Damn. That’s enough to bring to the surface an entire load of Kady rants that I’ve used over the last few years:

Damnit, Kady. The next time I’m in Houston we ought to get together for coffee, or whatever your drink of choice for rousing discussion is. That would be a hoot, I think. ;)

If I was starting my career today, I’d have a blast. All I need to do is look at proven technologies of the past which have been either mothballed or long-buried inside other more “modern” products as features, and bring them up to date to meet new requirements.

Right? Anymore when I need to do something “new” or better, I first look to the “old ways”. I’m not ashamed to revive something we did, or the way we did it decades ago to solve a problem. Of course, I’ve been at it long enough that I am somewhat surprised when I am reviving something I did over a decade ago, but saddened/annoyed that the problem is still around and bad enough my “old way” is not only relevant but the best way available.

Yea, it is both. Some of that is useful. I don’t want programmers recoding the same security and governance shit over and over and over again. That’s unproductive.


But where I need them to actually get creative, I need to not put boundaries in front of them so as to inhibit out of the box problem-solving.

Yeah much like other qualities we’ve taken “out of the box” too damned far. Not everything needs to be “out of the box thinking”; the boxes exist for good reasons.

The problem is that 90% of them haven’t had an out of the box thought in their entire lives.

I suspect a major part of that is that we don’t value the “box” enough anymore, and so everything is “out of the box”. Then again, I still carry a mantra I learned long ago: 90% of everything is crap. ;)

Then, instead of working on a Mars Mission, NASA decided to invent a flying cargo truck and fly THAT for a couple of decades.

Indeed, and NASA still has not learned from that lesson. While the current “plan” is to go back to the big boosters, the rest is still basically “Battlestar Galactica” at NASA. Probably because NASA is a jobs program more than a space exploration program. I’ve got so many rants on the American Space Shuttle program.

One thing the shuttle proved: if you build an RLV, they still won’t come. An RLV is so much more expensive and complex that while it seems that reusability is cheaper, in reality that is only true if you have far more demand than supply combined with the ability to actually reuse those parts often enough to leverage them. There isn’t a demand for an RLV today, there wasn’t in the 70s, and there likely won’t be one for the next twenty years. We need to build a reason for the market to develop — there has to be an economic purpose.

The Saturn V had (somewhat poetically) five times the capacity to LEO than the Shuttle, but did not cost five times as much, and didn’t get the time to be streamlined into lower costs. The proposed Sea Dragon could have put the Saturn V, fully fueled, into space. That is composeable reusability. /cheesy-grin.

They key to the Saturn V was its (relative) simplicity and its “throwaway” nature. Much like in software, the desire for complex, or “cool sounding” toys destroyed the effective and functional working ones.

We could have even “downsized” our heavy lifter program to, say, the Saturn IB. That would have preserved what Ithink was critical: the thrusters. It would also have meant that once we finally decided to stop getting groceries with the heavy duty pickup, we wouldn’t have to spend tens of billions re-learning how to do heavy lifters. Side note: it also could have improved the shuttle by proving an ELV for the Air Force rather than letting the AF dictate terrible shuttle design choices that they then rarely used anyway.

And yet, the parallels in software/IT are stunningly and strikingly there.

And SpaceX has never flown a manned mission.

True. But then again, over the last six years or so neither has NASA (technically, thought, the launches of the shuttle were managed by the cartel, err I mean the consortium, not NASA so even that is arguable). At least Musk actually wants to get on his rockets. I’m not sure enough people at NASA do anymore. Some do, of course. But either not enough, or not the right people do.

Not that I am a proponent of the government handling space exploration, but if we accept it is going to happen it would be much more effective to do something like this:

Restrucure NASA entirely around manned spaceflight. Everything else must go. We don’t need to raise their budget much, if at all, if we do that. Our toy rovers? Let universities design and operate them, and Musk launch them. Earth centered research? We have other agencies for that (if one accepts that as government responsibility). Astronomy? Let the Navy take that. To the extent any military involvement with NASA is allowed, let it be the Navy. Why?

Because it makes more sense than the Air Force, and the Navy is in a far better position to offer know-how on long term confinement of humans in ships, plus if we were to take the simple route the USN contractors are rather expert in building ships and have the existing ability to produce large scale metal ones. This comes from the proposed Sea Dragon — it was designed to be built using naval construction facilities, material, and know-how.

