NASA incompetent — or just lying to us?
A rendering of one proposal for a new space vehicle built using most of the existing Space Shuttle hardware. (DIRECT LAUNCHER / September 12, 2010)
It would break the shuttle into pieces. It would take the engines off the orbiter, put them on the bottom of the fuel tank, and throw the rest of the orbiter away.
It's sort of like putting Mr. Potato Head's nose where his hat used to be, and switching his arms and ears around.
Why didn't someone think of this before?
Wait a minute. Someone did!
Some space buffs and engineers came up with the idea in 2006, without the requisite $5 billion in research-and-development funding from Congress. They worked under the program name Direct and dubbed their creation Jupiter.
Direct gained a cult following, particularly when it became apparent that NASA's Ares rocket had about as much chance of getting off the ground as Rosie O'Donnell wearing a helicopter beanie cap.
But that was something NASA Administrator Michael Griffin — the brain and the brawn behind Ares — would never admit.
Ares was his vision, his place in history. Many tried, but he would be the one to rescue NASA from years of floundering, the one to finally send people to Mars and beyond. Standing straight and tall on the launchpad, Ares was a 21st-century Washington Monument.
Jupiter was a 20th-century Mr. Potato Head, with his nose where his hat should be.
Oh, the horror.
Gone would be the billions of research-and-development dollars flowing into NASA, money spent on minor details such as figuring out how to stop Ares from shaking astronauts to death at liftoff.
So Griffin unleashed the NASA public-relations machine against Jupiter. It defied the laws of physics. It was a dodo bird that would never fly.
Meanwhile, a growing group of dissident engineers within NASA were reaching the same conclusion about Ares. To them, this Jupiter idea wasn't so crazy.
But Griffin kept pumping billions into Ares with the full blessing of the Bush administration. Like Brownie over at FEMA, Griffin was doing a heck of a job.
President Barack Obama didn't agree. He showed Griffin the escape hatch and went looking for a replacement.
Several good candidates surfaced, including Steve Isakowitz, the chief financial officer at the Department of Energy. His strength was NASA's weakness: fiscal management.
Enter Sen. Bill Nelson, dubbed "Ballast" by some astronauts before his 1986 shuttle flight.