Space Exploration and Development

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As a lifelong fan of both the space program and hardcore science-fiction, I have to view these developments of April 2010 (At Space Center, Obama defends changes in space program, Kaufman, Marc and Wilson, Scott, Washington Post, April 16, 2010) with mixed emotions.

First, cancellation of the Constellation: it was under-funded, and a very long-term project that would effectively deliver a 1988 Ford Escort with Race Trim Package just in time for the 2020 showroom year. Think of it as guaranteed employment for a lot of "beltway bandits" who actually are producing something useful... but useful only for very specific purposes that go far beyond what we actually need now, and won't need much nor often once it's up and running. Development costs will be high and maintenance costs will be higher.

Secondly, the Shuttle: The one we have is too old, but it does exactly the job we need to do and it does it exceptionally well. Some replacement for this "space truck" needs to be brought into service as fast as possible within considerations of cost and safety.

Now for the real meat: the Privatization of Space. We've been moving in this direction for some time, obviously, with the long-standing use of contractors to provide various systems and components. The main change we will now see will be that rather than the government contracting with these contractors, the contractors will be contracting with each other. Rather than the government paying for fulfillment of contracted elements, the government will be paying for the use of a completed project. Not all that much changes, except for who will be responsible for the costs in case of any element, system, or product failures.

The government is getting out of the role of being an industrial entity, more or less. We don't so much build military missiles, for example, as we buy them from the contracted manufacturers. Should space exploration be the on place where the government is the nominal manufacturer, even though the same contractors that build and sell military missiles build the spacecraft?

That being said, the move towards privatization of access to low-earth orbit allows new players to enter the game, and rather than the contractors being effectively bestowed the right and task by the sovereign, contractors and even private entrepreneurial organizations may compete in a more open marketplace.

The goals to be set for NASA are less thrilling than visiting the Moon with manned missions. Yet in terms of actual industrial benefit, we will be best served by building a Construction Shack, and then a Manufactory.

The Construction Shack, Mark I, needs to go into an orbit that's far more accessible than the highly inclined orbit of the ISS ("international space station"). ISS should remain as it is, an international science research center and observation post, with the present orbit making it very well suited for that role. The Construction shack should be nearly equatorial, or gravitationally balanced somewhere betwen earth-equatorial and the solar plane of the ecliptic. The Construction Shack should thus be fairly easily reached with minimal power required.

The "asteroid landing" mission should of course attempt, at some time during the program, to "capture" and redirect said asteroid(s) to the L5 equilibrium point. Solar energy should be able to power a fabrication of at least gross structural elements for the Construction Shack Mark II at the L5 point.

Remember, this should keep the astronaut corps happy: the new mission is not to GO to space, but to REMAIN in space; not just to visit, but to LIVE THERE.

To this end, I propose that the President refine his understanding of what will be needed to move towards this goal. Privatization of Access to Space is excellent, and the government should help this process along. Keep in mind that this is first going to be "spin-off" and then eventually "hand-off", at least of a lot of the technology prsently built by contractors but owned by the government. NASA should keep on with the Deep Science missions, yet it should also prod the engineers along towards promoting and refining the sort of civil engineers that built the great bridges of the world, as well as the aerospace engineers that built the Saturn V and Shuttle.