Category Archives: Space

Martian Game Reserves?

John Carter McKnight recently wrote an article on the rights of Martian lifeforms, should they turn out to exist.

The question arises because, unlike the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, we haven’t yet reached any consensus on a protocol for how to respond if we discover non-intelligent extraterrestrial life, particularly a physical discovery in our own solar system that could be adversely affected by such a discovery (though people are working on one).

While we may not want to go to the extremes of Star Trek’s Prime Directive, which forbids contamination of another culture with technologies that are beyond it, or knowledge of other species on other planets, it can provide a useful starting point for dealing with other sapient beings. We would presumably treat them differently than non-sapient beings, for the same reason that we make a distinction on earth between humans and other animals. The former are moral agents, and the latter are not.

What, then, should be the basis for developing an ethic with respect to unearthly non-sapient beings?

McKnight lists three broad philosophical perspectives.

  • Preservation: the belief that humans should minimize their actions in nature. (The Prime Directive is one example of this)
  • Stewardship: a human-centered, utilitarian approach. Stewardship sees humans as the only moral objects, with nature as resources and objects rather than as moral agents with their own rights. Such a view is often biblically based.
  • Intrinsic Worth: the notion that humans are not the only creatures with rights and moral standing–that others are equal to humans in the eyes of moral law.

Our current terrestrial environmental policies (at least in the United States) are based on a combination of preservation and stewardship. The Endangered Species Act is an example of the former, while the federal policies for logging and ranching are of the latter. The policy has to maintain a balance between these conflicting views, and the current debate about how much forest thinning to allow, in order to prevent devastating wildfires, is an excellent example of the continual tension between them.

Intrinsic worth doesn’t inform much public policy, but it’s the position of the more radical (and in some cases, terrorist, perhaps because they’ve been so unsuccessful in getting their views implemented into law) environmentalist movements, such as Earth First. These people are often called deep ecologists, many of whom believe not just that man is of equivalent moral standing with other animals, and even all other living things, but perhaps of lower moral standing. Indeed, some of them consider humanity a cancer on the face of the universe, that needs to be quarantined to this planet, if not exterminated entirely, for the benefit of the rest of nature.

Now, suppose that we find, via either a robotic probe, or a human mission, that Mars (or, some other possible locations, such as Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn’s moon Titan) has some sort of primitive life form, such as bacteria or lichen? What is the implication of each of these points of view for how to treat such life?

The intrinsic worth position would be pretty simple–we had no darned business sending those robots out there in the first place–they might contaminate the ecosystem and destroy it.

But assuming that such a view will be as politically untenable in space as it has proven on earth, likely the policy would be, like here, some combination of preservation and stewardship.

It’s probably possible to establish human settlements on Mars without destroying the indigenous lifeforms, as long as they are sealed apart from the environment (necessary to support human life anyway, given the fact that the atmosphere of the planet is so thin as to mimic a vacuum, as far as human lungs are concerned). As long as we don’t take along any bugs that are particularly well suited for the natural Martian environment, it’s unlikely that earthly life will be able to outcompete life that evolved there. So both goals can be accomplished under those circumstances.

But if we get to the point at which we want to “terraform” the planet, to provide it with a breathable atmosphere, it will prove a death knell for anything living there now, just as the early life forms on earth were wiped out by more advanced forms that created our present oxygen atmosphere, which proved toxic to them. The only way to satisfy the preservationist ethos would be to take the existing flora and fauna, and put it into the equivalent of a zoo, to at least preserve the species.

I would like to propose a possible fourth perspective, based on an interesting recent theory that the universe may have a teleology, or purpose. The proposition is that intelligent life created the universe, and will ultimately help it reproduce itself. Even more controversially, it may be that things can somehow “wrap around” such that we may have reached back in time from other universes to create the one in which we live.

As someone who is not religious in the conventional deistic sense, I can’t say whether it’s scientifically true, but I find it at least a comfortable belief. One of the purposes of a religion is to provide meaning to existence, beyond sitting around chugging beer and watching football. To me, being a part of the process by which the universe attains self awareness and fulfills its ultimate destiny seems as good a goal to which to hitch one’s fate as any.

In this formulation, it is not just our right, but our duty to take such actions as to increase the amount of intelligent life in the universe, and expand consciousness throughout. This means carrying the flame of life beyond the earth, bringing life to the sterile places, and creating new ecosystems first throughout the solar system, then out into the galaxy, and ultimately beyond.

But what happens when we encounter another ecosystem? Well, it depends on whether it’s intelligent (and particularly, if it’s conscious) or not.

If it is (assuming it’s not hostile), we can leave it to do its bit to satisfy the goal, and move on to virgin territory.

