Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Obama re-reverses on space policy, and I'm glad

In February 2008, Obama was expressing doubt about the Bush plan for manned spaceflight that would replace the Space Shuttle, the Constellation/Ares/Orion program, and suggested delaying it in order to pay for increased funding for science and education.  Some months after that, competing with Hillary Clinton and then John McCain for Florida voters, he reversed and supported the Bush plan, with all the money it entailed in Florida expenditures (and Alabama and Texas, but they weren't in play).

Now Obama has re-reversed and even gone beyond where he was before, cancelling the over-budget and delayed Constellation program entirely.  He didn't kill the manned space program (although that would've been fine with me), but instead will contract out the "space taxi" business to get astronauts to the space station, extend the station's life from 2016 to 2020, and redirect money to research on more advanced heavy lift vehicles that could ultimately get humans out of low-Earth orbit, although not in this decade.

To get the best details currently available, read the pdf (especially page 4).  None of this is guaranteed, by the way, because existing programs will use their pet congressional reps to fight back.  Killing Constellation is good.  Extending the space station lifespan is bad but probably necessary politically and diplomatically.  The slight increase in space station budget to do some actual science is good but only if we're keeping the station.  Switching parts of the manned program to advanced research creates some real-world utility.  There's also $3b of that funding for robotic exploration as precursors of manned flight, which could be a good way to sneak actual science into otherwise wasted money.

Science does well, with earth climate observation getting funding it needs, as does research on green aviation.  Rightwingers who deny climate change are attacking the funding for climate science, without noticing the contradiction in their attempt to shut down science that they claim will ultimately vindicate them.

They say they're fully funding the Hubble replacement, Juno robotic mission to Jupiter, and already-planned future missions to Mars and Europa.  Nothing too surprising - robotic scientific missions have done well (at least in comparison to the manned program).

Then there's my hobbyhorse, the Terrestrial Planet Finder space telescope whose budget was zeroed out by the Bushies in order to fund the manned space program.  Because this mission could detect atmospheric spectra on habitable planets on other starts that could provide pretty-conclusive evidence of life elsewhere.  So just a potential, partial answer to life, the universe, and everything.

Unfortunately, no answer as to whether TPF is coming back.  Page 16 of that pdf I linked to says a new decadal survey will determine astrophysics priorities, which will apparently be released in mid-2010.

We'll see what happens.  Meanwhile, I plan to revolutionize everything with a Facebook group I just established called "Launch the Terrestrial Planet Finder Space Telescope!"  I'm sure this will make it a lock in the future budget.


  1. Hm, I still go out and watch the ISS go overhead whenever I can. It's not what I would've built, it's not where I would've built it, but it's there. After Mir went down, I started wondering if the lifespan of stations is really limited by the ecosystem that starts developing in them -- if you've read any of the descriptions of the things that were living on Mir toward the end, it's amazing. They simply had to drop it out of orbit, they never could have decontaminated the place.

    I've always wondered if the ISS is developing the same sorts of gunge living behind its panels and in its dark corners.

    If not -- well, the one bit that convinced me it ought to be kept was a little bit of live video after the last big module was taken up and bolted on. They announced that there was some problem with little metal filings in the air right at the beginning and that they had to wear filter masks until the air circulation in the new volume had captured all the bits.

    Then a bit later they switched to a camera at the far side of the new module -- huge, empty space. All the gear for use in it was stored behind panels, to be brought out after it was installed.

    And across the big empty space, the hatch opened. A man came through wearing a face mask and came straight over to the camera and, as he reached for it, the rest of the ISS crew boiled through the door all grinning like kids at recess. One of the women -- long dark hair -- came through in a forward somersault, did a full turn in midair, as others zipped in on all sides, obviously utterly gleeful at being able to stretch in an uncluttered space.

    And the guy with the mask turned the camera off.

    Never have been able to find that clip online or find mention of it.

    The administrators are hiding the dream side of this thing and boring the hell out of everyone. I don't get it.

    Boost the damned thing out to near geosync. Raffle it off. Sell it to part it out to whoever can get out there and use the pieces. Put it at one of the Lagrange points to store rocks in. Put an ion motor on it, it may take years to get it up out of the way but it'd be doable. Or a great big long tether and generate power from it to move it that way.

    Burn it fucking up in the atmosphere? All that material, all that usable space?? Solar cells good for decades?

    I don't get it.

    Is this the theory that says, anything plentiful and easy to get at is worthless, so get rid of most of it and if you own what remains, that will be precious and you can make money on it?

  2. I've thought that it should be easy to put the ISS in a parking orbit higher up, one that should last for decades. I assume it'll deteriorate without constant maintenance, but that still leaves a museum piece for future generations.

    As for keeping it in use, it costs over $3b a year - that's a lot of money with little to show for it.

  3. Is there really that little science to be done in orbit?

    Also, a couple of days ago there was news that an existing instrument had gotten some preliminary atmosphere results. Maybe it can do the job?

  4. Plenty of science to be done in orbit, but the ISS doesn't do anything like $3b worth annually. That's the cost of the Cassini mission to Saturn, or the space telescope that will replace Hubble. We could be launching those things every year instead of once a decade with the money spent on ISS. Granted, most of the money wouldn't be spent on space science, but at least it wouldn't be wasted, either.

  5. I think it's just reached the point of having enough power, space, and staff onsite for scientists to do science most of their time. So far most human time has gone to building and maintenance.

    Yes it's running very late. The Shuttle situation is bad and could have been far worse: http://spaceflightnow.com/shuttle/sts119/090327sts27/

    The military uses ate up needed flights while flights were cut back. Too bad.

    I'm sure the military--of any nation--would love to take the ISS; I doubt any one country would be trusted with it, or any one corporation for that matter. Time will tell.

    > 3 billion
    "The U.S. Government projects that fiscal year 2007 resulted in the government losing $345 billion because of tax evasion." http://topics.law.cornell.edu/wex/tax_evasion



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