Monday, March 01, 2010

An Open Letter to Charles Krauthammer, RE: Closing the New Frontier

Dear Mr. Krauthammer,

Please pardon this long piece, but after reading your editorial, Closing the New Frontier, many times, I decided that it demanded a rather detailed answer. While I agree with your endsay, that is conclusion, that Obama just shut the door to human exploration of Space beyond LEO (low earth orbit), I strongly disagree with how you got there. To be truthful, I expected better from you. The writ has a partisan taste to it owing to the inaccuracies contained therein.

Inaccuracies addressed

You begin by claiming that it is the first time that we've had no access to Space since John Glenn. This simply isn't right. When the Shuttle was grounded after the Columbia accident, we had to send people up via the Russians. True it was self-imposed but so is this one. We could keep flying the Shuttle until there is another system but we have chosen not to do so. We can debate as to whether that is a wise decision or not, but it is the current decision. 

You go on by claiming that there is no prospect of having another system in place for the the foreseeable future. Again this is inaccurate. As I type this, SpaceX is assembling the Falcon 9 at the Cape for a test launch tentatively set for 22 Mar 12 April 2010. SpaceX also has the Dragon capsule which will not only carry cargo but is capable of carrying seven humans which, I might add, is more than the Orion capsule is designed for. The truth is that there will soon be a private sector alternative to NASA's bloated and over-budgeted Ares I. Not only can the private sector do it, it is doing it and it will be online well before the Ares I would have been.

Which brings me to your next point. I'm surprised that, as a conservative, you think that a government agency such as NASA can launch humans into Space better and safer than can private enterprise. Too risky? Too experimental? We've known how to do it for 50 years! In the early years, NASA was willing to take risks and was on the cutting edge which is where it should be. That was what being an astronaut was all about. They were former test pilots who liv'd for the adrenaline rush ... but no longer. NASA has gone from a slim, trim agency that was focus'd on a goal to a bloated, risk averse burocracy with no vision. What little vision it did have, was taken by Obama.

As for your assertion that going to Mars is nonsense and just too far away, well ... that's nonsense! Bob Zubrin of the Mars Society has already laid out a workable plan called Mars Direct. It doesn't call for any radical new technology but it does call for an HLV (heavy lift vehicle). Since we don't have one (tho SpaceX has a design for Falcon 9 Heavy), Grant Bonin argues that not only can we use the MLVs (medium lift vehicle) that we currently have but it is also more economical to do so.

Whether we use HLVs or MLVs, the Mars Direct keeps to what I call the "good enuff" policy. "Better" is the enemy of "good enuff". Would it be better to have nuclear propulsion? Yea, you bet it would, but the chemical rockets are "good enuff" to get boots on the ground now. "Better" is what drug down and kill'd Constellation. Dusting off and modernizing the plans for Saturn and Apollo or using MLVs would have been "good enuff" to get boots on the Moon and thus would have ensured human exploration beyond LEO. But NASA chose to start over from scratch. The delays and costs killed any prospect of making it to the Moon in the next twenty years via NASA all because the burocracy wasn't interested in "good enuff".

UPDATE 15 Apr 13: Well, maybe I haven't been the lone wolf howling at the Moon after all, see: How NASA brought the monstrous F-1 “moon rocket” engine back to life / The story of young engineers who resurrected an engine nearly twice their age. — ArsTechnica, 14 Apr 13 here and New F-1B rocket engine upgrades Apollo-era design with 1.8M lbs of thrust — ArsTechnica, 14 Apr 13 here

But let's keep on with your objections. The long-term weightlessness is also addressed in the Mars Direct program with the use of a counterweight to induce a spin for artificial gravity. The problem also could be solved by reducing the trip time with a nuclear propulsion system which I'll come back to shortly.  

As for radiation, the whole thing about the radiation exposure is way out of line. News reports in the past have misrepresented the risk, stating that it might prevent human missions to Mars. However, it could be easily managed with current technology and is within tolerable limits. An astronaut in a six-month faring to Mars, the time required with conventional propulsion, would be exposed to about 0.3 sieverts, or 0.6 on a round-trip. Eighteen months on the surface (if it takes so long to get there, you might as well stay awhile!) would bring another 0.4 sieverts, for a total exposure of 1 sievert. Limits set by NASA vary with age and gender but range from 1 to 3 sieverts.