But if it’s not, then it has no special claim to existence, or the territory in which it evolved. In the interests of the preservation of knowledge, the ecosystem will be preserved, but its range may be vastly limited in order to carry out the higher purpose. Think of it as “Manifest Destiny” not for white men, but for intelligent life and perhaps the universe itself.

Wings Or Not–Who Cares?

There’s been a debate raging within the space technical community and inside NASA over whether or not the Orbital Space Plane should have wings. Obviously, it was named before anyone realized that there would be a debate and the assumption was that, of course, it would.

Jeff Foust has a good overview of that debate, but I want to make a different point, because I strongly disagree with Bob Walker’s comments here, and if they’re true they’re profoundly depressing.

While OSP is portrayed as an interim vehicle, a stopgap between the shuttle and a future RLV, some caution that whatever approach NASA selects it may be stuck with for decades. ?Whatever we design and spend money on is going to be the vehicle for the next 20 years,? said Walker. ?You can kid yourself that there are going to be follow-on vehicles and all that, but we kidded ourselves that way throughout the shuttle program. So you can depend upon the fact that whatever we do here is going to be around for a long time. It seems to me that you want something that at least will be adaptable.?

Two problems. First, I don’t accept that there will be, or at least that there should be, “the vehicle for the next 20 years.” The notion that NASA should have a vehicle is the source of much of our inability to make major space accomplishments.

We have to get out of this monoculture. We need multiple vehicles. And of course, because NASA has no grand ambitions, there’s no way to support their development.

But even if he’s right, and that NASA will have a new vehicle that will be “the” vehicle, it’s not at all clear that simply putting wings on the thing gives you much leverage into the future. It might be necessary (though I’m not sure that’s even the case) but it’s certainly not sufficient. Some fantasize that they can build this vehicle as a payload for a Delta IV or Atlas V, and then later use it as an upper stage for a fully-reusable system.

The problem with that is it implies that that system will be a three-stage system, because the delta-V capability of the OSP is not meant to help get it into orbit–the expendable launcher is supposed to do that–it’s only enough to meet the requirements for maneuvering on orbit, and deorbiting.

If you were designing a fully-reusable launcher right now, I suspect that it would optimize out to two stages. This probably balances the margins needed for operability (provided by staging) against the operational complexity of too many stages. But an OSP designed as a payload for an orbit-capable launch system won’t be optimized for that future vehicle–it will simply be a payload for it as well–not part of the launch system per se. Thus, the notion of using it as the upper stage of a new launch system is a non-starter. That means that the new system must have enough capability to deliver an OSP sized payload to orbit, and, by the logic above, be a two-stage system itself (meaning that the OSP will be the third stage).

If the goal is really to have a space transport, then they should simply build one, instead of building evolutionary dead ends that they hope can be adapted later on.

Of course, this is all beside the point, because what we should really be doing, as a nation, not just NASA, is figuring out how to encourage and nurture a private industry that can not only satisfy NASA’s requirements, but those of the rest of us as well, something that OSP will never be able to do.

Concrete Evidence

It would seem that my post yesterday (and my Fox column) were quite timely.

I’ve often discussed the chilling effect that regulatory uncertainty can have on investing in private space transportation efforts. Usually, I mean that in the sense that it makes investors hesitant, or reduces the potential pool of them. But you can’t get a more clear cut case than what happened yesterday, when Dennis Tito testified to a Congressional panel, with no ambiguity, that he’s ready to invest, and the only thing preventing him from doing so is fear of the FAA.

I hope that they’re listening.

[Update at 8:57 AM PDT]

The testimony is now on line.

Here’s Tito’s. Key graf:

Please understand me: I am not looking for government funding or technology. I don’t need an investment tax credit or a loan guarantee. I’m not even looking to escape the regulations under which other space transportation companies operate. But I would like to know which government agency, and which set of regulations, will oversee this new industry.

You see, I am willing to risk my money on a technical concept and a team of engineers. I am willing to risk my money on the customers actually showing up. And I am willing to risk my money competing against other companies in the marketplace. But I am not willing to risk my money on a regulatory question mark, on waiting for the government to decide who can give me permission to get into business, and what the regulatory standards for my business will be.

For an excellent tutorial on the history of aviation and launch regulation, and the differences between the two, I also encourage you to read the testimony of Jeff Greason, head of XCOR.

The key point is that the mature aviation industry’s goal is to protect passengers and cargo. At the state of development of launchers, we must be prepared to accept much higher risk to (informed) first and second parties, and focus regulations on protecting third (that is, otherwise uninvolved) parties on the ground, as required by the Outer Space Treaty and common sense.

