Archive for the ‘Obama’ category

Thoughts on Obama’s Space Speech

April 15, 2010

In case you missed it, you can click here to watch Obama’s speech at NASA today and read the transcript here.

Overall there were not a lot of surprises in this speech. NASA still gets a budget increase. The shuttle is still on-track for cancellation, the Constellation program is also going to be canceled, with transportation to and from the ISS to be provided by private companies. The ISS will be extended so that it can actually be used now that it is built, and to make our international partners happy. NASA will begin designing a heavy launch vehicle for trips beyond low Earth orbit, and returning to the Moon is no longer a high priority.

There were some new details and some changes however. First, Obama mentioned some more specific deadlines and destinations:

  • NASA will begin constructing a heavy launch vehicle by 2015
  • Crewed test flights beyond low-earth-orbit by early 2020s
  • Human mission to a near-earth asteroid by 2025
  • Mars missions in the 2030s

This timeline is aggressive but plausible, and looks pretty darn good, considering that the Augustine commission found that even with a $3 billion per year increase in funding, Constellation wouldn’t get us to the moon until the mid 2020s. This fits in very well with the “flexible path” option described by the Augustine commission, and the Roadmap for Space Exploration proposed by the Planetary Society. I think a lot of people underestimate the value of having a series of goals, building off one another, rather than a distant goal and few milestones along the way.

Obama also talked about the new plan to keep the Orion capsule to use as a “lifeboat” from the ISS. I’m somewhat skeptical about this, although obviously NASA will need to continue to develop some sort of capsule to return astronauts to the surface from other missions. I’d like to see more details on what changes will be made to Orion, and how this new “lifeboat” capsule will lead to a capsule to be used by exploration missions. Frankly, this sounds to me like a political decision.

I was disappointed that Obama chose to echo the “been there done that” attitude toward the Moon. I think the Moon still could play an important role in exploration. Although they are very different worlds, it makes some sense to send missions to the moon to prepare for missions to Mars, for example. But I also think the choice to change from a single-minded focus on returning to the moon is the right one. The moon is just one of many possible destinations. The important thing is that with a launch vehicle capable of sending astronauts to asteroids and Mars, it would certainly be possible to go to the moon as well.

So, as I said, not a terribly surprising speech. It’s nice to see some concrete goals, but I’m skeptical of this Orion lifeboat plan. Based on the responses I read on Twitter, there are some space advocates who like the new plan, and others who think it’s the end of space exploration, that their hopes and dreams are crushed, etc. I don’t understand some of the opposition to the new plan, which would give us more capability, sooner, for less money than the original plan. I also don’t understand those complaining about the end of the shuttle. That decision was made six years ago: the time to be angry about that is long gone.

For more detailed opinions on today’s speech, I recommend checking out Phil Plait’s post over at Bad Astronomy, and Joe Shoer’s post over at Quantum Rocketry.


NASA’s New Budget

February 1, 2010

The internet has been a whirlwind of wailing and gnashing of teeth, interspersed with the occasional optimistic or guarded response, as space advocates respond to Obama’s fiscal year 2011 budget request for NASA. In case you haven’t heard, the main points of the FY2011 budget are nicely summarized in this overview document:

Increase of $6.0 billion over 5-years (FY 2011-15) compared to the FY 2010 Budget, for a total of $100 billion over five years.

Significant and sustained investments in:

  • Transformative technology development and flagship technology demonstrations to pursue new approaches to space exploration
  • Robotic precursor missions to multiple destinations in the solar system
  • Research and development on heavy-lift and propulsion technologies
  • U.S. commercial spaceflight capabilities
  • Future launch capabilities, including work on modernizing Kennedy Space Center after the
    retirement of the Shuttle
  • Extension and increased utilization of the International Space Station
  • Cross-cutting technology development aimed at improving NASA, other government, and
    commercial space capabilities
  • Accelerating the next wave of Climate change research and observations spacecraft
  • NextGen and green aviation
  • Education, including focus on STEM

Cancellation of the Constellation program; and $600 million in FY 2011 to ensure the safe
retirement of the Space Shuttle upon completion of the current manifest.

