Category Archives: Space

Zubrin Festival

Here’s that interview with Bob Zubrin that Linda Seebach told me about yesterday.

And speaking of Dr. Zubrin, he sent me a review copy of his new science fiction novel, The Holy Land, a few weeks ago that I read and enjoyed at the time, but didn’t get around to formally reviewing. I was reminded of this by a review of it at NRO yesterday by Adam Keiper.

I have to confess that I was surprised by it, because I’d previously had no idea that Bob wrote fiction. If this is his first attempt, it makes it all the more impressive.

Everyone calls it a satire, but it’s not really, or it’s more than that. Monty Python’s The Life Of Brian was a satire of the modern Middle East (among other things), but this book is allegory, which has a long tradition of being a pointed way of illuminating issues to which we may be too close to have the proper perspective.

I found the parallels striking (though I naturally would, because I shared Bob’s apparent views on the Middle East situation prior to reading it–I’d be interested in reading a review by someone whose mind was changed by the book to see how truly effective they are), but I don’t really have anything to say about the nature or quality of the satiric parallels that Mr. Keiper didn’t already–you should go read his review. I’d like instead to point out something that I’ve seen no other reviewer do.

While the political points are sharp, one can completely ignore them and still enjoy the book, because it actually is a good story in itself. It’s yet another retelling of Romeo and Juliet (though it’s hardly love at first sight), except it has a happy ending.

Let us hope that the tragic situation that it spoofs ultimately does as well, as unlikely as that may sometimes seem, given the ancient hatreds and irrationalities that still seem to prevail there.

Mission To Nowhere?

Speaking of blindered and dyspectic views on space, the usually-smart Anne Applebaum disappoints with this WaPo editorial.

Mars, as a certain pop star once put it, isn’t the kind of place where you’d want to raise your kids. Nor is it the kind of place anybody is ever going to visit, as some of the NASA scientists know perfectly well. Even leaving aside the cold, the lack of atmosphere and the absence of water, there’s the deadly radiation. If the average person on Earth absorbs about 350 millirems of radiation every year, an astronaut traveling to Mars would absorb about 130,000 millirems of a particularly virulent form of radiation that would probably destroy every cell in his body. “Space is not ‘Star Trek,’ ” said one NASA scientist, “but the public certainly doesn’t understand that…”

…Too often, rational descriptions of the inhuman, even anti-human living conditions in space give way to public hints that more manned space travel is just around the corner, that a manned Mars mission is next, that there is some grand philosophical reason to keep sending human beings away from the only planet where human life is possible….

Right, and the Arctic isn’t the kind of place where you’d want to raise your kids. Nor is it the kind of place anybody is ever going to visit. Even leaving aside the cold, and sparseness of plants, there are the deadly polar bears. If the average person in temperate climates has to contend with wolves, an Arcticnaut traveling to that hostile clime would risk storms that might drown him in the frigid waters, or expose him to sharks.

No, space is not Star Trek, Anne, but it is an environment that is conquerable, and people exist who wish to conquer it. It’s only a matter of technology levels. African bushmen wouldn’t survive high latitudes, but the Inuit figured it out. Radiation can be shielded against. It’s very costly to do so now, given the high launch costs, but that’s a problem that’s solveable.

Earth may today be the only planet where human life is possible, but before we developed the right clothing and weapons, tropical climates were the only region of earth where human life was possible. This is not a persuasive argument for confining ourselves to a single planet, any more than it would have been to do so to a single continent.

Crowded out of the news this week was the small fact that the troubled international space station, which is itself accessible only by the troubled space shuttle, has sprung a leak.

Meaning what? That it’s therefore impossible to send people into space? There are two errors here. First, she makes the mistake that many do in believing that it can’t be done any better or cheaper than NASA does it. But even if the station springs the occasional leak, so what? So did whaling ships. It didn’t stop them from whaling–they had pumps and repair techniques. Space vehicles will be the same.

It’s interesting in the way that the exploration of the bottom of the Pacific Ocean is interesting, or important in the way that the study of obscure dead languages is important. Like space exploration, these are inspiring human pursuits. Like space exploration, they nevertheless have very few practical applications.