Elon Musk (founder of Paypal, and now President and owner of SpaceX) also has some useful thoughts, with some specific recommendations for making government ranges more user friendly, and with an optimistic outlook for the industry based on his internet experience:

It is worth noting that the perspective I bring to the launch vehicle industry is drawn from a particularly Darwinian experience in the business world, having founded and helped build two successful Internet companies in Silicon Valley. Seldom have we seen a faster moving, more voraciously competitive business environment or one with more tombstones. However, for all the problems associated with that era, the rise and fall and perhaps rise again of the NASDAQ, it is easy to forget that the vast majority of the monumental work required to build what we know as the world wide web was done in less than a decade.

If you doubt that we can possibly see such progress in space access, please reflect for a moment that the Internet, originally a DARPA funded project, showed negligible growth for over two decades until private enterprise entered the picture. At that point, growth accelerated by more than a factor of ten. We saw Internet traffic grow by more in a few years than the sum of all growth in the prior two decades.

John Kutler’s testimony is worth reading as well, providing the perspective of the institutional investment community. Summary: they’re not ready to jump into this yet, so the startups will have to continue to rely on angels for a while.

Finally, read the testimony from Futron on their space tourism market research study.

As I said, I hope that Congress was listening carefully.

Speaking Truth To Power

The Houston Chronicle has been running a very good series of articles this week on the mess that is our manned space program.

Too often, press accounts of the space program are either breathless and unquestioning regurgitations of overhyped NASA Public Affairs Office releases, or at the other extreme, dark exposes about activities of minions of the military-space industrial complex, plotting to enrich themselves at the expense of the downtrodden taxpayer and/or carry out secret space missions that will continue to make the rest of the world toiling slaves of the Amerikkkan Empire (TM).

Refreshingly, authors Tony Freemantle and Mike Tolson set just the right, sober tone, and considering that it’s the hometown newspaper for NASA’s Johnson Space Center, they, along with their paper, are to be commended for their willingness to tell stark truths, and to provide a history of the program untainted by local boosterism.

On Sunday, the thirty-fourth anniversary of the first moon landing, they provide the setting–NASA is at a crossroads in the wake of the Columbia loss.

I was encouraged by the fact, as reported here, that many are starting to realize that there is much wrong with the program, far beyond mere vehicle design. I’ve long been agitating for a serious national debate over the purposes of our civil policy, and if this article is correct, that may finally be happening:

“The Gehman report will mark the moment which will be noted in history as before and after,” predicted U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., chairman of the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics. “After the report comes out, everyone will be committed to charting a new direction for the program that will have discernible goals.”

Of course, that debate should be an informed one, and I would accordingly encourage everyone involved to read Monday’s installment, which provides a great summary history of the space shuttle. Tuesday’s installment describes similarly the history of the space station. Together, they give a good insight into how each program is dependent the other, not just technically, but in terms of institutional support–the shuttle was needed to provide a means of getting to space station and an excuse to build it, and the space station was needed to provide something for the shuttle to do.

A much better station could have been built, and much more quickly, had that been the goal, by developing a shuttle-derived heavy lifter. The costs of doing so would have been trivial in comparison to the cost savings. But to do so would have been to admit that the shuttle wasn’t all that great for building space stations, ostensibly one of it primary purposes. So we spent at least an additional decade in construction, and arguably two (we could have had a fully-capable shuttle-derived station in the late eighties, and the current one isn’t yet complete), to get a far inferior product.

But of course, building a space station wasn’t the goal–having a space station program, that employed lots of people, was. I hope that, in the weeks leading up to the release of the Gehman report a month from now, there will be many more articles like this in the broader press, and that we can establish the basis for a long-needed national debate on not just the means, but the purposes, of our manned space program. And according to this article, the people seem to agree.


I wrote three weeks ago about overburdensome regulations potentially shutting down the model rocket community.

The problem extends beyond hobbyists. While it’s important for our long-term future in space to continue to nurture budding space engineers, there is a more immediate problem. Here’s an interesting article that describes the confused situation with respect to regulation of suborbital space transports.

This is a hot subject in the news right now, with the growing excitement about the X-Prize and the fact that people are now investing in commercial suborbital passenger vehicles. And it’s a good article, but probably in the interest of brevity, it glosses over some of the history necessary to really understand the issue, and why Burt Rutan is still potentially gumming up the works, though he’s at least conceded that he needs a launch license from FAA-AST to fly his vehicle and win the prize.

From the article:

Permission to fly the proposed suborbital crafts in the United States rests at the Office of the Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation (AST), an arm of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Established in 1984 as the Office of Commercial Space Transportation in the Department of Transportation, AST was transferred to the FAA in November 1995.

