Returning to the moon before this century is out

A federal government committee has released its review of the future of manned space flight, and it doesn't look good.

Peter Glaskowsky
Peter N. Glaskowsky is a computer architect in Silicon Valley and a technology analyst for the Envisioneering Group. He has designed chip- and board-level products in the defense and computer industries, managed design teams, and served as editor in chief of the industry newsletter "Microprocessor Report." He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. Disclosure.
Peter Glaskowsky
4 min read

A federal government committee assigned to independently review plans for manned spaceflights has released a summary of its first report. It is not encouraging.

The report makes it clear that NASA's current plans are unachievable.

The Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee was established in May by the Obama administration to perform an "independent review of planned U.S. human space flight activities with the goal of ensuring that the nation is on a vigorous and sustainable path to achieving its boldest aspirations in space." Its summary report was released Tuesday. The full report is set for release later this month.

Here's the worst of it, all in one paragraph from page 10:

The Committee has found two executable options that comply with the FY 2010 budget. However, neither allows for a viable exploration program. In fact, the Committee finds that no plan compatible with the FY 2010 budget profile permits human exploration to continue in any meaningful way.

In short, the committee concluded that without additional money, Americans won't be going anywhere in space anytime soon. And even with another $3 billion per year, it'll be a long time before the U.S. can get back to the moon, never mind Mars.

It's commonly said that what took us about eight years to get done in the first place--starting from President Kennedy's famous statement to Congress in May 1961...

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.

...and ending with the successful return of Apollo 11 on July 24, 1969--couldn't be done again today because the U.S. lacks the will to commit comparable resources to the project.

But you know what? The Apollo program, start to finish, cost less than $150 billion in today's dollars (after accounting for inflation). NASA's budget request for 2010 (PDF) is well over $18 billion. And I just realized that eight years and two months of that spending adds up to just over $152 billion.

So we're already spending enough to get back to the moon, even if we had to start from scratch.

Which we don't, of course. We have the space shuttles, and it wouldn't take much to turn one into a heavy-lift cargo vehicle that would do the job.

We have the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, which are in service and certainly enough to lift a moon rocket in pieces for assembly in orbit.

At the same time, SpaceX, a private spaceflight company, is preparing to launch a Falcon 9 rocket in that same class.

Our Russian partners in the International Space Station have inexpensive and ultra-reliable man-rated rocket systems; if you want to, you can fly in one yourself.

And if we needed to, we could put the Saturn V rocket back into production, along with the old Lunar Module. NASA still has all the plans for these vehicles on file.

In short, we could go back to the moon pretty darned soon if we wanted to, and without spending nearly as much as the original Apollo program cost.

So why don't we? Because NASA is already committed to doing a thousand other things. I'm not saying that's wrong. Most of NASA's programs are worthwhile. Someone ought to be doing them, and I don't mind that it's NASA. What I do mind is that NASA is spending $18 billion a year to do them.

NASA is overstaffed, overly cautious, and overly protective of what it regards as its rightful monopolies. Perhaps NASA envies the U.S. Postal Service--but that agency actually does have a constitutional mandate, and as far as I can tell it operates with reasonable efficiency. Whatever NASA wants to do for the people of this country, it ought to do in the most efficient and expeditious manner possible.

I'm sure that at some level, NASA is reacting to the tragedies in its past by creating additional layers of management and oversight to stop future tragedies from occurring. If so, NASA is way past the point of diminishing returns. At some point, more bureaucracy makes failures more likely--not to mention making successes less frequent.

I don't suppose it would be politically practical, but I'd like the Obama administration to cut NASA's 2010 budget by half and insist that it continue to do everything it has planned. Even if that means laying off a lot of good hard-working employees in NASA and its contractors, and even if it means accepting slightly higher risks in future NASA missions, I think that would be a giant leap in the right direction for our country.