Thursday, February 18, 2010

What the budget shift and cancellation of Constellation mean to space infrastructure

After a reasonably careful dissection of the new 2011 Obama Administration budget for NASA it looks like the overall impact is potentially beneficial. There will be jobs lost and jobs gained, so there is no question that a many people will experience transition anxiety. Recognizing that fact, here are some opportunities the budget move creates:

Critical Technology Demonstrations will fund several mid-size and small size efforts to get exploration technologies off the ground (literally) while leveraging international, commercial and other government efforts. Heavy Lift/Propulsion R&D will speed up solutions for the heavy lift capability needed for extended exploration. Robotic Precursor Missions will scout for human spaceflight targets to the Moon, Mars and its moons, Lagrange points and nearby asteroids. 21st Century Launch Complex funding will upgrade Kennedy Space Center to increase efficiency (always needed, for competitive organizations) and reduce launch costs (a must for anything but token exploration efforts). Increased utility of the ISS is also included.

So if the budget actually grows (and it does) what is the actual change here? First, the commitment of “the Moon, then to Mars” is gone. It is replaced with simpler scouting efforts to the low Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars and its moons, Lagrange points and nearby asteroids. Coupled with a larger lift capability the opportunity for more people to do more things in space opens up. Also, decreasing complexity and cost for launch services at the primary US launch complex will increase the opportunity for more people to do more things in space. If NASA truly does manage to leverage international, commercial and other government efforts, each NASA Center promises to become a much more viable, energetic collecting point than we can even imagine today.

The inclusion of a US government commitment to using commercial capability for manned spaceflight creates a very different environment for space infrastructure development than exists today. Together, these two changes can create more activity, meaning more and different jobs in the space sector. The ability to support commercial interests more directly will mean greater opportunity for varied infrastructure support on a global basis. Commercial contracts will also require less monitoring than government contracts. This is a very real cost reduction. The down side of all of this is that we lose a program that is over budget, over schedule and, even if successful, would have hindered all the points earlier in this paragraph.

The impact on standards development is a growth in demand for open, commercially based standards. Time to get to work.

Unless otherwise noted, the blog posts are written by Frederick A. Slane, Executive Director of the Space Infrastructure Foundation.

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