Archive for the ‘Space Policy’ Category

India Joins Family of Moon-Visiting Nations

November 16th, 2008

Posted by: admin

On Friday, the probe Aditya landed on the moon and started sending images back to the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO).  While the United States is still the only country to have sent and returned humans from the moon, India joins a growing number of nations that have sent missions to the Moon – the U.S., Russia/the Soviet Union, the European Space Agency (ESA), China, and Japan.  The expectation is that this mission will be the first step in a series of efforts to extend and expand India’s presence outside of Earth orbit.  The lander was intended to crash on the surface, and separated from an orbiting probe, Chandrayaan 1, a few days ago.  Both NASA and the ESA have contributed research instruments to the mission.

While some may look to this event as additional incentive for the United States to get back to the moon, the commitments to the International Space Station and the Space Shuttle (and its replacement) have commanded the bulk of NASA’s financial resources.  Personally, I fail to see any political benefit in repeating what was done nearly forty years ago.  Now, China, India, and perhaps Japan may run in some kind of Asian space race, but the economic and political landscapes of space exploration suggest some kind of cooperation in more public-good oriented projects, with the competition left to providing cheaper costs to orbit and beyond.

Scientific Prizes – a Supplement to Research Funding?

October 24th, 2008

Posted by: admin

Those following space activities are probably familiar with various forms of the X Prize, which offers healthy sums of cash for groups or individuals that manage to meet certain scientific or technical accomplishments.  The most known is probably the Ansari X Prize, which was awarded to the folks behind SpaceShip One, who demonstrated private, reusable, suborbital spaceflight.  You can thank them for your ability to soar up to the edge of space on Virgin Galactic sometime in the near future (should you have the $200,000 price to flight).  Other X Prizes focus on space, genomics, automobiles and now, health care (Hat Tip, Scientifc Blogging).  DARPA – the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – has held several Grand Challenge events, where teams compete for prizes by demonstrating certain technological feats – most recently around autonomous driving.

Given the trend in this decade for flat (or close to it) government funding for research, alternative funding really is needed in order for the desired increases to happen.  However, I doubt that prizes can effectively bridge this gap.  They work – but are based on a fundamentally different economics than the scientific research that relies on the federal budget.  Prizes provide incentive, and the money and associated sales from the successful product or service can be used to fund other research, but the ’start-up costs’ (for lack of a better term) are born by the researchers.  They are also more application or problem focused, and while it’s not a stranger to academic research, it is not the focus of the majority of that research.

In today’s economic climate, it seems less than likely that universities will commit resources to support a speculative payoff.  However, private sector research has been on the decline for years, and it remains to be seen that there can be enough prizes to boost private sector activity to restore prior levels.  If foundation giving does decline, as it might given the current economy, prizes themselves may have difficulty expanding.  In short, it’s going to hurt all over.

The Other Shoe Drops – Both Candidates Answers to ScienceDebate 2008

September 16th, 2008

Posted by: admin

As mentioned in my last post on this subject, the McCain campaign did indeed answer the 14 questions from ScienceDebate 2008.  My views on the effort have been aired here before (and have not changed), so I will dispense with repeating those criticisms and focus on the answers the candidates have provided (though I will ask for what, exactly, are they shaking people down for donations – it’s not explained at all, which leaves a bad taste in my mouth and suggests the project is being hijacked by other, perhaps less successful, advocacy groups).  You can read the candidate responses responses side by side, see Senator McCain’s from the link above, or read only Senator Obama’s responses.

Your reaction to the answers from the candidates will no doubt be influenced by your particular political leanings, and whether or not you consider responses to questionnaires like this one (just one of many) to be substantive policy statements or small one-acts of political theater.  Those who have read the candidates’ websites or heard their campaign surrogates will see much from there repeated in their answers.


Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Spy Satellite Shootdown Attempt

February 20th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The Navy is apparently going to try to shoot down that wayward spy satellite sometime in the next 48 hours. The attempt to shoot it down is justified in terms of protecting human life from the risk of harm caused by the satellite’s uncontrolled reentry. This post discusses whether or not the shoot down attempt can be justified in cost-benefit terms. I don’t think it can, at least in terms of the formal justifications provided by the U.S. government. There must be other factors involved. The costs per expected life saved are about $2-$3 billion dollars! Read on for details.


Deja Vu All Over Again

January 7th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The Washington Post had a excellent story yesterday by Marc Kaufman describing NASA’s intentions to increase the flight rate of the Space Shuttle program. This is remarkable, and as good an indication as any that NASA has not yet learned the lessons of its past.