It’s that last point that has many people upset. Constellation was the ongoing program to build the huge Ares 1 and Ares V rockets to replace the shuttle and return humans to the moon. The program was initiated by the previous administration, but then consistently underfunded. Last year, a blue-ribbon panel of aerospace experts – the “Augustine Commission” –  was called in to assess the direction of NASA’s human spaceflight program, and they found that the Constellation program was “on an unsustainable trajectory” and that NASA was “pursuing goals that do not match the allocated resources”.

Given the Augustine Commission’s report, it’s not surprising that Constellation was canceled, but plenty of people are not happy about it. Unsurprisingly, particularly angry are those who were directly involved in the program and their representatives in congress. I don’t blame them for being upset, and they have every right to complain, but I think that the decision to cancel Constellation was probably the right one.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked the Constellation program. The test-launch last year of the Ares-1X dummy rocket was spectacular, and when I was in NASA Academy in 2006, I got to see some of the early behind-the-scenes work being done. It would have been great to see towering NASA rockets sending our astronauts to the space station and back to the moon. But between the inevitable delays in such a massive project, and the funds falling short of those needed to stay on target, the program really was becoming unsustainable. And worse than that, the delays compounded a serious problem in public interest. It’s hard enough to get people interested in a program designed to repeat what was done 40 years ago with Apollo. Good luck maintaining interest if that program gets drawn out indefinitely due to delays.

The new budget places a strong emphasis on commercial spaceflight, relying on launch vehicles developed by private companies to send US astronauts to the space station. No doubt about it, this is a risky move. No private space company currently has a rocket or spacecraft capable of doing this. But they’re getting close. Space-X said today that they will be capable of sending astronauts to the ISS two to three years after receiving a NASA contract to do so, and for a price of ~$20 million per seat – significantly cheaper than the $50 million price tag of a flight on a Russian Soyuz rocket.

The Space-X "Dragon" capsule could be how US astronauts get to the space station in the near future.

Even if these estimates are somewhat optimistic, it seems likely that commercial providers will be able to send astronauts to the ISS far sooner than Ares 1 would have been able to, and they’ll do it much cheaper. Yes, their cargo capacity will be much smaller, but cheaper launches could lead to more frequent launches, and that leads to a healthy commercial space industry. This change in the way of doing things, although painful for many right now, could have huge positive implications for the future of space exploration if commercial space “takes off”. Bigelow Aerospace and Space X have both mentioned lunar or even Mars missions on the horizon. Healthy commercial space (and therefore lower launch costs) could also lead to more-practical space-based solar power.

Some people have complained that the jobs created by commercial space companies would be nothing compared to those lost due to the cancellation of Constellation, but I think this is a case of short-term thinking. Yes, right now probably more people will lose jobs from constellation than will be able to gain jobs from space companies, but what we’re witnessing might well be the creation of a new industry. In the long run, the job growth could be huge.

Most of the discussion today has been about the Constellation cancellation, but the rest of the budget is extremely exciting. I’m very happy to see that more money will be spent on developing game-changing technologies, such as the VASIMR engine which could reduce the duration of a crewed mission to Mars from years to months. I’m also really excited about the proposed “precursor missions”. These would be missions similar to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter designed specifically to lead the way for human missions to the moon, asteroids, Mars or elsewhere. I was also excited to see the provision for production of new plutonium, which is crucial to power missions to the outer solar system. Whether or not you agree with the decisions regarding human spaceflight, there’s no denying that this budget is great for science.

Research into advanced technologies such as the VASIMR engine could pay off for future human missions.

My main complaint about this budget is that it is somewhat vague on the development of heavy-lift capabilites, and that it does not spell out what the new destinations for human spaceflight will be. It’s clear that the plans presented are based heavily upon the “flexible path” option described by the Augustine Commission, but I’d like to see a series of destinations spelled out if that is the case. It’s probably premature for that, but concrete goals and deadlines would make a lot of people more comfortable.