But space exploration isn’t treated the way other purely academic pursuits are treated. For one, the scientists doing it have perverse incentives. Their most dangerous missions — the ones involving human beings — produce the fewest research results, yet receive the most attention, applause and funding. Their most productive missions — the ones involving robots — inspire interest largely because the public illogically believes they will lead to more manned space travel.

This is simply untrue. Manned missions return much more science than robotic missions, at least when it comes to planetary exploration. We got much more science from Apollo than from all of the other lunar probes combined. The problem is that it costs a lot more money to send people (at least the way we’ve done it to date), not that they return less science.

And of course, she falls into the other trap of assuming that the only reason to send people or robots into space is for science, ignoring the potential for new resources, planet protection, and most importantly, new environments for the expansion of human freedom.

I can agree that it may not be a worthwhile expenditure of taxpayer funds to send people to other planets right now, or into space at all, but the notion that it has no value to anyone is utter nonsense. We will explore and settle space, because there are many people who wish to do so, and the means to do so are growing rapidly as technology advances and wealth increases. The issue is not if, but how and how soon, and with whose money.

[Update]

Mark Whittington has fisked this piece as well.

[Another update]

Linda Seebach (editorial writer for the Rocky Mountain News) points out via email that the Applebaum piece is an opinion column, not a WaPo editorial. She’s correct, of course.

She also says that she’ll have an interview with Bob Zubrin up tomorrow–I’ll post a link when it happens.

More Year-End Space Reviews

Fresh from a tour in the belly of the space beast, Laughing Wolf describes the sad state of NASA at the end of 2003, and offers hope for the future similar to mine.

Clark Lindsey has some good roundups as well.

[Update at 4 PM Central Time (I’m still in Columbia, MO)]

My New Years Fox column is up. As some may have guessed, it’s a reprise of this post. I should issue a correction, since my editor is probably out partying by now and won’t be fixing it any time soon (it’s my fault, not hers–she ran it as submitted, instead of correct). I say that Lockheed is the only remaining provider of large commercial expendable launchers. That should have read, of course, the only domestic one. There are others, in Europe, China and Russia.

A Vision, Not A Destination

Jason Bates has an article on the current state of space policy development. As usual, it shows a space policy establishment mired in old Cold-War myths, blinkered in its view of the possibilities.

NASA needs a vision that includes a specific destination. That much a panel of space advocates who gathered in Washington today to celebrate the 100th anniversary of powered flight could agree on. There is less consensus about what that destination should be.

Well, if I’d been on that panel, the agreement would have been less than unanimous. I agree that NASA needs a vision, but I think that the focus on destination is distracting us from developing one, if for no other reason than it’s probably not going to be possible to get agreement on it.

As the article clearly shows, some, like Paul Spudis, think we should go back to the moon, and others, like Bub Zubrin, will settle for no less than Mars, and consider our sister orb a useless distraction from the true (in his mind) goal. We are never going to resolve this fundamental, irreconciliable difference, as long as the argument is about destinations.

In addition, we need to change the language in which we discuss such things. Dr. Spudis is quoted as saying:

“? For the first time in the agency?s history there is no new human spaceflight mission in the pipeline. There is nothing beyond” the international space station.”

Fred Singer of NOAA says:

The effort will prepare humans for more ambitious missions in the future, Singer said. “We need an overarching goal,” he said. “We need something with unique science content, not a publicity stunt.”

Gary Martin, NASA’s space architect declares:

NASA?s new strategy would use Mars, for example, as the first step to future missions rather than as a destination in itself, Martin said. Robotic explorers will be trailblazers that can lay the groundwork for deeper space exploration, he said.

“…human spaceflight mission…”

“…unique science…”

“…space exploration…”

This is the language of yesteryear. This debate could have occurred, and in fact did occur, in the early 1970s, as Apollo wound down. There’s nothing new here, and no reason to think that the output from it will result in affordable or sustainable space activities.

