Doug Turnbull’s review of “The Plundering of NASA: An Expose” by R. D. Boozer
I write science fiction stories, occasionally write non-fiction space science articles and have a weekly podcast called Mars Pirate Radio concerned with science, science fiction and the future. I also review books and movies.
The Plundering of NASA: an Expose’ by R. D. Boozer (Copyright 2013) is an exhaustive report on how pork barrel politics has diverted vital NASA funding away from cutting edge technological research into building, to borrow a term from space science writer, John Stickland, “a rocket to nowhere.” R. D. “Rick” Boozer is an astrophysicist who in addition to writing books and articles, hosts a blog called Astro Maven and a website called Singularity Scientific. Both are dedicated to putting forth the message that science can be fun.
In making his arguments, Boozer explodes a dozen or so commonly held myths about spaceflight. For example, myth number one: NASA needs a large budget increase for ambitious space exploration. Boozer examines this one carefully and demonstrates that NASA has plenty of money; but, he argues, because of political pressure much of it is being funneled into non-productive areas. In those categories, the biggest culprits are the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion Spacecraft projects. Another commonly held belief is that Space Stations and propellant depots require heavy lift vehicles of type proposed in the SLS program. Boozer points out that the critical factor in assembling large structures in low Earth orbit (LEO) is not the size or number of components. Assembling large structures out of many smaller components is a well established capability, as the construction and maintenance of the International Space Station (ISS) demonstrates. Instead, the cost per ton of placing the components into LEO is of paramount importance. Using this measure, SLS with its colossal development costs and huge per unit cost is the biggest loser to other less expensive lift systems. A third myth is that fuel depots in orbit are too expensive to operate, thus we need a huge rocket that doesn’t need refueling. Boozer crushes this one with the analogy of the in flight refueling techniques long employed by the Air Force and Navy as an alternative to building a few gigantically expensive aircraft capable of flying around the world on one tank of fuel.
As you may have gathered from the foregoing, the main brunt of Boozer’s criticism of NASA’s current agenda is directed toward the SLS and Orion Spacecraft projects. Like SLS, the Orion Spacecraft is still under development, existing only on engineer’s drawing boards. Designed to carry a four person crew, the Orion is only a little larger than the already operational Dragon Spacecraft developed by Space X. It primary claim to fame is that it will be deep space mission capable. But this claim is empty because any missions lasting more than a few days would have the astronauts crammed in the still tiny craft like “spam in a can” to quote Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. It’s bigger than Apollo or the Dragon, but not that much bigger. The Dragon is quite capable of doing its primary mission: ferrying astronauts and cargo to and from LEO, where the real deep spaceships can be assembled, vessels large enough to convey their crew comfortably and safely on long duration missions. Boozer proposes that NASA use the money he feels is being wasted on SLS/Orion instead to develop and build a spaceship such as the plasma powered Nautilus X, the outlines of a design of which have already been studies and created by the agency. The magneto plasma engine, invented by Franklin Chang-Diaz, could be used to propel such a craft and will be tested on board the ISS within a year or two.
He argues, I believe successfully, that SLS/Orion programs are superfluous and largely propelled by pork barrel politics. Boozer names—names, and identifies the congressmen and senators who are pushing programs that benefit their constituents and the aerospace companies that contribute to their campaigns, rather than further actual space exploration and extra terrestrial development. In making his argument, Boozer quotes noted astronauts, rocket scientists and other aerospace experts such as Buzz Aldrin, Chris Craft, John Strickland, Rand Simberg and Space X founder, Elon Musk, to name just a few.
As noted above, Boozer isn’t simply criticizing a program without proposing useful alternatives, however. He documents how the badly underfunded Commercial Crew and Commercial Cargo programs have been much more efficient in producing results than the programs managed directly by NASA. These two programs encourage private companies to develop their own hardware by granting contracts to the firms with specific budgets and timeframes, as opposed to the open-ended “cost plus” contracts traditionally employed by NASA. What Boozer and many others both inside and outside NASA propose is the development of an infrastructure in space, either in (LEO) or possibly at the Lagrange Point known as L-2 located beyond the moon, for assembling, fueling and equipping deep space missions. Much of the equipment necessary for creating such an infrastructure already exists or will be operational in the very near future. Space X’s Falcon Heavy, which can lift 55 tons to LEO will be launched in 2014 and was developed entirely with private funds, while both the currently operational Atlas and Delta heavy lift systems are capable of placing 20 tons in LEO. The Dragon spacecraft has already flown an un-crewed cargo mission to the ISS and like the Falcon Heavy, was largely developed with private money.
Rick Boozer is not a bomb thrower. He carefully documents all of his assertions, oftentimes using NASA internal studies as well as external studies by entities such as the Congressional Budget Office and the Booze-Allen-Hamilton study of the SLS. This book is carefully sourced and will stand up to scholarly scrutiny. One very useful feature of his list of references is that each article or reference source cited in the main body of the book has a web address where the original document can be accessed. I highly recommend this fine book to anyone who is interested in space exploration and believes, as I do, that humanity’s next logical step is development and settlement off the Earth. This book is currently available at Amazon and other online retail outlets in both e-book and paperback formats.