Category Archives: Space

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.


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…

Meteor Strikes Earth–Women, Minorities And Endangered Species Hardest Hit

That’s not exactly the headline of this dumb NYT editorial, but it almost could be.

Let’s leave aside that no meteor has ever struck the earth, or anything else, other than eyes (a meteor is the flash of light that an object makes when it hits the atmosphere–not the physical object itself). They talk about how life has been devastated in the past by bombardment from extraterrestrial objects, but instead of proposing that we do something about it, they use it as an opportunity to preach about how we’re extincting too many species. In fact, they not only don’t propose doing anything about it, they deny that anything can be done.

There’s no controlling the possibility of a meteor strike. But there’s every reason — ethical and practical — for preventing our own habitation of earth from having the same impact.

Well, in fact, there is “controlling the possibility of a meteor [sic] strike.” One starts looking for them, and as Clark Lindsey (from whom I got the link) points out, one develops the spacefaring capability to divert them, which is entirely feasible, and relative to the cost of being hit, quite affordable.

It’s particularly ironic that the Gray Lady publishes this silliness on perhaps the eve of a major change in space policy that might, in fact, ultimately lead to such a capability, but I guess that there’s some comfort in knowing that, even under new management, some things at the Times never change.

Still On The Wrong Track

I just pull my hair when I read articles like this (and I haven’t all that much to spare).

It has so many fallacies in it, and such an abundance of nonsense, that I just despair at the advice that politicians and policy makers are getting from our vaunted space agency, and it confirms exactly why we make no progress in space.

It resurrects the ridiculous notion that we should use Shuttle for cargo only, and has things turned completely on their head.

Although not completely set in stone, it is extremely likely that any future launch vehicles NASA develops will divide the roles of lifting people and cargo into Earth orbit.

“It’s always up for debate,” Martin said, noting that launch vehicles such as the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 seem ideal to carry into orbit an OSP with astronauts aboard, while shuttle derived hardware might best solve the larger cargo needs.

“We are poised to make a much safer system now, a much more reliable system, based on new technologies. And at the same time bring down the overall costs,” Martin said of the OSP specifically and NASA’s space transportation needs in general.

What new technologies? The whole goal of the OSP program is to avoid the use of new technologies. It’s a program requirement–nothing that isn’t at least at Technology Readiness Level 6.

“New technologies” would be building fully-reusable space transports, not sticking a capsule on an expendable, which we did forty years ago.

OSP may be safer than Shuttle, but that’s damning it with faint praise, and the notion that NASA’s current plans will save money is simply laughable. Also, there’s no reason to think that it will be more reliable–the advertised reliability is only 98% or so for EELVs. The only reason it will be safer is because there will be crew escape opportunities throughout ascent.

Exactly how much any of these ideas will cost to build or operate hasn?t been determined yet, and support in Congress for programs such as the OSP is facing some challenges these days.

Martin said it?s likely that NASA isn’t “articulating the vision very well. I think that what Congress is asking is how does (OSP) fit within the larger picture, and we’re developing that.”

Right. There’s nothing wrong with the vision or plans–NASA just isn’t “articulating it very well.”

Go ahead, stay in denial.

“The United States, if it?s going to be a spacefaring nation, and it?s going to continue exploring the solar system, is going to need a reliable, upgraded system. The next step, past what the shuttle was in technology in order to keep moving forward,” Martin said.

But if the OSP is adopted as the next piloted spaceship — whether it’s a winged vehicle or shaped like an Apollo-era capsule — NASA still will need a way to lift large amounts of cargo into Earth orbit.

And of course, they assume that the only way to do that is with a large vehicle. Hence their desire to use the Shuttle for cargo, and the EELV for people. But an unmanned Shuttle will cost little less to operate than a manned one (though if you take out the crew cabin completely, you could probably pick up ten thousand pounds of payload capability for the same launch price). There’s really only one justification for flying Shuttle–as a means of getting crew to and from space.

Martin said some studies completed regarding a return to the Moon mission would require launching 265,000 to 440,000 pounds (120 to 200 metric tons) just to get the project started. The goal would be to launch that weight in as few missions as possible hoping to minimize risk and cost — but there’s no easy answer.

Now that’s simply absurd. Which is higher risk: launching lots of small pieces, so a launch failure doesn’t cost you much payload, or betting a large amount of payload on a single launch? A heavy lifter might be more cost effective than a small launcher, but only for truly high traffic demand, much larger than anything that NASA has ever proposed. When you consider development costs and fleet size issues, it would be much smarter to build small, cheap launchers with high flight rates (which are a much better economy of scale than simply building large vehicles), and figure out how to do things on orbit to utilize smaller payloads.

A Critical Milestone

Chief Engineer Dan DeLong of XCOR emails:

Patricia Grace Smith, FAA Associate Administrator, has made a public statement that there are three organizations with RLV launch licenses in process at AST. They are: Armadillo Aerospace, Scaled Composites, and XCOR Aerospace. Furthermore, she said that XCOR’s license application has been deemed “sufficiently complete”. This means the FAA now has a maximum of 180 days to either issue a license or report to Congress why they did not.

Notice the change in terminology from “substantially complete” to “sufficiently complete”. Also, I do not yet have an on-line reference for her statement. It came to me from Jeff Greason; he and Randall Clague are currently in Washington DC, and were surprised at the speediness of the announcement.

This is good news, and will establish the precedent–another first for XCOR. I assume that means the Mojave Airport has passed the environmental review, but I’m sure that someone will correct me if that’s a false inference.

I also assume that the license will be issued in less than the 180 days–I can’t see why they would delay it much at this point.