I was skeptical of this budget at first but the more I think about it the more it makes sense. And even if you don’t like it, what were the alternatives? It was clear that even with increased funding, Constellation would leave a huge gap in access to the space station. And with the current budget crisis, it would have been hard to justify $3 billion per year for a program that wouldn’t accomplish what we wanted very quickly. So the administration took a different approach, increasing NASA’s budget modestly and redirecting human spaceflight funds to commercial providers. This could provide cheaper access to space sooner than Constellation, and meanwhile NASA’s great engineers and scientists can focus on R&D for the next-generation technologies that will lead beyond low Earth orbit. Meanwhile, robotic science will be extremely strong under this new budget, teaching us amazing things about the solar system and the universe.

I’m not the only one who is optimistic about the budget. The Planetary Society has weighed in and they are thrilled with it. So is Buzz Aldrin. Norm Augustine is also supportive, and Phil Plait weighed in in favor of the budget and particularly its emphasis on science. Of course, the real question is what will happen in congress. As I said, many people involved in Constellation are furious about the decision, and their representatives in congress will put up one heck of a fight to keep things from changing.

In the end though, I suspect something very similar to the proposed budget will be passed, and despite the naysayers, I think that’s going to be a good thing for NASA and a great thing for science and space exploration.

Update: NASA administrator Charlie Bolden’s remarks from today are available here. He spells out the changes being made and makes a compelling case for them.

If This is Socialist Propaganda, Please, Send More

September 9, 2009

Surely by now you have heard that president Obama attempted to brainwash our nation’s children with socialist propaganda yesterday. It is apalling, isn’t it? An outrage! But have you actually heard or read what he said? I’ll let his words speak for themselves:

I want to start with the responsibility you have to yourself. Every single one of you has something that you’re good at. Every single one of you has something to offer. And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is. That’s the opportunity an education can provide.

Maybe you could be a great writer — maybe even good enough to write a book or articles in a newspaper — but you might not know it until you write that English paper — that English class paper that’s assigned to you. Maybe you could be an innovator or an inventor — maybe even good enough to come up with the next iPhone or the new medicine or vaccine — but you might not know it until you do your project for your science class. Maybe you could be a mayor or a senator or a Supreme Court justice — but you might not know that until you join student government or the debate team.

Oh, but it gets worse:

What you’re learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future.You’ll need the knowledge and problem-solving skills you learn in science and math to cure diseases like cancer and AIDS, and to develop new energy technologies and protect our environment. You’ll need the insights and critical-thinking skills you gain in history and social studies to fight poverty and homelessness, crime and discrimination, and make our nation more fair and more free. You’ll need the creativity and ingenuity you develop in all your classes to build new companies that will create new jobs and boost our economy.

We need every single one of you to develop your talents and your skills and your intellect so you can help us old folks solve our most difficult problems. If you don’t do that — if you quit on school — you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country.

Problem solving skills? Critical thinking? Responsibility? MY kids will learn no such things!

The truth is, being successful is hard. You won’t love every subject that you study. You won’t click with every teacher that you have. Not every homework assignment will seem completely relevant to your life right at this minute. And you won’t necessarily succeed at everything the first time you try.

That’s okay. Some of the most successful people in the world are the ones who’ve had the most failures. J.K. Rowling’s — who wrote Harry Potter — her first Harry Potter book was rejected 12 times before it was finally published. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. He lost hundreds of games and missed thousands of shots during his career. But he once said, “I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that’s why I succeed.”

No one’s born being good at all things. You become good at things through hard work. You’re not a varsity athlete the first time you play a new sport. You don’t hit every note the first time you sing a song. You’ve got to practice. The same principle applies to your schoolwork. You might have to do a math problem a few times before you get it right. You might have to read something a few times before you understand it. You definitely have to do a few drafts of a paper before it’s good enough to hand in.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I do that every day. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength because it shows you have the courage to admit when you don’t know something, and that then allows you to learn something new. So find an adult that you trust — a parent, a grandparent or teacher, a coach or a counselor — and ask them to help you stay on track to meet your goals.

