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April 19, 2010

Ed Kyle misses the point completely

Ed Kyle is known firstly for his command of facts and space trivia, and secondly for his command of numbers. His latest article displays it well, in fact he pars it down for brievity. I saw him doing more precise, project-like calculations than that before. But all this capability is for naught for the simple reason: he completely misses the point.

And it starts so well.

NASA's now-canceled Constellation Program died because the U.S. government was unable, or unwilling, to pay its costs - and the costs were considerable. Last year's Augustine Committee estimated that NASA's budget would have to be increased by at least $3 billion per year to even begin to make the program possible.

Indeed, the program as it existed was impossible. And "begin" is really an example of wishful thinking.

A traditional way to fit a big government program, usually an overrun program, into a limited budget is to slow the program down - to build fewer fighter jets or submarines than originally planned, for example. It was not possible to slow down the Constellation Program in this way, since its launch rate was already at a minimum given its huge fixed costs. Billions of dollars would have been needed each year to support the manufacturing and launch infrastructure of Ares I, Ares V, Orion, and Altair, whether or not any astronauts walked on the Moon.

Exactly. But then...

A lower-cost, slower-rate program might be possible if those fixed costs were slashed. What is the most obvious way to cut fixed costs? First, use existing launch systems. Second, fly less frequently to the Moon, to spread the costs over time. Rather than two landings per year, consider one landing every two years, for example. Third, drop the grandiose plans for a lunar base and fly sortie missions instead.

Suppose we can do that. But what would be the point?!

Since the purpose of deep space human exploration is national prestige, the number of landings performed in any given time-frame is almost irrelevant. Just as the quadrennial Olympics garner worldwide attention, one landing every-other year would garner more public attention than two every year.

The whole idea of recreating Apollo-style "flag and footprints" missions is pure nonsense. Apollo itself had a reason to exist: to demonstrate that America was superior to Soviets (at any cost). And now? Doing a lame Apollo that cannot even fly there twice a year only demonstrates that modern America is weaker than the America of the past.

The rest of the article is simply wasted because it is dedicated to another way to recreate Apollo (perhaps even an inventive one), and we do not need that.

The only reason for the government manned space program to exist at all is to open the space for all of us. And that only can be done by dramatically reducing the launch costs, etc. etc. I am sure Ed is familiar with the cost-based reasoning, but he is simply wilfully blind to it. In denial.

Posted by: Pete Zaitcev at 11:48 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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