The danger lies in an unexpected intense solar flare but there are "good enuff" ways to add in the shielding needed. One way to add shielding for spacefarers aboard a Mars transport ship might be to surround them with the water they'd need for their trip or  the hydrogen for fuel. The hydrogen in water, scientists have learn'd, is one of the best absorbers of particle radiation. And, of course, the "better" way to lower the dose gotten would with shielding technology such as a simple magnetic plasma bubble that NASA has been testing for years. This alone would shield the astronauts from most radiation on their trip to Mars. Add a radiation compartment completely surrounded by water or hydrogen as mention above to stop the fast and slow solar neutrons then you would have a truly safe trip.

You can't plan for every contingency. But that is part of the risks! That is what being on the cutting edge is all about. If you designed the perfectly safe airplane, it'd never get off the ground. The astronauts who volunteer know the risks. Would you turn down a trip to Mars just because you couldn't get triple redundancy on every component? I wouldn't.

Mars isn't a bait and switch as you put forth. Mars was always the goal. The Moon was only supposed to be stepping-stone that many argued was unneeded in the first place. In that sense, Obama isn't trying to pull a fast one. However, I, like you, doubt his sincerity.


Human space flight has always been strongly opposed by two groups. There are those who think that the funds could be better spent on social programs despite the fact that Health and Human Services would eat NASA's budget in about a week with no lasting effect. Then there are those inside of NASA who think that human exploration is a waste of money ... more could be done with robots. What the second group fails to realize is that the first group will turn on them if human exploration is ever eliminated. I would guess that Obama definitely falls into the first group. According to Rand Simberg, "Obama’s first space policy position appeared on the “Education” section of his campaign website; it bizarrely put forth that Constellation be postponed for five years in order to fund new educational programs." He may also fall into the other group as well ... or at least his science advisors fall into the other group. The combination of both has led Obama to effectively end human exploration beyond LEO.

What could change my mine about Obama's sincerity? I hold a glimmer of hope, since Obama has come out in support of nuclear energy, that this will translate to reviving nuclear propulsion. Nuclear propulsion would cut down the travel time to Mars to about 60 days which would give the astronauts 90 days on Mars before they had to return to earth which now would take another 75 days, so the round trip, including the time on surface, would be around 225 days drastically cutting down the astronauts exposure to radiation and weightlessness. It would also allow a greater payload. Nuclear propulsion technology is nothing new, NASA has been testing this type of advanced technology for 50 years. It just needs some emphasis but I have yet to see money flowing into reconstructing a nuclear engine prototype similar to NERVA (Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application), the Pratt and Whitney TRITON, or even a nuclear power source for a VASIMR engine.

NASA needs to back away a little or maybe a lot from a process called failure mode effects analysis (FMEA). FMEA was designed by NASA as a way to think through a system's reliabilty to pin down possible ways it could break; then tests are designed to validate the system under those conditions. This sounds good in concept but it has led to unneedingly lengthening the research and development stages in an effort to make sure that it worked correctly and perfectly the first time. It would be fetching to find out how many patents NASA has been awarded in the last twenty years versus the previous years to see if this process has had any effect the actual amount of research being done.

If Obama is serious about research in lieu of exploration, it would be better to return the X-project mode of research which focuses on technological objectives. If you want to design a nuclear engine then design and test a nuclear engine, don't design the whole spacecraft to go with it. It should say something when a former astronaut, Franklin Chang-Diaz, leaves NASA to pursue the VASIMR technology and now NASA is about to test it at the ISS (in 2013). Shouldn't it be the other way around with NASA passing the technology off to private enterprise?

Again, tho, I must emphasize that we have the technology to get to Mars now with "good enuff". Nuclear propulsion and VASIMR engines should be ready for the second or third generation of Earth-Mars transport vehicles.

Whither NASA?

