The Moon is a harsh mistress...

A friend of mine, @tragedyman, asked me to respond to the New Scientist article "NASA moon plan was an illusion, wrapped in a denial" by Henry Spencer. I have read the article a couple of times, and I think I am ready to start my rant.

First, in the interest of full disclosure, if you don't know me, think a spacer is a piece of mechanical hardware similar to a washer, and have no idea who Robert Heinlein was (see quote at top of this page), then let me give a representation of my general outlook on life: I am a bit of a recovering space fan(atic), a misplaced almost rocket scientist, a thrice rejected astronaut applicant, someone whose ideal career pinnacle would be leaving boot prints in the dust of an alien planet, even if it was a one way trip.

'nuff said? Ben Grimm said that first and he was an astronaut (okay, comic/cartoon astronaut) too and the Thing, which is cool.

I think Spencer's take on the last space exploration plan/program (Constellation/Orion/Ares I/V) is largely correct. It was never properly funded. If you compare the funding levels of the Apollo program to the funding levels of the recently cancelled program, you could easily predict that it was never going to happen. Check out this wikipedia page on NASA's budget history in 2007 year dollars. You can see on that page that near it's peak, NASA was getting the equivalent of $33 billion and about 5% of the Federal budget. The 2009 budget was something like $17 billion and only 0.5% of the Federal budget. Less than half the total NASA budget during the Apollo years, while building a space station, operating the Shuttle and trying to design a "new" launch system. Meanwhile, as a percentage of the Federal budget, it is down to only 10% of what it was in the peak Apollo years. It is not an absolute indicator, but it would seem that NASA is less important to the Federal government today, than back then (genius insight, I know). From a technical perspective, they were half-assing it, mixing pieces of the Shuttle program with new components into unwieldy systems that needed a full development program to make them work. They have proposed, studied, and abandoned more versions of the Moon program than I can recall in the last twenty years (and they have been doing it for forty, all told). Mr. Spencer may not be mourning it much, but I do. It is one more major program abandoned. We were explorers, once, but no more, it seems.

The author then rips on NASA's robots several times. I am not sure why. Sure, I always want to see humans out there exploring, but given our inability to commit to a human exploration program and then execute it, the robots may be the only game in town for a while. They seem to be doing good, given the difficulties of the environment and the fact that they in many cases far exceed their design lives. They also make great pathfinders (NASA did this prior to the Apollo landings as well). They are also force multipliers (send them to one place while the astronauts go somewhere else).

I think his most important observations are stated nicely in the last paragraph. Essentially, there are no clear plans, short term or long term. As they said in Battlestar Galactica, this has all happened before and it will all happen again. It is time to break this cycle. Goals should be stated in a clear measurable way that answer three important questions:
-What are we going to do?
-When are we going to get it done?
-How are we going to do it?

To be effective, especially in our political environment, you have to have a short term, clear measurable goal. Hopefully, that short term goal and the means used to achieve can be utilized for the next step (whatever that might be).

Example, to kick off Apollo, Kennedy proposed this plan in 1961:

"First, 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. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. We propose to accelerate the development of the appropriate lunar space craft. We propose to develop alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters, much larger than any now being developed, until certain which is superior. We propose additional funds for other engine development and for unmanned explorations--explorations which are particularly important for one purpose which this nation will never overlook: the survival of the man who first makes this daring flight. But in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon--if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there."

This is reasonably specific for a presidential speech. It talks about when (less than 9 years), it talks about what (send a man to the moon and bring him back alive and well), and it talks about how (rockets, either solid or liquid, lunar space craft, unmanned exploration, funding for additional R&D). The key politically is providing a short time frame and a measurable goal. If the time frame is too long, it will never happen (the last two moon programs had lead times of 15 years before anything would happen-plenty of time to be underfunded and cancelled). It should be tied to the idea of a national goal or effort (this was hammered home repeatedly during Apollo-this is not an astronauts program or NASAs program, this is America's program).

Well, it is getting late and I am not sure what else to ramble on about.


Book Review: Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell

I recently finished reading Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell (with Patrick Robinson). This is the story of the last surviving member of the SEAL team dispatched on Operation Redwing in July of 2005. Marcus was dispatched with team mates LT (SEAL) Michael P. Murphy, Sonar Technician Surface Second Class (SEAL) Matthew G. Axelson, and Gunners Mate Second Class (SEAL) Daniel Dietz. Their mission to capture or kill a Taliban leader with ties to Al Qaeda. The mission starts out okay, but eventually, they are discovered and must fight for their lives. In the course of the ensuing Battle of Murphy's Ridge, three of the four members of the team are killed. One of the last acts of LT Murphy is to place himself in direct fire of the enemy so he can radio for help. He is mortally wounded while doing this but successfully makes the call. A rescue mission is dispatched, but Al Qaeda or Taliban insurgents manage to shoot it down, resulting in the largest single day loss of SEALs in their history.

This is the story of that mission told from the point of view of the only survivor, Marcus Luttrell. It is a powerful story of men in combat. The part of the book where he describes the death of his comrades, the fall of powerful warriors in battle, was shocking. I almost had to quit reading this book. I made the mistake of reading it on an airplane and I was almost in tears after reading that passage. I decided if Luttrell was brave enough to endure the actual experience, then the least I could do was to be brave enough to finish reading his story.

I strongly recommend this book (just don't read it in public if you might be embarrassed by public tears). This is the tale of some of our bravest warriors fighting in our current wars. Something that neither our media or our government seem comfortable discussing, either then (2005) or now (2010). Do these men the honor of learning their tale, remember their names. I wish I had the opportunity to meet those SEALs before they died.