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« Zichrano Livracha (Of Blessed Memory) | Main | Wh@cking Off For Peace »

Bruce Moomaw Gets It Not At All

OK, I was gentle with Easterbrook. But Bruce Moomaw is totally out to lunch with this piece. Everything he knows is wrong, other than the title.

The Space Age Born Of The Cold War Is Over

Today's appalling Shuttle tragedy proves -- once again -- that manned spaceflight, at this point in history, is not remotely worth either its cost or its risk of lives. I say "once again" because virtually any scientist worth his salt has been pointing out that fact routinely for decades.

Any skeptic is invited to take a look at what the professional science journals regularly say on this subject.

He says this as though scientists in general have anything interesting or useful to say about the space program. This is an assumption with no foundation. Just as one example, recall UK Astronomer Royal Richard Woolley's comments, a year before Sputnik, about space travel being "utter bilge."

Tell me, Bruce, why should we care what scientists think? What does space have to do with science?

NASA has always been warped by the freakish circumstances of its early development.

Well, I can't deny that. It's one of my fundamental theses.

The Moon Race was originally promulgated by Vice President Lyndon Johnson in 1961 (as he told his friends openly) in order to try to pump more federal money into the South in general and Texas in particular. He managed -- narrowly -- to persuade JFK to go along (the only subject upon which he ever seems to have had any significant influence on Kennedy's administration as Vice President).

Regardless of whether one regards the political goals of the Moon race as worthwhile, it is unquestionable that -- ever since the Apollo program ended -- NASA has been frantically trying to maintain the grotesquely bloated levels of funding it received during those days. It has managed to do so, by a two-stage process.

First, it has told one deliberate and outrageous lie after another about the supposed cheapness and utility of first the Space Shuttle and then the Space Station (overestimates, in both cases and both categories, of over 10 to 1!) in order to narrowly persuade the White House and Congress to initiate both programs.

As one former NASA official told a "Time" magazine reporter shortly after the Challenger disaster, regarding NASA's lies to gain initial approval of the Shuttle in 1972: "We hated to do it, but we were getting SO many votes."

NASA has then resorted, over all the following years, to the time-honored "camel's nose" technique of methodically raising its cost estimate and lowering its usefulness estimate for each program by a little each year, while simultaneously insisting that if Congress didn't go on funding the program ANYWAY, the money already spent would have been wasted.

As a swindle, this has worked magnificently -- in both cases, by the time the rubes have finally caught on to the game, tens of billions in unjustified funding has been pumped into the aerospace-industrial complex.

All true, but does it ultimately support his thesis? Let's read on and see.

Ultimately, of course, the game always unravels. The Challenger tragedy was a direct result of the fact that NASA didn't dare stop launching Shuttles long enough to fix a whole flock of serious design programs which it knew existed -- including a problem with the landing brakes even more serious than the problems with the solid booster O-rings -- because, even by 1986, it was still desperately trying to continue pretending to Congress that the Shuttle could be flown at least a dozen times a year at an acceptable cost.

After it finally became impossible to sustain that lie in the wake of Challenger, NASA switched to saying that the Shuttle program was justified entirely to support the Space Station (if for no other reason).

The supposed usefulness of the Station itself is a comparable lie which has been steadily uncovered to a greater and greater degree for the last 15 years or so -- but never quite fast enough for the Station ever to be canceled (primarily due to its elementary political appeal as pure home-district pork for Congressmen).

Again, all basically correct. But [VOICE=Homer Simpson] Let's see where he's going with this...[/VOICE]

The new tragedy today may change that. At a minimum, it proves that NASA's post-Challenger estimate of Shuttle safety has been as psychotically inaccurate as its pre-Challenger estimates -- with both estimates quite possibly being another set of deliberate lies.

NASA's current estimate has been that the Shuttle has only one chance in 350 of suffering a fatal accident during a launch, and considerably less of a risk during reentry.

Ahh, now here he's simply full of beans. As he himself points out, NASA has been stating all along that Shuttle's reliability was nothing to write home about. I think the most recent estimate was about one in two hundred fifty. A loss after over eighty flights since the last one is certainly not out of bed with NASA's estimate, except to someone utterly innumerate and unacquainted with statistics.

Not quite true. If -- as seems increasingly likely -- the Columbia disaster was due to detachment of some of its crucial belly tiles, then -- whether this was actually due to impact by a lightweight piece of debris from the external tank during launch or not -- it indicates that the Shuttle's entire reentry thermal protection system is incredibly fragile, and always has been.

NASA has always known that this is a likely failure mode, since the beginning of the program. I'm still awaiting some kind of regression analysis from Bruce to demonstrate to me why NASA's estimate was inaccurate. Or even some rationale as to how this statement supports...well...anything else that he's written.

There is also a genuine chance that today's tragedy will turn out to be due to excessive economizing on Shuttle maintenance and safety programs -- economizing which was criticized, explicitly and at length, by both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees last year -- in order to make it possible to continue funding the Space Station, even in some kind of barely scientifically usable form.

There is a chance, but the highest probability remains that the cause of Saturday's disaster (literally "bad star") was due to excessive economizing over a quarter of a century ago, when the Shuttle was being designed. "Send more money to NASA" is not now, and has never been, the key to more reliable, safe, affordable, or often space transportation.

The simple fact is that the average manned spaceflight costs about 10 times as much as the average unmanned space mission, for much LESS scientific and commercial return -- and always has.

True, and irrelevant, since no one has ever done a manned mission in the US other than NASA, and they've never been incentivized to do things at low cost.

