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Biden Space

Yet Another OpEd On What We Can't Do In Space

By Keith Cowing
NASA Watch
February 28, 2021
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Yet Another OpEd On What We Can't Do In Space

Opinion: The U.S. put a man on the moon. But it might be harder to do the same on Mars.Mitch Daniels, Washington Post
“If and when humankind reaches that next frontier, though, there are reasons to doubt that it will be a U.S. government space project that leads us there. Ironically, the society that put a man on the moon may be just the wrong one to succeed in this next great endeavor, at least through a grand national project like Apollo.”
Keith’s note: In his OpEd former OMB director Mitch Daniels spends 95% of his time explaining why NASA will probably never send humans to Mars – as if it were an indisputable future – one that is really not open to further discussion. His only bright light in terms of sending humans to Mars is a single paragraph punt to the private sector – with no real elaboration as to how it might happen. In other words government=bad, private sector=good. Details to to follow.
Daniels has had a chance to really get into the issues surrounding human spaceflight a decade ago. But his efforts were widely panned as being a flop. He mentions a report issued by a committee he chaired. Specifically it was the “Committee Reviews Report on Future of Human Spaceflight”, issued by the NRC in response to a requirement in the NASA Authorization Act of 2014. NASA paid millions of dollars for this multi-year report generating effort.
As I wrote at the time: “NRC says NASA Is on the wrong path to Mars. That’s about the only thing they took a clear position on in their report. In writing their report the committee dodged all of the big questions with the excuse that it was beyond their scope/charter. Trivial mention was made of commercial alternatives or whether the SLS-based model is the right way to get to Mars. In the briefing yesterday Mitch Daniels said that funding for all of this is “the secondary question”. So there you go – yet another space policy report – one that cost $3.6 million and is being delivered more than 3 years after it was requested. The White House and NASA will ignore it. Congress will wave it around and then ignore it too. In the end we’ll all be where we are now – with incomplete plans, no strategy, a big rocket with no payload, and nothing close to a budget to make any of it happen.”
So … here we are 7 years later and we are still trying to figure out where NASA is going to go – and why. Daniels et al had a chance to try and reset NASA’s course but they shied away from a chance to do so – and they overtly told everyone that that they were not going to answer the big, obvious questions this report raised. Now its time for him to pop up and criticize what has/has not happend in the intervening 7 years. Like cicadas I guess we’ll have to wait another 7 years for the next Daniels update.
As mentioned above, Daniels has found religion in commercial space. He found it but does not know what to do with it. Daniels is somewhat correct in stating that: “To do so, our commission concluded, would require making the goal a central, single-minded priority of the U.S. space program; a relentless, unswerving multi-decade commitment to a pre-agreed path to reach the goal; and constant investments in amounts well above the rate of inflation. American democracy is not very good at any of those things.” Again, as I noted, Daniels et al listed the problems but had no idea what the solutions were. So why have a report if the report does not offer a solution to a problem? Oh wait: I almost forgot; this is Washington. Reports are solutions in and of themselves. Whether they offer anything useful is beside the point.
Daniels concludes his op ed by saying “The new Biden administration’s overall agenda is bigger and more expensive than any before it, yet it appears to leave little or no space for space. With a micromanaging Congress resetting budgets on an annual basis, picking out a priority for NASA and sticking to it for 20 years or more is likely not in the cards; we’ve proved very poor at “perseverance.” Plus, our legislators regularly carve out NASA dollars for favored non-exploratory causes such as environmental monitoring, and fiercely protect multiple space centers and resulting costly redundancies.”
Again, Daniels does a nice job citing all of the problems and challenges and predicting a post mortem on things yet to come – things that he thinks are immutable and unable to be changed. In many instances he is right. But enough with the problems already.
So Mitch – is there ever going to be a solution forthcoming? The Biden/Harris team – at age 1 month – has already been prompted to respond to the space issue multiple times. Each and every response – many unprompted – has been one of support. Yes, words and empty promises are the prime commodity here in Washington. But at least the Biden/Harris team proceeds from a point of optimism and hope when it comes to space. No doubt the reality of governing post-pandemic America will dampen some of this – but at least they start from a good place. You? Not so much. People tend to accomplish more if they start out thinking that they can. There’s a little hope. Let’s run with it – while we can. Ad Astra Mitch.
Why Does Space Policy Always Suck? (2013), earlier post
Report From Slow Motion Advisory Committee on Human Space Flight (2013), earlier post
Space Studies Board is (Not Really) Interested In What You Think, (2013), earlier post
NRC Says NASA Is On The Wrong Path to Mars , (2014), earlier post
Hearing on NRC Human Spaceflight Report, (2014), earlier post

NASA Watch founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.

