All posts by Rand Simberg

The “Right” Stuff

Sorry to burden my gentle readers with Yet Another Space Policy Post, but over at Spaceref, Keith Cowing has a description of NASA’s new criteria for public space travelers, at least those planning to travel to the International Space Station. I find it quite troubling, and hope that my readers will as well.

“ISS crewmembers shall refrain from any use of the position of ISS crewmember that is motivated, or has the appearance of being motivated, by private gain, including financial gain, for himself or herself or other persons or entities. Performance of ISS duties shall not be considered to be motivated by private gain. Furthermore, no ISS crewmember shall use the position of ISS crewmember in any way to coerce, or give the appearance of coercing, another person to provide any financial benefit to himself or herself or other persons or entities.”

As Keith points out, this could have a potentially chilling effect on any commercial activities aboard the station. Can’t have any of that free enterprise stuff up there…

Also, there are some criteria that might be usable for arbitrarily keeping people off the station:

The following list defines some of the factors that would be considered as a basis for disqualification: (a) delinquency or misconduct in prior employment/military service; (b) criminal, dishonest, infamous, or notoriously disgraceful conduct; (c) intentional false statement or fraud in examination or appointment; (d) habitual use of intoxicating beverages to excess; (e) abuse of narcotics, drugs, or other controlled substances;(f) membership or sponsorship in organizations which adversely affect the confidence of the public in the integrity of, or reflecting unfavorably in a public forum on, any ISS Partner, Partner State or Cooperating Agency.”

Well, (b) would certainly exclude Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy, (c) would get Mr. Clinton again, and (d) would exclude Kennedy and a goodly proportion of the Congress.

But as Keith also points out, (f) is the most disturbing. It would, as he says, potentially preclude his being allowed to go. And perhaps me…

Space Is A Place, Not A Program


A reader, who will remain nameless to protect the guilty (unless (s)he tells me that (s)he wants me to expose him or her) writes, presumably in response to some of my recent space policy postings:

I’d like to put my two cents in on how to get moving forward in space. This is probably too long and boring for a comment, but feel free to use it as you wish.

Well, it’s not boring at all, at least to me, and I wish to use it as a typical example of exactly what’s wrong with our thinking about space policy. And to show that, despite the fact that it was emailed to me, the author hasn’t really read what I’ve been writing, or else (equally likely) I’ve been abysmally unsuccessful in making my points. Gee, I’ll bet he/she’s glad that they offered it to me now…

(Also, I hope that this doesn’t discourage anyone from emailing me in future. I actually thank the writer–it’s a good letter in the Limbaughian sense, in that it provides an opportunity to make the host look good…)

I believe that NASA has three legitimate functions:
a. Provide infrastructure for low cost access to low earth orbit
b. Perform research and development of space technologies (propulsion, navigation, life support, reentry, etc.)
c. Utilize space technologies for pure science (planetary exploration, satellite observatories, biomedical research, etc.)

Well, legitimate meaning “legal,” NASA’s legitimate functions are described in its (somewhat vague) charter. It doesn’t include the first item here (even assuming that we could agree on what “infrastructure” means). It could be construed to include the second. It certainly includes the third.

If you mean “legitimate” in some esoteric Constitutional sense, it’s arguable whether the existence of NASA itself is legitimate (a characteristic that it shares with many federal agencies).

Of these three functions, low cost access to low earth orbit is the most important at this time and should receive at least 80% of funding. It’s reasonable and probably unavoidable that the government will have to finance these activities. They are too expensive and too long term for most investors.

While I agree that low-cost access to LEO is important if we want to make any national progress in space, the assumption that NASA can or should make this happen, or that 80% of its funding should go toward that goal are highly questionable.

As to the second statement (like almost all the contents of the email), this is conventional wisdom, and it is utterly wrong. There is nothing intrinsically expensive about space stuff, except in the way that we’ve chosen to do it for forty years. And even if it were, private investments of many billions of dollars are made every yearjust ask Intel, or GM. As to its being long-term return, this is not a barrier either. Weyerhauser plants trees that won’t provide timber for many years, even decades. Oil companies fund and build pipelines that may be half a decade or more from delivering oil.