As President Reagan's science advisor George Keyworth said: "While all government agencies lie part of the time, NASA is the only one I know of that does so routinely." The reason is simply that it has far less reason to exist at anything remotely like its current funding levels than any other U.S. government agency does.

NASA has been running an gigantic swindle on US taxpayers for at least the past three decades -- at the cost of about $150 billion in unjustified spending, and now a total of 14 human lives.

While I agree with this statement generally, I'm much more concerned with the dollars than the lives. Bruce is just relying here on the irrationality of the people who keen and wail over the deaths of people who signed up for potential death, to engage in rhetorical hyperbole.

Think about it. Fourteen human lives. I'd be willing to bet that we lost more people in traffic accidents yesterday than we lost in the entire history of the space program. The real issue is the money, and the opportunity costs, had we expended it in a manner that would have actually made significant progress in moving humanity off the planet, which that amount of money certainly could have, if not wasted on tech-welfare boondoggles like Shuttle and ISS. But Bruce is too busy crying about the fact that we didn't send robots to think about how the money could have been better spent for getting us into space.

All we can hope for at this point, however, is that the White House and Congress will finally come to their senses and shut the American manned space program down, completely, until radical new technology allows massive improvements in both launch cost and flight safety -- a development which is at least two decades or so off -- while maintaining (or even increasing) its spending both on unmanned space exploration and on that development of aeronautical technology which has supposedly been one of its primary reasons for existing.

Ahhhhhh...finally. Here it comes. People into space is fine, as long as we wait until we have the "technology." Let us all bow down to the god of "Technology." This is the mentality of the cargo cult, and certainly not the product of any informed analysis of the history of spaceflight.

The reason that spaceflight is expensive and unreliable is very simple, and has nothing to do with "technology." It is because we don't do much of it. When you don't do much of something, it will not only be expensive, due to an utter lack of economies of scale, but there will be so little experience with it that there's no opportunity to learn, and improve it, in both the aspects of cost and reliability.

This hope, however, is based on the assumption that the federal government possesses a significant degree of brains and honesty, which has always been open to serious question.

Yes. Unfortunately, those qualities in pundits like Mr. Moomaw seem, sadly, in short supply as well.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 04, 2003 08:58 PM
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I agree, Rand. Being a university engineering student, I had a discussion about this with a friend in political science. It's interesting to note that she, too, bowed to the god of "technology" - "but it'll continue to be such a waste of money until we have the right technology", I was told. I asked how this would happen - "well, it just takes enough money to run a large technology development program". NASA anyone? I think that this sort of deification of technology is rampant among those who don't have a technical background, eg. the large majority of those who are in, and plan to be in government. One thing we can start doing right now is making sure that non-technical people have an understanding of the limits of technology.

Posted by James at February 4, 2003 09:09 PM

In the last two paragraphs you cite is the unstated assumption that the Feds are the only organization capable of operating a manned spaceflight system. Why are the Feds buying manned spaceflight access in the first place? Shouldn't they be following the model of the Erie Canal, transcontinental railroads and interstate highways in providing the funding and incentives, but leaving it up private contractors to do the work? (The same could be said for how fighter jets and such military items are developed, but that hasn't been much of a fiscal success over the years.)

As for "radical new technology", how exactly does he expect it to be developed? Do we wait for space aliens to give it to us?

Posted by Raoul Ortega at February 4, 2003 09:19 PM

The reason that spaceflight is expensive and unreliable is very simple, and has nothing to do with "technology." It is because we don't do much of it. When you don't do much of something, it will not only be expensive, due to an utter lack of economies of scale, but there will be so little experience with it that there's no opportunity to learn, and improve it, in both the aspects of cost and reliability.

True, but it might be even pithier to put it this way: we'll only get the "technology" he's looking for when we fly more in space. Lots more than we're doing now.

Boiled down even further: We learn by doing.

Posted by jeanne a e devoto at February 4, 2003 10:15 PM

Much of what I have to say about this can be found on Jerry Pournelle's site in reaction to the truly offensive commentary on the Locus site.

It amazes me that so many say "Ooh, space is dangerous and nasty. We shouldn't let anyone go," while failing to consider that exploring vessels in the 16th and 15th centuries lost crewmembers by the dozens. Many ships set out with the understanding that there would be attrition en route and were provisioned accordingly.

Posted by Eric Pobirs at February 4, 2003 10:36 PM

JFK had to be persuaded? Pork stumping by LBJ is believable but is their evidence, other than some boasting, that Moon marching was Johnson's grand vision?

Posted by D Anghelone at February 5, 2003 05:44 AM

> > Tell me, Bruce, why should we care what scientists think? What does space have to do with science?

I'm not Bruce, but I'll tell you anyway. Science is currently an important public justification for funding space travel. You don't think it should be, that space travel can and should be justified in other ways, and that's fair enough. But as long as science continues to be used as a reason for travelling into space, the opinions of scientists on whether the results are worthwhile will be relevant.

Posted by Iain J Coleman at February 5, 2003 09:37 AM

And as long as we rely on the opinions of scientists to judge a program that's not really about science, we'll continue to have warped space policy.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 5, 2003 10:05 AM

Well, I think that commentary by people who don't factor in the economics of the situation should be stopped until those commentators acquire the technology to understand economics. ;)

As usual, well said, Rand. The idea that "space exploration" is a unitary, all-or-nothing, astronauts-or-robots -- but always publicly funded -- endeavor is one we've got to break apart.

Posted by Jay Manifold at February 5, 2003 11:02 AM

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