Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Let's make it a nerdier day than usual

Just in case the ladies in the crowd weren't swayed by a short post about Dune and Kim Stanley Robinson, let's talk about the new space policies that Obama announced last week.

1) More money for science, which makes the first time a new launch vehicle has been proposed for NASA without a "slaughter of the innocents" that happened during the Shuttle development and, yes, had begun during the Bush Mars plans. This is a very good thing.

2) Speaking of: the Ares plan is being junked, and most of the Constellation architecture with it -- this is probably a good thing. The rocket derived from the Shuttle SRBs was already behind schedule and over budget, and there were serious questions about its ability to do any serious job. In the mean time, the US will rely on commercial operators and (GASP!) the Russkies if necessary.

Important to point out that it might not be necessary: SpaceX and their Falcon 9/Dragon system will be able to put 7 people in orbit when they're operational. Of course, they need money fast if they're going to have all systems go in the next year or two. You know what would probably bring investors in? The US government comitting to buy access to the ISS through a private corporation after the Shuttle is retired.

3) The really good stuff: Manned missions to a near-Earth asteroid, and Mars by the 2030s. I'd obviously love a more ambitious timeline, but the Moon is out and for good reason. The Moon has basically no relevance to training people to live on Mars (Antarctica is more similar!) and what you really need is long-duration tests of crew and equipment in real-world scenarious, like what a long mission to an Asteroid can provide. (Here I disagree with Phil Plait, who wishes the Moon were back on the menu.)

This puts NASA back where it belongs, on the frontier. Having NASA -- or the state, broadly -- operating something like a space truck seems like a poor choice, especially when the truck in question (the Shuttle) was such a mongrel machine. The private sector, after a bunch of fits and starts in the late 1990s, actually looks ready to take over the role of routine access to low Earth orbit.

Christ. Re-reading that sentence just made me smile. The future's late, but it's coming.

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