No, the only thing keeping necessary private investment out of space right now is perception of the risk, in terms of technical risk, market risk, and most importantly, regulatory risk.

It seems to me that there are at least three approaches to reaching low earth orbit that NASA should examine:

And when you say “approaches,” you mean, of course, technical approaches. You believe that the dominant risk is technical, and that if we can just come up with the “right” kind of technical solution, and have NASA build it, we can reduce costs. OK, I’ll play along.

a. Conventional rockets optimized for low cost, not man rated. This would include the Shuttle Derived Heavy Lift Vehicle and could also include advanced designs that rely only on chemical rocket engines (e.g. aerospike and X-33 type engines). These can provide a short term solution that should be able to reduce the cost to orbit by a factor of 10 and that can be fielded in 5 to 10 years (the Shuttle Derived system could probably fly in 2 to 3 years).

There’s little reason to think that this approach would reduce costs by that much, unless the market increases dramatically. And if the market increases dramatically, even existing rockets (certainly Russian and Chinese ones, but probably EELV) will do it. But if it only reduced costs by a factor of ten, it wouldn’t be worth the investment, because it almost certainly wouldn’t expand the market much–it’s relatively inelastic in that range.

b. Systems that use aerodynamic lift and are man rated.

I’m going to stop right here and make the point that there’s not really any such thing as “man rated.” It’s an oxymoron when talking about reusable launch systems (which I assume that you are). “Man rating” is a concept that NASA came up with in the 1960s to describe how materials, quality control and design would be modified to allow us to have some vague comfort level in putting a human on top of munitions (i.e., ICBM’s). It was deemed necessary to take measures to get the missile as reliable as possible, since the payload was very valuable–even priceless.

For reusable launch systems (I prefer the apellation “space transports”) it’s a meaningless concept. The vehicles themselves will be of such high value that adding people in the mix will make no difference in designed reliability. There’s no such thing as a “man-rated” airplane, and similarly there will be no such creature as a man-rated space transport.

This would include revisiting failed approaches such as NASP and X-33 and scaling up systems like Pegasus. More likely, this approach could yield a solution similar to the original, fully reusable shuttle concept. These systems would deliver modest payloads, be fully reusable, and have rapid turnaround. Target should be at least one flight per month per vehicle, preferably more frequent.


ONE FLIGHT PER MONTH (he repeated in stunned disbelief)??!!

If we are only going to get one flight per month, any moneys expended on a new system may as well be flushed down the toilet, or, equivalently, spent on some other new government program.

Any launch system that doesn’t fly multiple times per week is not worth building–it will not reduce costs significantly below what we are currently paying.

The long pole for this system is reusable rocket engines.

Actually, that is not the long pole, at least if you study Shuttle turnaround timelines. But those are probably not relevant to a modern space transport.

Hopefully we’ve learned enough from the Shuttle to design reliable, reusable engines.

I don’t know about that. We’ve probably learned quite a bit about how not to design them. What we’ve primarily learned from the Shuttle (or at least what we should have learned) is that NASA should never, EVER again be put in charge of developing an operational space transport.

The aero-lift system should reduce the cost of delivering astronauts to orbit by 10 to 100 fold and could probably be fielded in 10 to 20 years.

There is no reason to suppose that aero-lift will help the problem (nor that it won’t) and all of the numbers provided here are purely guess work, and certainly not adequate to use as a basis for policy decisions.

c. Limited skyhook system. I read an article at least 20 years ago in AIAA Journal (sorry I don’t have the citation) that proposed a low orbit space station with a long cable and winch. At the end of the winch is a docking module. Vehicles would launch from Earth in a suborbital elipse and rendevous at the apex of their trajectory with the docking module. Once docked, the vehicle would be simply winched up to the space station. This process would lower the orbit of the space
station slightly, but either rail gun or ion thrusters could return the station to its desired orbit. Winching satellites away from Earth could easily provide the force to insert the vehicles into transfer orbits to geosynchronous orbit, the moon, or beyond. The beauty of this system is that it opens space to a wide array of commercial vehicles that are feasible today and that it reduces costs by many orders of magnitude. This is a long term project that will probably take more than 25 years, but also offers the best alternative for low cost access to space.

