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Chapter 3:
We Need to Pick a Way
to Space and Stick with It!

A typical season of Rocket City Rednecks starts out with the production company Flight 33, producers from National Geographic Channel, and myself sitting through several long teleconference calls where I pitch about thirty ideas for shows. We argue, discuss, debate, argue some more, and then eventually come to a consensus on what builds would work best for television. We usually pick tentative builds for all of the coming season’s episodes. Every now and then we will swap out an episode with a new idea if one comes up that is better, but for the most part we know the general idea of what we want to build at the beginning of the season. Of course, I didn’t say I know at that time how in the world we would ever accomplish such a build. Most times I feel like Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum’s characters from Independence Day must’ve when they explain that they can fly up to the alien spacecraft and implant a computer virus on it.

“Do you really think you can fly that thing?”

“Do you think you can do all that bulls@#t you just said?”

Well, I always feel that way up until Sunday after we have completed the build and tested the idea. A lot of times even afterwards, because we have a lot of stuff blow up on us. If you’ve seen the show then you know that sometimes we fail spectacularly. That’s all part of science.

But the key thing here is that we pick a goal and stay with it.

Before we build anything we always do a little bit of planning. Sometimes it is required because the parts are hard to find or have to be ordered. Sometimes, it is because we have to use a certain place for testing or a particular thing or service for safety that is only available on certain days. But this is more of the logistics planning as opposed to actually having a “plan”. The plan we Rocket City Rednecks use is typically to be stubborn as a mule. In fact, Rog has called me “mule” for years. Some might argue, including my mom, that I am more stubborn.

What we are stubborn about is that we say Friday morning that we are going to build a “such and such” and, by God, before the end of the weekend (or in two cases, the Junkyard Iron Man and the submarine by the end of the next weekend) we WILL have built a “such and such” and tested it at least once. Every now and then we might hit a point where we wish we could buy a certain widget, like with the Iron Man suit. I wanted to have more expensive actuators and servos and more time to write control software. We didn’t have time or budget for that. After all, we only get a few thousand dollars per build. That is one reason we scrounge in junkyards, hoarde parts at Rog’s house (Mom won’t let us do it at hers and neither will my wife), and use mostly prepackaged canned software programs. We just don’t have time or budget to dig deeper. So, sometimes we compromise on performance, but never have we stopped in the middle and said, “Hey, let’s stop this, throw all of this work in the trash, and do something completely different.” That would be a waste of time, money, and a lot of elbow grease.

The problem here is that this is EXACTLY what NASA has done all my life. They will start a program. Then there will be an election. Politics will change. Politicians will put somebody else in charge of NASA. The budget will be cut then plussed back up. Different personalities and lobbyists will pressure Congress to emphasize different missions and directions. NASA has no long-term planning at all. In fact, we as a nation have no long-term plan. With the rate our technology was growing in the 1960s and ’70s we should have colonized the moon by now and put humans on Mars. But we have had no plan to do anything.

What a waste of effort, time, and elbow grease. I can’t imagine doing a weekend build without an end goal in mind. NASA has a serious lack of focus and attention deficit disorder. Five Rocket City Rednecks accomplish some pretty awesome things in one weekend with minimal budget usually because we pick a goal, make a plan, and STAY WITH IT!

NASA and the nation’s space community need to learn how to pick a goal, make a plan, and stay with it.

* * * * *

So, the Obama administration decided that it would be a brilliant idea to kill the space plan that Bush had, simply due to politics. To throw out the few billion dollars and five or more years worth of work, and to start over due to strong lobby pressure from Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and SpaceX, and create a new commercial launch system approach and a Space Launch System. This, after we’d already had a successful, full-up launch of the Ares-1X prototype rocket.

Never mind, we’ll start all over again. Well, OK, that’s great, all well and good. A fresh start. Again. For the umpteenth time! But what are the components of this new space launch system.? This new idea could’ve been great and based on American derived parts. It could’ve been based on the Space Shuttle Main Engine, for one thing. It could’ve been based on the RS-68 used on the Delta IV. It could’ve been on the J-2 engine from the Apollo era and Constellation program. It could’ve been a new American space engine. It could’ve been many other engines.

Originally, through administration directive the rplacement plan was to use the Atlas-5 engine. The Atlas-5 is an American rocket. That’s a great idea. It’s a wonderful rocket. But what we don’t seem to broadcast to the general public is that the Atlas-5 engine is based on a Russian engine—we have a license from them to use it. Once again we would depend on the Russians for our space launch capability.

That’s bizarre. That is insane. And it is downright un-American. We should be ashamed! Every time we will want to go into space in the future we will have to pay the Russians a license fee? That is just crap. Fortunately, at least at the time of writing this book, it looks like the NASA engineers, Shuttle and Constellation Program contractors, and common sense may win out and, instead of the Atlas-5 based system, the space launch system will be more Shuttle derived. More on this later.

I mentioned the Constellation program en passant. So what was it?

Not too deep into the Bush administration, GW proposed that we would go back to the Moon by 2020 and then on to Mars. The crew compartment was known as the Orion capsule, and the rocket was the aforementioned Ares. Together they comprised the Constellation program.