They say that we need a vision with a destination, but it’s clear from this window into the process that, to them, the destination is the vision. It’s not about why are we doing it (that’s taken as a given–for “science” and “exploration”), nor is it about how we’re doing it (e.g., giving NASA multi-gigabucks for a “mission” versus putting incentives into place for other agencies or private entities to do whatever “it” is)–it’s all seemingly about the narrow topic of where we’ll send NASA next with our billions of taxpayer dollars, as the scientists gather data while we sit at home and watch on teevee.

On the other hand, unlike the people quoted in the article, the science writer Timothy Ferris is starting to get it, as is Sir Martin Rees, the British Astronomer Royal, though both individuals are motivated foremost by space science.

At first glance, the Ferris op-ed seems just another plea for a return to the moon, but it goes beyond “missions” and science, and discusses the possibility of practical returns from such a venture. Moreover, this little paragraph indicates a little more “vision,” than the one from the usual suspects above:

As such sugarplum visions of potential profits suggest, the long-term success of a lunar habitation will depend on the involvement of private enterprise, or what Harrison H. Schmitt, an Apollo astronaut, calls “a business-and-investor-based approach to a return to the Moon to stay.” The important thing about involving entrepreneurs and oil-rig-grade roughnecks is that they can take personal and financial risks that are unacceptable, as a matter of national pride, when all the explorers are astronauts wearing national flags on their sleeves.

One reason aviation progressed so rapidly, going from the Wright brothers to supersonic jets in only 44 years, is that individuals got involved ? it wasn’t just governments. Charles A. Lindbergh didn’t risk his neck in 1927 purely for personal gratification: he was after the $25,000 Orteig Prize, offered by Raymond Orteig, a New York hotelier, for the first nonstop flight between New York and Paris. Had Lindbergh failed, his demise, though tragic, would have been viewed as a daredevil’s acknowledged jeopardy, not a national catastrophe. Settling the Moon or Mars may at times mean taking greater risks than the 2 percent fatality rate that shuttle astronauts now face.

Sir Martin’s comments are similar:

The American public’s reaction to the shuttle’s safety record – two disasters in 113 flights – suggests that it is unacceptable for tax-funded projects to expose civilians even to a 2% risk. The first explorers venturing towards Mars would confront, and would surely willingly accept, far higher risks than this. But they will never get the chance to go until costs come down to the level when the enterprise could be bankrolled by private consortia.

Future expeditions to the moon and beyond will only be politically and financially feasible if they are cut-price ventures, spearheaded by individuals who accept that they may never return. The Columbia disaster should motivate Nasa to set new goals for manned space flight – to collaborate with private groups to develop a more cost-effective and inspiring programme than we’ve had for the past 30 years.

Yes, somehow we’ve got to break out of this national mentality that the loss of astronauts is always unacceptable, or we’ll never make any progress in space. The handwringing and inappropriate mourning of the Columbia astronauts, almost eleven months ago, showed that the nation hasn’t yet grown up when it comes to space. Had we taken such an attitude with aviation, or seafaring, we wouldn’t have an aviation industry today, and in fact, we’d not even have settled the Americas. To venture is to risk, and the first step of a new vision for our nation is the acceptance of that fact. But I think that Mr. Ferris is right–it won’t be possible as long as we continue to send national astronauts on a voyeuristic program of “exploration”–it will have to await the emergence of the private sector, and I don’t see anything in the “vision” discussions that either recognizes this, or is developing policy to help enable and implement it.

There’s really only one way to resolve this disparity of visions, and that’s to come up with a vision that can encompass all of them, and more, because the people who are interested in uses of space beside and beyond “science,” and “exploration,” and “missions,” are apparently still being forced to sit on the sidelines, at least to judge by the Space.com article.

Here’s my vision.

I have a vision of hundreds of flights of privately-operated vehicles going to and from low earth orbit every year, reducing the costs of doing so to tens of dollars per pound. Much of their cargo is people who are visiting orbital resorts, or even cruise ships around the moon, but the important things is that it will be people paying to deliver cargo, or themselves, to space, for their own purposes, regardless of what NASA’s “vision” is.

At that price, the Mars Society can raise the money (perhaps jointly with the National Geographic Society and the Planetary Society) to send their own expedition off to Mars. Dr. Spudis and others of like mind can raise the funds to establish lunar bases, or even hotels, and start to learn how to operate there and start tapping its resources. Still others may decide to go off and visit an asteroid, perhaps even take a contract from the government to divert its path, should it be a dangerous one for earthly inhabitants.