Skyhooks are neat. Sometime, in the future, when it’s clear that there is adequate market for millions of pounds up and down, and the technology matures, someone will put forth the money and build one.

But for the purposes of this discussion, skyhooks are also irrelevant.

As is any discussion about: whether the vehicle has wings or not; uses scramjets or rockets; uses hydrogen or kerosene or propane or methane for fuel, uses vertical or horizontal takeoff or landing; has one, two or twenty stages; breathes air or pixie dust, hypersonically, or otherwise, etc. These are all theological issues, and they will not be resolved by posts on the web, or emailed opinions, or even extensive analyses by government contractors.

There are many ways to lower the cost of launch, but none of them will succeed unless they are funded, and funded in such a way that the goal of reducing launch costs is important (as opposed to the goal of simply feeding funding to NASA and its contractors). No one knows for sure what the launch system should look like.

That is a question that will only be resolved by the marketplace–a marketplace that, to first order, does not currently exist. If the federal government wants to make a contribution to space transportation, it will remove the barriers to space commerce, which are mentioned above. The market is uncertain, and the regulatory environment is frightening. In addition, we have been inured, for over forty years, to the bizarre notion that space transportation is unbelievably expensive, and something that is only in the realm of government, so investors will enter only at extreme peril. In the face of this reality, figuring what the launch vehicle should look like is like figuring out where the deck chairs should be located on the Titanic.

NASA’s legitimate objective should be to develop the technologies to make space flight routine and inexpensive. In effect, I’d like to see NASA act like the government agencies that built and maintained canals and locks to facilitate trade.

The history of government subsidization of particular modes of transportation is not as beneficent as your historical analogy implies. Whenever the government sticks its nose into the transportation business, some other transportation business suffers. Canals were nice, but it isn’t clear that they were the best way to move freight and people in the late 18th century. Government-subsidized railroads opened up the west, but they drove the canals out of business, perhaps before their time. The federal highway system destroyed much of the cargo, and most of the passenger rail system, perhaps at the cost of economic and energy efficiency. Bob Poole, founder of the Reason Foundation, has published numerous articles and papers on this subject.

To the degree that the government should play a role here (and it’s not at all clear that NASA should even continue to exist, let alone develop launch systems), it will be to clarify the regulatory situation, and to help provide a market for space transportation. A real market, not a few people to space station a few times a year. The precedent for this is the airmail subsidy in the 1930s that helped develop the modern aviation industry. Hang a big enough carrot out there, and let the providers figure out what the vehicle should look like.

Why should the government do such a thing? Because it’s in our national security interest to do so. We just won a major phase of the war against terrorism because we had assets in space. Without them, we would have been unable to deliver ordinance precisely. The enemy would have escaped much of the devastation (or it would have cost us much more, in money and lives to provide it) and many more civilians would have been killed, and their property destroyed. Had the enemy had the capacity to eliminate our space-based assets, he surely would have done so.

We dominate space, in the sense that no other country has as much power as we do there, but we do not control it. Had someone launched a missile to take out our satellites, there’s nothing we could have done to prevent it. Nor could we have replaced it quickly. A robust space transportation infrastructure would solve this problem, but the most efficient way to accomplish this is through the private sector, satisfying market needs. The space policy challenge is not in figuring out what a vehicle should look like, or coming up with technologies to build it, but in putting in place the proper institutional incentives to develop such an industry and infrastructure, to make us a truly space-faring nation.

