Category Archives: Space History

Jerry Pournelle

He’s posted a brief but complimentary review of the book (it’s buried deep in the post, after his lengthy discussion of his computer tech upgrades):

Safe Is Not An Option, by Rand Simberg is a reliability expert’s look at the space program. The book is discussed at length on its own web site. Those interested in the space program should read it: the book is quite critical of current space policies. It has endorsements from both astronauts and space policy analysts.

His general thesis is that NASA’s obsession, born of the days when “ours always blow up” and brought back with a vengeance by the Challenger disaster, is eliminating all human risk from spaceflight. That doesn’t work and the obsession is a huge obstacle to progress. There will always be risks, and we will always have heroes.

Simberg is an aerospace engineer with considerable experience and his analyses of various space incidents such as the Challenger Disaster are spot on, which is to say, I agree with them. Recommended.

Thanks!

Neil DeGrasse Tyson

…and the science of smug condescension:

Here we see, in action, the signature scientific style of the Neil deGrasse Tyson era. Present a scientific theory in crudely oversimplified form, omitting any uncertainties or counter-arguments. Pass off complex claims as if they are obvious “basic physics.” Then dismiss any skepticism as the resentment of the primitive, ignorant, unscienced masses against their enlightened betters.

Or, you know, file law suits against critics.

It’s not a very good way to get valid scientific results—nor, for that matter, to promote the scientific method. But it’s what we get when we substitute, in place of respect for the actual methodology of science, an attitude of superior posing and smug condescension.

I’d like to say that I was disappointed with the Cosmos reboot, but honestly, I wasn’t that big a fan of the original. But I’d love to buy Tyson for what I think he’s worth, and sell him for what he does.

[Afternoon update]

Some more thoughts:

It seems to me that Neal deGrasse Tyson is a scientist. Heck, I don’t actually know, because I don’t read technical astronomy papers, but I assume he’s published something somewhere, actually done some science in his life. But that doesn’t appear to be his current day job. His current job, near as I can tell, is carnival barker. He’s a salesman, or an advertiser. That’s not science. Inspiring others to want to learn more may be laudable, but it’s not science. Making crap up isn’t science, either, but I’ll let the serial stalkers at the Federalist worry about that.

But here’s a misconception that I’ve discussed before:

Thing is, I’m no scientist. So while I would like to call myself a Science-ist – that is, one who believes in the nature of science and the good results it can produce – I certainly can’t pretend I am a scientist, which is one who does science. Stuff like collecting data, analyzing it, proposing hypotheses, testing hypotheses. You know, stuff that scientists do. Not just looking at cool pictures of galaxies and pretending that makes me smart. (Um, NSFW language at that link)

No. Science isn’t a profession, it’s a way of thinking about the world, and learning about it. Everyone does it, to some degree or another, every day. Check a door knob to see if it’s unlocked? You just did an experiment.

People who believe in “science” as some kind of special realm that “scientists” live in, and that “science” reveals “truth” (as many global warm mongers do, even though they don’t understand the science or, often, even basic math) are members of a religion, that is in fact properly called scienceism. I believe in science as the best means to learn about the natural world, and as the basis for engineering and creating technology, but I don’t worship scientists, and I don’t delude myself that scientific results are “truth.”

Anyway, finally, note this comment:

you make an ass out of neal tyson when it’s pointed out that he has not, in fact, published A SINGLE PIECE of academic work since having talked some committee into accepting the dissertation it took him 11 years (and an expulsion!) to co-author.

no, seriously. if you don’t believe me, you can put his name into the search bar at arxiv.org, where practicing physicists post our preprints:

“Search gave no matches

No matches were found for your search: all:(neal AND tyson)

Please try again.”

In the next comment, he notes that there is in fact one post-doc paper, but it appears that he’s just participating because the actual authors wanted a bigger name on it.

The SLS Frenzy

So apparently, the SLF fanbois (and fangirls) going crazy over a giant welder on Twitter.

Anyway, I was rereading this essay I wrote half a decade ago. It was depressing. Here’s how little of some of it I’d have to change to keep it relevant to today.

Continue reading

KSC Versus MSFC

I had an interesting Twitter discussion this morning, that gave me an insight that had been floating around in the back of my mind, but that I’d never articulated, either to myself or others. It sort of crystallized when someone said that Bob Cabana, head of KSC, was an SLS supporter.

One of the tenets of the Apollo Cargo Cult is that we can’t go beyond earth orbit without a really big rocket. The conventional wisdom has been that the biggest constituency for SLS is Marshall, because that’s were it is being developed. But if you think about it, there are a lot of things Marshall could be applied to — it doesn’t have to be developing big rockets (something it hasn’t successfully done in almost four decades). For instance, it could be developing technology and demonstrators for orbital fuel storage and transfer. That would be at least as much in its wheelhouse as SLS.

KSC, on the other hand, has little justification for existence if NASA doesn’t have its own (big) rocket to launch. Without a big rocket, it doesn’t need the VAB, and the VAB and the crawler are really the only unique capability it has, in terms of physical infrastructure. If everything is going up on commercial rockers, even from Pads 39, KSC doesn’t have much to do, other than integrating NASA’s payloads onto them. That’s not a trivial task, but it’s not one that justifies the center’s budget or workforce. So, while Marshall could in theory be redirected to something useful, KSC can’t really. That’s why Nelson supports it so strongly.

