Friday, August 10, 2007

PAV Challenge Article and Opinions on NASA Direction

From the CAFE Foundation News press coverage site comes an article from the local paper, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, on the Personal Air Vehicle Challenge. The article gives a lot of background on the challenge, including these details:

"The competitors this week feature modified aircraft already flying, including a Cessna and an Australian-made ultralight, with the potential in future years for more outlandish designs."

"Boeing has given the CAFE Foundation $50,000 to help with the aircraft challenge."

Finally, here's one that would fit right in with the recent Space Politics discussions:

"The fact that it hasn't happened yet may have more to do with politics than technology. NASA is devoting billions of dollars toward the goal of sending a manned flight to Mars, whereas the personal air vehicle division that Moore oversaw was disbanded in 2005. "It galls me that ... literally billions of dollars are going toward something that has no impact on people's lives, and honestly, never will," Moore said."

On the one hand, even the figure "billions" doesn't give a sense for how much is planned to be spent on the new human spaceflight program, which is expected to be over $100B. However, in defense of the program, the goal isn't (in spite of what some NASA employees think) to send a manned flight to Mars. The original goals were to fly out and retire the Shuttle, finish building the Space Station, transition to a new system to explore the Moon, and then go to Mars and beyond. All of these human missions were to be assisted by a series of robotic missions, for example to the Moon and Mars, as well as to other destinations like Europa. And all of this was to be done in the context of economic, security, and science benefits, with a major emphasis on using commercial space services. It was a lot more than a mission to Mars, and yet a lot more achievable because of the incremental achievable steps and the self-sustaining use of commerce. It would have been well worth the $100B.

... but most of that plan has fallen by the wayside, or has been postponed to the far future. The Mars robotic missions have actually been scaled back, the lunar robotic missions have been reduced to 1, the Europa mission is gone, and numerous other NASA exploration programs have been cancelled ... to fund the Shuttle, ISS, and the follow-on vehicle. Meanwhile, the follow-on vehicle is a government-designed and operated one, not a commercial one, and the main exploration program doesn't use commercial services. There is the Centennial Challenges space prize program that in some ways resembles use of commercial services, but it's tiny.

With all of that, Moore's assessment may very well be accurate. Hopefully I'll have to eat those words in 15 years ...