My vision for space is a vast array of people doing things there, for a variety of reasons far beyond science and “exploration.” The barrier to this is the cost of access, and the barrier to bringing down the cost of access is not, despite pronouncements to the contrary by government officials, a lack of technology. It’s a lack of activity. When we come up with a space policy that addresses that, I’ll consider it visionary. Until then, it’s just more of the same myopia that got us into the current mess, and sending a few astronauts off to the Moon, or Mars, for billions of dollars, isn’t going to get us out of it any more than does three astronauts circling the earth in a multi-decabillion space station.

There’s no lack of destinations. What we continue to lack is true vision.

[Monday evening update]

As is often the case, Mark Whittington utterly misstates my position, which is clarified in the comments section. Also as usual, I don’t mind that much, because most people can figure that out on their own, and links are links.

More History

As not totally unexpected, to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the Wrights’ first flight, SpaceShipOne lit its hybrid rocket engine in flight for the first time and busted the mythical sound barrier today. A friend of mine, Brian Binnie, was the pilot, and I’m glad to see that he’s finally getting a chance to fly a rocketplane.

It’s a significant event, though it would have been better had they been able to go into space. It will be interesting to see if mainstream media picks up on it.

[Update before bed]

CBS covered it, but there was no tie-in to the Wright anniversary, and much focus on the landing-gear problem.

Lessons Learned

There’s an old aphorism that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Unfortunately, there’s another, related one, to the effect that the main thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history.

To digress for just a moment, scientists and engineers, and rationalists in general, try to expand their knowledge about the world by formulating theories, performing experiments to test them, gathering data, and drawing conclusions about them. But such experiments have to be controlled–that is, they have to be structured in such a way as to allow a focus on a single aspect of it. If one gets different results from different cases, but there are multiple factors involved, there’s no way to tell which factor caused the difference, and the experiment isn’t particularly useful.

This is what makes history so problematic for such people–it’s not possible to do controlled experiments. All that we can do is dig through the entrails of events, capture what we think (and being human, often hope) were the most significant aspects of them, try to draw conclusions about why they occurred from those aspects, and then attempt (often in vain) to make predictions about the effects of future events. But we can never know for sure which factors were the most important ones, because they can’t be tested in isolation–with history, what you see is what you get, and there’s no rewind button.

Those who make and pontificate about space policy are largely such people, so it’s all the more frustrating to them that it’s so difficult to come to a consensus on what’s worked in the past, and what will work in the future. Sadly, absent a large body of data, it’s actually very hard to learn from history, a fact that’s demonstrated by this article, in which, in the face of turbulent times in space policy, a number of disparate viewpoints are offered about NASA’s future direction. Some of those viewpoints are ones that I’ve expressed in this space, and others, for many years.

The disparity of viewpoints arises from two sources, that often get intermingled. The first, and a point that I’ve made repeatedly, both here and in other fora, is that it’s difficult to get a consensus on means when we can’t even agree on ends. Not all of the people quoted in the article desire the same thing from a space program, so it’s not surprising that it’s hard to get agreement from them on how to go about getting it.

The second source of dispute is that, even if two people agree on an end goal (e.g., large-scale space colonization), it’s not at all clear what the best government policy might be to achieve that goal, because of the scant historical basis for past successes (and because of the first factor, it’s difficult to even get agreement on what constitutes a success).

Everyone views history through the lens of his or her own experience and prejudices. William Hartmann, quoted in the article, is a scientist. He is also, apparently, knowingly or otherwise, a transnationalist.

Hartmann thinks international governmental cooperation is the best way to get humans to the Moon or Mars. Eventually, if a proper framework can be set, commercialization could and should blossom, Hartmann figures…

…Hartmann, whose latest book is “A Traveler’s Guide to Mars” (Workman Publishing Company, 2003), worries whether any possible new Bush directive on human spaceflight would serve long-term global interests, however.

“Do we want to hand over this unique moment and all those resources to a bunch of deregulated CEO’s with their short-term, self-serving accountant mentality?” asks Hartmann. “Or can we design a strategy that fosters a better global payoff for our grandchildren?”

