Category Archives: Space History

Gene Cernan

He never wanted to be the last man on the moon, and he almost certainly won’t be, but it’s a shame that he didn’t live to see the next man (or woman) kick up the regolith.

But he didn’t cover himself in glory, or make it more likely to happen, when he testified in ignorance against private spaceflight back in 2010 (the headline of the story is incorrect; they weren’t “defending spaceflight” — they were unwittingly attacking it). He was a hero of the Cold War, and should be honored for that, but his passing shouldn’t be an excuse for a new bout of misguided Apolloism from conservatives.

[Update a while later]

“It appears we are condemned to forego the human exploration of the solar system until the full measure of the first generation of space explorers has passed.” It didn’t have to be, and some of that generation, including Cernan (and Walt Cunningham), didn’t help.

Thiel Versus Sessions

They’re battling over the future of NASA.

Thiel is pushing for a 21st-century space policy. Sessions represents the past, Apolloism, space socialism, and pork. He should stick to being AG.

[Update a few minutes later]

[Update a few more minutes later]

Not sure what “commercial space trade association” Tim Fernholz thinks that Alan Stern leads.

[Update a few more minutes later]

Tim pointed out to me that he’s chairman of the board of CSF, which I hadn’t known, or had forgotten. But I pointed out to him that Eric Stallmer is really the person who “leads” it, which he agreed was fair.

More on this topic from Eric Berger.

[Update a while later]

Not exactly space related, but sort of, in the sense that indefinite lifespan will help with opening the universe, an interesting description of what else Thiel is up to.

Make NASA Great Again

My thoughts on the passing of John Glenn, over at National Review.

[Update a while later]

Buzz Aldrin remembers his former colleague.

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Dear President Trump, here’s how to make space great:

This list of goals sounds audacious, perhaps outrageous, but it is entirely within the capability and character of the people who built the Transcontinental Railroad, the Hoover Dam, and conquered a continent. Americans are leaders in every one of these fields. It is only necessary for the new President to unleash America’s potential—once unleashed, American innovators will move these dreams toward reality faster than anyone can imagine.

Asteroid mining, moon mining, propellant depots, solar-power satellites, asteroid deflection? Crazy talk, when instead we could be building a giant rocket.

I had dinner with Coyote in Seattle last June.

[Update early afternoon]

Bill Gates’s and America’s false memory of Apollo:

So whether you agree with Bill Gates and his assessment of Trump or not, it’s important to remember that funding for the Apollo program was opposed by the majority of Americans. Why then does America have this bizarre memory of the program? You can blame the baby boomers like Gates.

The baby boomers were kids during the Apollo space program. And when you’re a kid you don’t have much to worry about in the way of paying the bills or public policy. You certainly don’t have fully formed political ideas about, say, ways that government funds can be better used than blasting people into space.

But that was precisely what happened. Baby boomers, as children of the 1960s, just remember the speeches on TV and watching the moon landing. They don’t remember that the majority of Americans (American adults, as those are the people who get polled) thought that the Apollo space program was a waste of money.

Roger Launius, chief historian at NASA, put it best in a 2005 paper: “While there may be many myths about Apollo and spaceflight, the principal one is the story of a resolute nation moving outward into the unknown beyond Earth.”

This is why, as I wrote a few months ago:

Because they view Apollo as the model for how large space programs should operate, and because they believe that Apollo represented a moment of national unity, they seem to think that we ought to recreate it.

In a sense, however, a critical reason that we cannot do what they want is because we never really did it the first time.

Stop trying to make Apollo happen again.

The Abandoned Frontier

Mark Steyn reflects on the passing of John Glenn. I don’t agree entirely, and I think he misses some key points, one of which was that Apollo was a battle in the Cold War that didn’t have much to do with space. With regard to Charlton, anyone who thinks we’re in technological decline, and unable to do great things any more hasn’t been paying attention to what’s been happening in microelectronics, microbiology, and yes, spaceflight. I’d suggest that Mark read my recent essay on the need to get over Apolloism.

[Update a while later]

Henry Vanderbilt weighs in over at Arocket:

Apollo was amazing, yes. But it did things the brute-force, massively-expensive way. Just look at the size of a Saturn 5 ready for liftoff, versus how much came back. Multiply that by the size of the payroll for the hundreds of thousands building and operating it, spread over a handful of missions a year. That’s a lot of expensive aerospace talent and hardware spent on every mission – billions worth.

Of course, they had no choice but to do it that way. They had an urgent national goal, a tight deadline, an effectively unlimited budget – and a 1962 technology base. One example: The computer that flew a Saturn 5 weighed as much as a small car – and was less powerful than the chips we put in toasters.

Two things happened after Apollo, one immediately bad, one eventually good.

The bad thing is that in the seventies, bureaucrats took over, and did what bureaucrats do: They carved into stone doing things the Apollo way. Shuttle resulted: gorgeous, yes, but only somewhat less expendable and slightly less labor-intensive than Saturn 5. And, alas, somewhat more fragile.

For decades this bureaucracy defended their billions-per-mission turf and defeated all efforts to do things less expensively. (In fact it’s still trying, with a MANY-billions-per-mission bastard offspring of Shuttle and Saturn 5 called “Space Launch System”.)

But the other thing that happened is, back in the eighties a few of us saw this bureaucratic logjam forming, and looked into whether space really had to cost billions per mission. We concluded it didn’t. We began pushing the different approaches it’d take to get costs down to where all the useful things we might do in space begin to be affordable.

It took a lot longer than we hoped getting into this. But thirty years later, commercial space companies are doing things at a tenth of traditional NASA costs. And that’s even before the really radical new technologies kick in, like the reusable flyback boosters just entering test in the last couple of years.

I won’t defend the wasted decades. (It wasn’t us wasting them, though at a number of points we could have been less naive about how ruthlessly the bureaucrats would defend their turf.)

But at this point, despair over the wasted decades is obsolete. Costs are coming down fast, huge possibilities are opening up. We could still blow it, yes. But compared to even just five or ten years ago, right now the future’s so bright I gotta wear shades.

Henry Vanderbilt
Space Access Society
(founded in 1992 with the intent of being no longer needed and disposed of in five years. yeah well.)

As I said on the Space Show the other week, the future for human spaceflight has never been more exciting.

John Glenn

Farewell to a war hero, and hero of the early space age. The last of the Mercury Seven has gone to the stars. In the interest of de mortuis nil nisi bonum, I’ll ignore his political career for now.

[Update Friday morning]

One of John Glenn’s last acts was to praise reusable rockets.

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[Update late morning]

NASA’s Mars “Plan”

Anatoly Zak has a report on Gerstenmeier’s recent announcement.

I’d say it’s more a delusional long-term vision than a plan. As I quoted Dale Skran in my anti-Apolloist screed from last summer:

…the NRC report is based on the unstated assumption that over the entire period considered, all the way out to 2054, there will be essentially no progress in rocketry other than that funded by NASA exploration programs, and that for the entire period the SLS as currently envisioned will remain the preferred method for Americans to reach space. It is difficult to imagine a more unlikely foundation for the planning of future space efforts than this. [Emphasis added]

And yet NASA continues to do so, because it has no choice, because Congress refuses to let it do it sensibly.

They are proposing a 20+ year plan. As I’ve noted in the past, even Mao never tried for more than five. Think back to 1996. Who would have predicted that, twenty years later, we’d have Internet billionaires building and flying vertical reusable launch systems? Or plans for private space facilities? Or the beginning of assembly of large structures in space? The notion that any plan for human exploration of the solar system that NASA has will survive contact with technical and budgetary reality of the next twenty years is ludicrous. But Apolloism marches on.