Trouble For The Town That NASA Built?

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As people in North Alabama go about their daily lives, they do so without an active press watching out for their best interests. There’s no real newspaper to speak of, as Huntsville’s a part of the AL.com franchise. Huntsville is a boom town that recently captured the title of Alabama’s biggest city from Birmingham, so it stands to reason that it would support efforts to keep an eye on all that money floating around. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, and so residents here tend to whistle along in the hope that their leaders aren’t (just) in it for themselves. That’s what happens absent a press that takes its job seriously.

The emperor of Huntsville is NASA, and nobody here has the courage to call a boondoggle what it is, because it puts so much food in so many mouths that it would be inappropriate to say that NASA is leading the parade completely naked. There’s been a significant disruption to the space industry in the form of reusable boosters, led by Elon Musk and the team at Space‑X. While Huntsville relies on our government to support space efforts, the private sector is advancing by giant leaps and bounds.

NASA is well aware of what’s happening, as well as those in Congress who approve or disapprove the massive funding of NASA and NASA projects. SpaceX is winning NASA contracts with increasing frequency based on a history of innovation, expertise, and outstanding performance. When SpaceX won the $2.9 billion Artemis lunar lander contract over Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, a Marshall Space Flight Center regular, Bezos sued NASA. The suit was tossed in court, and this was a bellwether event in U.S. space program history, although not publicly acknowledged in North Alabama.

NASA and Huntsville have long been the center of activity between the government and the private sector. One drive through Cummings Research Park, and you’ll see the logos of every private company involved in the U.S. space program, although many go back to the heyday of the race to space between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Huntsville is a museum for the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Shuttle programs. The Saturn‑5 that stands along the interstate is a testimony to the gargantuan effort by Werner von Braun’s Nazi rocket team that led up to it and set the U.S. on the path to outer space dominance in a changing world. The problem is that the technology has passed us by. Being married to the archaic means we cannot — dare not — do anything that might conflict with the government. NASA is tied to taxpayers, and therein lies the real problem. U.S. Senators simply cannot continue to fund such a monster forever, and its end is likely to surprise everybody here, because no one’s really reporting about it. The government has watched as NASA has shifted its most precious cargo — astronauts — to SpaceX, which has handled the responsibility with class and perfection. SpaceX has successfully landed over 100 boosters, most of them via landing platforms at sea. Think about that for a minute. Its Falcon9 program has been incredibly successful, especially as it relates to delivering cargo and people to and from the International Space Station.

But what about Huntsville? It’s all hyperbole and golly gee about the Artemis program and its Space Launch System (SLS) approved by Congress and taxpayer-funded. It makes much more sense for NASA to invest in the real future instead of one that’s built on politics and warm, fuzzy memories of days gone by. Cost overruns for SLS and its contractors (here in Huntsville) are enormous and continuous, and the handwriting on the wall is not favorable for a reliable future for the space program in Huntsville. And all of this is taking place without the watchful eyes of even the hint of a questioning press.

Absent a vibrant local press, information becomes public relations or some other form of favorable propaganda. The Huntsville Business Journal, for example, is producing a 3‑part series “Huntsville Takes the Lead to ‘Rock-it’ Back to the Moon” that goes far beyond the make-up of a simple puff piece. It’s hard propaganda that sings the praises of Huntsville’s businesses who are living off the nipple of NASA’s money. Here are just a few quotes from the series:

…Today, a new generation of space explorers is taking over. They are watching and learning and building their own bright futures right here in the Rocket City. They are the Artemis generation, who will once again lead the way as America returns to the moon, this time with the Space Launch Systems (SLS) – the most powerful rocket ever developed…

…“Currently, the SLS program has contributed $2.4 billion to Alabama’s economy; 13,000 jobs across the state; and generated more than $55 million in state and local taxes,” Mayor (Tommy) Battle said. “When you look at how much it is adding to our economy and then look at what it is adding to the world, you realize we are doing something no one else can do, that we’ve done it before, and we are doing it again…

…Home to the propulsion systems associated with the rockets we currently fly, and every successful rocket we have flown in the past, the Rocket City is once again at the heart of world-changing feats and life and death-defying technology.

Rocket scientists here in Huntsville are already working on hardware for five iterations of the Artemis Space Launch Systems (SLS), America’s next generation exploration class rocket, and the only rocket that can fly the manned Orion spacecraft safety to the moon.

Fifteen percent more power than the Saturn V, the SLS is the only exploration class vehicle capable of sending humans into deep space along with large systems that are necessary to live and work in deep space.

And none of these missions can get off earth and escape earth’s gravity field without the SLS, managed and for a large part, built here in Huntsville!…

I hope you can see the denial present in this “news.” The Marshall Space Flight Center needs a rock solid relationship with SpaceX in order to continue with the moniker “Rocket City,” because Musk and others from the private sector (who worry about things like cost instead of just dipping into tax dollars for more) are taking over everything. Likewise, the U.S. Space and Rocket Center needs “used” SpaceX props for its museum. Without those show pieces, the place is, again, a museum about the early days of space.

What does exist of a “press” here in Huntsville seems completely sold on the idea that SLS, Artemis, and the Orion lander are the future of space. Meanwhile, the open nature of SpaceX’s work gives us daily views of what’s taking place in Boca Chica, Texas and the SpaceX Starship program. NASA funds some projects, including a Starship orbit around the moon. Elon Musk, however, has his sights set on Mars and colonizing the red planet. SpaceX has yet to test its genius Starship booster and Starship combination and is waiting for an environmental impact study from the FAA (which certainly has the ears of NASA) before approving a test flight of Booster 4 and Starship 20. This system will destroy the Huntsville claim that SLS is the most powerful rocket ever developed.

