Where Do We Stand?

We still lead…overall…but some are gaining fast.

China just launched the first module to their new space station.  They are rather proud of it, naming it Tiangong (meaning “Heavenly Palace” or “Sky Palace”).  Still, I read somewhere that they intend to deorbit the station two years after completion to build their next orbiting platform.

In the same week, we hear about layoffs at Bigelow Aerospace, developers of future inflatable habitat modules for space stations.  They say they are hunkering down to wait until someone in the U.S. once again has the ability to orbit people to put on space stations.  It looks like they were getting cozy with Russia for a while, but I guess Russia won’t have room on Soyuz for enough launches to build a market for Bigelow habitats.

Speaking of Russia, they use their expertise a lot on the International Space Station, experience that they gained on Mir and Salyut, which appear to be the template for Tiangong 1.

Private enterprise, if it can find a product to sell, will take over.  At the rate things are going, NASA’s new heavy launch system, if it stays on its current schedule, and if it survives the budget cutting knife year after year, could be passed up by SpaceX‘s Falcon Heavy or something like it, or better, before it ever sees orbit.  All of the government-run space agencies, including NASA, could find themselves launching on privately designed launch systems (notice I didn’t say “rockets”).

So, ya, we are still in the lead, for now, and others are catching up…for now.

We’ll see.

In the mean time, if you want to know where Tiangong 1 is right now…click here.

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~ by Bill Housley on October 11, 2011.

2 Responses to “Where Do We Stand?”

  1. How do you feel about budget cuts to NASA programs?

    • That is a very large question.

      Like any government program, NASA has waste…more waste than the equivillent service provided by private industry would…if private industry could. Currently, private industry is improving its ability to do the kinds of things which NASA has traditionally done. NASA is helping, and should help, with that and should not compete with private industry. NASA however does have some important advantages over private industry…

      1> More money up front–with longevity: Sometimes it takes that to get something done. Private industry has to support itself while it innovates and developes long-term programs. NASA can spend and spend for a decade or more on something. It can survive delays, setbacks, accidents, and cost overruns better than a corporation can.
      2> NASA is not tight-fisted with innovation: It does not “buy and bury” patents to prevent the development of technologies that might compete with something they are doing. They do not “own” technologies the same way that private enterprise does. Instead, they support good ideas that they find that they might be able to use now or in the future. They do this with with money grants, product and service purchases (in the form of Government contracts), and/or technical help from NASA-paid scientists. This provides a seperate path to technology advancements that is a very important part of our country’s technical infrastructure. NASA groups all of this under a thing that they call “spin-offs”. I think that the indirect general influence of spin-offs is much larger than what can be directly traced back to NASA, but it is very hard to measure.
      3> NASA is ahead of everyone on things related to space. Some others are ahead of them on some things, and are catching up fast on other things, but no one in the world has a larger overall space tech infrastructure. This gives them an advantage in pushing back the envelope and doing things that have never been done before, but maintaining that edge costs money because it comes in the form of long-term employees paid on salary while working on various projects.
      4> There are some specific projects, like the JWST, that multiple scientific efforts hinge on. These must be allowed to continue.
      5> NASA serves a central iconic role with respect to our education system. This role is many times more valuable to our country than our current funding for Education and Space Exploration combined. “Boots on the ground” written goals for manned space exploration provide something for young people to focus on.

      In everything I just named, NASA must be funded to continue if our nation is to hold its technical edge in comparison with other countries. But everywhere U.S. private enterprise can take over traditional NASA roles, NASA should step out of the way and not compete with them–and yes I think that Congress should cut their budget in those areas when necessary.

      Private enterprise does things a lot cheaper and with less Federal Government involvement, which helps them think on their feet better. The trouble is that their survival as an industry is not a sure thing yet.

      Congress makes NASA what it is with the money that it spends on NASA…but it also provides NASA’s greatest weakness. Too many legislators (and their constituents) think that they are put in office to “bring home the bacon” for their own individual states. This means that launch systems and other projects are not usually as lean or as fairly spent as they should be. All money comes with strings attached.

      -I am in favor of continued funding for the JWST.
      -I want the SLS to move forward a lot faster and cheaper than we are doing currently.
      -I support a continued innovation advancement path with respect to designing and building future robotic probes to send to Mars.
      -I support an aggressive effort, with firmly dated goals, for manned moon and Mars objectives.

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