An image of potential space travel under the Constellation Program. (Image Courtesy of NASA)
President Obama's proposed budget for NASA puts the U.S. space agency on a new trajectory. It boosts federal spending for the commercialization of space but scrubs the Constellation Mission to return people to the moon. Host Jeff Young speaks with former NASA engineer and editor of NASA watch dot com, Keith Cowing, about the new frontier for America's civilian space program.
YOUNG: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts – this is Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young. Houston - you may have a problem. President Obama’s NASA budget would scrap the space agency’s Constellation program. That hundred billion dollar project to return people to the moon by 2020 was behind schedule and over budget. In announcing Constellation’s demise, Presidential Science Advisor John Holdren said the administration still has big plans for NASA:
HOLDREN: It is not a retreat from U.S. leadership in human space flight as some are asserting but rather an exciting and promising path forward.
YOUNG: In fact, the president would boost NASA’s budget by six billion dollars over the next five years. But NASA would rely on private companies to put people into space. Keith Cowing is a former NASA engineer who now edits NASA watch dot com. Mr. Cowing – is this a giant leap for commercialization of space travel?
COWING: Well, I’ve been calling it a paradigm shift. Yes, it is quite a change in the way that NASA wants to do business from the way its been doing it for the past 30, 40, 50 years. Imagine it’s 1967 and NASA just decided to cancel Apollo. That’s about where it is except they’re saying, wait we’re canceling the program, but not the intent. I think this is a nuance that’s lost on some people. They say, “Oh we’re not going to do human space exploration anymore.” Not true! Every indication I get is, they’re not saying, “Well, let’s sell the astronaut’s spacesuits, we don’t need them anymore.” That’s not the case. They’re just going to do it differently.
YOUNG: Is this akin to the way that we launched commercial air travel?
COWING: Oh, it is, it’s exactly akin to that. You found that back in the olden days in the teens and the 20’s that it was carrying airmail that actually subsidized flights that people would say, I can take the mail, but I can take a paying passenger. If you look at the way that Pan Am pioneered service in the Pacific – they started taking flying boats and hopping from island to island to island and once the richer patrons had sort of made a market success for that, other companies came along and said, “Hey, how about if you don’t have champagne and we crowd you in more closely in the planes?” And slowly competition emerged. But it has to start somewhere, somebody has to prime the pump, often times it is the government or the richer part of the private sector. Sometimes both.
YOUNG: So, is this going to pave the way for making space travel A) a commercial venture primarily, and B) more common?
COWING: Well, it already is commercial, the funny thing is that the Russians have been taking paying passengers for the better part of a decade now. And I always find great humor in that you have a country who’s got a capitalist economy that’s barely been a decade and a half old and they came out of Communism, and yet they’re teaching us how to commercialize space. And we’ve got an economy that’s two and a half centuries old based on the capitalistic way of doing things. So, this isn’t new, it’s just it’s new to America.
YOUNG: So, private companies in all likelihood giving us the means to get there. But, where’s the ‘there’? What’s the destination?
COWING: It’s not like it’s a mystery, it’s quite clear that they – the moon is not out like a lot of people say, it’s just that we might not be building giant moon bases there. But, it may be that we go to the moon with Europe or Japan. Mars is an obvious destination, as are near-Earth objects, asteroids and other things. So, it’s not like NASA doesn’t know where it wants to go, and hasn’t actually put some work into this, it’s just that you haven’t seen the press release saying, we’re going to go here on this date.
YOUNG: There were some tantalizing hints about big game-changing, breakthrough technology that they’re going to be looking into here. I didn’t hear a lot of detail on that though – what are they talking about in terms of new technology that’s really going to change the way we get to and through space?
COWING: Well, right now, we use rockets, but there are some new technologies that have been tried out. One is ion thrusters where you in essence send out particles at very high speed, using an electrical system and because they’re leaving at such high speed, they’re like rockets in that you’re throwing something out: f = ma, and all that. But the thing is they’re very efficient and they can build up very high thrust, and they can be electrically powered. So, these ion propulsions is one thing they’re looking at.
Another thing they’re looking at is plasma propulsion and there’s this concept called vassimere or vassamere, depending who you’re talking to. And the beauty of this is it’s electrically powered and if it works, and it seems to work, much more efficient than taking big tanks full of chemicals up there and then igniting them. That’s what’s changing.
YOUNG: Is it a possibility that these new technologies might end up greening aviation, in general?
COWING: Oh, absolutely. As a matter of fact, if you look at budget documents, you see that they say aeronautics are green aviation. And one of the things that’s very popular these days is looking at biofuels and green aviation fuels. I think you’ll see that, and I think you’ll see that in a context of a bigger picture.
How do you integrate green aviation mindset into the grander scheme of how the aeronautics and aviation and air travel system works in the United States? It’s a daunting task.
YOUNG: You know, hidden among the news about the cuts to these programs there’s also a boost to the overall budget here, a pretty big one, including a sizable increase in earth science programs. Tell me about that.
COWING: Well, it’s not a surprise. I mean, the Obama administration talked very much about the climate and the previous administration pooh-poohed the notion of global change as being something that we needed to be really concerned about. And NASA’s earth science budget suffered as a result, so that’s not a surprise to anybody that this is being brought back.
So, yeah, our earth observation from space – big shot in the arm. The question is the money being taken for that, where is it coming from, and the space science aspect of NASA is not getting a big increase pretty much as a result.
YOUNG: Well, it sounds like you, a former NASA guy, still closely following NASA think that – you’re pretty bullish on this idea, you think this is a good direction?
COWING: Yeah, but, you know, step one, step two – there’s a lot of eggshells that have been stomped on here, a lot of sandboxes that have been upset to use the NASA parlance, and there’s a lot of people who will beg to differ that this is the right thing to do. And I don’t really think you’re going to see a clear answer to all this for many months.
YOUNG: Keith Cowing from NASA Watch dot come telling us about big changes at NASA – Thanks very much!
COWING: My pleasure.
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