As the Space Frontier Society says, “space is a place, not a program.” We need to think about it in exactly the same way that we think about land, sea and air. We don’t have a national Truck program. We don’t have a national Ship program. We don’t have a national Airplane program. It is just as nonsensical to have a national Launch Vehicle program.

I hope that everyone who has persevered to the end of this post will now understand that I am interested, even eager, to receive input as to how to solve this fundamental policy problem. I also hope that they understand that any comments, or emails, with ideas about what the next “national launch vehicle” should look like will be deleted with extreme prejudice.

Why This Blog Bores People About Space Stuff

As a follow up to today’s rant over our “allies” in Europe, over at USS Clueless, Steven den Beste has an excellent disquisition on the fundamental differences between Europe and the U.S. They don’t, and cannot, understand that the U.S. exists and thrives because it is the UnEurope, that it was built by people who left Europe (and other places) because they wanted freedom.

I say this not to offer simply a pale imitation of Steven’s disquisition (which is the best I could do, at least tonight), but to explain why I spend so much time talking about space policy here. It’s not (just) because I’m a space nut, or because I used to do it for a living, and so have some knowledge to disseminate. It’s because it’s important to me, and it should be important to everyone who is concerned about dynamism and liberty.

And the reason that it’s important is because there may be a time in the future, perhaps not even the distant future, when the U.S. will no longer be a haven for those who seek sanctuary from oppressive government. The trends over the past several decades are not always encouraging, and as at least a social insurance policy, we may need a new frontier into which freedom can expand.

Half a millenium ago, Europe discovered a New World. Unfortunately for its inhabitants (who had discovered it previously), the Europeans had superior technology and social structures that allowed them to conquer it.

Now, in the last couple hundred years, we have discovered how vast our universe is, and in the last couple decades, we have discovered how rich in resources it is, given will and technology. As did the eastern seaboard of the present U.S. in the late eighteenth century, it offers mankind a fertile petri dish for new societal arrangements and experiments, and ultimately, an isolated frontier from which we will be able to escape from possible future terrestrial disasters, whether of natural or human origin.

If, as many unfortunately in this country seem to wish, freedom is constricted in the U.S., the last earthly abode of true libertarian principles, it may offer an ultimate safety valve for those of us who wish to continue the dream of the founders of this nation, sans slavery or native Americans–we can found it without the flawed circumstances of 1787.

That is why space, and particularly free-enterprise space, is important.

Getting The Business

Over at Samizdata, Tom Burroughes asks:

Here’s a poser for today – Have any fellow bloggers come across an example on a television drama programme in the UK which has ever portrayed a businessman or woman in straightforwardly good light, with no qualifications, ifs or buts? I haven’t. Check out the average British soap shown mid-evening to see what I am getting at. It is pure negativity towards any activity remotely creative or positive. And of course we soak it up because when coming home from a hard day at the office, factory or wherever, our mental faculties are at their least sharp.

It’s not just the UK. I’ve had a long-standing theory about this, but never taken the time to do the statistical research necessary to validate it. I think that one of the reasons that film and television writers seem to despise capitalism and business is that they themselves work for one of the most vile and cutthroat industries on the planet, and they extrapolate that experience to conclude that all businesses and businesspeople are like the ones for whom they toil. Rarely will you see a realistic story about an industrial concern, because the writers have absolutely no experience or familiarity with such a business.

Think about it. When a business is depicted on television, is there some sort of pattern as to what kind of business it is? I think so. When the kind of business is not crucial to the premise of the show (e.g., LA Law, NYPD Blue), but is merely a backdrop for the stories to play out, they are predominantly businesses that would employ people who write for a living–newspapers, entertainment industry, advertising.

Especially advertising. Cast your mind over sitcoms over the past three decades, in which the work environment plays a key dramatic (or comedic) role, and I suspect that you’ll realize that the protagonists work at ad agencies out of all proportion to the number of people who do so in real life. Examples: Bewitched, Thirty Something, etc. (One notable exception that occurs to me, which was really out of character, was that Fred MacMurray in My Three Sons was an aerospace engineer in Southern California. I still think that’s neat.)

