July 05, 2007

Reviewing the current state of space programs

I personally measure the progress in space by progress in launch costs and capability and the progress toward the ultimate goal of large scale development in space. Science research is a good thing but I differentiate between science that is exclusively from unique technology deployed in space and general science research that happens to be included in a budget that has a space title.

I support the development of nuclear propulsion capabilities since they would be significant improvements over what we currently are using.

Stephen Howe,director of the Centre for Space Nuclear Research, has recently proposed a nuclear thermal rocket like the one pictured

I also think that we can do more with current technology to advance space capabilities and infrastructure. Going the more inefficient route of using the nuclear power after clearing the atmosphere seems necessary to gain the initial confidence in the technology before using nuclear for ground launch. Although nuclear space vehicles make sense, I do not see any funding being provided for them. The politics of US space funding are to support jobs on the ground and not progress in space.

The US Government vision for space has received some funding as described here

Congress also has shown its support with money, providing $9 billion for exploration since Bush rolled out the vision.

NASA has not been given the budget increases the White House initially promised, forcing the agency to make unpopular cuts to science and aeronautics to keep its human spaceflight programs adequately funded. And a decision by the new Democratic Congress to fund most federal agencies this year at last year's levels has left NASA's exploration planners struggling with a $500 million shortfall that Griffin recently announced would delay the introduction of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and its Ares I rocket to 2015.

While NASA still hopes to shoot for the Moon by 2020, agency officials readily concede the next four years or so are all about completing the International Space Station, retiring the shuttle, and building and testing Ares and Orion. Work on the heavy-lift rocket, lunar lander and other hardware needed to send astronauts to the Moon is not due to really get started before the shuttle is done flying.

Of the more than $16 billion NASA plans to spend between now and 2010 on exploration systems, roughly 80 percent is designated Orion and Ares, with the rest budgeted for lunar robotics programs, space station-based research, and other advanced technology development efforts.

By 2011, the first year NASA expects to be out from under the $3 billion to $4 billion a year it spends on shuttle, exploration systems is expected to consume nearly half of NASA's total budget, with upwards of 90 percent of exploration funding going toward completing Ares and Orion and getting started on the Ares 5 heavy-lift rocket and other Moon-bound hardware.



I am not confident that return to the moon proposal will be fully funded.
As described at this link at Spacedaily. Even if it the moon program is fully funded I am not confident that a plan to send 4-6 people to the moon on extended camping trips is worthwhile. I think it needs to be part of a long term commitment to space colonization. To me this means building megawatts and then gigawatts of power and efficiently developing mostly robotic mining and materials processing on the moon and other places. I think the "Vision for space" is fundamentally misguided and weak and not a path to a truly revolutionary capability.

I think a good plan for space includes these kind of elements:
- build a lot of power in space (many megawatts and then gigawatts)
- develop space mining, materials processing and construction capability
- develop cheap launch to LEO (ultimately get away from chemical rockets)
- separately develop cheaply operated tugs or tethers from LEO to GSO to elsewhere
- build useful infrastructure to bring down the costs and develop space

However, we are not getting that kind of program.

The current program is warped by political needs. The delays in the program may force more reliance on the private launch industry. This could be a long term bonus if the commercial entities are better able to develop lower cost launch capabilities.
More money for SpaceX


SpaceX Falcon rocket

and the other private launch systems from now until 2015 or 2020 when the new NASA vehicles (which probably will not be nuclear) might be flying would be good. The Newspace launch companies get stronger with more funding and opportunities because of delays and lack of government commitment. So I am in the unusual position of hoping for more delays and screwups from NASA and with government funding. NASA gets some funding but is forced to stretch the money by helping innovative companies.

The military is getting some more money for space in reaction to China's space capability

It will be up to future presidents and administrations to change the course of america's stagnating space program. Perhaps the impetus from other countries (like China) taking the lead in space will provide the motivation for real change and to get a useful vision for space.


Nasa 2008 budget request


Nasa facilities

FURTHER READING:
A pdf from 2006 US space programs, civilian, military and commercial

PDF with the 2008 NASA budget request

The ISS and Space shuttle Apr 2007 report

Launch vehicles report

China's space program plans from 2007-2011


Long March 5 mockup

China is spending about $2.2 billion/year on space

List of national space programs at wikipedia

Russian Duma approving a budget of 305 billion rubles (about 11 billion USD) for the Space Agency from 2006-2015, with overall space expenditures in Russia total about 425 billion rubles for the same time period. Russia is spending about 1.1-1.6 billion per year on space.

Dnepr rocket, cheapest launch costs of $2,222 per kg.

The European space agency is spending about 3-4 billion euroes per year

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