Congress

NASA authorization update

I talked briefly last night with someone familiar with the progress on the NASA authorization legislation. (As you may recall, the Senate and House have each passed their own authorization bills, HR 3070 and S.1281, in July and September, respectively.) A formal conference to work out the differences between the bills has not started yet, but some initial “pre-conferencing” has begun to take care of some of the minor, easier-to-resolve differences. Look for a final version of the bill in the next few weeks.

21 comments to NASA authorization update

  • Anthony Young

    Isn’t interesting that it is NASA having to take it in the financial chin to help pay for hurricane relief. I don’t hear calls for the Dept. of Agriculture, the CIA, DOD or any other department of the government to receive these cuts. If we weren’t spending billions of dollars every month in Iraq, this wouldn’t even be a discussion.

  • If we weren’t spending billions of dollars every month in Iraq, this wouldn’t even be a discussion.

    Nonsense. NASA is always a high-profile target for budget cutters, in war or peace. Those other programs have much more powerful constituencies.

  • While I think the war in Iraq was a terrible mistake, I have to agree with Rand here. While this “optional war” did increase financial stress, the fact that the money may come out of NASA is a measure of the latter’s political weakness, and why it is so important that the VSE keep costs as low as possible.

    — Donald

  • $100k per seat on SpaceShipOne is pretty good compared to $3 million per seat on X-15. $25 million in development cost is pretty good compared to $900 million in development cost (all in current dollars).

    http://www.thespacereview.com/article/204/1

    Can you imagine someone dissing Greason’s Pentium chip by saying “We invented the transistor out of germanium back in 1947?”

  • Dwayne A. Day

    I am a big admirer of Dr. Foust and his useful and informative websites (which I have also contributed to). I am also an admirer of Mr. Dinkins’ writings, even those I disagree with (or find a little odd). However, I am generally unhappy and unimpressed about the comments section on SpacePolitics.com because of the lack of civility and the overall staleness of the discussion here. This is not a forum worth participating in, in my opinion.

    That said, I’ll give this a try and see if it is possible to have a civil, reasonable discussion here.

    Mr. Dinkins posted this in several places:

    “$100k per seat on SpaceShipOne is pretty good compared to $3 million per seat on X-15. $25 million in development cost is pretty good compared to $900 million in development cost (all in current dollars).”

    That’s actually a year-old quote from Burt Rutan. Factually, it may be correct (I haven’t checked the numbers myself). But it seems like a rather useless analogy. And it certainly does not deserve the moral weight that Rutan seems to be implying–that is “government bad [because expensive] and private enterprise good [because much cheaper].”

    The biggest problem is that the X-15 and the SS1 were not contemporaneous projects. They were separated by five decades of aviation progress. The X-15 program was doing something entirely new and unproven. The SS1 program utilized the knowledge gained from the X-15 program, as well as other high speed and rocket research programs. Part of SS1’s _true_ development cost was actually paid for by the X-15 program five decades before. SS1 did not have to do certain things because X-15 had already done them.

    If SS1 had been required to start entirely from scratch, developing all of the technology, its costs would have been much higher. Would it have been cheaper than a comparative government program? Probably–or maybe not. But we cannot conduct a controlled experiment in this case to know for certain.

    Furthermore, what Rutan was failing to acknowledge was that the programs were not really comparable. The X-15 program was devoted to high-speed and high-altitude research (pretty much in that order). The research part is critical, because it is a rather amorphous goal–go out there, do some things, and learn from them. Do it repeatedly.

    In contrast, the SS1 had a very clear and narrowly focused objective–fly to a specific altitude and descend; repeat.

    SS1 could not have survived the sustained high speeds that the X-15 did. And as a research craft it would have been far less useful.

    To summarize: this is not a terribly useful analogy. It is not really comparing equivalent events, and it has limited utility to allow you to draw conclusions from it.

    However, it does raise an interesting question about the heuristic nature of technological progress. Technological knowledge is for the most part cumulative, with each achievement built upon past achievements. But there is also a connectedness factor–how connected is the technological advance to other, related fields? SS1 did not only benefit from the development of the X-15, but also from the development of composites (also paid for by the US government in the 1960s) and overall improvements in avionics and electronics. The greater the connections, the greater the benefit–or so one would assume. Try to do something entirely new or with few connections to other advancing technologies and you will not be able to advance as quickly or as cheaply, because you have to fund those technologies yourself. (Or to use an example: greater fuel efficiency in cars was not achieved simply through improvements in internal combustion engines, but through advances in electronics, which made it possible to control the engines better–without the electronic advances, automobiles would not have become more efficient.)

    I think that what this points out is the further uselessness of Rutan’s (via Dinkin) analogy. The X-15 and the SS1 are not comparable in the ways that he claims. The dollar comparisons are essentially meaningless, as they are separated by 50 years of technology development in multiple fields that greatly benefitted SS1.