Next, task NASA with a “Inhabit Mars First” priority mission. Minimal on-orbit facilities, focus on using what we already know, full stack testing (cheaper, faster, and more effective when using simple components). No moon work. Why? Because, despite common belief, it is more expensive to to Mars via the Moon (or, frankly, via LEO) and most of the truly important hardware is not reusable for Mars — though the opposite is somewhat true, Mars hardware can be modified for Luna use. For projects and programs not directly supportive of the Mars program, the total expenditure must come in at no more than ten percent of the total NASA expenditures/budget.

Then, once we’ve established our first permanently occupied Mars base/settlement NASA can dust off the old NPP research and systems and get back to work on that.

About the “Aeronautics” part of NASA? I don’t think it is really needed anymore, frankly. It amounts to around three quarters of a billion dollars — fully eclipsed by even just Boeing’s annual R&D of several billion dollars per year. In a sense, some of those programs at NASA are really subsidizing, unnecessarily, Boeing et al.. For example the noted one in the current budget is research on making airplanes more fuel efficient by, eg. making wings bug-proof. Let the manufacturers do that research — they have the motivation and the ability to recoup the costs directly. If it is actually worth doing, Boeing will do the research. They may even be able to do it better.

The existing rover missions could easily be transitioned over to a university consortium. Part and parcel of the american university system is supposed to be research; so let them do real research again. They could cut costs, and have more predictable costs, by having private companies such as SpaceX handle the launches. Move climate research out of NASA and let NOAA do it.

Regardless of one’s position on CAGW, that isn’t a function an agency that is supposed to be about exploration should be doing, and getting it out of NASA insulates NASA from the political aspect of it. By keeping the total budget the same it would allow for approximately 2B more annually to go to actual exploration research and effort. This alone, depending on how you calculate it, could more than double the money going to the existing SLS effort — without increasing NASA’s total budget. Add in the money previously spent by NASA on rovers, subsidizing Boeing, and you can repurpose another couple billion dollars.

That mostly leaves the largest, IIRC, single item in the NASA budget: ISS. ISS support comes in around 5B as I recall. For this I’d say set a transtion period where we fix the ISS support at current level for a few years while we transition some of it (which we are already doing) to private companies such as SpaceX for supply runs. We also then leverage our return to heavy EVLs to lower the re-supply cost while serving as full-stack testing. The research focused portions of NASA ISS support can likewise be transitioned over to, say, a university consortium. Like the rover stuff this can actually increase the reach of academic research by lowering the bar to get involved and letting the universities handle that rather than fighting with congress and NASA for access and funding.

To put some of that in perspective, consider that from 1959 to 1972, the Apollo era, NASA’s total expenditures were (in approximate current dollars) around 275 billion dollars, and about half of that was Apollo. Lets “round up” and call NASA’s total expenditure 300B and Apollo’s 150B. Annually that averages out to about 23B and 11.5B respectively. Now bear in mind that we actually get to leverage a lot of that Apollo infrastrucutre — buildings, labs, launch facilities, etc. for today. At the time, NASA represented about 2% of federal expenditures, and thus Apollo was about 1%. Today NASA represents about half a percent or less.

Half of one percent.

Despite this, the public thinks we spend about a quarter of the budget on space exploration according to polling in 2007. We’ve never spent to that level. Think of what could have been accomplished had we spent to that level. Or even think of what a modern NASA, focused almost exclusively on getting right to Mars, for the purposes of permanently being there, could do with 2%, or even just a full 1%. I think this chasm between perception and reality could use some work. I think that if you were to put to Americans the proposition that NASA’s budget should be “no less than” 1 single percent of the federal expenditures (or even just the budget) you would find very broad support. You might even find support for a minimum of 2%. You’d probably find resistance to setting it “that low”. I’d bet we could even get a fixed range, ie. it no less than 1% and no more than 3%. Imagine what we could do with that focus and five times the current funding.

But more importantly than the budget and money, this realignment would be returning the agency to a primary, dedicated, and clear purpose. People on a singular mission can do incredible things when allowed to and given the resources to do it.

Following this, knowing that NASA was set to a singular goal and that it had the budget for it (especially if a “no less than one percent” bill was passed), we would see private industry move to take advantage of it — to be ready to supply the construction and the materials. Broadening the construction of rockets from the relatively tiny existing government laden rocket manufacturers to the naval construction yards (not just warships but, say, tankers, cargo, and cruise liner yards) would broaden the market bringing in more competition and “spreading the wealth” (and risk) across multiple industries. And we’ve not even really delved into the positive knock-on effects on STEM appeal and opportunity.

I could go on, but my belly is getting insistent on some breakfast, and your eyes are probably tired of reading this. ;)

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store