The story of America isn’t about people who quit when things got tough. It’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best.

It’s the story of students who sat where you sit 250 years ago, and went on to wage a revolution and they founded this nation. Young people. Students who sat where you sit 75 years ago who overcame a Depression and won a world war; who fought for civil rights and put a man on the moon. Students who sat where you sit 20 years ago who founded Google and Twitter and Facebook and changed the way we communicate with each other.

So today, I want to ask all of you, what’s your contribution going to be? What problems are you going to solve? What discoveries will you make? What will a President who comes here in 20 or 50 or 100 years say about what all of you did for this country?

Patience? Perseverance? Willingness to ask for help? Sounds like socialism to me!

Ok. Seriously. In case the title didn’t clue you in, I’m being somewhat sarcastic here. I think it’s great that the president is willing to address students and encourage them to get an education. I think it is absurd to call this socialist propaganda. Is it US propaganda? You betcha: it’s all about helping this country become better by helping its people become better. But this is pretty much the most benign form of propaganda I can think of. It has none of the flag-waving jingoism and self-congratulation that many people mistake for patriotism, just an honest message that education is important for the future and that it is hard work.

It’s a message that more people should take to heart. Don’t think for one second that Obama thought he was talking only to students in this speech. This is a message to everyone. Education and hard work are key for the future of the US and the future of the world. How do you think we landed people on the moon? Education and hard work. How is it that the Mars rovers were so well-designed that they are still operating after more than 5 years on the surface of Mars? Education and hard work. When we send humans back to the moon and on to Mars, it will take education and hard work.

These values are the core of what NASA does, and they are at the heart of every challenge, both technical and social, facing the world. If the problems were easy, they would be solved already. But they aren’t, and we need to learn more and work hard to solve them.

As far as I can tell, protesting against the message of this speech must mean that people oppose either education or hard work or both. I’m sure there are people out there who do oppose those things, but are they really so proud of that? Or perhaps protesters just don’t like the idea of the president speaking to students when they should be learning their lessons? What lesson, particularly so early in the school year, is more important than the message that education is important, that hard work pays off, and that it is ok to ask for help?

Of course, the real reason that people protest this speech is because they dislike the president. I admit, I’d probably be annoyed at first if I heard that George W. Bush was going to be addressing the nation’s students. But if he had given the speech that Obama just did, I would commend it too, because the message was not political. It’s just good advice. There’s really no rational way to argue against the message here. For some reason, people assume that if someone they dislike says something, then it must be socialist propaganda. Well, if this is socialist propaganda, please send more.

Phil Plait over at Bad Astronomy has written his own post about the absurdity of the protests over this little speech that I encourage you to check out. I also encourage you to check out this Fact Check article that discusses Obama’s speech, as well as the speeches to school children given by George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan.

Update: It looks like NASA administrator Charles Bolden agrees that education is crucial for the future of NASA. Check out his latest Op-Ed in the Orlando Sentinel.

The Future of NASA

July 24, 2009


Earlier this week I mentioned that there is an ongoing evaluation of the future of human spaceflight at NASA. The so-called “Augustine commission” has been tasked to:

“conduct an independent review of ongoing U.S. human space flight plans and programs, as well as alternatives, to ensure the Nation is pursuing the best trajectory for the future of human space flight – one that is safe, innovative, affordable, and sustainable. The Committee should aim to identify and characterize a range of options that spans the reasonable possibilities for continuation of U.S. human space flight activities beyond retirement of the Space Shuttle.”

