Sunday, December 12, 2010

NASA's Direction and Canada's Opportunity

While it's true that "it ain't over until it's over" the outlines of the new direction for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) are finally beginning to come clear.

Canadian companies, and especially the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) should take a close look to note that the American plans don't seem to include any specific requirement for Moon or Martian rovers.

They are instead focused on smaller investments in multiple areas (especially alternative propulsion technologies such as VASIMR or ion engines of the types used on the Hayabusa unmanned spacecraft) to encourage the development of a series of breakthrough technologies.

There's even a Facebook page, titled "NASA's New Direction: Space Propulsion and Power" which provides links to some of the new technologies being developed and background materials outlining the reasons for the new focus.

The US House of Representatives.
Even at the political level, the deal is close to being done with money allocated across the board to include development of a new heavy lift rocket, plus the continuation of the commercial, off the shelf (COTS) program and the commercial crew development (CCDev) program.

The December 9th, 2010 article on the Space Politics blog titled "CR passes House, with an interesting shuttle provision" states:
The House last night narrowly approved a yearlong continuing resolution last night. The bill, as previously noted here, splits the difference between the authorized level of $19 billion for NASA and the FY10 level of just over $18.7 billion, and includes funds for HLV development as well as COTS and commercial crew. The Senate plans to develop its own omnibus spending bill which, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) tells Florida Today, would also fund NASA at $18.9 billion, but allocate funds among various programs differently. There’s some question, though, if the Senate version would win out over the House’s CR.
The most recent visible activity related to COTS and CCDev is last weeks successful launch by Space Exploration Technologies (Space-X) of it's Falcon 9 rocket and the recovery of the payload Dragon capsule.

Media pundits (including me, last week in this CTV interview) have called it a "milestone" and the "first successful private launch into orbit."

Of course, most of the big ticket NASA funding is politically directed and designed to provide a cushion to large aerospace focused companies with contracts winding down and employees likely to loose their jobs.

But the real key to NASA's future is epitomized by people like recently appointed NASA chief technologist Robert Braun. Here's a talk he gave earlier this year on the topic of NASA's future.

Of particular interest in the presentation is the focus on developing multiple avenues for "breakthrough" technologies which, when taken together, create the capability to send increasing numbers of large "two story house" sized objects to Mars in order to provide a platform for manned exploration of the red planet.

This path seems to be at odds with the recent Canadian focus on smaller, unmanned rovers using existing or incremental technological improvements in order to explore Mars on a smaller scale and remotely.

The CSA, with it's focus on smaller rovers and the next generation Canadarm funded through the $110 million Canadian Economic Action Plan, might not be in a position to take advantage of the American opportunities as they develop, especially since the Canadian fund is scheduled to wind down in March 2011, well before the Americans get down to their business of  developing the next generation of useful space technologies.

Left hope we're not left behind when our money runs out.

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