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« Let NASA Be NACA | Main | No Al Qaeda Here »

An Easterbrook Critique

A number of pundits and bloggers have been citing Easterbrook's piece, so I decided to finally take the time and go through it to separate fact from fancy, so they'll have a better idea whether or not to agree with him, and on which points. It's not a true fisking, because I actually agree with most of it, but I do want to note a few places where he goes off the rails as a result of (as always) invalid assumptions.

The Space Shuttle Must Be Stopped

It's costly, outmoded, impractical and, as we've learned again, deadly

A spacecraft is a metaphor of national inspiration: majestic, technologically advanced, produced at dear cost and entrusted with precious cargo, rising above the constraints of the earth. The spacecraft carries our secret hope that there is something better out there?a world where we may someday go and leave the sorrows of the past behind. The spacecraft rises toward the heavens exactly as, in our finest moments as a nation, our hearts have risen toward justice and principle. And when, for no clear reason, the vessel crumbles, as it did in 1986 with Challenger and last week with Columbia, we falsely think the promise of America goes with it.

Unfortunately, the core problem that lay at the heart of the Challenger tragedy applies to the Columbia tragedy as well. That core problem is the space shuttle itself. For 20 years, the American space program has been wedded to a space-shuttle system that is too expensive, too risky, too big for most of the ways it is used, with budgets that suck up funds that could be invested in a modern system that would make space flight cheaper and safer. The space shuttle is impressive in technical terms, but in financial terms and safety terms no project has done more harm to space exploration.

So far, so good. I find little to disagree with.

With hundreds of launches to date, the American and Russian manned space programs have suffered just three fatal losses in flight?and two were space-shuttle calamities. This simply must be the end of the program.

Now I'm missing his point here. Is he saying that we cannot fly unless we can guarantee that we'll never lose lives? Or that the level of safety is unacceptable? What level would be acceptable? One could look at it another way and say that in four decades of manned space flight, we've only had three incidents of loss of life, and only two of them were Shuttle.

Will the much more expensive effort to build a manned International Space Station end too? In cost and justification, it's as dubious as the shuttle. The two programs are each other's mirror images. The space station was conceived mainly to give the shuttle a destination, and the shuttle has been kept flying mainly to keep the space station serviced. Three crew members?Expedition Six, in NASA argot?remain aloft on the space station. Probably a Russian rocket will need to go up to bring them home.

They already have a ride home--there is always a Soyuz docked at station capable of returning three passengers.

The wisdom of replacing them seems dubious at best. This second shuttle loss means NASA must be completely restructured?if not abolished and replaced with a new agency with a new mission.

Why did NASA stick with the space shuttle so long? Though the space shuttle is viewed as futuristic, its design is three decades old. The shuttle's main engines, first tested in the late 1970s, use hundreds more moving parts than do new rocket-motor designs. The fragile heat-dissipating tiles were designed before breakthroughs in materials science. Until recently, the flight-deck computers on the space shuttle used old 8086 chips from the early 1980s, the sort of pre-Pentium electronics no self-respecting teenager would dream of using for a video game.

Most important, the space shuttle was designed under the highly unrealistic assumption that the fleet would fly to space once a week and that each shuttle would need to be big enough to carry 50,000 lbs. of payload. In actual use, the shuttle fleet has averaged five flights a year; this year flights were to be cut back to four. The maximum payload is almost never carried. Yet to accommodate the highly unrealistic initial goals, engineers made the shuttle huge and expensive. The Soviet space program also built a shuttle, called Buran, with almost exactly the same dimensions and capacities as its American counterpart. Buran flew to orbit once and was canceled, as it was ridiculously expensive and impractical.

Capitalism, of course, is supposed to weed out such inefficiencies. But in the American system, the shuttle's expense made the program politically attractive. Originally projected to cost $5 million per flight in today's dollars, each shuttle launch instead runs to around $500 million. Aerospace contractors love the fact that the shuttle launches cost so much.

Yes, this point can't be emphasized enough. The incentives in the system are truly perverse, which is one of the reasons for the failure of the X-33 program. It was more in Lockmart's interest for it to fail than succeed.

In two decades of use, shuttles have experienced an array of problems? engine malfunctions, damage to the heat-shielding tiles?that have nearly produced other disasters. Seeing this, some analysts proposed that the shuttle be phased out, that cargo launches be carried aboard by far cheaper, unmanned, throwaway rockets and that NASA build a small "space plane" solely for people, to be used on those occasions when men and women are truly needed in space.

Throwaway rockets can fail too. Last month a French-built Ariane exploded on lift-off. No one cared, except the insurance companies that covered the payload, because there was no crew aboard. NASA's insistence on sending a crew on every shuttle flight means risking precious human life for mindless tasks that automated devices can easily carry out. Did Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon really have to be there to push a couple of buttons on the Mediterranean Israeli Dust Experiment, the payload package he died to accompany to space?

No, he didn't have to be there, but he wanted to be. This is one of my pet peeves about the general commentary on the manned space program. The same argument was made after the Challenger was lost--that we shouldn't risk astronauts' lives to deliver satellites. That resulted in a policy decision to no longer allow Shuttle to carry commercial payloads, particularly comsats. This was the right decision, for a dunderheaded reason (as is often the case with government decisions). The right reason to take the commercial payloads away from the Shuttle was to stop the unfair government-subsidized competition with the commercial launch industry, and allow the latter to develop. But the argument that people shouldn't risk their lives to deliver satellites is just dumb, if that's the best and cheapest way to do it (though in this case, it turned out not to be).

That is not a decision for Gregg Easterbrook, or presidential commissions, or Congress, to make. It's not unreasonable, given the expense and difficulty of replacing it, to say that we shouldn't risk expensive orbiters on routine satellite deliveries--that's only fair to the taxpayers who have to replace the thing--but no one can assess the value of an astronaut's life except the astronaut herself. It should be her decision--not some bureaucrat's or pundit's.

Switching to unmanned rockets for payload launching and a small space plane for those rare times humans are really needed...

I have to stop him here, because this is really the crux of the issue. When are humans "really needed"? Why is it assumed that the times that this occurs will be "rare"?

We don't need to go into space at all--we survived millennia without doing it. It gets back to my point in yesterday's NRO column that it's pointless to even have these kinds of discussions in the absence of a national decision about what we're trying to accomplish in space.

Yes, if the goal is simply to support the space station, with a few people changed out a few times a year, then Orbital Space Plane, launched on an expendable, might make sense. If, on the other hand, the goal is to enable large numbers of people to go to space, for whatever purpose they desire (and those purposes would dwarf "science and exploration," other than personal exploration, by orders of magnitude), then such a system makes no sense at all.

...would cut costs, which is why aerospace contractors have lobbied against such reform. Boeing and Lockheed Martin split roughly half the shuttle business through an Orwellian- named consortium called the United Space Alliance. It's a source of significant profit for both companies; United Space Alliance employs 6,400 contractor personnel for shuttle launches alone. Many other aerospace contractors also benefit from the space-shuttle program.

Any new space system that reduced costs would be, to the contractors, killing the goose that lays the golden egg. Just a few weeks ago, NASA canceled a program called the Space Launch Initiative, whose goal was to design a much cheaper and more reliable replacement for the shuttle. Along with the cancellation, NASA announced that the shuttle fleet would remain in operation until 2020, meaning that Columbia was supposed to continue flying into outer space even when its airframe was more than 40 years old! True, B-52s have flown as long. But they don't endure three times the force of gravity on takeoff and 2000*none [sic] on re-entry.

A rational person might have laughed out loud at the thought that although school buses are replaced every decade, a spaceship was expected to remain in service for 40 years. Yet the "primes," as NASA's big contractors are known, were overjoyed when the Space Launch Initiative was canceled because it promised them lavish shuttle payments indefinitely. Of course, the contractors also worked hard to make the shuttle safe. But keeping prices up was a higher priority than having a sensible launch system.

Yes, and again, this point can't be overemphasized. You cannot expect innovation from companies that are doing very well from the status quo. That's why low-cost launch will not come from the existing aerospace industry.

Will NASA whitewash problems as it did after Challenger? The haunting fact of Challenger was that engineers who knew about the booster-joint problem begged NASA not to launch that day and were ignored. Later the Rogers Commission, ordered to get to the bottom of things, essentially recommended that nothing change. No NASA manager was fired; no safety systems were added to the solid rocket boosters whose explosion destroyed Challenger; no escape-capsule system was added to get astronauts out in a calamity, which might have helped Columbia. In return for failure, the shuttle program got a big budget increase. Post-Challenger "reforms" were left up to the very old-boy network that had created the problem in the first place and that benefited from continuing high costs.

Yes, NASA was punished for success, when their budgets were chopped back severely in the late sixties and early seventies, as the Apollo program wound down, and they were rewarded for failure in 1986. Unfortunately, the Administration's knee-jerk response this weekend was to promise to increase the NASA budget. Government space programs are like any other government program. If you measure them by input, rather than output, you'll get very expensive programs that don't generate much value. We have to have a more intelligent response than, "send more money."

Concerned foremost with budget politics, Congress too did its best to whitewash. Large manned-space-flight centers that depend on the shuttle are in Texas, Ohio, Florida and Alabama. Congressional delegations from these states fought frantically against a shuttle replacement. The result was years of generous funding for constituents?and now another tragedy.

The tough questions that have gone unasked about the space shuttle have also gone unasked about the space station, which generates billions in budget allocations for California, Texas, Ohio, Florida and other states. Started in 1984 and originally slated to cost $14 billion in today's dollars, the space station has already cost at least $35 billion?not counting billions more for launch costs?and won't be finished until 2008. The bottled water alone that crews use aboard the space station costs taxpayers almost half a million dollars a day. (No, that is not a misprint.) There are no scientific experiments aboard the space station that could not be done far more cheaply on unmanned probes. The only space-station research that does require crew is "life science," or studying the human body's response to space. Space life science is useful but means astronauts are on the station mainly to take one another's pulse, a pretty marginal goal for such an astronomical price.

Again, an unstated assumption, i.e., the only reason to have a space station is for "science." Until we break out of that mindset, we will not be able to have an intelligent discussion about policy options.

What is next for America in space? An outsider commission is needed to investigate the Columbia accident?and must report to the President, not Congress, since Congress has shown itself unable to think about anything but pork barrel when it comes to space programs.

For 20 years, the cart has been before the horse in U.S. space policy. NASA has been attempting complex missions involving many astronauts without first developing an affordable and dependable means to orbit. The emphasis now must be on designing an all-new system that is lower priced and reliable. And if human space flight stops for a decade while that happens, so be it. Once there is a cheaper and safer way to get people and cargo into orbit, talk of grand goals might become reality. New, less-expensive throwaway rockets would allow NASA to launch more space probes?the one part of the program that is constantly cost-effective. An affordable means to orbit might make possible a return to the moon for establishment of a research base and make possible the long-dreamed-of day when men and women set foot on Mars. But no grand goal is possible while NASA relies on the super-costly, dangerous shuttle.

This is correct. My only issue is that he seems to be implying that NASA should be allowed to build a Shuttle replacement. This would almost certainly be as disastrous as the Shuttle itself, because it will be subject to the same political and budgetary constraints as that program was.

We need to have competition, and we need to have multiple solutions. For that we need markets, which is what we're really lacking, rather than technology.

In 1986 the last words transmitted from Challenger were in the valiant vow: "We are go at throttle up!" This meant the crew was about to apply maximum thrust, which turned out to be a fatal act.

Gregg damages his credibility again here. They had been at maximum thrust since liftoff. They were, in fact preparing to throttle back after passing through maximum dynamic pressure, in order to adhere to the three-gee acceleration constraint as the vehicle grew lighter by expending its propellants.

[Update, late Tuesday night]

OK, OK, numerous emailer and commenters have persuaded me that Gregg is right, and I'm wrong. They'd throttled back for max Q, and were about to throttle back up, until they reached the acceleration limit, which would occur several minutes later. Please quit commenting and emailing.

In the coming days, we will learn what the last words from Columbia were. Perhaps they too will reflect the valor and optimism shown by astronauts of all nations. It is time NASA and the congressional committees that supervise the agency demonstrated a tiny percentage of the bravery shown by the men and women who fly to space? by canceling the money-driven shuttle program and replacing it with something that makes sense.

Agreed. The issue is what makes "sense." And there's no way to determine that until we decide what we're trying to accomplish.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 04, 2003 08:54 AM
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Though Easterbrook makes it badly, the question of safety is legitimate. Just as there's a risk level where it makes no economic sense to try to launch an unmanned probe into space, there's a risk level where it makes no sense to try to launch manned probes.

Take the shuttle system, for example. A fair estimate of its catastrophic failure rate is somewhere around 2%. Does it make sense to launch repeatedly at that projected failure rate? The answer obviously depends on the economic cost of launch and the economic benefits realized from the flight. But given the shuttle's high cost, limited capabilities and the limited benefits of its activities in orbit, the answer to me is NO.

I was surprised to discover that the Ariane 5 program has had four failures in fourteen missions, and the last attempted launch destroyed a $600 million satellite payload.

Posted by G.Haubold at February 4, 2003 09:37 AM

I agree, but it's because of the high value (or at least replacement cost) of the orbiter--not because it carries people.

And yes, Ariane V is extremely unreliable. All current launch systems are extremely unreliable. Shuttle is actually the best of the bunch.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 4, 2003 10:01 AM

the American and Russian manned space programs have suffered just three fatal losses in flight

Now I know where CNN got that erroneous factoid they've been plastering on the screen the past few days--

  • Soyuz 1
  • Soyuz 11
  • STS-51L
  • STS-107
Posted by Raoul Ortega at February 4, 2003 10:01 AM

What erroneous factoid? There were FOUR fatal accidents, not three. Easterbrook mixed it up.

Posted by Ilya at February 4, 2003 10:23 AM

Be careful calling people's credibility into question for having their facts wrong and then getting your own wrong. According to the NASA transcript at:

The engines were being throttled back up (to 104%) after passing through max Q.

Easterbrook is also wrong saying that the throttle up was a fatal act. The SRB was cutting through the ET, and the mission would have ended the same with or without throttle up.

Posted by Tom Hill at February 4, 2003 12:08 PM

>>Gregg damages his credibility again here. They had been at maximum thrust since liftoff.They were, in fact preparing to throttle back after passing through maximum dynamic pressure, in order to adhere to the three-gee acceleration constraint as the vehicle grew lighter by expending its propellants.

Actually, Easterbrook is right, and you're wrong. The shuttle throttles back to 65% in order to reduce the stress of going through Max Q, then throttles back up to 104% afterwards.

It's more than seven minutes into the flight before the three-g constraint becomes a factor.

See sample shuttle launch timeline here:

Overall, however, your points are sound, which is one reason why I don't want you damaging your own credibility by this minor inaccuracy.

Posted by Kevin W. Parker at February 4, 2003 12:13 PM

Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that to this day there are any numbers of human bones and skulls scattered along the Oregon Trail. Several of my ancestors family members tried to emigrate from Ireland to North America; some made it, some starved to death along the way. Life is uncertain and exploration is dangerous. Hell, read that sweet children's book "Little House on the Prairie": 6 year old Laura Ingalls is well aware that instant death lurks behind every tree.

Now, what was Easterbrook saying about danger?


Posted by Cranky Observer at February 4, 2003 06:35 PM

Excellent essay and response. Rand is right - the key point that needs to get priority is policy. Why are we going into space at all? Until there is a national consensus on this question, we'll still be confused about the project.

Posted by Donald Sensing at February 4, 2003 07:12 PM

I made a few comments on his fact-checking on my own site (sorry for the plug, you've already been too kind to my blog, Rand!), but I think you are wrong on the "Go at Throttle Up" thing here, Rand.

Max-Q was earlier than 73 seconds, they were indeed throttling back up to 104%.

The far bigger problem with Easterbrook's essay is that here he's suggesting that the SSMEs had anything to do with the explosion... the SSMEs had NOTHING to do with it. The SRBs clearly were the problem and the SRBs -cannot be throttled- (a symptom of their inherent danger). The same accident would have happened at 73 or 78 or 92 seconds, it was just a question of when the hot gasses escaping from the port SRB finally burned through into the guts of the ET and caused the final, brutal chain of events.


Posted by A Lloyd at February 4, 2003 07:43 PM

An inapt analogy, Cranky. There are no (known) fertile valleys to reach at the end of a space journey. People of Earth are not nearly as limited by the social and physical environment as Irish immigrants to the Pac. N.W were by their birth island.

It's more like, ?There's lots of bleached bones of European aristocrats strewn across the Himalayas.?

In both cases a policy respecting the individual?s choice seems reasonable. A taxpayer subsidy is justifiable in both cases. (If in either)

Posted by David at February 4, 2003 08:05 PM

Make that, "..not justifiable" above


Posted by David at February 4, 2003 08:06 PM

So how about that promised discussion on the reasons for having people sent to space, and why the government should spend money on it. Did the British government fund Edmund Hilary's Everest expedition? Ought they have? Or is that the wrong analogy?

Posted by Ikram Saeed at February 4, 2003 09:24 PM

I think Mountaineering of 50 to 100 years ago is a good analogy, because the best justifications for it were, like Mallory's, "Because it is there," quote, appeals to romantic notions about human destiny, yet its best sources of funding were appeals to pseudo-science. Grants from National Geographic Societies, philanthropists, Royal Societies, and proceeds from lecture tours were sufficient subsidies to motivated, elite adventurers in that day to push their life support technology to its limits in a remote and harsh environment.

Today the same activity is largely privatized, and vastly popularized, but we still don?t see much evolution in the climbing activities. There are no permanent dwellings, or residential adventure condos developed in the ?death zone? on Everest. No one has proposed novel ways to exploit the unique environment that would fund self sustaining mountaineering technological infrastructure. The many, many modern day Everest climbers do just about the same thing Hillary did. Look around a minute, cough up some bits of lung, and then head back down. Privatized space travel will be similar for a long time to come I think.

Posted by David at February 4, 2003 10:12 PM

Quote from the original article:

"no safety systems were added to the solid rocket boosters whose explosion destroyed Challenger;"

According to information presented by mechanical engineer Roger Boisjoly, one of the two Morton Thiokol engineers that told NASA "no-dice" in presentation the night before the Challenger disaster, this statement is not correct. I had the privilege of attending one of Boisjoly's engineering ethics presentations last fall and will try to recall/summarize the details as he offered them:

The three sectional joints were originally composed of a tongue-and-clevice mechanism, with two redundant o-rings. Pressures inside the rocket, however, forced the joint outward slightly and prised open the clevice. This was known but normally, the primary o-ring would be partially forced out of its channel into the small gap, preserving the operation. Under 50F, the rubber was not pliable enough to jump out of its groove and fill in the small gap.

After Challenger, the tounge-and-clevice design was converted to a double-clevice with a third o-ring added, and heaters were isntalled at each joint to ensure a minimum temperature of 70F.

Thus the design WAS altered to improve safety, and Boisjoly's opinion as a mechanical engineer was that the revised field jointis very secure and at virtually no risk of failure. However he also believes a complete SRB redesign would have been a lot cheaper than this modification. The intent in choosing this route, per a memo issued at the time and a copy of which he has in his possession, was to avoid 'sullying' public perception in the original design.

Posted by anony-mouse at February 4, 2003 10:39 PM

I am have a really hard time with "The space shuttle is impressive in technical terms, but in financial terms and safety terms no project has done more harm to space exploration."

What bothers me is the sense of 'willfulness" that this imparts. The shuttles are carefully overhauled after each trip. If NASA didn't care about safety, why did the fuel line cracks bring the entire program to a halt while engineers checked it out? Why the hours of float tank training for spacewalks if we don't care if the guy comes back or not?

And the cost of making the shuttle and ISS safe, is the very thing that locked the configuration in the 70s after design certification. The shuttle and ISS were built to MIL-Spec as best as anyone could apply it so that it would be a safe environment. (I heard but never saw first hand, that submarine specs were applied to the docking mechanism, because that was the closest the engineers could come to a government approved working model of an inter-galactic airlock.)

So what exactly is Mr. Eastbrooke proposing? If we scrap and start over, the design for the next 30 years will be locked in 2010 technologies because that is how long MIL-Spec safe environments take to pay off. And by 2040 will we have the nanotubes ready for the space elevator? And gosh, why spend all that money on an outdated space elevator when the gravity reverser will be ready by 2070.

The alternative to Mil-spec is COTS. And with no space COTS to choose from, there is no safety record. So for a man who says he is concerned about safety, he appears to be either very willing to risk astronaut safety for Rapid Prototyping; or, he is trying to ban all future human space presence.

He says "Once there is a cheaper and safer way to get people and cargo into orbit, talk of grand goals might become reality."

How exactly does one develope cheaper and safer means? One way would be to admit we are NOT stuck in the 70s. Over the past 20 years, there have not been major design changes to the shuttle but there have been refinements - tank weights and data link software are 2 I can name. Formula One racing cars still have a four tires and a steering wheel, just like that car ... the Model T, but the refinements make them Day and Night. You introduce changes in a controlled manner and observe if benefits are forthcoming. If yes, ...refinement. If no, back to drawing board. But this process requires a living (no disrespect intended) space program in just the same way the auto development requires races and/or driving.

And finally, I would like to respectfully disagree with "And there's no way to determine that until we decide what we're trying to accomplish". The space program is going to mean many different things to different people because that is how "Packs and Not Herds" use stuff. How many uses can you think of for a fork? There were 63 in one study alone: to eat with, scratch your back with, use to secure a tent flap, stab a butt pincher, tap out Morse Code, ad nauseum. Anyone who has lived through a corporate re-org knows that related groups of groups often do NOT have any logical relation to each other. I am not saying "Fred's Dirtfill and Croissants" (Far Side) here, but commercializing space developement will increase not decrease this lack of clear lines and purpose.

Posted by Adriane at February 5, 2003 01:03 AM

I think you're missing another point. I've actually built Shuttle hardware. NASA requires 99.99% reliability plus gobs of safety studies and analyses because the shuttle is manned. That last 1%, or 0.1%, is fiendishly expensive. Manned spaceflight is 10-100 times more expensive to move stuff into orbit than unmanned. NASA cancelled all unmanned delivery systems to pay for the Shuttle.
Also - you reference "What is our mission?" OK. What is our mission?

Posted by Tony Ryan at February 5, 2003 01:10 AM

Isn't this comment kind of a non-sequitur?

"no safety systems were added to the solid rocket boosters whose explosion destroyed Challenger;"

While it's true that the joints were redesigned after the Challenger, I wouldn't consider that a safety system - just an improved design change . . . . but the main issue with SRM's is that there aren't any safety systems you can add to them.

I think the mountaineering analogy is a good one. If there was another destination within reach as warm and inviting as earth, space exploration would be very attractive. Or if there was a destination within reach that had rich mineral deposits, THAT might be interesting. But the rationale for sending people to Mars escapes me.

Posted by G.Haubold at February 5, 2003 06:12 AM

Regarding your comment: "That [an astronaut's decision to risk his life] is not a decision for Gregg Easterbrook, or presidential commissions, or Congress, to make. It's not unreasonable, given the expense and difficulty of replacing it, to say that we shouldn't risk expensive orbiters on routine satellite deliveries--that's only fair to the taxpayers who have to replace the thing--but no one can assess the value of an astronaut's life except the astronaut herself. It should be her decision--not some bureaucrat's or pundit's."

I disagree. If we have to suffer from days of mourning for dead astronauts, if we have to suffer from knowing that people in Texas are picking up their shredded and burned remains, if we as taxpayers have to fork over billions for an inefficient bureaucracy riven by politics to pay for replacements both in manpower and spacecraft, then, yes, we do have a say in their decision.

So, where does this debate over space take place? It already has, and space exploration lost. The vast majority of people have little or no interest in what goes on in space unless it explodes over our heads. They resent paying for projects that expand our knowledge, because they see no practical benefit from it. It doesn't matter to them if the universe is five and a half billion or six billion years old. Or that there may be water locked within the surface of Mars. To them, the moon has no resources worth exploiting, so there's no need for a moonbase.

Manned space exploration is expensive and the margin of error nil. We've seen from Skylab and Mir that objects in space are battered by enormous forces and fall apart very quickly. Certain systems can be replaced, but the outer structure will eventually fail. Everything degrades, whether they're on Earth or in space, but in space they do so faster. Maintaining a space presence would require repeatedly building an ISS every few decades to replace the one that's going to eventually self-destruct. The same will happen to bases on the moon and Mars. We don't build bases there for the same reason we don't build a base in the heart of a volcano. The cost would be in the billions, with little beyond the romantic notion of "because it's there." This is insupportable.

Posted by Bill Peschel at February 5, 2003 07:18 AM

> > The vast majority of people have little or no interest in what goes on in space unless it explodes over our heads. They resent paying for projects that expand our knowledge, because they see no practical benefit from it. It doesn't matter to them if the universe is five and a half billion or six billion years old. Or that there may be water locked within the surface of Mars.

This really isn't true. Most people I meet who I talk to about space science are genuinely interested about what's going on out there, and it's rare that I meet someone who resents funding projects that expand our knowledge. The crucial point, though, is that those projects are unmanned. The manned space program is very expensive and _doesn't_ expand our knowledge of space. No wonder people resent paying for it.

Posted by Iain J Coleman at February 5, 2003 09:25 AM

""What is our mission?" OK. What is our mission?"

This is the heart of the matter.
Rand, please write your opinion: what should the mission(s) be ?

Maybe we don't need a single and definitive mission definition, and, as you sensibly advocate multiple competing solutions to space travel - maybe we could also have multiple competing mission definitions ?

Posted by Jacob at February 5, 2003 03:12 PM

We don't, and shouldn't, have a "mission." That's Cold War talk.

I would prefer a vision. Where there is none, the space future perishes.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 5, 2003 04:42 PM

I would also like to respectfully disagree with "There are no (known) fertile valleys to reach at the end of a space journey."

Currently, I have to share this planet with David "Until such time as Homo Sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along." Graber*. As long as he talks alot and doesn't go into genetic engineering, I'm OK.

One day, however, some soft-spoken someone who shares his opinion is going to go into genetic engineering, and on that day I want OUTTA HERE. I don't care if it's not a fertile valley, I'll take soylent green in an underground bunker on Mars!!!!

While a lot of people came to the US thinking the streets were paved with gold, many others came because their good neighbors were burning their house down ... with them in it.

So the ability to get to Mars (or L5 or whatever) might have less to do with "little beyond the romantic notion of "because it's there." " and more to do with where else can we go?

{* search on Peter + Singer + smallpox + right to life for some additional "interesting opinions" . There are multiple URLs.}

{I have debated posting this as I really don't want to look like a member of the tinfoil hat brigade, but within my own life time, 3 million Cambodians, 60 000 in Zimbabwe (before the famine), all the Chinese who died in the "Destroy the trees and vegetable gardens Great leap foward", the Hutu and the Tutsis.... I don't even have to point to Hitler and Stalin.}

Posted by Adriane at February 5, 2003 07:23 PM

Arguing for the demise of the shuttle program because of the ratio of failure (people die) to success (no one dies) is kind of silly, particularly since those arguing for the end of the program probably use autos, or forms of public transportation, which have certain inherant risks (as do all forms of motion, rollar skates to jogging).

The real question about safety is probably best answered by the other NASA astronauts - are they going to (still) want to go up in the remaining shuttles?

Regardless of the what the U.S. does, though, other countries are going to continue to pursue space flight.

Posted by Erik at February 5, 2003 09:18 PM

Rand: Ok, what's the "vision" then? Your site, and your comments on the Easterbrook article, have pushed me to think that, apart from some science/exploration (like Voyager) and defence needs, there is no reason for the government to fund any sort of space program.

In your view, is there a good reason for a taxpayer funded manned space flight?

Posted by Ikram Saeed at February 6, 2003 08:13 AM

Let's remember one thing, kids: Easterbrook is primarily a sports "reporter". This makes him about as qualified to write about topics such as the Shuttle in an enlightened and comprehensive manner as an intern at the fashion desk would be if they were writing an article on quantum physics for Scientific American.

The guy needs to stick to what he does best: writing about brain-dead steroid junkies, and hanging around in smelly locker rooms.


Posted by OM at February 14, 2003 11:45 AM

You wrote:

>One could look at it another way and say that in four decades of manned space flight, we've only had three incidents of loss of life, and only two >of them were Shuttle.

Soyuz 1, Soyuz 11, Challenger, Columbia--four in-flight fatal accidents. Not three.

Posted by Thomas J. Frieling at January 16, 2004 12:40 PM

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