Fast Company

NASA Gets a $6 Billion Booster for Mars and Beyond

shuttle derivatives

  Find hope in this, NASA, science and Mars fans: President Obama's new stance on NASA's funding will likely pump no less than $6 billion into the agency to create a new heavy rocket sooner than we'd hoped. Mars is its target.

Over the previous few weeks we've heard rumors about what NASA's future might look like. All of them seemed attractive compared to the grim reality we'd assumed would happen: The Space Shuttle grounded, the Constellation moonshot program canceled, big delays in getting private space ventures ready to fire humans into space, and huge job losses in NASA and its supporting industries.

Now there's word that during a big space event tomorrow, Obama will unveil a new vision that includes $6 billion of extra cash for the space agency, on top of its original budget plans, phased over five years. This money has very specific purposes: Firstly it's going to create 2,500 additional jobs in and around NASA's Florida installations, and secondly it'll result in a new large rocket that'll be key in taking humans to Mars. Spin-off work will include continuing to develop the Orion manned space capsule to act as an emergency escape vehicle for the international space station.

Reuters quotes White House officials on the matter, so we can assume this is an "official" leak, and the positive PR spin is unmistakable: "This new strategy means more money for NASA, more jobs for the country, more astronaut time in space" is one fabulous line, and, "This is a rocket that is going to happen two years earlier than would've happened under the past program" is the other. It looks like the President's office really wants the public to buy in to this new strategy--and with good reason, as it's got that shiny public relations gleam that all exciting space research has, as well as banging the U.S.A drum a little too.

But what exactly will $6 billion buy us in 2010 and the next several years? The emphasis seems to be on "new" rocket research, distanced from Constellation's Ares I and V vehicles, and that implies a different approach. Ares V, the heavy-lift component of Constellation, was based on sparingly few Space Shuttle tech derivatives, and was an expensive and long-term project, needing research into new engines and other rocket systems. So maybe those rumors we heard last week of the Space Shuttle C derivative rocket are being given a boost by this news: It has the potential to be cheaper than Ares V, uses much more of the Shuttle tech that's already familiar, and since the design has been knocking around since the 1970's, it has the potential to arrive in service a little sooner than Ares V would've blasted into the skies. And its capacity to hoist heavy pieces of a space-borne vehicle, destined for Mars, is perfectly aligned with Obama's plan for NASA's future.

2001

It's exciting stuff, sure enough. But the year is 2010, folks, and one science genius has already explored the kind of space tech we would've hoped to be flying in right now. Arthur C. Clarke's follow-up novel to 2001, A Space Odyssey, the wonderful 2010: Odyssey Two, has NASA and the Russians assembling giant vehicles in orbit, each with exotic drive technology capable of propelling them not just to Mars, but to Jupiter. The craft (The "Alexei Leonov," and "Discovery 2"--the original "flew" in 2001) have simulated gravity and equipment to place astronauts in suspended animation for long-duration space trips. They've got deployable robot and manned probes for experimentation, and are constructed in orbit because they're not designed to ever enter an atmosphere. This is fantasy, of course (though highly possible, in the dim future). So it's a little sad that whatever NASA's new plans are, they're not comparable to Clarke's vision for today. But, and this is something that should be highlighted, it does seem that Obama's plan is not to let NASA wither on the vine, but to inject more drama and excitement into its manned space program. That's exciting.

Update: Three famous astronauts have just written to the President about this...and boy are they unhappy.

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7 Comments

  • Andrew Krause

    Lets call this what it is - making space sausage. Obama's cancellation of several nasa programs (which drive tens of thousands of jobs in Florida and Alabama) coupled with his poor handling of the gulf oil spill have made him as unpopular there as a case of genital warts. His shellacking in the midterms coupled with the potential of his landmark health care bill being rolled back are very much on his mind as he preps for 2012. This (along with his corporate tax reform proposal being announced today) is meant to move his administration to the center in appearance. It's a great idea, don't get me wrong. But after the excitement dies down, so will support for it.

    The space program should be about goals, not about the means to accomplish them. The reason the Apollo program was a stunning success is because we set a goal - go to the moon and come back - then developed or promoted a load of technologies on the way. Today, you can't swing a turbine pump by its coolant line without smacking half a dozen items that are the result of Apollo era technologies.

