September 20, 2007 5:49 PM PDT

NASA pundits launch debate over space flight

PASADENA, Calif.--At the 50th anniversary space conference here Thursday, a fight over the future role of NASA's space program inadvertently took off.

If it were up to Burt Rutan, the aerospace engineer known for building a suborbital rocket plane that won the Ansari X Prize, NASA wouldn't be developing a spacecraft to put another man on the moon by 2020. That government mission has already been accomplished, and a repeat performance is "silly," Rutan said during a panel held at California Institute of Technology, CalTech, which runs NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab.

"Taxpayer-funded NASA should only fund research and not development," Rutan said. "When you spend hundreds of billions of dollars to build a manned spacecraft, you're...dumbing down a generation of new, young engineers (by telling them) 'No, you can't take new approaches, you have to use this old technology.'"

"I think it's absurd they're doing Orion development at all. It should be done commercially," he said, referring to the name of the lunar spacecraft. Rutan and other panelists also question the importance of space flight at a time when environmental concerns are paramount.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin responded to Rutan's vision in a speech following his panel. "Unlike Rutan, I will continue to think space programs are important," Griffin said.

Of course, Rutan has a big stake in commercial development of spacecraft. As founder and president of Scaled Composites, he develops rockets for future commercial space tourism. Rutan is among a cadre of technology entrepreneurs, including Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Paypal co-founder Elon Musk and Virgin CEO Richard Branson, who are working on ventures to send people into space.

Rutan designed SpaceShipOne, the rocket that won the $10 million Ansari X Prize by breaking the Earth's atmosphere twice during a set time. And his company is building SpaceShipTwo for Branson's Virgin Galactic, which aims to launch its first commercial flight in 2009. But Scaled Composites recently suffered a tragedy when two people were killed in an explosion at the company's facility in Mojave, Calif.

In his speech, Griffin talked about NASA's budget for the last 50 years, adjusted for inflation. He said that the most money NASA has ever received from the government was not the period during the Apollo missions, but over the 10 years from 1989 to 1998. "So we get more money today than (what was) given the agency during Apollo" (during the 1960s and 1970s). NASA's budget for 2007 is $14 billion, or about 15 cents a day of a taxpayer's money, according to Griffin.

Part of Rutan's argument against NASA's development program was that after the early 1970s, when astronaut Alan Shepard golfed on the moon, there wasn't "much innovation."

Griffin didn't respond directly to whether or not there is a lack of innovation. But in response to criticism on an earlier panel that NASA's science budget has waned, he said the first decade of NASA's budget was proportionally the same as its most recent budget. During the first 10 years of the space agency, he further clarified, 58 percent of its budget was devoted to human spaceflight, 17 percent to science, 6 percent to aerospace and 10 percent to new technologies. In contrast, in 2006, 62 percent of NASA's budget was earmarked for spaceflight and 32 percent was for space science, he said. Last year, NASA didn't have a budget to develop new technologies.

"There is a mythology that science has been decimated by human spaceflight. That's not right." Griffin said.

He added that the current missions back to the moon and onto Mars by 2035 are sustainable programs, ones that wouldn't likely be stemmed by a change in administrations.

"We have here a program which is affordable, sustainable and which can be highly correlated to historical successes and developments from the past," said Griffin.

Rutan said that the goal of private space tourism is to reduce the cost of space travel and exploration. "If we go through a time period where the focus is on flying the consumer, these 'payloads' who pay to fly and can be reproduced with unskilled labor...with tools around the house," he joked, "there will be a breakthrough to enormous volume."

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Rutan is mistaken
It is important to return to the moon and create a colony there. We will be going to Mars. This journey unlike the Moon is a very big undertaking. It takes a year to travel there and a year to return. This is a very long time to be in space and we need to be ready. This readiness will need to be done on the Moon. The first visit to Mars will be a touch and go mission. Basically just to say we've done it. Other missions, because of the distance, will need to be of longer duration perhaps months. Much can go wrong, we need to practice and the place to do that is on the Moon.

When we are but nameless memories our first steps on the Moon will be remembered. We will be the ones who did it!
Posted by Dango517 (199 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Ah, the kool-aid never ceases...
"It is important to return to the moon and create a colony there.
We will be going to Mars. "


Give me one real, non-emotional "humanity needs to explore" BS
argument that justifies this collosal waste of cash.

NASA does many wonderful things in robotic and space science,
as well as environmental monitoring. But the manned space
program, from Shuttle to ISS to this return to the moon program,
has been a pointless exercise in job creation and squandered
opportunities for space development.
Posted by SpaceCynic (4 comments )
Link Flag
these space colors don't run
The first comment is exactly right. Russia and china are working to go to the moon. Russia wants to establish a moon base. Why would the USA want to bow out of primacy in space flight? This seems self destructive. It is important for NASA to counter anti-NASA/spaceflight public relations efforts. It seems that some have commercial interests at heart. They may be well intentioned, but are still driven by desire for profits. Focus on short term "space tourist" goals may be at the expense of our leading role in the major exploratory efforts of humankind. Follow the money....
Posted by yorkriver1 (1 comment )
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Ratan's full of hot air
Rutan's knowledge of what is needed to achieve spaceflight wouldn't fill a shoebox. His SpaceShipOne flight was child's play compare to putting someone into orbit. It was literally the easiest (and least useful) way to enter space. You could have done it with a balloon.

