Humans in space, part 1: NASA and Old Space
This is the first part of what i intend to be a three-post series about the costs of space exploration, and some of the related politics. In the second part, i'll write about ‘New Space’, and Musk / SpaceX and Bezos / Blue Origin in particular. In the third part, i'll write about why i think human space exploration is actually A Good Thing - why non-human missions are insufficient, and why i feel we should prioritising human landing and exploration of Mars over settlement of lunar space, as represented by NASA's Artemis program[a]. (Spoiler: space travel is not primarily about raw distance, but about the energy needed to deal with gravity wells.)
This first part is probably going to be substantially longer than the following two, because it's providing a lot of background information/context.
The achievements and current state of NASA
i like to say that NASA, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, is a huge sprawling wasteful bureaucratic mess - and they do amazing stuff.
For me, putting humans on the moon, and returning them safely to Earth[b], is a major achievement not only for NASA, but for the US, and for humanity as a whole[c]. But i also feel the science return from many NASA missions are also significant achievements. Some examples include:
- Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 - both launched in 1977, both now beyond the heliopause and still returning scientific data. Voyager 1 is now the artificial object most distant from Earth, at a distance of 156.25 AU / 23.375 billion km / 14.524 billion mi). That's more than 20 light-hours away.
- Galileo - launched in 1989, officially arriving at Jupiter in 1995, its mission terminated in 2003. Amongst its many observations were Shoemaker-Levy 9's impact with Jupiter in 1994; Io's volcanism and plasma interactions with Jupiter; and data supporting the notion of Europa having a subsurface liquid ocean.
Mars Science Laboratory / Curiosity - launched in 2011, arriving on Mars in 2012, intended to be a 2-year mission, but still going, its mission extended indefinitely. Cost: “Adjusted for inflation, Curiosity has a life-cycle cost of US$3.2 billion in 2020 dollars.”
Of course, there are also famous failures: not only those involving loss of human life, such as the Apollo 1 fire, the Challenger disaster, and the Columbia disaster, but very expensive errors, such as the 1999 loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter, which cost US$327.6 million ($494.84 million in 2020 dollars):
However, on September 23, 1999, communication with the spacecraft was permanently lost as it went into orbital insertion. The spacecraft encountered Mars on a trajectory that brought it too close to the planet, and it was either destroyed in the atmosphere or escaped the planet's vicinity and entered an orbit around the Sun. An investigation attributed the failure to a measurement mismatch between two software systems: metric units by NASA and US customary units by spacecraft builder Lockheed Martin.
Which brings us to the financial costs of NASA's programs. A significant problem with how NASA currently operates is its ‘cost-plus’ model: aerospace companies get contracted to provide hardware, and are guaranteed a percentage profit based on their costs. Unsurprisingly, this means those companies basically have no incentive to supply adequate hardware as cheaply as possible, and in fact, have an incentive to increase costs, since the ‘plus’ is a percentage of costs rather than a fixed amount.
Lori Garver, NASA deputy administrator during the Obama administration, has recently released an autobiography in which she discusses this issue:
Garver said her efforts to reform NASA as deputy administrator from 2009 to 2013 — in particular, canceling the Constellation space vehicle program that fizzled after four years and billions of dollars — ran headlong into “the trillion-dollar military-industrial complex.” ...
She calls out aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin and their suppliers for greedily pushing NASA leaders and Congress to initiate the $23 billion-and-counting Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion capsule that she fears will bankrupt the space program before it ever returns astronauts to the moon.
These aerospace giants are what are nowadays often referred to as ‘Old Space’: corporations providing US government aerospace capabilities through substantial amounts of direct government funding and support.
The SLS program, the official successor to the Shuttle (officially, ‘STS’, Space Transportation System) is, to me, pretty much the epitome of Old Space. It's an outrageously wasteful program. It's leveraging ‘common sense’ / ‘truthy’ ideas about the efficiency of re-using existing hardware designs and production processes to enable pork-barrelling (at least for certain Congressional districts) of the highest order.
During the joint Senate-NASA presentation in September 2011, it was stated that the SLS program had a projected development cost of US$18 billion through 2017, with $10 billion for the SLS rocket, $6 billion for the Orion spacecraft, and $2 billion for upgrades to the launch pad and other facilities at Kennedy Space Center.
For fiscal years 2011 through 2021, the SLS program had expended funding totaling $21.209 billion in nominal dollars. This is equivalent to $23.011 billion in 2021 dollars using the NASA New Start Inflation Indices.
The first launch has been delayed sixteen times so far, and recently there have been a series of failures during ‘wet-dress rehearsals’.
Originally planned for late 2016, the uncrewed first flight of SLS has slipped more than sixteen times and more than five years. As of June 2022, NASA projects the SLS will launch no earlier than 23 August 2022.
During propellant loading operations earlier in the day, launch controllers encountered a hydrogen leak in the quick disconnect that attaches an umbilical from the tail service mast on the mobile launcher to the rocket’s core stage. The team attempted to fix the leak by warming the quick disconnect and then chilling it back down to realign a seal, but their efforts did not fix the issue.
And finally, here's a recent estimate of the cost of each SLS launch:
In November 2021, a new NASA Office of Inspector General audit was released, which estimated that, at least for the first four launches of SLS, the per-launch production and operating costs would be $2.2 billion for SLS, plus $568 million for Exploration Ground Systems.
