Money for space

March 1, 2005
Space exploration is becoming politically fashionable again, and advanced technology firms would be well advised to get on board while the getting is good.
John Rhea
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WASHINGTON - Space exploration is becoming politically fashionable again, and advanced technology firms would be well advised to get on board while the getting is good.

Despite valid concerns about the potential costs and benefits of the “Vision for Space Exploration” that President Bush announced last year to establish a base on the moon as a stepping- stone for manned exploration of the planets, the reality is that the program is taking on a life of its own.

Probably the best evidence to support this claim is the success of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) in pushing through NASA’s full budget request of $16.2 billion for the current fiscal year as part of the $388 billion omnibus federal spending bill passed by Congress Nov. 20.

DeLay, who masterminded the controversial redistricting of Texas last year that gave the Republicans a congressional majority in the state, now represents the Houston district that contains NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

The irony here is intriguing. It was Senate Majority Leader - and later vice president and president - Lyndon Johnson from Texas who was the prime mover in pushing space exploration the last time around. In addition to lining up congressional support for the Apollo moon-landing program, he was instrumental in creating the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, which NASA gratefully renamed in his honor.

I remember that at the time there were doubts as to whether NASA needed another field center, but there was virtually unanimous support for Apollo. The reasoning was simple: American success in landing astronauts safely on the moon would demonstrate to the world that the United States was every bit as competent as the Soviet Union in exploring space (and, by implication, delivering nuclear warheads to any point on the Earth’s surface).

There is no Soviet Union anymore, so what’s the rationale for this round of space exploration? This could be the $100 billion question (NASA’s estimate of what Bush’s “vision” will cost through 2020, the year astronauts are supposed to begin lunar operations).

The emotional answer to this question is the boost that a new round of space exploration would give to American spirits (as Apollo surely did); and, after all, somebody else (Chinese? Japanese?) might steal the march on us if we sit on our hands.

That answer may not fly with hard-nosed fiscal conservatives. It may not even fly with the scientific community. “I wouldn’t say we’re critical of the moon-Mars program, but we are critical of the lack of clarity about the scientific benefits,” Michael Lubell, spokesman for the American Physical Society, told the Washington Post. “This is bound to be an extremely costly project, so what are we going to get from it?”

What indeed? Costs-benefits analyses are tenuous exercises at best, and this still incomplete exercise is one of the most tenuous of all.

Nonetheless, DeLay and company have given the industry the green flag, and any company with the requisite resources would be ill advised to sit this one out.

NASA has earmarked $800 million in the current fiscal year 2005 budget as a down payment on the project and created a new Office of Exploration Systems to oversee it. Heading the office is Associate Administrator Craig Steidle, a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral, test pilot, and military procurement specialist. That office has already let more than 120 contracts.

Also during its first year of operation the new office has developed a timetable for the moon-Mars initiative, put together a list of its priorities, and begun to divide the project into contract-sized pieces.

Again using Apollo as the model, this is the time for any potential participant to get on board. That’s how North American Aviation in Downey, Calif. (now part of the Boeing Co. complex) got into the Apollo spacecraft business.

This time around the centerpiece is NASA’s proposed next-generation Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), which is intended to fly by 2014 and reach the moon by 2020. NASA has already received a thousand responses to its initial request for concepts of what the CEV should be.

NASA has since selected 11 CEV teams and plans to reduce the ranks of competitors to two or three by August. The winning contractors will build prototype vehicles and then test and demonstrate them unmanned in 2008.

And then there are all the supporting technologies around the CEV. NASA has already plowed through more than 3,700 proposals for such items as navigation systems, tools, and machinery. Among the winners are Caterpillar Inc. of Peoria, Ill., for construction equipment on the moon, and Hamilton Sunstrand of Windsor Locks, Conn., for new techniques to reclaim water from human waste.

The other big-ticket item in the program is the launch vehicle. NASA is wrestling with whether to go with one big vehicle derived from the space shuttle, or instead launch small vehicles separately into Earth orbit and assemble the final CEV in space for the lunar landing leg of the mission.

A lesson from Apollo is applicable here: don’t underestimate the power of an unsolicited idea. As Apollo moved from concept to hardware, one of the leading contenders for the operation were a lunar landing spacecraft assembled in Earth orbit and a so-called direct mission from Earth to the Moon and back using a giant rocket nicknamed the Nova (in retrospect an unfortunate choice of names).

The winner turned out to be an idea cooked up in the back rooms of NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. - launching the spacecraft directly from Earth’s surface to an orbit around the moon, and detaching a lunar-landing spacecraft. The astronauts were to do their photo ops on the moon’s surface, and fire the lander back into lunar orbit to rendezvous with the mother ship. The decision was a shock at the time (1961, eight years before the first moon landing), but it proved to be the critical factor in meeting President Kennedy’s deadline.

Yes, there is money to be had in this project as President Bush begins his second term, at least for the next four years. The winning firms may even be working some day for NASA’s DeLay Space Center.

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