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A Faster Way To Less Funding Woes

Giren sufficient time, the slow but steady improvements in space technology will knock the costs of these new more expensive missions back down -- but the scientific community is demanding that new missions be flown at a rate much higher than technology can knock their costs back down.
by Bruce Moomaw
Cameron Park CA (SPX) Mar 26, 2007
NASA's funding problems remain serious, even though the new Democratic Congress had made it clear that it's willing to take huge chunk out of President Bush's desired funding for his "Vision for Space Exploration" in order to cover the financial problems of all the rest of NASA (including the extremely dubious Shuttle/Station project).

And even if the total funding level for the unmanned space program remains stable -- and even if Congress doesn't decide (as it well may do) to pay for increased spending on climate-research satellites and aeronautics by pulling money out of the rest of the unmanned space-science program -- it's also clear that space science is confronting a separate funding problem which is entirely its own.

As planetary scientist Fran Bergenal wrote a year ago: "While there has been a public furor over cuts to science and considerable debate about whether science is/should be cut to pay for [Shuttle] Return To Flight (or other human flight programs), the issue that we scientists really have to grapple with is the initial under-costing and subsequent [cost] overruns on most missions in the pipeline.

We can point to the worst offenders or point to institutions or policies that we blame for cost growths but the bottom line is that until we -- yes, we the scientists, the ones who have the greatest stake in getting missions to return data -- get mission costs under control, we are heading for disaster...I feel on thin ice asking for additional funds -- new money -- when a second glance at the NASA budget shows reveals current rhino in the room to be the fact that we have lost control of mission cost growth."

Why is this happening? One big reason is apparently just that the really burning scientific questions that can be answered by new cheap space science missions have already been answered, and the still-unanswered ones require more expensive missions.

Giren sufficient time, the slow but steady improvements in space technology will knock the costs of these new more expensive missions back down -- but the scientific community is demanding that new missions be flown at a rate much higher than technology can knock their costs back down.

During his time as NASA Administrator, Dan Goldin tried to cope with the problem of high space-exploration costs with his "Faster-Better-Cheaper" philosophy. But this attempted deus ex machina to solve the problem turned out instead to be a will-o-the-wisp -- as some wags said, out of "Faster, Better, Cheaper" you can only pick two at a time.

The results of Goldin's attempts to impose the FBC philosophy thus included both the Columbia tragedy -- which was partially the result of his attempts to keep Space Shuttle costs low -- and the humiliating triple failure of the 1998 Mars probes, which Goldin had demanded be built, tested and flown at a very low cut price. (This, by the way, includes the failure of the two tiny "Deep Space 2" probes that hitchhiked on the Mars Polar Lander and failed completely separately from it.)

One other part of Goldin's new philosophy -- which might be called "Smaller and More Frequent" -- did work for a while. Largely as part of its attempts to force Congress to keep funding the Shuttle as a launch vehicle, NASA had been making its unmanned spacecraft unnecessarily big (and infrequent).

But if you chop up such a big, multi-instrument mission into several smaller spacecraft, the loss if one of them fails due to a design error will be much less than if the big spacecraft failed for that reason.

Humiliating as they were, the 1998 Mars probe failures actually proved that point too -- the total cost of all NASA's six smaller Mars missions between 1996 and 2001, including the three failures, was less than the cost of the one big Mars Observer spacecraft that failed in 1993 (whose instruments were then chopped up among three separate smaller replacement craft, two of which worked).

But even the "Smaller and More Frequent" philosophy is now reaching the limits of its effectiveness, and in my next entry I'll explain why. Then I'll move on to what might perhaps be done to improve the situation -- and how this proposed (partial) solution may be applied to the particular difficult problem of exploring the vast reaches of the outer Solar System as cheaply as possible.

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Cosmonauts To Carry Out Spacewalks With Tourists If Trained
Moscow, Russia (RIA Novosti) Mar 23, 2007
Russian astronauts preparing for next month's trip to the International Space Station said they would be happy to carry out spacewalks with tourists who were properly trained.

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