But GW only slightly ramped up NASA’s budget. And the administration still expected NASA to continue, with the Space Station and Shuttle program also funded, out of that same budget. The Constellation program was a brilliant idea. In fact it was a combination of an idea that Wernher Von Braun had had with modern Space Shuttle derived components. It also applied some Apollo-era style space capsules and landers. Therefore, the Constellation program concept was safer than it had been previously, based on heritage ideas and components and tests and flown vehicles. And it was actually a goal that was achievable even though the budgets were really slim. But when President Obama was elected, the first thing that happened, due to politics, was that the program was killed so that we could start something different.

Now the Constellation program, while it got people enthusiastic and full of plans, it flatly didn’t have the budget it needed. A lot of people think that NASA’s budget is huge and if we are spending too much money in the first place, it’s because NASA spends so much money.

That’s bogus. And it shows how little Americans understand about the economics of our nation. If you draw a pie chart of America’s budget and you put wedges representing the pieces of pie for all the different programs that we spend money on, NASA is barely even visible. All you can see is that the defense budget is a huge chunk, but the biggest chunk is our entitlement programs for welfare and such. But NASA is a single tiny line so small you can barely see it with the human eye on a pie chart that’ll fit on a regular piece of notebook paper. NASA’s trying hard with the budget it has, believe me. In fact its average is somewhere between ~$13-$15 billion a year ever since it started. The Apollo era program budget was on the order of ~$13-$15 billion a year. And that was in the 1960s. During the Space Shuttle era, it was between ~$13-15 billion a year. And that was in the ’70s and ’80s. The International Space Station and everything else in between was ~$13-$15 billion a year. And that was in the ’90s! The Constellation program through the early 2000s had to fit into a NASA budget of ~$13-$15 billion a year while still keeping the Shuttle and Space Station going with that same money. And it’s still ~$13-$15 billion a year in the year 2012.

Think about that. It’s still ~$13-$15 billion a year in 2012. Now, if you have ever heard anything about economics, if you ever bought anything in your life and then bought that same thing a few years later, you understand what I’m getting at. You don’t have to be an economic genius to see the problem here. NASA’s budget, number-wise, dollar-wise, has stayed the exact same number pretty much forever. But the dollar has not stayed at the same value. $15 billion a year in 1965, depending on which inflation model you use today, would be somewhere on the order of $200-$250 billion. Some models on the lower end suggest about a factor of ten so that’s $150 billion. Even using that lowest scale of $150 billion a year, that means that NASA’s budget has been cut by at least a factor of ten since the Apollo program. And Congress and the Bush administration expected the NASA engineers and scientists to do a new space program to the moon, maintain the Space Shuttle, and complete the construction and operation of the International Space Station, for ten times smaller a budget than the single Mercury/Gemini/Apollo era programs had in the 1960s. And remember that’s the budget model using the lowest inflated dollar values. To use some of the other models means NASA’s budget has really been cut by a whole lot more than ten times. Whatever the value is, it is clear that NASA’s budget has been reduced dramatically such that they have no choice but to become a starving, failing organization.

But you know what? The engineers and scientists and technicians at NASA, to their credit, had figured out a way, a plan to get us back to the moon by 2018, keep the Space Shuttle flying to 2012, and maintain the operations of the International Space Station. On that skimpy $15 billion a year budget!

Oh there were some problems, and a little bit of cost overruns here and there, but nothing dramatic on a program scale. And there might’ve been some lags where we didn’t have the Space Shuttle to get us to the Station for a year or two. But now we do not have a way to the Space Station for many years to come unless some significant investment is put back into the space program. Once again, I am keeping in mind that pie chart of America’s budget when I say “significant investment into the space program.” I don’t mean significant like the big pieces such as the entitlement budget. If you just increase NASA’s budget tenfold to $150 billion a year it would still only be a line that looks like it was drawn by crayon as opposed to a thin lead pencil. If you don’t believe me, try that for yourself. Go and draw out America’s budget in a pie chart and put a wedge on the scale for the $15 billion and then put another wedge on the scale to $150 billion. What you will find is that the difference is barely noticeable compared to the other big pieces of pie.

* * * * *

2012 U.S. Budget

NASA Budget Comparisons

* * * * *

This is where the education in this country has failed us. We haven’t taught people how to understand America’s budget. That’s how we can get trillions of dollars in debt and have not a dadgum thing to show for it. That’s how we can think that service industries and virtual industries are products that will make America strong. That’s how we can get into a situation where we believe that it’s okay to buy everything that we need from China. That’s how we can get into a situation where we don’t have enough students becoming engineers and scientists in this country to build a danged phone much less a space program.

When I talked the guys into starting the TV show on National Geographic Channel called the Rocket City Rednecks, it wasn’t just so we could be on TV. Our goals were not all one hundred percent altruistic, of course. But at least fifty to seventy-five percent of our goal was to get kids out from in front of video game consoles and get them out into the garage and building things. We’ve got to get our kids excited about doing science and engineering and building gadgets and doing experiments and making this country great, building the things that make us great. Like rockets that will take us back to the moon. That’s exciting! That’s inspiring!

So what we need is a new American space program. One that we can stick with. We need a new American space program that is based on the goals and requirements for achieving those goals, not on whatever political opinions are in favor and the changing of administrations. We need a new American space program that has longevity and can’t be monkeyed with by new politicians, new presidents, congresses, the UN, China, Russia, or anybody else, for that matter. We need to set the plan in stone and stay with it. We need to make a decision as a nation that we’re going to be number one in space and stay number one in space—and then do it. We need to put it into the law for the program be NASA or not, commercial or not, that this is the budget for this many years until the goal is achieved and leave it at that and say hands off.

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