It struck me in fact that the VAB is the high cathedral for the cargo cult. What would happen to the religion if it was taken out by a hurricane?

The Hubble Group

So the big news today is that they’ve named the supercluster we live in:

Scientists previously placed the Milky Way in the Virgo Supercluster, but under Tully and colleagues’ definition, this region becomes just an appendage of the much larger Laniakea, which is 160 million parsecs (520 million light years) across and contains the mass of 100 million billion Suns.

Which kicked off this Twitter exchange between me and Lee Billings.

Accordingly, I propose that we rename the Local Group the Hubble Group, in honor of its namer, and making it consistent with the other names. I will henceforth call it that. If anyone asks, I’ll explain.

The Apollo 11 Moon Landing

Some reflections from Bill Whittle.

[Monday-morning update]

It’s long past time to rethink NASA:

Unrealistically, the NRC committee recommends a 5 percent annual increase in NASA’s budget to carry out its recommendations, which are to spend billions for many decades with the eventual result of putting a few civil servants on Mars. My assessment, as a space enthusiast and a taxpayer? As Senator William Proxmire once famously quipped, on the topic of funding for space colonies: “I say not a penny for this nutty fantasy.” I don’t know what the future of human spaceflight is, but I do know that the NRC’s recommendations are not it.

Read the whole thing. It was written by someone who knows what he’s talking about, one of the great minds of our age.

[Update a couple minutes later]

Some of the comments over there are amusing, albeit predictable.

[Update a few minutes later]

Should we go back to the moon? I participate in a debate on the topic, over at US News. I have to say that Etzioni’s remarks are certainly ignorant. And you’ll be shocked to discover that Bob Zubrin wants to go to Mars.

[Update mid morning]

I have a roundup of my and others’ apollo anniversary pieces over at Ricochet. Plus, hey moon! We’re coming back soon.

[Late-afternoon update]

I’m tied with Peter over there for thumbs up, if you want to go vote. Also, Bob is getting lots of negative ratings, but nothing like Etzioni.

[Bumped]

[Late evening update]

I assume that, thanks to my readers, I’m Number One!

Why NASA Is Stagnant

Thoughts from Bob Zubrin. I haven’t read yet, but I’ll have some of my own over there tomorrow, I think.

[Update a few minutes later]

OK, I read it. I disagree with his diagnosis of the problem, but I absolutely agree that we need to have a serious national discussion of why we have a government-funded human spaceflight program. That hasn’t happened in half a century. Until we do, we’ll continue to flounder, and be hostage to the whims of the rent seekers in Congress.

The Apollo Cargo Cult

Over at USA Today, I say that after four lost decades, it’s time to end it:

After over four decades, it is time to stop awaiting a repeat of a glorious but limited and improbable past. We must, finally, return to and embrace the true future, in which the solar system and ultimately the universe is opened up to all, with affordable, competing commercial transportation systems, in the way that only Americans can do it.

I’ll have some other stuff up later, in other venues.

Services For Bill Gaubatz

I’ve received the following information:

Services for our dear friend Bill Gaubatz will be held Saturday, July 19 at 2 pm at St Peter’s by the Sea Presbyterian Church in Rancho Palos Verdes. There will be a reception immediately following at the church.

The church address is:

6410 Palos Verdes Drive South
Rancho Palos Verdes, CA 90275

I’ll certainly be attending.

Bill Gaubatz

I’m hearing that he passed away yesterday. If so, it’s a loss to the space community. I don’t think I’d seen him since last August, in Alamogordo. I’m glad I got his signature on my DC-X model.

I’ll update as I get more info.

[Evening update]

OK, I reported it first, but now Jerry Pournelle remembers Bill. and DC-X. His conclusion, with which I agree:

I note that over the years many of the participants in making DC/X possible have died. Those include Robert Heinlein, Harry Stine, Duke Kane, Steve Possony, Dan Graham, and I’m sure many more. I hope they’re all waiting to welcome Bill Gaubatz to the old space warriors club.

I’m not big on the concept of the afterlife, but if it’s true, I hope so, too.

SpaceShipOne

It’s been ten years since its first flight into space. Jeff Foust reflects, and he has a new book out to commemorate it:

People have written a lot about this long gap in suborbital spaceflight, and a thorough examination of the causes is beyond the scope of a single post. Virgin Galactic has gone through an extended technical development, including a recent switch in hybrid rocket motors; it now plans to begin flights late this year, about seven years later than its original plans announced in September 2004. XCOR Aerospace’s progress has been hindered at times by limited funding, as Forbes recently reported, although the company announced last month it raised more than $14 million in a Series B funding round that should allow it to bring the Lynx to market. Blue Origin, meanwhile, keeps its plans under tight wraps; it would seem that founder Jeff Bezos, who is also funding the 10,000-Year Clock, is not in a particular rush.

