Congressman Dave Weldon, R-Fla., in whose district the Kennedy Space Center resides, is upset with his colleagues in the Senate.
"I was very disappointed to discover that the Senate's FY 2003 VA-HUD Independent Agencies appropriation bill contains language that acknowledges Wallops Flight Facility (WFF) as the "launch and recovery site for next generation launch vehicles" and directs Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) to utilize WFF "as a site for testing and demonstration of new launch vehicles and technology development.
"I think you would agree with me that this is unacceptable. Kennedy Space Center has been and will continue to be the nation's leading civil space launch site. WFF is capable of handling small launch vehicles at best. The costs involved with outfitting WFF to handle a next generation launch vehicle would be quite sizeable. All while NASA's budget is limited and facilities at KSC are allowed to crumble and deteriorate.
"Additionally, any potential military utilization of next generation launch vehicles are greatly aided by KSC's close proximity to Patrick Air Force Base (PAFB) and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS). If this new vehicle were located at WFF, there is not nearly the military space capabilities nearby with the level of competency we already have in Florida.
"I urge you to take action to remove this anti-Florida language. You can be sure I will do all I can to assist you in this effort and prevent it from becoming law."
There's a courtesy copy list: governor of Florida (and brother of the President) Jeb Bush, the center directors at Kennedy itself, and Marshall (which is supposedly in charge of developing new launch systems), the commander of the Air Force bases at the Cape, and the director of the organization responsible for developing Kennedy into a commercial spaceport. He means business.
And it's not just a defense of his home-state pork in preference to shifting taxpayer funds to the Commonwealth of Virginia (though it certainly is some of that). The KSC facilities really are corroding away and sometimes literally falling down around workers' ears, though it's not as bad as the situation in the former Soviet Union.
But there's an assumption in this whole brouhaha that is not necessarily valid. The senators who want to move the money to Wallops and Congressman Weldon agree on one thing -- they assume that spaceports of the future will be like those of the past, and that the "next-generation launch vehicle" will require a facility like that currently existing at the Cape.
Back in the olden days of rocketry yore, all rockets, even successfully-launched ones, routinely dropped hardware along their flight path as they departed from the launch pad and headed downrange into orbit. Thus, it made sense to put launch sites on seacoasts, where they could carpet with spent rocket stages the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean rather than, say, Chicago.
This was particularly the case for rockets like the Titan series, that would cause damage not only from the impact itself, but from the residual toxic propellants that they carried. There's a huge environmental cleanup problem in Kazakhstan that resulted from the large quantity of rocket detritus from Soviet launches out of Baykonyr.
Another feature of old (and current) rockets is their extensive infrastructure requirements in the form of high-bay assembly buildings and launch pads, and the need for extensive clear area around them, both for protection against the chance of an explosion on the pad, and because of the tremendous sound levels that a rocket emits at liftoff.
The existing ranges also have a function called "range safety," which, perversely, is the name for a guy whose job description is to watch the launch while sitting close by a button that can blow the rocket to smithereens if anything goes wrong.
But these requirements are one of the things that make previous (and current) generation launch vehicles expensive, unreliable and unwieldy. A next-generation launch vehicle, if it's worthy of the name, should take an entirely different approach to launch operations, and if it does so, most of what we think we know about requirements for spaceports is wrong. This is bad news for both the Cape and Wallops Island.
For one thing, unless it's having a really bad day, it won't be shedding parts downrange any more than aircraft do. Space transports will be fully reusable, or they won't be affordable. And there will be no "range safety devices" (a euphemism for explosive charges to blow up the vehicle) in space transports for the same reason that we don't put them in air transports -- the vehicle (and its contents) are too valuable to simply destroy it if it seems to be off course.
If some of the concepts for new space transports pan out, they will perhaps take off horizontally, with much lower thrust, and much less noise, and they won't sit on scarce and expensive launch pads for weeks or months, but take off on standard runways. Payloads will be integrated into removable cargo canisters, and cargo and passengers will be loaded into them on a tarmac, rather than in high-bay assembly buildings.
If that's the case, the spaceports that support them could be almost anywhere -- not just at verges between land and ocean, launched from government-subsidized facilities with men hovering over buttons that will destroy them at the slightest variation from plan.
And if they don't pan out, the phrase "next-generation launch vehicles" will be an empty and meaningless one, and they'll be little better -- in terms of cost, reliability and routine operations -- than current-generation launch vehicles. And space, even near-earth space, will remain a region little visited, and extremely sparsely populated. And the promises made to the children of Apollo will continue to be needlessly unfulfilled.
I'm sure that Congressman Weldon, and the other supposed representatives of the people, would like to see near-earth space filled with life and love, and they'd like to see expeditions setting off from earth-orbital ports to the distant planets to explore and seek out new homes for humanity, providing life insurance for our fragile planet.
But I fear that, if that vision means fewer jobs in their states and congressional districts, the vision will be sacrificed for the jobs, because that's the way of the government's space "program."
Last week's column about "emergent stupidity" generated a number of interesting responses. Reader John Coupal writes:
"In your above article, I was pleased to see the three federal agencies that seem to have performed with major ineptness: the INS, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Department of State.
"Of course, there are plenty of other contenders, but those three are the current winners."
George Rusling also agrees:
"Your theory of the relative intelligence of any organization being some inverse ratio of the IQ of the individuals involved fits neatly into my lifelong experience. Bright, innovative individuals function well alone with perhaps some subservient doers, not thinkers but not in groups. When forced to operate in groups they must reach consensus, an 'average' before acting so their output is at best average. In most cases it's somewhere below average because at least one of those bright individuals will be highly irritated that the others don't see the wisdom of their conclusions and will throw a monkeywrench into the works, creating havoc not innovation! Witness the United States Senate or, as you pointed out, NASA."
Reader Wallace Beery thought that I was conservative in my quantification of the effect. He thinks it much worse, at least for academics:
"Your essay on emergent stupidity gave me a good belly laugh. However, I suspect your resistor analogy may be flawed with respect to academic groupthink. From long observation of my academic fellows I would guess that the IQ values must be raised to a negative exponent to give a reasonably accurate estimate of academic group IQ. Say, around -1 for assistant profs, -2 for full profs, and -5 for university administrators."
Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.