As for NASA's budget-it's tiny. NASA gets less than 1 percent of the nations budget. Bill Gates' net worth could fund NASA for over 3 years! And as for Rutan's comment about about NASA spending money when we have environmental issues to tackle, I find it extremely ironic. Rutan's rockets use hydrocarbons for fuel and his mission is to send up space TOURIST. He should take the money he is spending on developing a trivial form of space travel for millionaires and put it toward more beneficial efforts.
Posted by kosmoe (1 comment )
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Rutan is Dead Right
Civil servants get minimal performance review, have little fiscal accountability, and pretty much come in to work and leave whenever they want. They just about cannot get fired. Pay scales are flat. The guy in charge of making sure the lawns are mowed gets paid the same as the Constellation Program manager. And for some reason, NASA pay scales are about 1 to 2 grades above any other government organization, for the same job category. However the top NASA salaries are about a tenth that of their commercial counterparts. You figure out where the best and brightest are going to go.

Inefficiency abounds, from numerous independent, battling IT organizations providing 5-year old tech support, to over allocating human capital to functions that have nothing to do with space exploration.
Posted by niobium (4 comments )
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Rutan is Dead Wrong
NASA pay scales are above other government organizations? Are you nuts? I know for a fact Air Force and Army employees are payed 20% more than NASA employees. In the DoD situation, they banded their pay scale and allow large bonuses to reward superior performance.
NASA people are mostly engineers and only the engineers and scientists are in the high grades. What are you comparing us to, the FBI and CIA? Engineers at the FBI and CIA are GS-13 (for now), so are NASA employees. The guy in charge of the lawns is usually a GS-11.
I agree with you about accountability, but that is changing.
Over allocated? No, not anymore. For over 17,000 Civil Servants, there is only around 100 at any given time charging to overhead. How well does IBM do? By the way, NASA contracts out more than 80% of its money, the highest in the government.
Posted by Tony_I (5 comments )
Link Flag
Rutan is partly right
It is true that NASA could accomplish more if it were less risk averse. It's true that it would benefit from more creative thinking and it's true that if they had the money, private industry could build a cheaper program than Orion. It wouldn't neccessarily be a better program.

The real issue in human spaceflight comes down to propulsion. Shuttle had some innovative things happen but it's still just burn chemicals and that is never going to make for a sustainable program. Unless stuff gets pulled from DOD, the civil space program is going nowhere.

Rutan does not have the answer and he is not funding private enterprise in developing advanced space thrusters so he can complain all he wants but he's not part of the solution. He's part of the problem. If he were funding air breathing Pulsed Detonation Rockets or Mach-Lorentz Thrusters, he would have bragging rights. Instead, he's masquerading as a rebel with a cause whose cause is actually turning a buck. Let's not make him out a hero for making 100km. That's just ridiculous.
Posted by Therofax (7 comments )
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Right or Wrong?
As I read it. Rutan is not saying that there should be "no" space program. He's saying that the focus of the program should be that which is pretty much completely new. (The "stuff" with a high probability of failure. The "stuff" that "can't be done" by current thinking.) This seems to make sense to me because who else would try it? Certainly not "business" which is motivated by financial pay-off. This "can't be done" stuff is exactly the kind of "stuff" that stimulates "new" thinking and "new" solutions which may have huge pay-off(s) for the culture/society/planet which are not just financial pay-off(s) but also knowledge and beauty pay-off(s).
Posted by spothannah (145 comments )
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NASA has been wasteful with billions
down the toilet. There have been no great payback from their ISS or space shuttle technology that I can see. One professor even calls ISS the billion $$$ turkey in the sky.

Now they want to plan the future with the ORION
among others. Need we destroy the space medium with nuclear particles with nuclear detonation.

We need to space craft concepts. Many are possible that will take us in a new direction one
is given.

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By the way anyone who critizes NASA better expect a hail storm of hate mail and raw hate comments to follow, making the Spaprano (mafia) look like
choir boys.

Any comment, even though it is backed by the US 1st amendment means nothing to NASA employees who attack an negative comments against the agency as
fierce as the worst killer bees.
Posted by grey_eminence (153 comments )
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Not Freeman Dyson's Orion
The Orion that NASA is talking about has nothing to do with setting of nuclear bombs. It is much closer to the BDB or Big Dumb Booster approach.

Think of Orion as the liquid fuel tank of the space shuttle with a bunch of the rocket motors used by the Apollo missions on the bottom, and a few SRBs strapped to the side. You put the cargo on top. The design cuts out most of the expensive parts of the space shuttle, and you don't have to worry about ice or foam hitting your heat shields On a manned mission, the crew return module is safely on top.

While I would like to see NASA dump the ISS and most manned spaceflight, and put the money into more rovers and space based telescopes, the Orion is a very cool way to cheaply get heavy packages into orbit.
Posted by ralfthedog (1589 comments )
Link Flag
Did we really go to the moon in '69?
Once again if we already went to the moon, why would it take until 2020 to develop the technology to go again? Shouldn't we already have the technology. Please people, don't believe everything the gov't feeds you. Think logically. A little common sense goes a long way.
Posted by MarkRWilson (12 comments )
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