Friday, September 11, 2009

NASA star trek needs extreme makeover

A presidential panel dominated by aerospace executives and NASA insiders says we should give NASA another $3 billion a year to keep Buck Rogers flying.

This was like asking a panel of 5-year-olds whether we should quit going to Dairy Queen or increase spending at Dairy Queen.

What the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee did not give us is what we need most — a thorough analysis of the pros and cons of manned spaceflight.

Instead, it neatly condensed that very important debate into this one sentence: "There is now a strong consensus in the United States that the next step on human spaceflight is to travel beyond low Earth orbit."

Huh? Is there an attribution for this?

Did I miss the vote?

Did panel Chairman Norman Augustine go into NASA headquarters and say, "All in favor of going to Mars, raise your hand."

Actually, Augustine's group came up with a more original idea than going to Mars.

They would send us to, well, wherever the mood strikes.

This has been dubbed the "flexible path" option.

I call it the RV Option.

One day we could pack up and go to something called the Lagrange Points, which you'll just have to look up on Wikipedia because I can't explain them.

The next day we could fly to an asteroid. We could fly around the moon or land on the moon. We could fly around Mars or land on Mars. Or we could land on a Mars moon.

Says the report, "Most interestingly, humans could rendezvous with a moon of Mars, then coordinate with or control robots on the Martian surface."

So we send astronauts on a six-month journey to Phobos or Deimos, where they break out their joysticks to direct rovers on Mars that could just as easily be controlled by Mountain Dew-guzzling grad students back at Cal Tech.

Says the report, "It would provide the public and other stakeholders with a series of interesting "firsts" to keep them engaged and supported."

In other words, entertain us.

As NASA learned during Apollo, we do bore easily. Going to the moon kept us engaged and supported for about two trips. So we canned it and we went to the only place even more boring — low Earth orbit.

Now when we get bored of the moon, we'll just go land on the next big old rock that floats by।

The Europeans, meanwhile, are considering a much cheaper plan to send a robot to an asteroid. It would take samples, analyze them and tell us pretty much all we need to know about the rock.

That points out the great lie of this report and all the other reports endorsing manned spaceflight. They view it as a zero-sum game for technology development. No astronauts, no advancements.

I would argue that money wasted on oxygen bottles, $5 million treadmills, freeze-dried ice cream and doubly redundant safety systems would buy a lot more technology if it were invested in robotics, propulsion systems, satellites and so on.

This is the debate we need to have before tossing another $3 billion a year into the NASA maw.

It is the debate NASA refuses to have because NASA knows the answer.

Maybe we could have Augustine Commission II: This time, it's relevant.

This isn't to say the current version isn't serving any purpose.

The report says in the nicest way that NASA has launched the $3 billion it has spent on its sad-sack Ares rocket into a black hole. It recommends canning that boondoggle and turning over transport services to the international space station to private companies. Amen.

The report recommends that we add five years to the life of the space station, keeping it afloat until 2020.

We all know this is a boondoggle. But still, this makes more sense then spending 25 years building it, only to send it splashing down to the Pacific before the final paint job dries.

I hate to keep bringing this up — well, actually, I don't — but think what we could have done with the hundreds of billions wasted on this manned-spaceflight venture if it had been invested in useful technology. We'd have Velcro that could lift a Ford Expedition.

I don't want to cut NASA's money. I want to quit wasting it.

The Augustine report correctly notes that the only realistic way to send astronauts hither and yon is to drag other countries into the venture.

The Indians would do the engineering at half the price. The Chinese would buy our debt to fund it, and then take our jobs to build it. The Germans would be in charge of the schedule, and the French the food.

And when the new trillion-dollar rocket blows up, the Russians would come to the rescue in their smoke-belching Soyuz.

Mike Thomas can be reached at 407-420-5525 or mthomas@ orlandosentinel।com.,0,3480283.column?page=2