Friday, October 28, 2011

NASA Plans To Terminate Planetary Exploration Programs

Mars Society Announcement
Zubrin: Obama Readies to Blast NASA
By Robert Zubrin, Washington Times, 10.26.11
Word has leaked out that in its new budget, the Obama administration intends to terminate NASA’s planetary exploration program. The Mars Science Lab Curiosity, being readied on the pad, will be launched, as will the nearly completed small MAVEN orbiter scheduled for 2013, but that will be it. No further missions to anywhere are planned.
After 2013, America’s amazing career of planetary exploration, which ran from the Mariner probes in the 1960s through the great Pioneer, Viking, Voyager, Pathfinder, Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Odyssey, Spirit, Opportunity, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Galileo and Cassini missions, will simply end.
Furthermore, the plan from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) also leaves the space astronomy program adrift and headed for destruction. The now-orbiting Kepler Telescope will be turned off in mid-mission, stopping it before it can complete its goal of finding other Earths. Even worse, the magnificent Webb Telescope, the agency’s flagship, which promises fundamental breakthroughs in our understanding of the laws of the universe, is not sufficiently funded to allow successful completion. This guarantees further costly delays, with the ensuing budgetary overruns leading inevitably to eventual cancellation.
The administration’s decision to derail planetary exploration and space astronomy is shocking and portends the destruction of the entire American space program. As an agency, NASA is a mixed bag. It includes a large bureaucracy and wasteful, pork-driven spending. But it also includes departments that are technically superb and really deliver the goods. First and foremost among NASA’s most productive divisions are the planetary exploration and space astronomy programs. Kill those, and what is left will be indefensible.
NASA’s planetary and space astronomy programs are not merely good scientific work. They are epic achievements representative of humanity’s highest ideals in its search for truth. As a result of a string of successful probes sent to the Red Planet over the past 15 years, we now know for certain that Mars was once a warm and wet planet and continued to have an active hydrosphere for a period on the order of a billion years - a span five times as long as the time it took for life to appear on Earth after there was liquid water here. Thus, if the theory is correct that life is a natural phenomenon emerging from chemistry wherever there is liquid water, various minerals and a sufficient period of time, life must have appeared on Mars. If we can find it, we will have good reason to believe we are not alone in the universe.
The Kepler observatory has discovered more than1,000 other solar systems, and if it’s allowed to continue operating, it could well find other worlds like ours. The Hubble Space Telescope discovered that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, indicating the existence of a basic force of nature that previously was unknown. The Webb Telescope will be five times as powerful as Hubble. If it can be completed and flown, there is no telling what discoveries it could make. From the laws of gravity through nuclear fusion, many of our most important discoveries in physics were made through astronomy. We have no idea what the processes were that allowed for the creation of matter, energy and the universe. Webb might help us find out. The potential gains to humanity from such expanded knowledge are beyond calculation.
The ostensible reason for the administration’s decision to kill planetary exploration and space astronomy is budgetary discipline. Yet while federal spending has grown 40 percent since 2008, NASA’s funding has remained virtually the same. It is not NASA that is bankrupting America, but OMB. If the administration needs to cut budgets, it should start with those of the regulatory agencies that are strangling the nation’s businesses rather than NASA, which helps the economy through scientific discoveries, technological innovation and the inspiration of youth to pursue careers in engineering. Furthermore, if there were a need to cut NASA, it would make more sense to trim almost anywhere else in the agency. Instead, the administration’s goal seems to be to destroy the entire space program by hitting it in its most vital parts.
The desertion of America’s great exploration enterprise is an offense against science and civilization. It represents a radical departure from the pioneer spirit, and its ratification as policy would preclude any possibility of a human future in space. It is an inexcusable decision, and it needs to be reversed.
Robert Zubrin is the president of Pioneer Astronautics and author of “The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must” (Free Press, 2011, second edition).
© Copyright 2011 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

NASA Considering Fuel Depots In The Sky

NASA Is Considering Fuel Depots in the Skies

By considering a proposal to put filling stations in the sky, NASA is looking to accelerate plans to send astronauts to distant destinations.
The filling stations — NASA calls them propellant depots — would refuel a spacecraft in orbit before it headed out to the moon, an asteroid or eventually Mars. Currently, all of the fuel needed for a mission is carried up with the rocket, and the weight of the fuel limits the size of the spacecraft.
Next month, engineers will meet at NASA headquarters in Washington to discuss how propellant depots could be used to reach farther into space and make possible more ambitious missions using the heavy-lift rocketthat NASA is planning to build. The discussions grow out of a six-month NASA study of propellant depots, completed in July.
However, the space agency has rejected the study’s most radical conclusion: that NASA could forgo the heavy-lift and use existing smaller rockets, combined with fuel depots, to reach its targets more quickly and less expensively. Those targets, for the next two decades at least, include a return to the moon or a visit to an asteroid. (A trip to Mars is unlikely until at least the 2030s.)
“This study highlights some interesting benefits of depots, but it is too singularly focused,” William H. Gerstenmaier, the associate administrator for NASA’s human exploration and operations directorate, said in a statement. “NASA is actively studying depots and how they can be used with other proposed elements to provide the lowest cost, sustainable exploration plan.”
Under the plan outlined in the document, the propellant depot would be launched first, and then other rockets would carry fuel to the depot before a spacecraft arrived to fill up. That would increase the complexity for an asteroid mission — 11 to 17 launchings instead of four — but could get NASA astronauts to an asteroid by 2024, the study said. The total budget needed for the project from 2012 through 2030 would be $60 billion to $86 billion, the study said.
By contrast, a study last year that designed an asteroid mission around a heavy-lift rocket estimated that it would cost $143 billion and that the trip could not happen until 2029. The earlier study briefly considered propellant depots but quickly dismissed them.
Last month, NASA announced the design of the Space Launch System, the new heavy-lift rocket. The goal is for it to lift 70 metric tons on its first unmanned test flight in 2017, and to be developed into a version capable of lifting 130 tons. The blueprint for NASA’s direction for the coming years, passed by Congress last year and signed by President Obama, calls on the agency to develop just that rocket.
Critics say the expense of developing and operating the massive new rocket, particularly in an era of tight federal budgets, would doom the project.
At a Congressional hearing in July, Representative Dana Rohrabacher, Republican of California, asked Maj. Gen. Charles F. Bolden Jr., the NASA administrator, about the possibility of depots as an alternative to the Space Launch System. General Bolden said that he did not know details about any propellant depot study, but that his agency had looked at alternatives to building a heavy-lift. “It turned out that was not as economical, nor as reliable,” he said.
Although General Bolden promised to provide the information, Mr. Rohrabacher said he had obtained the study about propellant depots only through unofficial channels.
“I’m shocked that the leadership in NASA would try to keep a report as significant as this away from decision makers of the legislative branch,” Mr. Rohrabacher said, adding that the study gave him “the ammunition to make a case” to revisit NASA’s plans for human spaceflight.
Propellant depots carry risks, too. Fuels like liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen must be kept at ultracold temperatures and, unless the depots were heavily insulated, would boil away over time. And transferring fuel in the weightlessness of space is not straightforward, although perhaps simply setting the depot and spacecraft into a slow spin would generate enough force to push the fuel into the spacecraft.
“It’s not a simple thing to transfer cryogenic propellant, on the ground, much less in space,” said Eugene M. Henderson, an engineer at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, who is one of about 20 people who worked on the study. “It’s a big variable.”
Still, he described the technical challenges as “fairly trivial” and said demonstration projects could show that the technology is feasible.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011