Monday, April 19, 2010

Translating Obama's Space Speech

I had started writing a translation of the empty promises of Obama's recent speech on NASA's future, but I think Homer Hickham has already done a fine job of it, so I'll just repeat it here. Be sure to click on the link to Homer's blog for more insightful commentary.

From Homer Still Shrugging - 2010-04-16 07:25:17
Deconstructing selected paragraphs in President Obama's Speech. Please see the **** marks for my comments.


John F. Kennedy Space Center
Merritt Island, Florida

2:55 P.M. EDT

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you, everybody. Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you so much. Thank you, everybody. Please have a seat. Thank you.

. . . Few people -- present company excluded -- can claim the expertise of Buzz and Bill and Charlie when it comes to space exploration. I have to say that few people are as singularly unimpressed by Air Force One as those three. (Laughter.) Sure, it’s comfortable, but it can’t even reach low Earth orbit. And that obviously is in striking contrast to the Falcon 9 rocket we just saw on the launch pad, which will be tested for the very first time in the coming weeks.

**** It was nice to acknowledge the Falcon 9. I've been a huge supporter of SpaceX for years, mainly because I thought at least here's one American company that's using its own money to get Americans into space.

. . . A couple of other acknowledgments I want to make. We’ve got Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee from Texas visiting us, a big supporter of the space program. (Applause.) My director, Office of Science and Technology Policy -- in other words my chief science advisor -- John Holdren is here. (Applause.) And most of all I want to acknowledge your congresswoman Suzanne Kosmas, because every time I meet with her, including the flight down here, she reminds me of how important our NASA programs are and how important this facility is. And she is fighting for every single one of you and for her district and for the jobs in her district. And you should know that you’ve got a great champion in Congresswoman Kosmas. Please give her a big round of applause. (Applause.)

**** Sheila Jackson Lee, of course, is famously known for inquiring if a robot on Mars had taken pictures of the flag Neil Armstrong planted there.

. . . In the years that have followed, the space race inspired a generation of scientists and innovators, including, I’m sure, many of you. It’s contributed to immeasurable technological advances that have improved our health and well-being, from satellite navigation to water purification, from aerospace manufacturing to medical imaging. Although, I have to say, during a meeting right before I came out on stage somebody said, you know, it’s more than just Tang -- and I had to point out I actually really like Tang. (Laughter.) I thought that was very cool.

**** The mention of Tang, I suppose, was an attempt to be funny. It's an urban legend that Tang was developed by and for the space program. Most NASA folks know it's also code for making fun of spaceflight.
. . . But I also know that underlying these concerns is a deeper worry, one that precedes not only this plan but this administration. It stems from the sense that people in Washington -- driven sometimes less by vision than by politics -- have for years neglected NASA’s mission and undermined the work of the professionals who fulfill it. We’ve seen that in the NASA budget, which has risen and fallen with the political winds.

But we can also see it in other ways: in the reluctance of those who hold office to set clear, achievable objectives; to provide the resources to meet those objectives; and to justify not just these plans but the larger purpose of space exploration in the 21st century.

All that has to change. And with the strategy I’m outlining today, it will. We start by increasing NASA’s budget by $6 billion over the next five years, even -- (applause) -- I want people to understand the context of this. This is happening even as we have instituted a freeze on discretionary spending and sought to make cuts elsewhere in the budget.

**** The Vision for Space Exploration that was created in the last Bush Administration did set clear, achievable objectives. To say otherwise just isn't true. However, because the Shuttle was still flying and the ISS was still being built, there wasn't enough money or time to focus entirely on Constellation. That, however, was part of the deal. Constellation would be bought by the yard and we would get there when we got there. On the freeze and the cuts in the budget, where are they? We are a trillion dollars in the red in the 2011 budget. NASA's part in it is so pitifully small, the entire thing is a rounding error. This was just the President's way of saying because George W. Bush came up with it, it wasn't any good.

. . . So NASA, from the start, several months ago when I issued my budget, was one of the areas where we didn’t just maintain a freeze but we actually increased funding by $6 billion. By doing that we will ramp up robotic exploration of the solar system, including a probe of the Sun’s atmosphere; new scouting missions to Mars and other destinations; and an advanced telescope to follow Hubble, allowing us to peer deeper into the universe than ever before.