And John Carmack always treated Armadillo as more of a hobby. No, it’s not any single reason (“space is hard”). As I tweeted yesterday, the problem with commercial space, until recently, is that the people with good ideas couldn’t get money to execute them, and the people with the money picked bad ideas. In the case of Virgin, it started when (the late) Jim Benson sold Burt Rutan a bill of goods on hybrids, and people who didn’t understand the technology thought that it would scale easily (though it was never a good idea). It all cascaded from there.

[Update a while later]

The top five posts on this page are my reporting that morning from Mojave.

[Sunday-afternoon update]

Dale Amon remembers that day as well.

[Bumped]

Augustine Recommendations

I just suggested to a journalist trying to get up to speed on space policy to read the essay I wrote to them five years(!) ago. I think it holds up pretty well. It’s too bad they didn’t take my recommendations, not that Congress would have paid any attention:

Just as war is too important to be left to the generals, man’s future in space is too important to be left to NASA. After President Reagan proposed the creation of a national missile defense system in 1983, it became clear that the U.S. Air Force was not properly organized or motivated — and so a new agency was created to pursue the president’s vision. The new agency, today called the Missile Defense Agency, was very innovative and made great progress because it could focus on its one goal. Along those lines, the Bush administration might have done well to establish an Office of Space Development (with “exploration” being merely a means to an end) that could draw on other federal resources — not just NASA, but the Departments of Defense and Energy — as well as the private sector.

Of course, an independent space development organization with such power would be politically unfeasible. But that is part of the problem: our sclerotic space agency is subject to forces of legacy politics; it protects existing bureaucratic structures and emphasizes jobs over achievement; and it perversely rewards failure with more funds and punishes success with budget cuts. Short of an independent entity, the Augustine committee should at least revisit the Aldridge commission’s recommendation of converting the NASA centers to FFRDCs.

Assuming, though, that NASA in roughly its present form is here to stay, what should the Augustine committee recommend to put the agency back on the right course?

First, there is great irony (as space blogger Clark Lindsey has noted) in the fact that NASA has not successfully developed a launch system in decades, with many failed attempts, whereas it has developed many techniques and technologies for orbital assembly and operations — and yet it is pouring billions of dollars into the former and neglecting the latter. Critics often bemoan NASA’s abandonment of Saturn rocket technology upon the end of the Apollo era. But to abandon the orbital assembly and operations technology developed during the shuttle era — as the Constellation architecture implicitly does; it doesn’t even call for an airlock on the new crew capsule for the crew to conduct extravehicular activities — would be a much greater tragedy, because unlike the Saturn infrastructure it actually offers a path to a future of abundant low-cost space activities.

Donald Rumsfeld, the former Secretary of Defense, infamously remarked that “you go to war with the army you have.” NASA should have planned on going to the Moon with the launch vehicles it had and not those it wanted to have; in retrospect, the agency should have been explicitly forbidden from developing a new launch system. Billions have already been wasted in developing a redundant launch capability when the focus should have been on getting beyond low Earth orbit. The space agency must finally, after half a century, be a good customer, and provide a market not for cost-plus contractors to build hardware at their direction, but for private transportation services. The Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program should be revitalized with additional funding, new entrants should be invited, and its role should be broadened far beyond the current charter to service the International Space Station — to supporting exploration itself. In addition, COTS D (for delivery of crew to the International Space Station in addition to cargo) should be immediately funded, to provide redundant means of getting passengers to and from orbit and the space station on American hardware. A robust COTS program, in combination with a requirement that companies begin to deliver hundreds of tons of propellant into orbit each year, would provide enough traffic and competition among launch providers to finally start to drive down the cost of access to space. This would be a welcome change from the stagnation of high launch costs over the past few decades, and an improvement over the promise of still higher costs from Constellation. The aim should be to develop architectures that are not dependent on any particular launcher but that are redundant both in their ability to get to orbit and to travel between nodes beyond Earth.

Third, the savings from avoiding the development of unnecessary new launch systems should be spent on resurrecting the Research and Technology program initiated by Admiral Steidle. Specifically, NASA should work on developing the tools and techniques needed to store and transfer cryogenic propellants in orbit. The agency should begin to define requirements for (redundant) propellant depots, and perform studies on optimal locations for such depots. NASA should perform experiments in propellant handling at the International Space Station, and it should lease space in a Bigelow orbital habitat at low inclination as a testbed for orbital transportation support operations. The agency should do with its space transportation needs what the U.S. Postal Service did with its airmail needs back in the thirties: create a vibrant new transportation industry. And it should provide the kind of technology development support that NASA’s predecessor, the old National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, did for aviation in the first half of the twentieth century.

Let us finally abandon our race with the Soviet Union, the race we won four decades ago against an adversary two decades vanquished and vanished. We don’t need to remake Apollo; we need to open up the new space frontier the way the old American frontier was opened. Let us unleash private enterprise and create not just jobs but true wealth. Let us innovate and find new ways for free men and women to use new resources. And let us work hard and risk greatly in the pursuit of our individual dreams — for it is those dreams, and our countless failures and triumphs along the way, that will determine man’s destiny beyond the Earth.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.