  • David Davenport

    I think that what this points out is the further uselessness of Rutan’s (via Dinkin) analogy. The X-15 and the SS1 are not comparable in the ways that he claims. The dollar comparisons are essentially meaningless, as they are separated by 50 years of technology development in multiple fields that greatly benefitted SS1.

    So what? What is your point, aside from not liking SS1?

  • If SS1 had been required to start entirely from scratch, developing all of the technology, its costs would have been much higher. Would it have been cheaper than a comparative government program? Probably–or maybe not. But we cannot conduct a controlled experiment in this case to know for certain.

    No, but what we can do is what every government program does–get a cost estimate for what it should have cost for a government contractor to do it under government contract, using conventional industry costing models (such as PRICE H). I’d be willing to bet that it would have predicted an order of magnitude higher costs (if not more). It would be an interesting analysis for Aerospace or someone to undertake.

  • TORO

    Was not the main difference in the bills basically how long to keep Shuttle lemons flying up to station albatross, with the house wanting to squeeze the lemon out sooner?

    But since them it seems both houses and the White House are no longer in favor of much more lemon-aide.

    The criteria for failure and success of the VSE vehicle is going to boil down simply to how much safer, and perhaps how much lower production and operation costs are, to and from low Earth orbit. It has to be as safe as a Shenzhou or Soyuz to and from LEO or the VSE will fail.

  • Nemo

    > It has to be as safe as a Shenzhou or Soyuz to and
    > from LEO or the VSE will fail.

    Why set the bar that low? The safety record of Soyuz is 47:1 (fatal accidents) and 55.5:1 (fatalities). That’s no better than the space shuttle (57:1 and 48.5:1, respectively). And Shenzhou has only two flights under its belt, not even enough to have a statistically significant safety record.

  • Black Mage

    Well, the Soyuz fatalities were 34 years ago, and three (or more) upgrades ago. I hardly think it’s a valid comparison, especially considering that the dangers that caused both Soyuz accidents have been long since bred out, while foam shedding has noticeably not.

  • David Davenport

    The Russians have been covering up what happened during the descent of Soyuz TMA-1 on May 4, 2003. This is the newest model Soyuz.

    The Roosky capsule not only landed 460 km off course, not only experienced a peak deceleration of about 8 g’s which rendered the three men inside unconscious, but the parachute also snagged some antennae and didn’t open cleanly.

    Yes the parachute finally opened and the capsule landed. True to Russian form the cosmonauts didn’t have any emergency radios. They couldn’t walk, either. They were finally found more than five hours later.

    … Russian mission control officials said that the off-nominal reentry trajectory increased G-forces experienced by the crew, however the acceleration remained well within acceptable limits even for the untrained person, therefore the crew had never been in danger.

    The cause of the Soyuz TMA-1 deviation from the normal landing path remained unclear immediately after the landing, however even slightly wrong timing in the deorbiting burn of the spacecraft, could easily result in a considerable deviation from the assigned trajectory, while problems with the flight control system could cause the so-called “ballistic” style reentry, in which the craft is unable to use its optimal aerodynamic capabilities.

    The Soyuz TMA-1 carried a number of upgrades, including a new version of the onboard computer, which were tested in flight for the first time.

    Any potential problems with the landing system have to be addressed quickly in order reinsure safe operation of the Soyuz TMA-2 spacecraft, currently serving as a lifeboat for the seventh long-duration crew of the International Space Station…

    Soyuz capsules are not that safe.

    Oh,

    Due to the launch failure of the Soyuz rocket during the launch in Plesetsk on October 15, 2002, Russian space officials decided to postpone the launch of the Soyuz TMA-1 spacecraft by two days, from October 28 to October 30, 2002, to give investigators more time to establish the cause of the accident. A foreign object introduced into the propulsion system of the rocket during its production was blamed for the failure, according to the official results of the investigation. The problem was classified as unrelated to other launchers and the preparation for the Soyuz TMA-1 launch was allowed to proceed.

    http://www.russianspaceweb.com/iss_soyuztma1.html

  • David Davenport

    What does a space capsule need to be really safe?

    It needs an emergency escape system available during descent as well as ascent. A reserve parachute, ejection seats, ejectable escape pod within the capsule … something like that.

    Haven’t heard that the proposed Steroid Capsule will have any such safety equipment.

  • Nemo


    Well, the Soyuz fatalities were 34 years ago

    Years matter less than flights; Soyuz’ extremely low flight rate masks that pretty well. It’s been 34 years but only 84 flights since the last Soyuz fatality, while the shuttle had 87 flights in between its two accidents.

    especially considering that the dangers that caused both Soyuz accidents have been long since bred out

    I disagree. The depressurization problem on the most recent Soyuz entry shows that they don’t have that problem under control. And the root cause of the Soyuz 11 accident (the jettison of the orbital/propulsion modules from the descent module) remains a design feature of Soyuz even though it caused two other close calls (Soyuz 5 and TM-5).

  • David, I don’t believe Dwayne said that he did not like the SS1. He only said that comparing the SS1 directly to the X-15 was inappropriate.