He believes that the primary, if not sole, purpose of having a space program is for science (though he’s apparently willing to allow some exploitation of resources, as long as it’s done under the auspices of some appropriate international bureaucracy). He also believes that doing such a program internationally is not just a good idea because we can share the expense of such an endeavor, but because international programs are somehow more noble, and higher of purpose than national ones. He doesn’t want to sully the pristine, untrammeled scientific preserve of space with the greed of unbridled capitalism.

For him, the lesson of history is that we once had a space program that was paid for by all the people, and that it sent men to the moon “in peace, for all mankind.” Somehow, we lost that noble spirit, and frittered away all of our capability to even repeat it, let alone go on to the next unexplored world. It was a failure of political leadership, because the president that launched us on such a grand adventure was assassinated. Now, he can only hope for another president of such vision.

But such a lesson is a mistaken one, for a number of reasons. The first, of course, is that, as I’ve noted before, the legend of the visionary space president isn’t true. JFK pursued Apollo for temporary political reasons, and for him, it wasn’t a space program–it was a national security and propaganda program. Were space, or science, the point, we wouldn’t have waited until the last flight before we sent an actual scientist to the moon (and it should be noted that, on this coming Sunday, it will be the thirty-one years since man last walked on our sister orb).

But the second reason is that, even if it were true, it would have been an anomalous event, not a normal one. Historically, governments rarely expend vast amounts of national resources on exploration for exploration’s sake, or for science. Isabella didn’t pay for Columbus’ voyages out of intellectual curiousity–she was seeking better trade routes for known riches.

As much as Dr. Hartmann disdains it, abundant evidence from history should teach him that greed is one of the primary human motivators, the other being fear. Apollo was an example of the latter. Only when we stop living in a past that never was, and embrace and harness the former, will we start to truly make the new frontier a significant part of human history and make true exploration of the cosmos affordable and sustainable. Let us hope that, to the degree that the Bush administration is reconsidering space policy now, it understands that lesson as well.

Alternate Universe

Robert Roy Britt has an interesting roundup of opinions about the future of human spaceflight, including some envisioning such a future without NASA, and some that yours truly has espoused once or twice in the past.

William Hartmann remains firmly mired in the past, however.

“This is naive and wrong-headed,” says author and artist William K. Hartmann, also a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona.

Hartmann thinks international governmental cooperation is the best way to get humans to the Moon or Mars. Eventually, if a proper framework can be set, commercialization could and should blossom, Hartmann figures…

…Hartmann, whose latest book is “A Traveler’s Guide to Mars” (Workman Publishing Company, 2003), worries whether any possible new Bush directive on human spaceflight would serve long-term global interests, however.

“Do we want to hand over this unique moment and all those resources to a bunch of deregulated CEO’s with their short-term, self-serving accountant mentality?” asks Hartmann. “Or can we design a strategy that fosters a better global payoff for our grandchildren?”

Newsflash, Dr. Hartmann. CEOs with short-term, self-serving accountant mentalities don’t put their own personal fortunes into developing reusable tourist vehicles. This is exactly what has to happen to foster a global payoff for our grandchildren. The “give NASA billions of dollars and hope for the best” approach has been an unmitigated failure.

Goodnight, Moon

Gregg Easterbrook gets it half right, sort of, which is usually the case when he pontificates about space policy.

Once again, he uses Shuttle as the exemplar of launch costs to argue that we can’t afford a lunar base. In addition, his numbers are simply pulled out of the air, or perhaps some danker, less sanitary location–I don’t want to know…

He also remains hung up on science as the raison d’etre of doing such things, and assumes that the ISS is representative of what a space station should or could cost, which is just as absurd as using Shuttle costs for the estimates.

Now, I’m not a big proponent of sending NASA off to build a moon base, but if one is going to argue against it, it should be done for sound policy reasons, not financial handwaving.

He finishes up with one final flawed argument:

A Moon base would actually be an impediment to any Mars mission, as stopping at the Moon would require the mission to expend huge amounts of fuel to land and take off but otherwise accomplish nothing, unless the master plan was to carry rocks to Mars.