**** All these things he's talking about were already funded in previous budgets and well on their way to being built.

. . . We will increase Earth-based observation to improve our understanding of our climate and our world -- science that will garner tangible benefits, helping us to protect our environment for future generations.

**** This, of course, is the responsibility of NOAA, not NASA. They just can't get that straight in this Administration. And Earth-based? That can be best done by sending the thousands of American engineers and technicians soon out of a job across the world armed with a thermometer and a cell phone and ask them to call in with their measurements from time to time.
. . . And we will extend the life of the International Space Station likely by more than five years, while actually using it for its intended purpose: conducting advanced research that can help improve the daily lives of people here on Earth, as well as testing and improving upon our capabilities in space. This includes technologies like more efficient life support systems that will help reduce the cost of future missions. And in order to reach the space station, we will work with a growing array of private companies competing to make getting to space easier and more affordable. (Applause.)

**** Of course, everything that has to do with the ISS must be negotiated with our partners. I'd truly like to see some specifics on what new is going to be built and how we're going to get it up there without the Shuttle or a heavy-lifter. The "growing array of private companies" is more hope than reality. Most of them haven't gone past the Power Point phase of their designs. SpaceX is the only exception.

. . . Now, I recognize that some have said it is unfeasible or unwise to work with the private sector in this way. I disagree. The truth is, NASA has always relied on private industry to help design and build the vehicles that carry astronauts to space, from the Mercury capsule that carried John Glenn into orbit nearly 50 years ago, to the space shuttle Discovery currently orbiting overhead. By buying the services of space transportation -- rather than the vehicles themselves -- we can continue to ensure rigorous safety standards are met. But we will also accelerate the pace of innovations as companies -- from young startups to established leaders -- compete to design and build and launch new means of carrying people and materials out of our atmosphere.

**** I don't know of anybody who has said it is "unfeasible or unwise" for NASA to help private companies reach space. This is a strawman argument, at best. The assistance to private companies such as SpaceX began under the Bush Administration in the COTS program.

. . . In addition, as part of this effort, we will build on the good work already done on the Orion crew capsule. I’ve directed Charlie Bolden to immediately begin developing a rescue vehicle using this technology, so we are not forced to rely on foreign providers if it becomes necessary to quickly bring our people home from the International Space Station. And this Orion effort will be part of the technological foundation for advanced spacecraft to be used in future deep space missions. In fact, Orion will be readied for flight right here in this room. (Applause.)

**** Forced to rely on foreign providers? This just doesn't make sense. If there's an emergency and the ISS needs to evacuate, who will care where the lifeboat is built? Said lifeboat is, of course, the Russian Soyuz. The problem, Mr. President, is that we have to depend on foreign providers to GET OUR PEOPLE INTO SPACE. If you're going to build it, Orion should also have the capability to carry Americans to the ISS. The fact is it will cost about the same to make that happen. Otherwise, just go back to the X-38. It was the better design for a lifeboat but was canceled because it wasn't needed. This is just silly stuff.

. . . Next, we will invest more than $3 billion to conduct research on an advanced “heavy lift rocket” -- a vehicle to efficiently send into orbit the crew capsules, propulsion systems, and large quantities of supplies needed to reach deep space. In developing this new vehicle, we will not only look at revising or modifying older models; we want to look at new designs, new materials, new technologies that will transform not just where we can go but what we can do when we get there. And we will finalize a rocket design no later than 2015 and then begin to build it. (Applause.) And I want everybody to understand: That’s at least two years earlier than previously planned -- and that’s conservative, given that the previous program was behind schedule and over budget.

**** More nonsense. You don't learn how to build a rocket by studying it. You learn by building a rocket and flying it. What's magic about 2015? It will be at the end of Obama's second term, should that happen, and, of course, it will be put off at that time for the next Administration to decide. In other words, there will be no heavy lifter for the USA.