The Augustine commission will not set NASA’s policy, that is done by the president. But all signs suggest that the recommendations of the commission will have a lot of weight in Washington. The good thing is that the commission is doing all that it can to get feedback from the public, including holding public meetings and showing an active presence on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and providing multiple other ways to contact them with your thoughts on the future of NASA. Here are mine:

NASA succeeded in sending men to the moon because there was a clear goal, a definite deadline, adequate funding, and nation-wide support. If we want to achieve great things with the human spaceflight program at NASA, all of those requirements need to be met.

The first is the easiest: What is the goal? You may not be surprised to hear that I think it should be to put a human on Mars. Many people at NASA agree: the new administrator certainly does, and his informal poll of NASA workers showed that they all agree. A nationwide poll was less decisive, with just 51% of people approving of a human mission to Mars. However, I think it’s also interesting that in that same poll it showed that in 1979, less than half of those polled thought the moon landings were worthwhile, but now 71% think they were worth it.  I’ll return to the role of public support later.


The second requirement is a deadline. Since Apollo, NASA has not been very good with deadlines. I know firsthand from my experience with the Mars Science Laboratory that deadlines are missed. Our launch was delayed by two years. But an overarching deadline that applies to an entire portion of NASA carries more weight. When all the missions are aiming toward that deadline, there is more pressure for each individual mission to stay on schedule. Yes, the deadline will be arbitrary, just as JFK’s “land a man on the moon before the decade is out” was. But a focused goal and a realistic but challenging timeframe will galvanize the human spaceflight effort.

Projected NASA budget. Note that the Shuttle consumes a significant fraction of the human spaceflight budget.

Projected NASA budget. Note that the Shuttle (orange) consumes a significant fraction of the human spaceflight budget.

What about funding? Step one is to retire the space shuttle. It is a beautiful spacecraft, but it is godawful expensive, not to mention dangerous. And it can’t get us where we want to go. The shuttle’s only remaining role is to finish constructing NASA’s other money pit, the International Space Station. Once the station is finished and the shuttle is retired, a significant portion of NASA’s human spaceflight budget will be freed to work on the next generation of launch vehicles. Plus, as reported by NASA Watch:

There is a bit of gossip going around Washington that President Obama once mused that he’d give NASA money – a lot more money – if only they’d do something inspiring and relevant once again. The President talks repeatedly about sending humans to the Moon in the 1960’s as an example of what America can do when it puts its collective mind to something. He supposedly sought out Leonard Nimoy in a hotel once so he could give him the Vulcan salute. He talks about sitting on his grandfather’s shoulders watching Apollo crews welcomed home. There is no need to instill any notions about the inspirational value of space exploration in this man’s head. He’s got plenty of it already.

That’s not money we can count on, but it is encouraging. And even without an increased budget, with the shuttle retired and the ISS finished, NASA will be able to do a lot with what it already has.

Finally, the most difficult point is nationwide public support. For Apollo, there were political motives. These days it is more difficult. The public really don’t care much about human spaceflight right now. The robots on Mars are more popular than the astronauts orbiting over our heads at this instant. Now, I love me some Mars robots, but that is not the way it should be! Still, there are glimmers of hope: the recent Hubble servicing mission got a lot of press. Why? Because it was compelling. It was a risky mission, but one that could only have been accomplished by astronauts.

I think the problem is not that there is a lack of support for NASA and human space exploration, but that there is a lack of support for “boring” human spaceflight. The moment the stakes are raised, literally, beyond low Earth orbit it will catch people’s attention. NASA needs to take risks again. As Grace Hopper once said, “A ship in a port is safe, but that’s not what ships were built for.”

When I was in the NASA Academy in 2006, one of the most interesting people that I met was Alan Ladwig. He spoke to us about public engagement in space exploration and drove home a point that has stuck with me to this day: the power of Story. It’s a simple prescription: “Empathetic or engaging characters frustrated in their attempts to reach a well-defined goal.” Any writer knows that these are the fundamentals of a good story, and NASA needs to embrace this. Here’s how:


NASA needs its astronauts to be heroes again, like the "Mercury Seven" shown here.

