So, I've already talked about how we're kind of screwed in terms of space exploration, some of the political considerations, launch costs, and some potential things to do in space.
If you ask a person on the street how much money we spend on NASA, they'll give you a huge number, generally between ten and fifteen percent of the federal budget. However, the reality is that we spend far less than one percent of the budget on space exploration. So, if you go to the polls and ask people if they'd support 1% of the budget going to NASA for them to do impressive things like explore Mars, you'll find that people rather support this idea.
Pretty much, you could cancel space exploration entirely and it wouldn't make any real difference in solving our problems on Earth. The amount spent on NASA pales next to social programs, next to the defense budget, next to Bernie Madoff's ponzi scheme, etc.
The problem, from my point of view, is that it's hard to find somebody who is passionate about space exploration, able to explain the untold truths, and who also is able to convince people. Space reporting is fairly hard to do because you must both understand journalism and at least some amount of engineering, plus it's easy to justify not having somebody specialize in it because you can go for months without any real space news.
Thus, it's a rational assumption that, despite the right person being able to convince the public to double NASA's budget, that NASA will probably have to assume a fairly flat budget.
Now, the current Vision for Space Exploration was built under the assumption that we'd fly the shuttle until 2010, direct some money to build the Ares I rocket and Orion capsule now, and then in future years NASA's budget would be increased so that the Ares V rocket and lunar lander could be developed for a lunar mission structured as a precursor to a Mars mission. In a best case situation, that would have netted a year or two gap of no manned spaceflight launched from America.
Rocket science is hard. There are a lot of subtle details that sneak up on you and everybody who has started a business assuming that a fresh modern approach and the lessons of the past were enough to let you make rocket science easy. Pretty much the entire aerospace industry always has a problem with weight growth and, even though most figures have a certain amount of fudge factor, it's always more weight growth than the fudge factor.
So the Orion capsule is getting heavier as time goes on. Furthermore, the Ares I rocket is having a lot of subtle detail problems.It was initially designed such that it had one of the SRBs as the first stage and then one of the space shuttle's main engines underneath a fuel tank as the second stage. Then it turns out that you can only light the space shuttle's main engine if you are on the ground and there's no way you could modify it in time, so they switched engines to the less efficient J-2X. After some design tweaks, it then turned out that there's some fairly severe vibration and control issues, some of which have easy solutions but other that have huge performance impacts. Now, the new Ares I rocket has far less in common with the pieces from the space shuttle than it did at the start, so risk is going way up and it's going to be quite a while before it flies. Presently, the Air Force is worried that it's going to shake so hard that the flight termination system will fail to work. And the money that was supposed to speed up Ares I development never showed up.
The big problem is not just if the Ares I will fly, it's if the rest of the system will fly. Remember that the shuttle was to be part of a big system where they canceled the rest of the system early on. In order to actually do much of anything, you need a second rocket, the Ares V, which carries the earth departure stage and the lunar lander. Without it, you can get to the ISS and back down and that's about it.
Thus, the biggest problem, besides the engineering issues of the Ares I, is that it's fairly likely that the Ares V will be canceled in lieu of giving NASA a larger budget. If you want a perfect storm, consider that the ISS only has space in the budget until 2016, thus giving us basically nothing to do with people in space.
As I was writing this, the present administration killed another large well-distributed project -- adding more aircraft to the F-22 buy. Like the space program, the F-22 procurement has been very politically protected such that it has wide political support. Obama and the Democrat leadership in congress killed it. Thus, you can't just rely upon traditional political considerations all of the time.
Now, on the other hand, if you compare the thrust and payload capabilities of the commercially available rockets, you quickly realize that most of them can lift a Soyuz capsule, if not something larger. If you then consider how many launches of one of those boosters you could buy for the shuttle's budget, even without assuming mass production, you start to see why this is a program that, without political considerations of ensuring continued business for shuttle contractors, would never fly.
With the new Obama presidency, the Augustine commission was convened to provide a set of options to the president.
There's a group of people who would like to get NASA out of the business of doing what others can do for them, to force NASA to buy complete vehicles and services where they might have built their own system. Two different camps trumpeted their desire to do this. The United Launch Alliance, which is a pairing of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, would like to use their existing rockets. SpaceX, who is a small startup in comparison, would like NASA to buy the results from the space program they intend to complete largely on their own.
SpaceX is kind of a dark horse. They are the latest to try to do things differently from the aerospace business. This means they build their own engines, tanks, etc. They did have three early launch failures in a row, but the last two flights have been total successes.
Ever since the space shuttle program has been fixed in configuration, people have been writing proposal papers suggesting that the parts of the space shuttle be rearranged into an expendable booster for heavy lift, in various configurations. There was even some fairly serious proposals in the form of the Shuttle C program, where the shuttle would be replaced with a canister with the same three engines on the back. The Ares boosters are one proposal, but there's a huge number of papers people have written proposing various configurations.
A bunch of folks, some of them moonlighting NASA engineers, who were upset at what level of capability we were getting for the money, came up with an alternate proposal called DIRECT that satisfies all of the same political constraints as the Ares rockets, but gives more abilities right away. Apparently, at least some members in NASA's management have also realized that the Ares program is in trouble and have their own plan, which pretty much resurrects the Shuttle C, which has been dubbed "Not Shuttle-C" or NSC for short.
Both of these plans have an effective result of forcing NASA to have to build the big booster first. As it turns out, the costs of metal or fuel actually figure fairly small in the actual cost of a booster. Most of the cost is in fabrication and infrastructure and other such costs. So, in other words, instead of getting a booster that's already too small to launch the Orion capsule, you get one that's too big by a fairly substantial amount... and then just not bothering trying to build something as small as the Ares I. This isn't a huge problem. The NSC folks point out that you can carry a year's worth of supplies to the ISS behind the capsule with a single launch. The DIRECT folks point out that you can put a fairly big shield behind the capsule to make a booster explosion more survivable. And then, either way, you'd launch two rockets, each containing half of what you need to get to the Moon, for a Lunar mission.
Finally, there is still time to tack on a few more shuttle missions, if you ignore that NASA was directed to stop flying the shuttle by the end of 2010 and budgetary issues. It's presently looking more likely that they won't get the missions that have already been planned up before that deadline, so they might want to just let it slide into 2011. There's another option that would fly two more missions into 2012. And there's an even longer option that would keep the shuttle going into 2014. All of these have budgetary impacts.
The commission is scheduled to produce their report by August. It's anybody's guess as to what they will recommend.
In my mind, it's hard for the commission to wholeheartedly recommend any deals in the COTS program as the only path forward because neither group has made any real test flights on the flight vehicles. SpaceX is pushing hard for NASA to fund the "D" option that would provide for crewed access to the ISS. At least they have had two successful flights of their Falcon 1 booster and launched hardware for their rendezvous system on STS-127. If the shuttle program keeps going into 2012, it's more likely that SpaceX would be ready to actually fly COTS D to the ISS than if the shuttle program ends in 2010.
NASA is stacking the Ares I-X test vehicle on the launch pad, but it's not going to fly until after the report is delivered, no matter what. And note that congressional elections happen in 2010 and the next presidential election is in 2012. Thus, anything done now that won't be well-established in the next two budgetary cycles.
Really, my hope isn't that the commission is going to recommend exactly what I, were I to be a trained rocket scientist, have designed. What I'm hoping for is positioning and vision. I'd like a vision of one potential direction for the space program to take, and I'd like, no matter what the vision is, for us to be positioned for further exploration. Think about it this way: What's the difference between recreating the Apollo program and returning to the moon?