Yes kids, that means nobody born since the nineteen thirties.
With that in mind, consider the string of space exploration events that have happened (and that nobody has bothered to diary about), in the past few weeks:
- Neil Armstrong is dead at 82.
- The rover Curiosity has landed on Mars successfully and is now roving.
- Elon Musk's Space X reached the ISS. The Falcon 9 rocket that boosted the Dragon capsule into orbit can put 29,000 pounds into low Earth orbit (LEO) for $54 million a pop,
Armstrong's death is significant because it underlines the abject failure of our space program, from the Nixon administration forward, to effectively pursue a human space exploration program.
We've been screwing around in LEO for 40 years and NASA has no concrete plans to go any further, except by building a costly heavy booster that will require $3 billion a year of investment to get to a first launch with no crew, maybe in 2017. For those of you keeping track at home, this means $12 billion for the first pop of this particular firecracker. The Mars Society performed a highly detailed one-minute analysis by Robert Zubrin, and concluded it will eventually be canceled. Mr. Zubrin has been right before, for example predicting the demise of the SSTO program.
Meanwhile, Elon Musk, who is a perfect replacement for Steve Jobs when you need a guy to dish out a whooping to a lazy existing industry, is promising the Falcon Heavy for $128 million a launch. Space X plans to launch the first one before the end of this year.
To be sure, NASA's initial SLS variant will be a 70 metric ton to LEO rocket, while Falcon Heavy will initially lift "only" 53 metric tons. So SLS is 32% more capable. Still, the cost differential is so fantastic it seems that somebody ought to be going to jail. Let me repeat, this is $12 billion for a booster that will launch in 2017 with just 32% more payload than a a $128 million rocket available in a few months.
If conclusive proof was needed that NASA's contracting system is broken and determined by political expediency rather than technical or economic merit, Mr. Musk has done the job. That is is not yet totally obvious to the point of scandal is a function of the fact that the first Falcon Heavy has not yet launched. When the first successful Falcon Heavy launch does come, and hopefully it will be the very first try, NASA is going to need to do some explaining.
But I digress. The point of this diary is not a discussion about costs, though costs are hugely relevant, but about goals. The clear and obvious manned objective is Mars. Specifically a series of Mars missions sending crews of four to six astronauts every two years (every Mars launch opportunity) to explore the red planet and slowly build up assets on the surface to allow gradually increasing support, in the forms of food and fuel, for activities there and an eventual permanent base.
Right now, the best bet is that we get there thanks to Space X. Musk built the company specifically to go to Mars, and he is figuring on the early 2020's. I don't think he cares what NASA wants, but is happy to sell launch services to NASA for revenue and prestige. I don't see NASA, the Obama administration, or the GOP being capable of doing anything better than they have so far. I do credit Obama for giving private operators, and in particular Space X, contracts to help them gain relevance. But on the "traditional model" side of NASA, the situation is as dismal as it ever has been.
I don't know how this ends. I am having a hard time seeing Boeing, ATK and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne (United Technologies) just rolling over and letting their bloated cost business model be wiped out by some South African upstart who does cameos on Iron Man. They sure don't seem to have any above-board options though...