First, the characters. Astronauts should be heroes again! People still fawn over the astronauts from the early days of space exploration, but rarely even know the names of our current astronauts. The public needs to be able to relate to the astronauts, and also needs to look up to them. There are some good signs on this front, with astronauts like Mike Massimino and Mark Polansky and their successful tweets from space.

Second, the difficulties. NASA also needs to clearly show the emotions, frustrations, and challenges faced by every mission. Exploring space is hard, but currently NASA seems to want to make it look as easy as possible. But remember, “We choose to go to the Moon and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” If you hide the challenge, the emotion, the human side of what you are doing, then people will lose interest.

And finally, the goal. If it is clear and it matters to the heroes of our story, be they NASA’s astronauts, scientists, engineers, or robots, then it will matter to the public. Of course, it is also important to be able to articulate clear benefits to space exploration, but those don’t matter nearly as much as most people think. The main thing is that the goal is clear and that it is important to the characters the public is rooting for.

Ever since Apollo, NASA has been faced with a chicken and egg problem: people aren’t interested in spaceflight because it is not as exciting anymore, but it is not as exciting anymore because there is no support to do anything more than send people to low Earth orbit.

We need to break that cycle and now is the chance. NASA needs to set a lofty goal: Humans on Mars. We need a deadline: Within 20 years. We need funding: the money freed up by the space shuttle and the space station. And we need public support, which is easier than you think to get, as long as we have a good story to tell.

And boy, do we ever.


We live in the future

May 4, 2009

I often say (or at least think to myself) that we live in the future. Especially when I’m traveling. It’s constantly amazing to me that I can get anywhere in the world in less than a day. I can make a routine trip out to California for a conference, when 150 years ago that would be the journey of a lifetime, and would involve diseases and caulking wagons to cross rivers and probably hunting excessive amounts of buffalo (ok, so I played a lot of Oregon Trail as a kid). That’s why I love this video clip of comedian Louis CK ranting about how people take for granted all the amazing technology all around them:

I came across this clip in a recent post on Cocktail Party Physics about Obama’s speech on Science, the role it plays in our lives and the extensive history of scientific discoveries that go into making something like the iPhone possible. Well worth a read.

A Glimpse at NASA’s future…

February 27, 2009

…Or at least at the future budget. The fiscal year 2010 budget summary was released by the White House yesterday, and there was a little bit of info about NASA. First and foremost, NASA is getting some more money! A total of $2.4 billion, counting the stimulus also.

That in and of itself is refreshing. But also very interesting is how NASA’s budget is divvied up, and what that means for the future of space exploration. It looks pretty clear that the plan to retire the space shuttle is going forward, as is the plan to return to the moon by 2020. There is no language that specifically says that Project Constellation will be how we return to the moon, but there’s no explicit call to halt the project either.

I’m glad to see that the plan to retire the shuttle is still going forward. The shuttle and the space station are two huge money pits that depend on each other to be useful; not a good system. Once the station is finished, the shuttle can be retired and private or Russian launch vehicles can be used to get people and supplies to and from the ISS. All the money freed up by no longer having to construct a space station and maintain the aging and unsafe shuttles will kick-start the return to the moon in whatever form it finally takes. A lot of space advocates are upset about the apparent plan to stick with project Constellation, but frankly I’d rather see NASA stay the course with something it has already started and that, at least to a casual observer of human spaceflight, appears to be progressing just fine. I freely admit I haven’t been following the minutiae of Constellation, but most of the negative news that I’ve been hearing sounds to me like typical engineering issues.

Maybe NASA will decide to do something other than Constellation. I don’t really care, so long as we re-establish our human spaceflight capabilities with a system that is better than the shuttle in terms of safety, cost, and capability. Whether all three of those things can be improved at once remains to be seen…

Space Politics has a nice post linking to a lot of responses to this new hint at NASA’s future. Universe today also has a very nice post on the topic.

NASA on the Pancam Spinoff

February 4, 2009

Science@NASA has a nice article about the Mars rover spinoff technology and the awesome inauguration picture that I wrote about before. Go check it out!