. . . At the same time, after decades of neglect, we will increase investment -- right away -- in other groundbreaking technologies that will allow astronauts to reach space sooner and more often, to travel farther and faster for less cost, and to live and work in space for longer periods of time more safely. That means tackling major scientific and technological challenges. How do we shield astronauts from radiation on longer missions? How do we harness resources on distant worlds? How do we supply spacecraft with energy needed for these far-reaching journeys? These are questions that we can answer and will answer. And these are the questions whose answers no doubt will reap untold benefits right here on Earth.

**** OK. Where's the plan for any of this? When I see the actual plan, I might lose my doubts that this is going to happen. Of course, his managers at NASA have so far shown that they can't organize a boy scout jamboree, much less pull off anything like this laundry list. I just don't think they're serious about any of it. To truly head out into the far reaches, nuclear rockets are going to have to be built. I don't think that will happen with this bunch.

. . . Now, yes, pursuing this new strategy will require that we revise the old strategy. In part, this is because the old strategy -- including the Constellation program -- was not fulfilling its promise in many ways. That’s not just my assessment; that’s also the assessment of a panel of respected non-partisan experts charged with looking at these issues closely. Now, despite this, some have had harsh words for the decisions we’ve made, including some individuals who I’ve got enormous respect and admiration for.

**** Back-handed swipe at Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell, Gene Cernan who see through this stuff.

. . . But what I hope is, is that everybody will take a look at what we are planning, consider the details of what we’ve laid out, and see the merits as I’ve described them. The bottom line is nobody is more committed to manned space flight, to human exploration of space than I am. (Applause.) But we’ve got to do it in a smart way, and we can’t just keep on doing the same old things that we’ve been doing and thinking that somehow is going to get us to where we want to go.

**** I really can't wait to "consider the details," mainly because to date there haven't been any. As I said in my "Homer Shrugs" blog, I just hope we can recover a semblance of a human space flight program after this bunch goes away.

. . . Some have said, for instance, that this plan gives up our leadership in space by failing to produce plans within NASA to reach low Earth orbit, instead of relying on companies and other countries. But we will actually reach space faster and more often under this new plan, in ways that will help us improve our technological capacity and lower our costs, which are both essential for the long-term sustainability of space flight. In fact, through our plan, we’ll be sending many more astronauts to space over the next decade. (Applause.)

**** How does this "plan" get us into space faster and more often? Show us doubters. Where, what, when, how? So far, just words.

. . . There are also those who criticized our decision to end parts of Constellation as one that will hinder space exploration below [sic] low Earth orbit. But it’s precisely by investing in groundbreaking research and innovative companies that we will have the potential to rapidly transform our capabilities -- even as we build on the important work already completed, through projects like Orion, for future missions. And unlike the previous program, we are setting a course with specific and achievable milestones.

**** Where are those specific and achievable milestones? There simply have been none put forth.

. . . Early in the next decade, a set of crewed flights will test and prove the systems required for exploration beyond low Earth orbit. (Applause.)

**** The next decade? 2020? And how do we get from here to there? Where are the steps to be taken? Insert long, steady dial tone here.

. . . And by 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the Moon into deep space. (Applause.) So we’ll start -- we’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. (Applause.) By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it. (Applause.)

**** We'll start by sending a crew to an asteroid? Why start there, skipping past the moon? And when? How? This is just silly.
. . . Now, I understand that some believe that we should attempt a return to the surface of the Moon first, as previously planned. But I just have to say pretty bluntly here: We’ve been there before. Buzz has been there. There’s a lot more of space to explore, and a lot more to learn when we do. So I believe it’s more important to ramp up our capabilities to reach -- and operate at -- a series of increasingly demanding targets, while advancing our technological capabilities with each step forward. And that’s what this strategy does. And that’s how we will ensure that our leadership in space is even stronger in this new century than it was in the last. (Applause.)

**** This is the paragraph I detest the most. Obama is stating, no matter what, we're not going to the moon, the ONLY place in the solar system we could possibly go and live and work and actually make a difference in the lives of people. Buzz may have been to the moon but generations of Americans haven't and now it's off-limits to us. Madness.

. . .

**** The rest of the speech didn't say anything, just nice words. Good words, perhaps, but just words.

I continue to shrug.

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