manned Mars missions — and Mars settlement, as well, if a permanent base is to be built in on the Moon in the process.

However, this provision does not specifiy that the “human-tended habitation and research facility” is to be permanent, nor does it say anything at all about commercial exploitation or true settlement (vs. mere “habitation”) of the lunar surface. I think that is a major flaw here, pointing the way to a stunted, transient presence akin to that at McMurdo Sound, rather than an open-ended permanent homesteading.

(4) Within 20 years after the date of enactment of this Act, the development and flight demonstration of a reusable space vehicle capable of carrying humans from low Earth orbit to and from Martian orbit, the development and deployment of a human-tended habitation and research facility on the surface of one of the moons of Mars, and the development and flight demonstration of a reusable space vehicle capable of carrying humans from Martian orbit to the surface of Mars and back.

As noted above, the vehicles and missions described here follow on from those developed in the previous phases. A reusable Mars-surface-to-orbit vehicle would follow from the equivalent lunar vehicle. The Mars transfer vehicle would derive from the asteroid version of the orbital tug. The Mars-moon habitation and research facility could derive from the lunar equivalent. While Mars Direct is arguably a faster and cheaper way to get humans to Mars, the evolutionary approach, building open-ended infrastructure and testing out the relevant methods along the way, would arguably be a better and longer-lasting approach, one more likely to establish a permanent presence on the planet since it relies on hardware which is already in place in space and which is used and maintained for other purposes (commercial, one hopes) as well.

Something to note in all of these items is the “development and flight demonstration” language. On the one hand, I think it’s good to structure it that way, as it effectively precludes NASA from going ahead to construct its own fleet of such vehicles. This gives the private sector a foot in the door to take this design, improve on it, and build and operate its own fleet — which is possibly what the authors of the bill intend. On the other hand, I suspect that the requirement only to demonstrate these vehicles, with no requirement to subsequently use the vehicle for something or to hand the design off to industry, could result in an expensive set of hand-crafted “hangar queens” — vehicles flown once or twice and then crated off to the NASM for display.

(b) OFFICE OF EXPLORATION.

(1) ESTABLISHMENT. – The Administrator shall establish an Office of Exploration, which shall be headed by an Associate Administrator reporting directly to the Administrator.

Great, more bureaucracy. What existing departments or AAs, if any, does it absorb?

(2) FUNCTIONS. – The Office of Exploration shall, in coordination with the Office of Space Flight, the Office of Space Science, and all other relevant Offices, be responsible for planning, budgeting, and managing activities undertaken by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to accomplish the goals stated in subsection (a).

In other words, the new Office will have a mandate which competes with other existing Offices for authority and resources. This looks to me like a recipe for failure, as it does not give clear priority to the new Office and its mandate. If the aforementioned goals are to become the primary goals of NASA under the proposed Initiative, such priority is required.

(c) IMPLEMENTATION.

(1) COMPETITIONS. – The Administrator shall establish a process for conducting competitions for innovative, cost-efficient mission concepts to accomplish each of the goals stated in subsection (a). The competitions shall be open to entities or consortia from industry, academia, nongovernmental research organizations, National Aeronautics and Space Administration Centers, and other governmental organizations. Mission concepts may include the provision of a commercial item or service sufficient to accomplish all or part of the relevant goal. Mission concepts that include international participation and cost-sharing shall be encouraged. The Administrator shall solicit proposals for the competition with respect to the goal stated in subsection (a)(1) not later than 180 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, and shall determine when it is appropriate to conduct competitions with respect to each of the other goals stated in subsection (a).

Here, the proposed Initiative encourages commercial participation, although it almost sounds like an afterthought. And it still places NASA on top, directing the Agency to select one Winner and reject the rest when there may be multiple successful approaches to each of the aforementioned goals. While it is a bit difficult to pick out, there is here a provision for use of commercial services to accomplish these goals, but that is not quite the same as transitioning the vehicle designs (or associated infrastructure) to industry for commercial development. And again, the language here sounds too mission-oriented and not open-ended enough.

Note that “other governmental organizations” is likely a euphemism for “the military”. Not a bad idea, but probably not something the sponsors want to state openly, for fear of “space militarization” criticisms.

Overall, I think the proposed Initiative has some merit to it. However, I would like to see it retooled in order to better ensure that private industry is willing and allowed to take up the reigns after each of these goals is met, independent of NASA or any other agency. Mission-oriented thinking got us to the Moon, but it couldn’t keep us there — while this Initiative has the potential to be more open-ended, it could use some language which makes that a goal in its own right, accompanying each of the others.

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