Government-generated environmental concerns have kept SpaceX from testing its innovative system, and there’s talk of delays and even moving from Boca Chica to the Florida space coast. Meanwhile, Huntsville holds its breath, for this event is likely to get ALL of the global attention of space industry watchers (including Congress) and firmly place SLS in the junk bin of technological disruption.

Generally speaking, the press outside Huntsville includes skepticism about SLS, but it’s not something you’ll receive here. The bane of local media is always its relationship with local advertisers, and this is no different. Local news departments, for example, stay away from complaints about car dealers, because sales departments would have a cow!

The SpaceX vision includes fuel tankers in space, space stations, and everything else that would be necessary for humans to become an interplanetary species. And Elon Musk’s primary concerns are the outer space aspirations of countries like China, Russia, and other U.S. (business) adversaries. SpaceX gladly embraces these challenges, while NASA and Huntsville are hung up on the costly and time-consuming elements of doing it the old way. The damage to North Alabama’s economy will eventually be devastating.

The Government Accounting Office’s 2021 NASA report will be out this Spring, and it will describe even greater cost-overruns, errors, and delays in the SLS program. There’s talk of another launch delay, possibly to the summer of 2022. In the end, SLS will deliver on its promise to send Americans back to the moon, but as each month passes, Huntsville sinks deeper and deeper into the quagmire of yesterday when it comes to innovation and the future. There simply is no future in outer space without reusability, and that’s not what NASA is doing with SLS.

Behind all the public cheerleading for NASA, leadership here knows of what’s happening, and that may be the biggest story of all. Hush everybody, for as long as the emperor THINKS he’s clothed, what’s the problem?

The Coming War in Outer Space

SpaceX stacks the full Starship launch system for the first time, standing  nearly 400 feet tall | TechCrunch
Courtesy NASASpaceflight.com

One of my retirement hobbies is to stay abreast of events within the space industry. Elon Musk’s Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas is a launch and rocket development facility unlike any other in history, because it’s all out in the open for anybody to give it a look-loo. Test. Fail. Test. Succeed. Thanks to the remarkable space media company, NASASpaceflight.com, I get videos of each day’s activity and live coverage of major events in the construction and development of next generation rockets and space vehicles.

Musk’s vision is truly extraordinary, and through his leadership, the private sector is taking over the space program, and it won’t be long before NASA’s role and the government’s oversight is dramatically reduced. Musk sees a day for business-related travel and expeditions to the moon and other planets. When he says he wants us to become an interplanetary species, the guy is the right person to lead the privatization of rockets and rocket travel.

And so, I’ve become enamored with all of this, and my mind is busy putting together the things I see downstream that will impact my progeny in the decades ahead.

Who doesn’t love and appreciate the adventures and sacrifices of those pioneers and explorers who went before us? They share one thing in common and that is that business interests mostly paid for their discoveries in the hopes that what they’d find would produce profit for their governments but especially those deep pocketed business visionaries who could see the possibilities. Since the beginning, whichever institution was responsible for growth in the home country/system, the conquering of foreign lands has been the driving force of that growth.

Outer space is now the realistic new frontier, and it’ll be business interests that spawn the exploration and discoveries that await us in the darkness of space. This is going to produce marvelous accomplishments for humankind in the century ahead. Musk plans to build and launch massive fuel tankers that will allow for refueling in space. Efforts at creating nuclear-powered engines are underway, and you can see it all at the corners of Elon Musk’s vision.

The media is obsessed with billionaire launches to space for show and tell, but there’s a reason these deep-pocketed business icons want to get onboard, and it has nothing to do with personal glory. Space is the future of the human race, and especially from a business perspective.

If we study the impacts of European expansionism of the past, we encounter wars fought by countries seeking to grow their influence. When we pull back the curtain, however, we find these wars were financed and built through the efforts of the business communities who profited from conquered resources, including people. You don’t go to war against those who piss you off; you go to war to grow YOUR ability to call the shots when it comes to profit and loss. This is why in war, the victor gets to write the history.

So, we look at the future of outer space discovery and see these same kinds of influences coming to fruition in Boca Chica and elsewhere. Like intercontinental travel, interplanetary travel will be paid for by private investors seeking a very real return. Given that these same forces have raped our own planet, it’s not a stretch to think they might want to go someplace else. It’s what we know as humans. God help the other planets!

The next major war will be in outer space, and already, the battle lines are being drawn. China is racing to space at a pace that is staggering. They’ve built their own space station and plan to keep growing it. China has a rover on Mars. They’re blasting spy satellites into space almost weekly, and only a fool would think the Pentagon hasn’t noticed. Russia plans its own new space station, and it’s only a matter of time before weapons systems are built into each, not only to threaten earth targets, but also those in space.

This war may be the war to end all wars, for it’ll be over which business community or communities will lead planet Earth into Musk’s interplanetary species.

In my view — which may change — this is inevitable, because our history as a species is not known for its coöperation or getting along. Donald Trump’s Space Force is a step in that direction, because you don’t need a “force” to explore space; that term’s reserved for arms and armies. The United States cannot resist dominating our opponents, and we like to win races, such as the space race. What I’m writing about today is something the U.S. can only tolerate if we’re on top. Think not? Think again.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX is rewriting the development and testing of reusable boosters, and that alone is dramatically impacting cost to the point where outer space is available to so many more companies for research and development. And, this is to say nothing about the potential benefits to humankind in reaching outside the government-controlled space industry box.

Now is the time to begin talking about all of this. It may turn out that space exploration creates a necessity of global coöperation, but that’s likely more wish than logic. And, this is especially true for those who feel that power is the only way to maintain citizen safety and freedoms, like we’re hearing today from the radical right.

The future of space is yours, young people. What will you do with it?