John Carmack is the founder, president, and lead engineer of space flight company Armadillo Aerospace. He was also the co-founder of id Software, creator of classic computer games like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake.
In the interest of disclosure, Carmack notes that about 25 percent of the funding for Armadillo Aerospace has come through NASA.
There has been some wailing about how the newly proposed changes in NASA’s direction are “throwing away our future in space” by canceling the internal development of new launch vehicles. In reality, we won’t actually be losing anything. And focusing on commercial sourcing of space transportation may be the most beneficial thing NASA has ever done.
For years now, whenever a reporter asked me what I thought about returning to the moon with the country’s existing Constellation technology, I said something along the lines of “It’s like watching a slow motion train wreck. It isn’t going to end well.”
I have an excellent working relationship with the parts of NASA that my company deals with, but honestly, I thought the program was going to drag on for another half decade and piss away several more tens of billions of dollars before being re-scoped due to failure to deliver.
Cutting the internal NASA launch vehicle development now, as President Obama has proposed, is a Good Thing. We weren’t going to wind up with Ares V rockets delivering Altair landers to a moon base. It just wasn’t going to happen. Schedules would slip, requests for additional funding would be denied, and milestones would continue to be pushed years into the future until they were finally just canceled. After a hundred billion dollars was pumped through NASA, we would be left with, at best, a capsule launched on the world’s most expensive expendable rocket. Slow motion train wreck.
The United States has some pretty decent rockets today (the EELVs from Boeing and Lockheed Martin), and if SpaceX can deliver with the Falcon-9, we will have something that can again be competitive in the international market. The arguments for NASA building brand new rockets instead of making use of existing ones rested on two points: That the existing rockets weren’t big enough to handle the tasks, and that they weren’t “man rated” or safe enough for our astronauts. Good arguments can be made against both points, but it is remarkably easy to make a PowerPoint presentation look like a better idea than the existing state of the industrial market.
The real reason that new launch vehicles were integral to NASA’s plans is that NASA wanted to build rockets. I don’t really blame NASA — hey, building rockets is fun! It just isn’t the best organization to do it.
Yes, NASA built the Saturn V, but success at something like that is much more a function of the people than the institution, and almost all of those people are retired or dead. It would do a worse job at it than the companies that have actually built a new rocket in the last two decades, and the development effort wouldn’t have any additional economic benefit.
I remain optimistic about the future of man in space. The potential is, quite literally, unlimited. The physics isn’t changing. Relevant technologies continue to improve. NASA’s budget has a better chance of contributing to the advancement of spacefaring when it isn’t shoveled into doomed and redundant work.
Space can be more to the country than just an occasional spectacle to cheer.