This misses the point. The purpose of doing a lunar base is to learn how to do planetary bases in general, in a location that’s only two or three days from earth if something goes wrong, not to provide a way station on the way to Mars. And of course, it’s possible that we might be able to generate propellant on the moon. If that’s the case, and it can be done for less cost than lifting it from earth, then the moon may indeed be a useful staging base for deep-space missions.

I do agree with his last graf, though, as far as it goes.

NASA doesn’t need a grand ambition, it needs a cheap, reliable means of getting back and forth to low-Earth orbit. Here’s a twenty-first century vision for NASA: Cancel the shuttle, mothball the does-nothing space station, and use all the budget money the two would have consumed to develop an affordable means of space flight. Then we can talk about the Moon and Mars.

My only quibble is that this should not be interpreted as giving NASA the money to develop the affordable means of space flight. That will simply result in another attempt at another single monoculture vehicle that will leave us no better off than Shuttle. It should be given to people who have the motivation and organization to do so, probably via prizes or other forms of market guarantees.

[Via Tyler Cowen]

A “Bold New Vision” for NASA

The new edition of The New Atlantis is out, and editor Adam Keiper has what he says is a “bold new vision” for the nation’s space agency. He wants to go to Mars or, to be more accurate, he wants NASA to send a few people to Mars while we stay home and watch.

Yawn…

Not that Mars is boring, but the notion that this is a bold new vision is kind of silly. It’s a vision, and a flawed one, as old as the space program itself.

It’s a long piece, and has some good history of the space program, but it also contains a lot of conventional wisdom.

Space tourism is often put forward as a viable industry, although no one has yet convincingly made a case that explains the economics of how it would work. Two tourists have already been in space: American Dennis Tito in 2001 and South African Mark Shuttleworth in 2002 each paid $20 million for a stay on the International Space Station. Some companies claim to have data that show that a vast percentage of the population would pay to go to space, and some studies have estimated that the market for space tourism might reach as high as $20 billion in the coming decades. But it just isn’t clear how space tourism will transition from the exploits of a few adventurous millionaires into an industry with any hope of making profits.

Flashback to the early 1980s:

Video cassette recorders are often put forward as a viable industry, although no one has yet convincingly made a case that explains the economics of how it would work. A few people have already bought them, but they cost thousands of dollars each. Some companies claim to have data that show that a vast percentage of the population would pay to have one, and some studies have estimated that the market for VCRs might reach as high as several billion dollars in the coming decades. But it just isn’t clear how the VCR will transition from the entertainment of a few adventurous millionaires into an industry with any hope of making profits…

A “Bold New Vision” for NASA

The new edition of The New Atlantis is out, and editor Adam Keiper has what he says is a “bold new vision” for the nation’s space agency. He wants to go to Mars or, to be more accurate, he wants NASA to send a few people to Mars while we stay home and watch.

Yawn…

Not that Mars is boring, but the notion that this is a bold new vision is kind of silly. It’s a vision, and a flawed one, as old as the space program itself.

It’s a long piece, and has some good history of the space program, but it also contains a lot of conventional wisdom.

Space tourism is often put forward as a viable industry, although no one has yet convincingly made a case that explains the economics of how it would work. Two tourists have already been in space: American Dennis Tito in 2001 and South African Mark Shuttleworth in 2002 each paid $20 million for a stay on the International Space Station. Some companies claim to have data that show that a vast percentage of the population would pay to go to space, and some studies have estimated that the market for space tourism might reach as high as $20 billion in the coming decades. But it just isn’t clear how space tourism will transition from the exploits of a few adventurous millionaires into an industry with any hope of making profits.

Flashback to the early 1980s:

Video cassette recorders are often put forward as a viable industry, although no one has yet convincingly made a case that explains the economics of how it would work. A few people have already bought them, but they cost thousands of dollars each. Some companies claim to have data that show that a vast percentage of the population would pay to have one, and some studies have estimated that the market for VCRs might reach as high as several billion dollars in the coming decades. But it just isn’t clear how the VCR will transition from the entertainment of a few adventurous millionaires into an industry with any hope of making profits…