8 responses to “Yet Another OpEd On What We Can't Do In Space”

  1. Joseph Pistritto says:

    Im not sure he isnt right. It *may* be the most efficient thing to do to let the commerical space industry build more tools (e.g. Starship, New Glenn etc.) that can change the game, rather than laboring through a 20 yr NASA program right now. The risks the commercial players getting to Mars first of course, but that wouldn’t be a disaster. We’d still be there.
    However its also possible the commercial players *wont* make it to self-sustaning Mars settlement on their own but with some NASA/US Govt. backing might be able to fill in the gaps and succeed.

  2. Bob Mahoney says:

    Someone long ago (the 70s maybe?) described some of the givens of every govt commission tasked with attacking the problem du jour. The four I remember are:

    1) The commission is chaired by Fr Ted Hesburgh;

    2) the commission spends months to thoroughly investigate, explore, and study the issue;

    3) they write an extensive report detailing what they learned, and how they went about learning it;

    4) they announce with a certain amount of pomp & circumstance their vitally important conclusions:

    “Something has to be done.”

  3. Tom Billings says:

    “Yet Another Op-Ed On What We Can’t Do In Space”

    That may all depend on who “We” is, Kemosabe.

    The key admission came in the article’s last paragraph:

    “The superiority of free enterprise has given birth to nimble private companies, unencumbered by political realities, … “

    Simply, those “political realities” are what holds back NASA’s ability to get humans to Mars, because without being a high priority to the most voters, NASA *will* be controlled by whatever is *politically*profitable*, instead of what is most productive in advancing spaceflight. With this political situation dominant, then NASA can send people to Mars, … about 2-3 synodic periods *after* the first Starship landings take place.

    The key is that government is not in the lead because government is all about political allocation of resources, *for*politically*profitable* schemes, not for those that cause someone else to get elected to an incumbent Congress member’s seat. We still live with the basics of industrial society, and Congress, as a body, will not abide it:

    “When a society moves from allocating resources by custom and tradition (moderns read here, by politics) to allocating resources by markets, they may be said to have undergone an industrial revolution” Arnold Toynbee-1884

    Politics is no longer the core of the advance of spaceflight, as it was between 1958 and 2008. It is not, because politics being the core removed spaceflight from industrial society’s massive change in human relationships, mandated by the demand for higher productivity. Politics being the core of spaceflight kept its relationships purely in the old pre-industrial craft mode of human relationships from 1958-2008.

    Now, we have people developing spaceflight technology who accept that what resources they have will be allocated by markets, not political patrons. They are, for the first time, industrializing spaceflight. NASA will ultimately benefit from this immensely in its ability to perform its functions. In the meantime, people like Mitch Daniels will keep dancing around the core issue, even though Toynbee described it over a century ago.

  4. Jonna31 says:

    I’ve come to believe there is very limited value in published Op-Eds on scientific issues unless the writer is a subject matter expert. If you want to go see another sad example, check the newest Space op-ed in the New York Times today, more or less wagging their figure at space entrepreneurs and extoling government-space.

    Daniels’ piece reminded me of a lot of various Op-Ed’s over the last decade about the supposed slowing pace of scientific innovation. Those things were always ridiculous and really exposed a failure of subject matter knowledge and a failure of imagination by the writer, rather than something reflecting reality. The opposite, is in fact, largely true, as evidence by the roll out of the first-of-their-kind Pfizer and Moderna Covid vaccines that not only use cutting edge science (the mRNA technology), but went from the lab to tens of millions (and soon hundreds of millions) of injections in under a year. That new tech produced best-in-class vaccines that additionally are easily mutable against new variants, unless the legacy tech. That is the time we live in… the now… and it’s very hopeful.

    Daniels’ piece was a similar failure in imagination. We live in a world of landing first rockets, where a decade ago that was limited some early work in the 1990s. Every Mars mission design now includes 3D Printers as an essential elemental to fabricate replacement parts and components on sight… something not even imagined 15 years ago. And Raptor and BE-4 are both methane/LOX engines – very Mars friendly – and also not imagined 15 years ago.

    In a sense, we’re discovering “what we need to get to Mars” at a regular clip every few years and implementing it. Sure, in a stunt mission, you could certainly do a version of one of the older design reference missions from yesteryear where none of this stuff matters. But it adds to cost and complexity and risk, whereas the innovations we keep coming up with lower it.

