Astronomically expensive

“Not because it is easy, but because it isn’t hard enough”

Imagine, if you will, some far-off time when all our knowledge has passed away, and nothing remains of our present existence but a few marks in the soil.  Imagine, too, that nature has seen fit to instil a future people, or indeed a future creature, with a curiosity about what went before.  Imagine this band of future archaeologists happens upon a peculiar site, built in the midst of a swamp:

Two parrallel linear features extend from the remains of a large building for 4.8 km in a westerly direction.  The features are each 12 metres wide, cut into the natural, and are separated by 15 metres of uncut natural.  A section across one of the features reveals a stratigraphy of four discrete layers.  In descending order: 20 cm well-sorted river gravel, identical to contemporaneous natural deposits found 1400 km to the north west; 1.2 metres well-sorted, graded, crushed limestone; 0.76 metres select fill; 0.3 metres compact fill.  The linear features end at two identical rigid circular features comprising gravels bound in a matrix of oxides of calcium, silicon and aluminium.  There is evidence of extreme temperatures at both westerly sites.  Radiocarbon dating of associated faunal remains, including Alligator mississippiensis, suggests a date in the middle of the organic polymer age.

Readers wishing to have a stab at interpretation might initially think of a roadway.  And they’d be on the right track, so to speak.  But the lack of tarmacadam, and the presence of river gravels brought from so far away, might give pause.  You’d have very little chance of realising that this is the crawlerway at the Kennedy Space Centre.

Probably the least glamorous achievement of the US space programme, the crawlerway is still a monumental feat of engineering.  The signature river gravel was selected as the material least likely to generate sparks under the immense load: pretty important when you’re transporting a million kilograms of solid rocket fuel.  It has successfully supported 7.7 million kilograms of extremely expensive, extremely flammable kit for nearly 40 years.  Yet even this safety record may not be sufficient.

Ares V, the heavy-lifting succcessor to the Space Shuttle, weighs in at a leviathan 10.9 million kg, and a new report warns that the crawlerway may not be able to support such a behemoth.  There is no evidence the crawlerway will be categorically unable to support Ares V.  It’s just possible that “the crawlerway could fail to support the load, resulting in severe impacts to the Constellation programme”.  This language, rich with unintentional irony, encodes the risk-averse thinking of a post-Columbia NASA, and is the latest in a long line of gloomy announcements from the administration.  Last November, NASA revealed there were “significant threats” to the performance of Orion‘s launch stack, Ares I; and this July, a leaked report indicated an $80m “cost overrun” looked likely to delay Orion’s first launch.  So there’s nothing new under the Florida sun.

And yet it is unfortunately timed.  Both presumptive nominees to the US presidential candidacy recently visited the Sunshine State.  With 27 electoral college votes up for grabs and an unusually decisive role in both the 2000 and 2004 general elections, this is a state both candidates want to bag.

First to clear the tower was Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), who visited Titusville a fortnight ago and, in what the Orlando Sentinel calls “a dramatic reversal of policy“, announced his support for the Constellation programme.  Obama had previously indicated he would prefer to spend NASA’s budget on his education reforms.  But the prospect of saving 6,500 jobs put him back on Democratic home turf, and his campaign released a policy paper at the weekend detailing his renewed spacefaring ambitions, promising to pony up $2bn to close the gap between the last flight of the Shuttle and Constellation’s first.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), meanwhile, is still marooned on the launchpad, but cheered himself up by accusing his rival of political expediency, according to the Johnson Space Center’s local rag, the Houston Chronicle.

So, regardless of who ends up installed in the Oval Office come January, money will be made available to NASA.  Critics will inevitably decry the whole adventure as a collossal waste of public funds which could have been much better spent on healthcare.  But a brief glance at the numbers does not support this argument.  The 2007 budget for Medicaid, despite cuts of $12bn, extends to a mammoth $2.8 trillion.  NASA’s total projected budget for 2009 looks positively frugal at $17.6bn.

Furthermore, Constellation has taken on a geopolitical significance in the past few weeks.  NASA was — until recently — content to thumb a lift to the ISS aboard Russian Soyuz capsules during the two-year hiatus between the last Shuttle mission and the first launch of Orion, having secured an exemption from the Congressional ban on purchasing Russian space technology.  Now, following our Slavic cousins’ reluctance to content themselves with the erstwhile Georgian SSR’s arbitrary borders, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) has voiced everyone’s concerns.

Best hurry up with those rockets, guys.  God forbid someone with The Right Stuff should find themselves bunking with a Taikonaut two years hence.

2 Responses to Astronomically expensive

  1. Tim Stevens says:

    Top drawer, you spikey f*&k. I’m a huge fan of the – read, any – space program but what exactly is the Constellation remit?

    Nice bit of space archaeology btw – check out my occasional correspondent, Dr. Space Junk (

  2. Chris says:

    The archaeology schtick was directly influenced by your Apollo 11 post.

    Constellation was mandated by the (otherwise execrable) President Bush in his New Vision for Space Exploration. It’s supposed to be a platform to send humans back to the Moon by 2020, and act as a replacement for the Shuttle.

    Constellation comprises two rockets — Ares V and Ares I, plus the Orion capsule and the Altair Lunar Lander. The Ares V will send up all the heavy stuff like the “Earth Departure Stage” — roughly equivalent to Apollo’s Command Module — and Altair. The Orion capsule will head up on top of the more slender Ares I. The two systems then dock in orbit.

    The smart thing about Ares V is that you can send up new parts of the ISS, for example, without having to stick seven astronauts in orbit at the same time. And conversely, if you want to fetch your astronauts back from the ISS, you pop Orion on top of an Ares I without dreaming up some new experiment to put in the payload bay of your shuttle.

    Some people think it’s a backward step to using Apollo-era technology, because the system looks an awful lot like the Saturn V stack. But the spherical section geometry of the Orion capsule is the best-understood re-entry vehicle available. Just because it can’t land like a plane doesn’t make it old-skool.

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