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Rick Tumlinson

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The Senate Launch System - Destiny, Decision, and Disaster

Posted: 09/15/11 02:54 PM ET

There are moments in time when a decision or set of decisions that may not seem important when judged against the cacophony of transient background noise can change the destiny of nations and indeed humanity as a whole. This is exactly such a time, and a few key decisions made right now regarding our space program may change the future arc of human history.

First, we need to adopt settlement as our national goal in space -- not one shot stunts that are unsupportable over the long term. Unfortunately, given the players involved, the debate leading to such a change will be long, and we simply do not have the time right now, as our exploration ship is sinking under the weight of short-term interests and political patronage disguised as vision. So rather than deep philosophical debates and discussions, some simple math and the ability to read a calendar and look out the window at what works in America may suffice to at least get us on the right trajectory long enough for the greater issues to be dealt with.

The first and easiest choice right now that will change the future is for Congress to completely eliminate the monstrously lethal Senate Launch System earmark announced this week before it destroys NASA and our entire government human space exploration program, and reprogram the funds into exploration, technology development and a full-bore push for a U.S. commercial human orbital space fleet by 2015.

Contrary to the claims of those who want the money spent in their districts, the plan to build this $38 billion giant rocket, using outdated technologies to repeat the achievement of Apollo 8 some 53 years later in 2021, then delivering a flight rate of only one or two flights per year, will decimate NASA. The irony of the situation is so blatant as to be painful, given that the ostensible goal of its most vocal proponents from Texas and Florida is to shuffle the standing army of people who used to work on the space shuttle program into SLS as if it means new jobs. In fact, in the long term, the opposite is going to occur.

Instead of evolving and translating the skills, facilities and capabilities of our traditional space industry and work force into a new space economic and exploration machine that could deliver endless returns in the form of new jobs, new companies, new exploration projects and science, Congress is about to throw it all away for a big fat pork rocket disguised as a bold new initiative.

The Senate Launch System will force the U.S. to jettison an entire generation of expertise in spaceflight, advanced technology and exploration systems, not to mention most of our astronaut corps and the Johnson and Kennedy space centers where such work is based. While trying to fund and build the SLS, NASA will kill itself as an exploration entity.

By stopping this insane dead-end behemoth of a rocket to nowhere, we can re-invigorate our entire space economy, begin at last to continue the grand tradition that created this nation and first took us into space, and quite literally change the future.

Instead let's use the $38 billion Congress wants to flush down the toilet of history to save NASA by funding useful programs that will actually open the frontier and get the agency back to exploring almost right away.

Yes, the priority right now is transportation. But not some overpriced monster rocket that won't fly for a decade (if ever) while we pay the Russians $60 million per flight to carry our people to the space station.

As insane as it sounds, Congress is strangling NASA's plans to end this outsourcing and use U.S. commercial rockets through its Commercial Crew Development program, cutting the already measly $800 million allocation to around $300 million.

Rather than whittling away at this ridiculously small budget and hamstringing those bold companies both old and new who want to fly with bureaucracy, let's triple the funding and let them go at it. Forget the central design bureau approach of SLS. Pay for delivery, safe, on time and on schedule. Write a simple one-page set of requirements and get out of the way. This would yield us at least four U.S. companies capable of flying NASA astronauts into space within three years and create a new American frontier in low Earth orbit with multiple space stations opening their airlocks for business and science, even as China struggles to loft its first small space station module.

From this new port in space we can then assemble missions of any size and support them as they go to anyplace we want. By the date the SLS was to barely fly around the Moon, we would have a long established base there and be heading to Mars.

Instead of a government job programs disguised as a giant rocket let's invest in the orbital infrastructure needed to support an American frontier exploration effort and an economic industrial boom in low Earth orbit. Let's turn NASA's brilliant thinkers, engineers and facilities loose right now to support space-based enterprises such as commercial laboratories, propellant depots and new energy sources like space solar power.

Let's start a US led technology and engineering revolution here on Earth spurred on by new incentives, prizes and research to support our private sector as it advances upwards, much as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics did for aerospace.

In parallel, let's put NASA's experts and astronauts to work on far frontier exploration technologies such as space-to-space-only multipurpose crew vehicles and interplanetary propulsion systems to carry us to the Moon and Mars, and live-off-the-land systems that allow us to use space resources to create propellant and supplies; and lay out a path of steppingstones to Mars beginning with the Moon, then the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos, and eventually down to the red planet's surface. (If we're going to explore asteroids, let's at least go to some that are on the way to where we really want to go!)

We can relight the exciting parts of our space science program, including Martian sample returns, an expanded life search and the building of sensible and economical astrophysics telescopes.

You want to reinvigorate educational outreach and light the imaginations of a new generation of American children? Let them look up and see we are moving outwards rather than watching yet another massive government space project fail and die. Let them know they can actually get involved by getting jobs opening of the frontier -- and this time it will be endless.

While we make the big decisions about our future in space, Congress Must Cancel SLS before it cancels that future. America needs champions in Washington and NASA right now to stand up and fight for the right choice to be made. We need leaders who will admit the old way has failed, that defending old style space projects will not work in the future, and that it is time to choose a new path to the stars.

Congress, you made a mistake, but there is still time. The decision is yours. Destiny or disaster?

 
 
 

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