    The latest one is taking a clear look at the Earth-Mars propulsion approach, and comparing chemical vs nuclear thermal vs nuclear electric. It’s clear we need some serious development in nuclear thermal and/or nuclear electric in the next decade in order to do Mars a better way beyond that. We should be confident whatever form that ultimately takes will be surprising.

    If the pandemic has proven anything, the limiting factor isn’t resources or technology or time, but in decision making. The United States, in the face of the greatest global crisis since World War II, made the choice (and made it very quickly) to spend trillions of dollars to rescue the economy when workers couldn’t go to work. Decades of debates about a billion from a program here, or saving a few tens of millions there, washed away by the tsunami of the covid bailouts. Similarly the United States made the choice to bet on a promising technological solution to Covid and get it out the door as fast as was reasonable. It also made bad choices, about lifting lockdowns too early, re-opening, mask wearing messaging and all that. But everything is a choice.

    If the United States got into a major war against another major industrialized nation, the United States would make the choice to resource it extravagantly, despite now every year being like “yeah we have to retire 17 of this to pay for 36 of that”. If the United States faced some kind of major national energy shortage, it would make decisive choices about its energy future that have been tied up in debate for decades. And we have lived the public health example.

    The part that Daniels misses is that space, while expensive, is a similar choice. How much America, and the world at large, chooses to invest in major space missions, Mars included, is a choice and it’s one that they’ve made a lot more of in the 15 years since we’ve started navel gazing at how the Ares I / Ares V / SLS / Orion has been a rolling disaster. It’s one I’m confident we’ll continue to make, and that choice, paired with ongoing technological developments, will make Mars happen.

    That’s not just a fancy way of saying “I hope”. It’s reasonable extrapolation from the world we lived in, where our options were Atlas V, Delta IV, Space Shuttle and Soyuz, to the world where the most advanced space vehicle in the world is privately owned, launched on the most cost effective rocket to ever exist, that lands most of the time on a ship, and that rocket’s cousin (Falcon Heavy) is going to launch many of the components of the next space station, this time in lunar orbit.

    Mars will happen. And a lot more will happen. And folks like Mitch Daniels, through ignorance of the particular details how the road was paved, will take for granted all the same.

    • Michael Spencer says:

      “I’ve come to believe there is very limited value in published Op-Eds on scientific issues unless the writer is a subject matter expert. “

      Disagree. Americans are embed with a peculiar hubris, aren’t we? Just about everyone of us thinks her/his ability to run the country, or anything else, is better than that of the current officeholder.

      I’m quite sure that all of our problems/ issues would be resolved in mere weeks were the voters sensibly drawn to me as candidate King. Why? I’m smart, right? And I read the newspaper, right? And I see right to the heart of the issues, unlike those morons in charge! What’s not to like?!

      I’ll bring some common sense to the office! And before you know it, we will be great again!


    • Jeff2Space says:

      We don’t need nuclear propulsion for Mars missions. We need transportation systems that are cheaper than what we have now. Falcon 9 has shown that with reuse comes significant cost reductions.

      Full reusability of chemical based launch vehicles will reduce costs even further. SpaceX is focused on doing just that with Starship. If Starship is successful, we don’t need (expensive to develop and operate) nuclear propulsion.

  5. Todd Martin says:

    A lot of Mitch Daniel’s points about NASA have been widely accepted for many years. It just isn’t terribly useful to point out the slow pace and high cost of NASA technology development without going through the additional step of developing solutions to those inefficiencies. We know fixed price contracts can been cheaper and faster than cost plus, so NASA should work to separate tech R&D (which often needs cost plus) from programs with a high TRL level (building SLS using heritage components should have been fixed price, not cost plus). There is an argument that NASA should consolidate centers, so an analogue to the Military’s base closing commission should fairly evaluate the merits and make proposals. Cost overruns and delays are often due to changes in project scope (ie Orion) – making ECR’s more difficult to be approved can help. PI scientists may need more than scientific credentials to be successful in managing large projects; perhaps additional accreditations in business should be required. NASA has a lot of heritage equipment which may be inefficient, costly and slow to use. Additional investment in replacing test equipment, computer systems, and building infrastructure may be needed. These are just a few thoughts from an outsider, Mitch Daniels should be able to do better.

  6. mfwright says:

    “U.S. put a man on the moon. But it might be harder to do the same on Mars.”

    I think we need to forget about putting people on Mars, we’ve been chasing this dream for more than 50 years and it has gone nowhere but short circuit any attempts for returning people to the moon.