  • Bryan Kauffman

    Unfortunately, Obama is a "private sector" democrat. He feels the gov't should only "bailout" people and companies; not be leaders in areas that need leadership. If you look at some of his smaller programs, like in community development, he encourages the private sector to do things and then have the gov't pick up the tab.
    Sometimes, this is best. But imagine what would have happened if the Challenger accident would have been by a private company. Would we have had a coverup of the situation, would we have a "we can't look backwards" attitude, would we have this public uproar for new regulations and a corresponding uproar saying gov't regulation caused the accident? By having NASA a fully funded gov't program, a prompt investigation was performed that found what went wrong and made immediate changes to continue the program. Accidents happen; by having a gov't and President who push forward with our destiny to be in space, we grow and learn from those accidents. And if you look back in history, Columbus was sanctioned and funded by the Spanish gov't. If a private company had gone first (no private company could profitability have made the journey), we might never have had history work out the way it did.

  • Whys Alives

    One word: foam. The side mounted shuttle designs all suffer from falling foam. It is a significant risk that resulted in the destruction of a shuttle. It would be a mistake to ignore this design flaw just to save cash.

  • Bill Bucolo

    Also Kit... it's troubling that while there are many mentions against the President's space plans, there are few if any mentions (here or elsewhere) of Buzz Aldrin and his friends who wholeheartedly support those initiatives.

    And when did you or any other reporter talk to some of the private companies who will benefit from the Obama Space Plan? Those could be excellent topics for Fast Company's tech savvy, business oriented audience.

  • Bill Bucolo

    @kit: Actually I really agree with you... Arthur Clarke is wonderful, insightful, all of it. But to invoke the stuff of his sci-fi (written for Hollywood) version of 2010 in the face of the real 2010, or even what is science fiction of 2010, makes his ideas born in the 40's and 50's a little (sorry to say) cheezy.

    As for the frontier spirit- we're not short of any of that. Just Google "space tourism" and "space cargo" companies. I turned up over 75 sites a year ago. They're growing exponentially...similar to internet specific & web based companies during the booming 90's- or as computer companies and their technical advances in the 80's and 90's... tow other times of real live frontier spirit. And all instances of NO government regulations or hovering about.

    From my posts you know I'm a dyed in the wool progressive democrat (small and big d), but I am also a believer in private industry and the US's ability to do what it does best... initiate, innovate and master new development by individual and team guts and glory. And while it may be sometimes, it doesn't have to be on the tax payers' dime.

  • Kit Eaton

    @Bill. Arthur C. Clarke, cheezy? The chap who dreamed up geosynchronous telecoms satellites, cheezy? The guy who was in the RAF during WW2 and involved in some of the early successful uses of radar in flying, cheezy? The science fiction writer, regarded by many as one of the greatest yet born, who dreamed up portable tablet computers in days when a computer took up a whole building, cheezy? I beg to differ.

    Using 2010 here is just for fun--though of course, it happens to be 2010 right now (much more of a peg than a Banks novel.) Clarke commented several times that he was sad that some of his visions for 2001 and 2010 didn't come true...because too much money was wasted in affairs like Vietnam, and in odd political decisions like the complete cull of the Apollo program.

    The plusses and minuses of Obama's space decisions will be debated for years, of course. But one thing is true--though he may have trimmed NASA's ideas down necessarily, his decision has also killed some of the bold "frontier spirit" that gets people excited about space, and more kids in school doing science and maths. The bigger spin-off effects often get forgotten.

  • Bill Bucolo

    It's cute to invoke Arthur C. Clarke 2010, but also kind of gratuitous. This is the real world... and what we have to deal with after 8 years of GW Bush.

    Now... if you really want to bring in your sci-fi druthers, instead of Mr. Clarke's cheezy version, why not wish for something really cool, like Iain M. Banks's "Culture" society? It's intersteller in scope, more space-based than planet bound, people live on manufactured thousand mile wide ring worlds and habitats, machines share equal intelligent status with people and pilot most space ships, those vessels may be 7 miles long and 4 miles wide, housing millions of people, and nobody wants for anything because the economy is based on abundance rather than scarcity, like ours, and peace reigns supreme. What's more, people live for hundreds of years and have super sex drives. Now THAT's a "dim future" to pine away for.

    In any case both universes are fiction, so why does this article rain on a promising new situation just because we don't have hybernation or artificial gravity? That's just more science fiction.

    Instead, let's be happy we have a smart president willing to cut through the bureaucratic chaff of NASA, and still come up with something very good at a time when everyone else is whining about money and slashed budgets.