Assuming that this is correct, and not just an impression, I suspect that it’s because television writers, in order to make ends meet between sought-after television or film-writing jobs, work at such places, because there’s much more demand for it, and it engages a similar talent. It’s easier to write what you know, so it’s natural for them to use such businesses as a foil for their comedy and drama. And in conversations that I’ve had with friends and acquaintances in that business (and in the entertainment industry), the common theme is how terrible it is to work in such places, and how scum almost invariably rises to the top. And this isn’t surprising, because firms like that, which are in the very business of creating fiction and image, will value and reward people who are good at that, particularly in selling themselves. And such people, in fact, may not be good at very much else.

In a company that manufactures a physical product, incompetence, lack of realism, and management inability can quickly result in tangible, measurable failure. On the other hand, an entertainment or advertising firm will often promote those who excel at unreality, even if they have no ethics or management capability. So it’s not surprising that such a place can be a terrible place to work. And if television and film writers’ only exposure to the business world is in such businesses, perhaps it’s not surprising that they portray business in such a bad light.

They Should Be Worried

The paper formerly known as the Paper of Record informs us that our “allies” are concerned that we won’t consult them when it comes to continuing the war.

Some choice bits:

The three countries pinpointed by President Bush as an “axis of evil” ? Iran, Iraq and North Korea ? reacted angrily today…

Guess the truth hurts, huh, guys?

…while commentators in many other nations, including European allies, bristled at what they saw as the combative, go-it- alone tone of the State of the Union address.

Bristle away. We took the hit alone. We can deal with it on our own.

If you expect us to take your advice, step one is to offer some that’s sensible. Such a commodity has been in short supply from the Continent in the last few months (not to mention the last few decades).

Over in Russia,

Mr. Rogozin said it appeared that America had forgotten that North Korea had imposed a moratorium on the production of long-range missiles…

No, we haven’t forgotten. We just know that they’re congenital liars, so such an “imposition” is meaningless.

…that Iran had offered assistance to the Bonn conference on the formation of an interim government in Afghanistan…

Would that be the same Iran which, as I type, has special forces in Afghanistan training insurgents to undermine that interim government?

…and that an earlier Washington statement had called for “smart sanctions” against Iraq.

Yes, we’ve finally corralled the idiots at Foggy Bottom who think that sanctions have any useful effect other than giving Saddam an excuse to starve his own people while he builds weapons and palaces.

The problem is, you European elites set entirely too much store by what people say, while ignoring what they actually do. Probably the same reason you thought Bill Clinton was so wonderful (in addition to the fact that he, unlike many of us, loved to smooch your arrogant keisters).

Josef Joffe, a German foreign policy analyst, said: “What was particularly striking is the way Mr. Bush countenances the projection of American power from anywhere to anywhere. He described America in a truly global war able to fight anywhere. There is no allusion to allies at all. But in practical terms, the U.S. cannot fight wars without allies.”

Oh, we have allies. It’s just that they apparently don’t run the governments of Europe. And in fact, if need be, we can do quite well without allies, at least without Euroweenie ones. It will take longer, and cost more, but if you don’t understand that it’s a price that we’re willing to pay, then you don’t understand anything about America.

“We tend to see Sept. 11 in parenthesis, an aberration that is now behind us,” said Fran

What A Difference A Year Makes

Not to mention a new NASA Administrator.

Last year, when Dennis Tito showed up in Houston to train for his flight, the door was almost literally slammed in his face. Mark Shuttleworth (could they have come up with a better name? The irony is that he’ll be going up on a Soyuz) has been welcomed to Johsnson Space Center with open arms.

It sounds like he’s setting a good precedent for public space travel.

All For One And One For All

Fresh from the X-33 debacle, the iron triangle of the aerospace industry is coming up with a plan for a new round of corporate welfare, under the pretense of lowering launch costs.

