Sep 02 2009

The Carnival of Space #118 and A New NASA? is again happily participating in the Carnival of Space #118.

This week the Carnival is at Cumbrian Sky. Thanks to Stuart Atkinson of Cumbrian Sky for his kind comments about

Commercial Space, a Canadian blog, probes the fun topic of “NASA as the next General Motors…”

But his bottomline is really:

What will happen to NASA?

That’s easy to predict. NASA employees and their subcontractors will either develop new skills, associations and capabilities to survive or the organization will become irrelevant and either slowly die or be changed into something else useful but in a different (perhaps less inspiring) way.

This is important stuff.

NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was formed just after the Peary/Panama Maslow Window slammed shut, as an emergency measure during World War I. NACA’s assets were incorporated into the new NASA in 1957 as an emergency response to the surprise launch of Sputnik. In 2013, NASA will be 56 years old — one long wave in age — and it’s likely there will be another major transition in that timeframe.

The “new” NASA might be a product of an international Sputnik-like shock near 2013, involving a consortium of non-US countries which trigger another race to space (like Apollo). They might announce, for example, their plans to commercially develop the Moon, create solar power satelites, and/or colonize space. The post-2013, Sputnik-style NASA would be highly competitive, focused on deep space, and involve relatively few international partners. On the other hand, we might be fortunate enough to create a “Grand Alliance for Space” including all key global space powers. It would have dramatic, unprecedented goals in space and might resemble “Interspace.”

In any case, as Commercial Space suggests, NASA is likely to change dramatically in the next few years.

Next Big Future offers highlights of ambitious Russian hopes for manned missions to Mars — featuring joint missions with the United States. The Russians advocate a Mars-first strategy, leaving the Moon temporarily to the more space-challenged. Their “Interplanetary Expeditionary Complex” (IEC) includes a nuclear-powered space tug and a full interplanetary infrastructure.

The Russians see IEC as more of a prospectus than a realistic engineering plan, hoping to share the financial, technology, and human requirements with several international partners.

Perhaps the largest fantasy element is the timescale: Their manned space initiative would span 3 decades. Multi-decade space plans are unrealistic unless they take into account the history of Great Explorations and Macro-Engineering Projects (as well as major wars) over the last 200 years. Unless a major program is carefully coordinated with the opening of the 2015 Maslow Window it’s likely to lose momentum rapidly and fail.

Consistent with the conclusions above by Commercial Space, the Russian proposals — if taken seriously — would require major, near-term changes in NASA.

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