According to the Post:

Although NASA has many new safety procedures in place as a result of the Columbia accident, the schedule has raised fears that the space agency, pressured by budgetary and political considerations, might again find itself tempting fate with the shuttles, which some say were always too high-maintenance for the real world of space flight.

A NASA official is quoted in the story:

“The schedule we’ve made is very achievable in the big scheme of things. That is, unless we get some unforeseen problems.”

The Post has exactly the right follow up to this comment:

The history of the program, however, is filled with such problems — including a rare and damaging hailstorm at the Kennedy Space Center last year as well as the shedding of foam insulation that led to the destruction of Columbia and its crew in 2003. . . “This pressure feels so familiar,” said Alex Roland, a professor at Duke University and a former NASA historian. “It was the same before the Challenger and Columbia disasters: this push to do more with a spaceship that is inherently unpredictable because it is so complex.”

John Logsdon, dean of space policy experts and longtime supporter of NASA, recognizes the risks that NASA is taking:

Every time we launch a shuttle, we risk the future of the human space flight program. The sooner we stop flying this risky vehicle, the better it is for the program.

Duke University’s Alex Roland also hit the nail on the head;

Duke professor Roland said that based on the shuttle program’s history, he sees virtually no possibility of NASA completing 13 flights by the deadline. He predicted that the agency would ultimately cut some of the launches but still declare the space station completed.

“NASA is filled with can-do people who I really admire, and they will try their best to fulfill the missions they are given,” he said. “What I worry about is when this approach comes into conflict with basically impossible demands. Something has to give.”

It is instructive to look at the 1987 report of the investigation of the House Science Committee into the 1986 Challenger disaster, which you can find online here in PDF (thanks to Rad Byerly and Ami Nacu-Schmidt). That report contains lessons that apparently have yet to be fully appreciated, even after the loss of Columbia in 2003. Here is an excerpt from the Executive Summary (emphasis added, see also pp. 119-124):

The Committee found that NASA’s drive to achieve a launch schedule of 24 flights per year created pressure throughout the agency that directly contributed to unsafe launch operations. The Committee believes that the pressure to push for an unrealistic number of flights continues to exist in some sectors of NASA and jeopardizes the promotion of a “safety first” attitude throughout the Shuttle program.

The Committee, Congress, and the Administration have played a contributing role in creating this pressure. . . NASA management and the Congress must remember the lessons learned from the Challenger accident and never again set unreasonable goals which stress the system beyond its safe functioning.

One would hope that the House Science Committee has these lessons in mind and is paying close attention to decision making in NASA. It would certainly be appropriate for some greater public oversight of NASA decision making about the Shuttle flight rate and eventual termination. Otherwise, there is a good chance that such oversight will take place after another tragedy and the complete wreckage of the U.S. civilian space program.

For further reading:

Pielke Jr., R. A., 1993: A Reappraisal of the Space Shuttle Program. Space Policy, May, 133-157. (PDF)

Pielke Jr., R.A., and R. Byerly Jr., 1992: The Space Shuttle Program: Performance versus Promise in Space Policy Alternatives, edited by R. Byerly, Westview Press, Boulder, pp. 223-245. (PDF)

Gliese 581

April 25th, 2007

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

This fascinating discovery portends all sorts of interesting ethical, political, and policy questions. I do wonder how much thinking governments, the Vatican, and others have put into developing a response plan for when life is discovered beyond Earth. It’d be surprising if there were no thinking along these lines, then again, maybe not.

Success-Oriented Planning at NASA

February 28th, 2007

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

NASA is delaying the next launch of the space shuttle due to a hail storm that damaged the external tank. However, according to NASA this delay won’t cause any problems meeting their launch schedule this year:

[N. Wayne Hale Jr., the shuttle program manager, in a briefing from Cape Canaveral, Fla.] said that despite the latest delay he believed that the launching schedule had enough flexibility to allow the five flights that are planned for this year.

Anyone want to bet that NASA will in fact launch the shuttle 5 times in the last 7 months of 2007? Consider the following data from a paper we did in 1992 (PDF):


Some Sunday NASA News Vignettes

February 18th, 2007

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

A few items on NASA stitched together . . .


Fiscal Caution on NASA’s New Moon Plans

December 5th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

According to the New York Times NASA has announced that it wishes to return to the moon and set up a permanent base 50 years after its first landing. NASA’s proposal should raise an eyebrow among anyone who understands NASA’s past failures at successfully budgeting human spaceflight programs.

Here is an excerpt from the Times story by Warren E. Leary:


Michael Griffin on Science in NASA

September 15th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Here (in PDF) is a refreshingly blunt speech from NASA Administrator Michael Griffin on recent issues of science in NASA. No bureaucratic mombo-jumbo here. Here are some choice excerpts: