Category Archives: Space

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…

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…

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.