Some more details are covered in a 2019 reddit discussion about the SLS:
EDIT, 2023-05-30: “A new report finds NASA has spent an obscene amount of money on SLS propulsion”[h].
The current cost-plus model is clearly not making effective use of NASA's funding.
Thus ends my very brief potted perspective on NASA.
The cost of the US government's space budget
During the last few years, i've encountered a number of leftists taking aim at the US space program, and thus NASA, as an example of huge amounts of government expenditure going to things that are surely less important than things like health care. But let's look at NASA's budget.
NASA's budget for financial year (FY) 2020 is $22.6 billion. It represents 0.48% of the $4.7 trillion the United States plans to spend in the fiscal year.
This percentage has been roughly stable for the last decade or so.
Now let's compare that to the US military budget:
For Fiscal Year 2020 (FY2020), the Department of Defense's budget authority is approximately $721.5 billion ($721,531,000,000). Approximately $712.6 billion is discretionary spending with approximately $8.9 billion in mandatory spending. The Department of Defense estimates that $689.6 billion ($689,585,000,000) will actually be spent (outlays). Both left-wing and right-wing commentators have advocated for the cutting of military spending.
That's more than 15% of the total planned US government FY 2020 budget[d].
Now clearly the remit of the US military, at least from the apparent perspective of US society in general, is much larger than that of NASA, given the US military's global operations. But although the quote above says that left-wing commentators have called for cuts in US military spending, my more recent direct experience of lefties is of them soapboxing about space spending more commonly than military spending. This might be partly, or even mostly, due to the mass media coverage of ‘New Space’ as represented by Musk / SpaceX, Bezos / Blue Origin, Branson / Virgin Galactic, a topic which i plan to discuss in the second post of this series. But still, focusing on the magnitude of space spending rather than military spending feels like a tactical decision to try to avoid being labelled ‘unpatriotic’, accused of “hating America”, and failing to “support the troops”.
The thing is, there's surely no shortage of waste in military spending that could be addressed without the discussion/argument so quickly going down that rabbithole. Over the years, i've read, and continue to encounter, read comments by those who are currently/formerly US military talking about the shoddy materiel they've had to work with. (Myself, i would have thought that “supporting the troops” would involve loud and unignoreable demands that the government ensure military materiel was of high quality, to maximise the health and safety of US citizens, but apparently not.) And what about the problems and cost overruns involved with the F-35 project? (With the prime contractor being, oh look, Lockheed Martin.) Why not, in fact, discuss the extent of ‘corporate welfare’ and ‘corporate socialism’[e], and how there are layers of a relatively small number of people getting quite wealthy from government spending at the expense of both frontline troops and workers in the aerospace industry?
But no, let's attack US space spending in general, which implies attacking the work of NASA in particular. Let's make it a zero-sum game pitting an organisation significantly involved in supporting pure research and blue-sky engineering, even if very inefficiently, against funding for concrete actions that address social issues and climate change. Let's attack a science-focused organisation in an era where science in the US (well, and in the Anglosphere in general) continues to be under significant attack, because science produces obviously ‘problematic’ perspectives like, y'know, ‘evolutionary biology’, “climate change is happening, and happening more rapidly than we anticipated”, and “many animals engage in same-sex sexual behaviours, and biological sex is not always simply ‘male’ and ‘female’”[f].
Yes, there are huge problems with NASA's expenditure. But counterposing space research and exploration to the very real need to address the many urgent social and environmental issues here on Earth (which somehow reminds me of “Don't Look Up”[g]), instead of counterposing this need with military spending and/or corporate welfare, seems unnecessary, problematic and, bluntly, a bit of a cop-out.
On the other hand, criticisms of the space-related perspectives and spending of billionaires like Musk and Bezos seem a lot more sensible to me, even though i have criticisms of at least some of those criticisms. i plan to discuss those in my third post, but the next post will discuss ‘New Space’, Musk / SpaceX and Bezos / Blue Origin.
Some relevant books
- "Failure is Not an Option", by Gene Kranz.
- "NASA and the Space Industry", by Joan Lisa Bromberg.
- "Escaping Gravity: My Quest to Transform NASA and Launch a New Space Age", by Lori Garver. ☙
[b] The famous address by John F. Kennedy to a Joint Session of Congress, 25 May 1961:
I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.
His famous “We choose to go to the moon” speech was made on 12 September 1962:
We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills
[c] Something that fascinates me about US society, as a non-American, is that this is a plausible conversation:
American: "USA! USA! USA!"
Me: "Well, I must say, the Apollo landings were an incredible achievement for your country."
American: "Oh, no, they were _faked_."
[d] i'm not going to discuss US government spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in this post, because regardless of how large those figures are, my point here is to address my experiences of various people on the left getting worked up about government space spending in particular.
[e] Fascinating thing about US society the second. My experiences of US culture is that it seems to love throwing around the word ‘socialism’ as a thought-terminating cliché. i've read an American throw the word ‘socialism’ into an ICT mailing list conversation expecting it to be some sort of unassailable knock-down, only to find that many people on that mailing list had a more nuanced view of ‘socialism’, because their countries' Overton window isn't so far to the right.