Now don’t get me wrong–no one wants to lower launch costs more than I do. It’s been a personal crusade for more years than I like to think. My business plans and personal plans rely on it. But if a definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over, expecting different results, then NASA and the Air Force have to be, at this point, certifiable.

The activity to bring NASA and the Air Force together is being led by a group, called the One Team, that is undertaking a four- month RLV assessment. The goal is to devise a program that would build on funding from both government departments and could see first flight of a prototype system around 2007.

“One Team,” eh? 2007, eh? Well, five-year plans are in the best tradition of Lenin, Mao, etc. To heck with this competition nonsense. We don’t need no stinkin’ markets…

But finding a way to combine the civil space and military requirements won’t be easy. Already, analysts assessing the two constituencies’ needs are finding that they don’t coalesce in several areas.

No kidding?

Once upon a time, there was a launch vehicle program. It was supposed to meet NASA’s needs in space, to provide cheap transportation to the space station that they were going to launch once upon another time, and it was to be called the Space Shuttle. And it came to pass that the evil King wouldn’t allot the funding for it unless it received the blessing of the knights of the realm (aka the Air Force). The knights wanted it to not only go into space, but to be able to carry 65,000 lbs. into space, and to have a landing cross range of a thousand miles. And so it grew. Then the various lords of the manor said, “but it must provide jobs for us in the fiefdom of Houston. And Huntsville. And Cape Canaveral.” And the Duke of Rockwell North American said, “but we accepted the blame for the loss of Sir Apollo 1, in the deadly conflagration, the fault for which was rightfully NASA’s, and so it must also provide us jobs in southern California.”

And thus was born a vehicle designed by a committee, and it was good. Except it only flew a half dozen times a year, and cost over half a billion dollars a flight.

Well, there is one hopeful thing about the article. At least they are no longer deluding themselves that a single vehicle can satisfy both NASA and DoD requirements. However, they continue to delude themselves that one vehicle can satisfy DoD, and another one NASA. This is about 90% as foolish as the Shuttle “one-size-fits-all” assumption.

The problem is that we lock ourselves into failure with our assumptions.

The thinking goes something like this. Space vehicle development is very expensive. Therefore, we can only develop one vehicle. Therefore we have to make damn sure that we develop the right vehicle, so we have to do lots of studies, and have lots of government reviews, and make sure that the risk is minimized, and that we don’t lose any vehicles. All this, of course, makes the vehicle very expensive to develop (and operate), and thus is the prophecy fulfilled.

And of course, since both agencies want to do such trivially few activities in space, there is no way to get the costs down, because there are no economies of scale.

But NASA will continue to develop technologies, because when you’re a technology hammer, all problems look like nails–never mind the fact that the problem of launch costs is not a technological one.

If they could take just one percent of the money that they plan to waste^H^H^H^H^Hspend on technology development on market research and analyses to figure out how to generate much larger traffic models, they’d be way ahead of the game.

But that won’t provide jobs in Houston, Huntsville, Cocoa Beach, Canoga Park and Orange County.

Bloviation From Pyongyang

If you’re interested in a view from an alternate universe, you may be interested in news from the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK). When a country has to include both “democratic” and “republic” in its name, it’s a safe bet that it’s neither…

Anyway, there are several amusing articles there, with titles like, U.S. use of biological and chemical weapons assailed, KCNA on U.S. futile attempts, Bush’s projected trip to S. Korea opposed, and Full play to advantages of Korean socialist economic management called for.

Some of the articles are en espanol. Don’t ask why.

They also have an enlightening article about the Dear Leader, called Anecdotes about President Kim Il Sung. It’s a real hoot:

…when the president gave field guidance to Kaesong area on September 14, Juche 61 (1972). He asked officials there what was the special food of the area.

None of them could give a correct answer to the questions repeatedly put by him in the course of the on-the-spot guidance.

While visiting factories in the city he met old men who had lived there for years and found out that loach soup was a special food of the city.

And he made sure that a new restaurant was built there to serve only loach soup to the customers.

Markets? We don’t need no stinkin’ markets! We’ve got a leader.