Let's face it. In a few weeks, human explorers could have done all the research, and more, that was done by robots on Mars over the past several years. Once Apollo landed, scientists were salivating at the research possibilities but that was pulled out from under them. Has Obama just shut NASA out from sending humans to do scientific research on other planets?

Does retreating to do research end NASA's role in human exploration? Is it NASA's job to put a man on the Moon or to provide the research so that the National Geographic Society (NGS) could put a man on the Moon? The question that we should be asking Obama and Bolden to clarify is: Do you see human space exploration beyond LEO as part of the research effort by NASA?

I think you'll get different answers depending on whom you ask. Bolden will try to hedge a bit. NASA, as an institution, wants to be in the forefront of human exploration but does Obama want it there?

This is how I understand the situation.

1. Obama has killed Constellation. That in itself isn't a bad thing if the decision was reached because Constellation was bloated, over budget, and behind schedule. But Obama did the right thing for the wrong reason. He didn't do in an effort to get the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) back on track. He did it to end the VSE.

2. Obama turned transportation to LEO over to private enterprise. Again, the right thing for the wrong reason. Unless NASA intended to earn a profit from it in order to support other endeavors, it was time for NASA to get out of the way. Personally, I would have kept the Shuttle going until the Falcon/Dragon came online despite the cost but it wasn't my decision to make. However, I believe Obama did it in order to get NASA out of the rocket launching/design business all together.

3. Obama has order NASA to focus on earth sciences with emphasis on studying climate change. Is this really the purpose of the National AERONAUTICAL and SPACE Administration?

4. Obama has said that NASA is to do the research to allow private organizations like the NGS to go to the Moon. So what is the focus of this research? Will it design but not build a HLV? Will it test nuclear propulsion or just work on designs and turn them over to companies like SpaceX? Will there be a need for astronauts at NASA?


I applaud turning transportation to LEO over to private enterprise. It's time for NASA to step aside.

I'm even ok with killing Constellation simply because NASA was wasting money and, more importantly, time reinventing the wheel. In the time frame since the announcement of the VSE by President Bush, we should have already been on the Moon again testing equipment for Mars.

I'm not ok with withdrawing NASA from human exploration. This is where NASA should be. It should be out there on the edge. Astronauts are explorers and test pilots who want to be on the edge. This is where we, as a nation should be.

Ironically, for better or worse, this could lead to further militarization of Space. The military has a need to be in Space. Without NASA leading the way, the military will forge ahead with its own programs.

For now, the U.S. still has the technological edge in Space but we're about to loose it thru inaction. We must market to the American public that we, as a nation, are explorers ... It is what we have done from the moment the first colony sprang up in the New World. IT IS PART OF OUR DNA! Folks from all over the world migrated to the U.S. to take part in pushing the frontier. WE TAKE RISKS! It's what we do. Exploration is HOPE! If we turn out back on Space, we're giving up hope ...

It also helps to guarantee our Liberty. Is it a coincidence that every time the U.S. turns it back on exploration and begins to examine its own navel that we loose more freedoms and liberties? Those who found that "civilization" with it ever encroaching rules, regulations, and burocracy was too confining could head for the frontier to escape the burocrats. It was a relief valve. Now where is that frontier; where is that relief valve? It's either the ocean or Space, neither of which are open to the common person.

We need to move common folks to Space. Astronauts should be out pushing the technology ... and yes, this means some will die when it fails but like I said, we take risks! There should be a rotation of technicians who take care of the inner workings of the ISS. We should not be sending astronauts to fix the toilet!

The ISS should serve as a base station for the astronauts to sleep, eat, and relax when they're not out testing a prototype nuclear-powered OTV (orbital transfer vehicle). There should also be tech there to work on the OTV when it returns to dock at the ISS.

Sigh, we could turn the ISS into a truly fremful, that is useful and effective, platform and push our knowledge and engineering while at the same time capturing the imagination of those still on the ground ... but sadly, we won't.

Mr. Krauthammer, you reached the right conclusion but for the wrong reasons.

Obama did indeed just slam the door shut.

04 Mar 10 - Added links that I had forgotten and mentioned the Falcon 9 Heavy.