    Dwayne, as usual I liked your comments and generally agreed with them.

    The X-15 program was doing something entirely new and unproven. The SS1 program utilized the knowledge gained from the X-15 program, as well as other high speed and rocket research programs.

    As I have consistantly argued, I think this points out the historic roles — and I would say the proper roles — of government and private development. Any commercial vehicles supplying the Space Station will be riding the coat tails of prior NASA and Air Force efforts, including the Shuttle.

    — Donald

  • Dawyne,

    I fully concur with your assessment of the posts on this otherwise excellent website provided by Jeff Foust. I find most blogs, particularly those dealing with politics, are generally useless because of a lack of civility or critical thought. This one often goes there, despite the very serious nature of the website and careful consideration of topics by Dr. Foust.

    With that aside, I should point out that DoD is, in fact, going to take heavy cuts in its space budget due to Iraq and disaster relief. The programs in question cannot be discussed here, but the fact that the cuts will occur is public knowledge, thanks to the Congressional tendency to talk too much.

  • Dwayne A. Day

    Mr. Robertson wrote:
    “I don’t believe Dwayne said that he did not like the SS1.”

    Correct. I _didn’t_ say that. In fact, an upcoming issue of Spaceflight should contain some of my excellent (imho) photographs of SS1 in the Smithsonian (it’s amazing what you can do with an expensive camera, expensive film, and a quickie photography class). I viewed that earlier comment as simply another example of the poor state of discourse in this comments section. I’d enjoy a civil, spirited, engaging discussion of space issues, but we rarely find it on the web. Even when it stays relatively civil, it often becomes pointless. We all know where certain people stand on the issues and after observing them express their opinions for half a decade or more, I figure that I’m not going to learn anything from them just as I won’t learn anything by pulling the string on a talking doll. (I read somewhere that when the Space Frontier Foundation closed down its bulletin boards, some of the regulars migrated over here to engage in arguments that they have been conducting for years. If true, it hasn’t helped this place. All I can say is that I’ve encountered a lot of people in space discussion groups that I have no desire to meet in person–which is a real shame, because some of the more thoughtful people I know, such as Jonathan McDowell and Jeff Foust, were ones I first encountered via electrons.)

    My colleague Mr. Smith wrote:
    “I should point out that DoD is, in fact, going to take heavy cuts in its space budget due to Iraq and disaster relief.”

    I would argue that this is not due to Iraq and disaster relief. Those might be contributors, but DoD space has put itself into this position of its own accord. Their problems with numerous big ticket spacecraft that have been under development for a decade or so (SBIRS, AEHF, etc.) has created much skepticism in Congress that they should be allowed to start new aggressive development programs (T-Sat, Space Radar, etc.). In addition, I think one could argue that it has not simply been the management, but also the way DoD treated its critics in Congress that hurt them. The infamous comment by a senior Air Force general about congressional criticism of the acquisition problem did not make them any friends.

    Of course, none of this has anything to do with the space authorization bill that was the original topic here. Alas, such is the web…

  • Paul Dietz

    Way OT, but…

    I read somewhere that when the Space Frontier Foundation closed down its bulletin boards, some of the regulars migrated over here to engage in arguments that they have been conducting for years.

    SFF still has operating bulletin boards, including the flamish Space Arena board.

  • Dwayne A. Day

    “SFF still has operating bulletin boards, including the flamish Space Arena board.”

    I stand corrected.

  • Mr. Day, I look forward to seeing your SS1 photos.

    — Donald

  • Dwayne Day: However, I am generally unhappy and unimpressed about the comments section on SpacePolitics.com because of the lack of civility and the overall staleness of the discussion here. This is not a forum worth participating in, in my opinion.

    It’s tedious when people wander into a forum only to drip contempt onto it. The only way to encourage civility is to set a good example. (As in fact Jeff Foust has done. His blog is all the better for it.)

    That said, I agree that Burt Rutan’s comparison is apples and oranges, and at any meaningful level, a wild exaggeration. My hat is off to Rutan and Scaled Composites for their achievements, which however are tainted by bragging. In this case, not only bragging, but also ingratitude, given how much praise and wisdom they got from NASA.

  • This is one of the rare instances where I wholeheartedly agree with Greg. As someone who fully supported, and in my minor way helped finance, the X-Prize, and was immensely impressed by Scaled Composite‚Äôs achievement, I found Mr. Rutan’s NASA bashing after winning the X-Prize poor sportsmanlike and dishonest. He should have the grace to publicly recognize that he did not do this in a vacuum and had a lot of government-funded technology and experience behind him — not least through some of his own company’s contracts.

    And, while we’re on the subject two-timing entrepreneurs, I just belatedly read in AvWeek that the forthright defendent of multi-source contracting, SpaceX Corporation, has accepted a presumably sole-source contract for “flight text” of the Falcon-9. Isn’t this exactly the sort of contract he complained about Kistler getting, thereby helping to remove the latter company from competition?

    — Donald