That’s part of the problem. The enabling legislation for that office, the Commercial Space Transportation Act of 1984, didn’t require that it be under the FAA–that was a policy decision made (for reasons that remain obscure, at least to me) by the Clinton administration. That administration made a number of disastrous decisions with regard to space (e.g., the X-33 program, Russianizing the space station, putting NASA in charge of the development of reusable launch systems) and this was one of them.

Here’s the problem.

The aviation industry is a mature one. The regulations that regulate it evolved along with it, allowing it to develop over the past several decades. Very few of them existed at its infancy, back in the late 1920s and early 1930s. If they had, it’s likely that the industry would have been stillborn, because they would have been much too stringent for companies still trying to figure out what worked and what didn’t.

And in fact, some have argued, with some merit, that the regulatory regime in place for commercial aircraft has actually held back progress in aviation even today, because the regulations are aimed at conventionally-designed aircraft, which leaves little room for innovation. In fact, the experimental aircraft category, in which Burt Rutan swims like a fish in the ocean, has been the main force in allowing visionary engineers to try new things without either being shut down by the regulations or the litigation attorneys.

At this date, early in its development, no one knows how to properly regulate a (non-expendable) space transportation industry, because no one has any experience with doing so, either from the standpoint of the regulator or the regulatee.

As long as the regulating authority remains within the FAA (charged with regulating aviation), there will be an ongoing danger of overregulation. Those who wrote the language for the 1984 Commercial Space Transportation Act recognized this, and deliberately put the office that would regulate space transportation independently within the Department of Transportation, rather than the FAA (an agency also within that department).

There were two reasons for this.

First, because doing so would give it more preeminence and clout–it could report directly to the Secretary of Transportation, rather than having to get its viewpoints heard through an insulating layer of the head of the FAA.

Second, because (also as already described) the modern FAA, had it been in place during the golden age of aviation, would have preempted the modern aviation industry.

Now here’s the problem. While Burt seems to be at least now pretending to go along with the program, this part is disturbing:

Rutan said that their initial concern is that AST considers no distinction between research flight tests and certification for commercial operations.

“Until this is done, we believe there will not be a proper environment to allow proof-of-concept research, and may result in the real progress being made by foreign competition,” Rutan said.

“I want to be sure it is clear that we have no current disagreement with AST on what the requirements should be for certification of commercial space operations,” Rutan said. “As we have found with our many previous aircraft development programs, it is helpful to understand certification requirements in order to best structure an initial research test program.”

This, of course, is exactly the issue. Burt continues to consider this an extension of the current aviation model, in which spacecraft will be “certified” by the FAA.

Here’s the rub. FAA “certification” has a very specific, and expensive meaning. The gauntlet through which an aircraft has to go to attain this vaunted imprimatur is well understood in the aviation community. However, it is so expensive (it can increase development costs by at least an order of magnitude) that it is in fact a barrier to entry to new players in the business, which is one of the reason that it’s supported strongly by existing entities.

On the other hand, it is currently meaningless under the FAA-AST launch licensing procedures–there is no certification regime for spacecraft, passenger or cargo. So it’s not clear at all what Burt is saying here. It’s not currently possible to “structure an initial research test program” around certification requirements, because they don’t exist, and (if we’re lucky) won’t for a long time, until we have developed experience with this new flight regime via vehicles such as the one that Burt is developing.

Perhaps what Burt means is that they make no distinction between flight test and operations for licensing purposes, and this may in fact be the case, since their licensing procedures for reusable vehicles are still evolving.

Unfortunately, confusion such as this, and the potential danger of industry-killing overregulation, is likely to persist as long as the office that licenses launches remains within the FAA. A good first step toward clarifying the situation may very well be to reverse the mistake of the previous administration, and set it up once again as a separate office within the Department of Transportation, as Congress originally intended.

Let us hope that the administration has the wisdom to consider doing so, or that Congress might direct it in this year’s relevant legislation. With the money for the X-Prize finally raised after many years, it would be a tragedy and a travesty if it all ends up being for nought because of regulatory confusion.

Lunar Leisure World?

Joshua Elder wants to see the Moon become a retirement community.

It’s possible, though I suspect that it might even become a desirable location for the working class as well, depending on how bad things get down here from a tax and freedom standpoint. There’s nothing in this piece that wasn’t true a decade ago, though, and he seems a little overenamored of particular technical solutions (e.g., single-stage-to-orbit).

As is often the case, it started off a round of comments arguing about the best way to build space transports, and how it’s expensive to get into space because of the “physics” (which reminds me–I found a nice page the other day that thoroughly debunks this notion, and provides a good FAQ as to why space access is currently expensive).

The real point is that we have to get private enterprise on the case to figure out the best way, rather than arguing about it on the internet, and once we do, it will become apparent what the best uses of our off-world locales and resources are as well.