Campaign '08, NASA, Other

Editorial trifecta

It’s rare to see a major newspaper devote editorial space to, well, space. However, on Wednesday two of the nation’s largest newspapers (as well as one smaller paper that more frequently covers space issues) took on the topic in editorials and op-eds:

Leading off, the Los Angeles Times examines the proposed space policies of presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama in an editorial. The editors note that McCain “supports the vision for space exploration that President Bush articulated in 2004″ while Obama has proposed delaying Constellation by five years. (The editorial doesn’t note that, more recently, Obama has proclaimed his support for Ares 1 and Orion, the two major early components of Constellation.)

“Who’s right? There’s something to be said for pulling the plug on Constellation,” the editorial continues, suggesting that NASA rely on commercial services or international partners for human spaceflight, allowing it to spend more money on robotic missions. But then the editors worry that, since many robotic missions could be perceived “as the necessary prep work for human exploration”, this could boomerang against those missions—and the paper’s parochial interests at JPL.

The editorial concludes that the Bush-McCain approach “nicely balances realism and ambition”, but that Obama “is sounding like the more realistic, market-oriented candidate” because he wants to enhance NASA’s role in earth sciences research in addition to promoting more international and private-sector cooperation.

Meanwhile, a New York Times op-ed makes an argument for space solar power (SSP). O. Glenn Smith, a former manager of ISS experiments at JSC, reviews the arguments for SSP, including the use of the ISS as a testbed for SSP experiments. (He glosses over one of the major issues, the cost of launching a SSP system, saying that launch services being developed by SpaceX and Orbital under the COTS program “could be adapted to sending up a solar power satellite system”. However, even the NSSO report about SSP released last year admitted that “The vehicle fleet necessary to place a SBSP system into orbit does not exist today” and that a new generation of RLVs are required.) Smith’s closing argument: “[I]n a time of some skepticism about the utility of our space program, NASA should realize that the American public would be inspired by our astronauts working in space to meet critical energy needs here on Earth.” (See recent discussions about the potential conflict between alternative energy research and space exploration.)

Finally, Florida Today argues for “spreading the NASA gospel” to local businesses, so that they, in turn, will support the space agency. The editorial was spurred by a recent meeting at KSC that attracted about 100 chamber of commerce officials from across the state, most of whom hasn’t been there before. “Converting business leaders to the cause is important for building the kind of broad backing necessary to convince the state’s elected officials in the Legislature and Congress that NASA’s future is critical to all Floridians, not just Brevard County residents,” the editorial argues. However, business leaders are often less swayed by rhetoric like “the NASA gospel” and “the cause” then by hard economic data; there’s little of that in the editorial other than the claim that the retirement of the shuttle “could result in the loss of 6,400 jobs”, even though NASA cut that estimate to as little as 3,000 jobs last month.

5 comments to Editorial trifecta

  • Dave Huntsman

    I think the possible interest of the public in space solar power is being underestimated. After 33 years in NASA, my banker sister in Silicon Valley – her specialty is failed banks, businesses, etc. – only gets excited about space when the subject of power beaming from space comes up. In fact, when we see each other, if I don’t bring it up, she does: “How’s that going? Is there ANY movement on it, by anybody??”. It’s the only thing space-related in decades she’s ever gotten excited about and never lets go.

    Glenn Smith’s proposal to somehow use the ISS to actually get a demo of space solar power done – so that we’ve got more than just paper studies to point to – is generically right on; in fact, the National Security Space Office SSP Cadets have been trying to get NASA interested in exactly that. I think that an easier thing to get done is to first use already-in place – or about to be in-place – ISS assets to do a proof of concept with the one other country that has its own SSP Cadets: and that’s Japan. In fact, in some facets of space solar power, the Japanese Aerospace Research and Development Agency has done more work than the U.S. has.

    One logical – and, cheap – first joint demo: make use of already-paid for Japanese assets – the Japanese external facility on ISS, and the H-2 Transfer Vehicle – to do a demo of real power beaming and use. The external facility on ISS, and the development and flying the HTV, are already ‘paid for'; they don’t have to be developed; as is the huge power output from the large ISS solar panels. For a meaningful demo, “all” that would have to be paid for is the interface electronics and transmitter placed on the Japanese exposed facility. The HTV – whose development and first several trips have already been ‘paid for’ – could be fitted with a receiver, converter and interface electronics for its own systems.

    The HTV flight selected could then come to the ISS and deliver its cargo, per the already agreed process; be loaded with trash, and leave ISS. But then, the solar power demo would come in: using the ISS’s vast arrays as a power source, power could be beamed from the Japanese exposed facility to the free-flying, trash-laden HTV, which would then disconnect it’s own power source and do a series of maneuvers solely on transmitted power.

    The ‘down side’ is that this would not be a space-to-ground system demo. But we don’t have that now, anyway. What it would do is demonstrate a practical possibility for how solar cells collecting power one place can transmit that power and effectively use it in another place. And it would not require a single new flight of any vehicle; rather, it would make use of tens of billions of dollars of already paid for space assets put together by many countries. It would be the cheapest way to do a highly visible demo.

    Insisting on a space-to-ground demo as the sole first step is not necessary; and in fact, it may be insisting on too big a step all at once. Our Japanese friends already have a built-in cadre of space solar power enthusiasts; and I think they could be persuaded to join the U.S. in using the Japanese external facility, the HTV, and the ISS for a real (and relatively cheap) operational demo. And the U.S. here could be three agencies: DOD/NSSO, Department of Agency, and NASA, further lowering the cost to each.

    Or, put another way: if the two most pro-space solar power countries can’t even get a simple demo like that done – using already-developed billion-dollar assets – than wishful thinking on an even more expensive first step is just that.
    Let’s get a real demo done sooner, not later.

  • Al Fansome


    I think you missed a very interesting piece of news that was part of the LA Times editorial. It says at the very end:

    Yet it’s Obama who is sounding like the more realistic, market-oriented candidate. His campaign said recently that Obama hopes to enhance NASA’s role “in confronting the challenges we face here on Earth, including global climate change” and “to reach out and include international partners and engage the private sector to increase NASA’s reach and provide real public economic benefits for the nation.”


    – Al

    “Politics is not rocket science, which is why rocket scientists do not understand politics.”

  • Jeff Foust

    Al: I did notice that phrasing, but could not find the campaign statement that the editorial was referring to. Do you (or anyone else) have a reference?

  • Jeff,

    Perhaps from the campaign debate at ISDC

    From your report about ISDC

    He also said Obama would create a “supportive environment for scientific research and space exploration” in the public and private sectors, “including the new generation of entrepreneurs who are interested in space exploration.”

    That, combined with Obama’s comments about determining real benefits, which he’s said some variation on multiple times, is my bet.

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