Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Walt Cunningham Advocates New NASA Goals

On the 4th of July former astronaut Walt Cunningham appeared on the Talking Space podcast to discuss NASA's future and other topics.

Cunningham fundamentally disagrees with everything NASA is doing under the new administration. He thinks the shuttles should not be retired (although he acknowledges that the new administration inherited that situation) and should be evolved into a new vehicle. He accuses the White House administration of just wanting to cut the budget of human spaceflight altogether and alludes to activities which support this theory.

Back in March he sent a similar statement to a public mailing list I'm (still unfortunately) on:

"Lest there be any mistake, I believe Obama's removal of NASA from operation of the agency's own human space program is a major mistake. It was not an effort to improve our space program; it was purely to cut expenditures on something in which Obama has no belief. It was the second worst decision in NASA's history; the worst being grounding of the Space Shuttle without a replacement waiting in the wings."

Exactly what Cunningham is talking about here is anyone's guess though. What program is he saying Obama has removed NASA from operating? It's not the Shuttle program.. he specifically says so. Perhaps he means Constellation, but NASA is neither being removed from operating that program nor does he consider that program to be a "replacement" for the Shuttle. Oh well.

So it may come as a surprise to hear that Cunningham appears to support a number of the new NASA administration's policies and goals.

On NASA's ongoing attempts to shut down the zombie Moon program called Constellation he says:
You asked, did I think the Constellation program, as conceived was the right way to go. Well, we're getting into a different area here and I'm one of those you would say was not a wild enthusiast of the Constellation program as it was formulated but for different reasons than some other people were. For example, I've never been one that wanted to spend a lot of time setting up a base on the Moon. I want to just keep pushing on out to Mars, but there are other people who would argue just as aggressively that the Moon is a good thing to do.

To me, this is a fundamental part of the "Obama space vision", not going back to the Moon right away. He goes on to say that Constellation as an overall approach was flawed.
The Constellation program, it ran into a lot of problems because there was a lot people out there who had a different concept. [..] If it was me and I got the money to continue Constellation I would suggest that they have another legitimate - in-house - study of various alternatives of accomplishing the Vision for Space Exploration. Give some of these other people a chance to find out why their approach wasn't the one that was successful.

Ok, I thought, maybe his problem was just that Constellation wasn't shuttle derived enough for him, and he really doesn't care where we go. But no, when asked about going on to Mars as an alternative to going back to the Moon he emphatically agreed that was the best goal. And then went on to say:
The only real deal breaker at the moment is the radiation exposure. That one's a real challenge. And we're talking about propulsion systems that will speed up the journey. Of those, no-one wants to talk about the one that would probably have the best chance of the soonest on, is some kind of nuclear propulsion.

You know Walt, this administration is the first in decades to even suggest restarting the nuclear propulsion program. The Solar-Electric Propulsion Flagship Technology Demonstration pathway turns into a Nuclear-Electric Propulsion program around 2022.

I think if we're really committed we would be able to go with advanced propulsion systems, we'd be able to survive trips of 2 1/2 year missions. I wouldn't recommend landing on the surface. The difference in cost and challenge is several fold bigger in doing that. But we could go out to Phobos and to orbit Mars and come back and I think we could do that successfully.

Woah, woah, woah. You're advocating the Flexible Path there buddy.

To me, it seems Walt Cunningham really wants to believe Obama and get behind the new NASA administration but two things are holding him up.

First, he believes NASA needs more money and so he's against any President who won't ask for a significant increase. Even though NASA has never gotten much more money than they get now - even during Apollo - just ask Bob Zubrin that question sometime.

Second, the Shuttles are being retired and he loves them. Building a shuttle derived vehicle is a nice idea, but it's just too damn expensive. Cunningham addresses this in the podcast by saying people who say that - like me I guess - should look at some of the techniques that have been proposed over the years to lower the cost. Well, as the statement was directed at people like me I'll respond.

If you listen to the very interesting interview with Bobby Block from the Orlando Sentinel the other day you'll hear an anecdote about the Ares I program. The Ares I is the most shuttle derived part of the Constellation program and as such I think is relevant. Block explains, an engineer who had worked on the Delta IV project gave a presentation at NASA in which he proposed that the pad for the Ares I use a highly automated propellant handling system like that developed for the Delta rocket. The NASA people balked at the suggestion as their equipment would not be able to interface with it. Equipment that hadn't been updated since the early 80s.

Fundamentally, the Shuttle program is so obsolete and the culture is so entrenched, that innovation is stifled on a daily basis. There's a reason why so many of those great ideas to improve the Shuttle never got implemented, and the only way to get rid of it is to burn it to the ground and start again.

Hopefully, with a focus on encouraging technology development and continuous improvement this time.

1 comment:

  1. Coastal Ron2:32 PM

    Some of the people against the new NASA plan do seem rather schizoid when pressed for alternatives. They certainly don't have a cohesive idea about what should happen, and don't always even agree with what the prior administration was doing (shutting down Shuttle & ending ISS).

    I do think the Obama/Bolden plan has not been rolled out strongly enough, but with all the other stuff going on, it would be silly to spend too much political capital on such a small percentage of the budget.

    I guess we'll have to see what happens when Congress finally gets around to making the appropriations bills...