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More Cold-War Thinking From Easterbrook
There's an interesting dialogue over at Slate today, between Nathan Myhrvold and Gregg Easterbrook--an extension of the discussion that Gregg started with his good, albeit flawed, Time piece. It's obvious that Gregg either didn't read my critique (likely) or that he disagreed, though since he didn't really respond to any of my criticisms, most likely he's (not surprisingly, despite Glenn linking it) simply not aware of it.
I want to focus in on three of his comments:
Almost every analyst who thinks rationally about the situation comes to the same conclusion: that what's needed is a new generation of low-cost throwaway rockets for putting payload into orbit, coupled to a small "spaceplane" carrying people only on those occasions when men and women are truly needed in space.
Well, I like to think that I'm an analyst who thinks rationally about the situation, and I do not come to that conclusion. I happen to believe that "low-cost throwaway rockets" is an oxymoron. There are smart people who disagree with me, and some of them are attempting to build such devices. Certainly we can have lower-cost throwaway rockets, but if we want to get truly low cost, for either passengers or cargo, we have to have space transports.
As to the point about "men and women being truly needed" in space, I'll address that after the next excerpt:
Get the payloads off the shuttle and onto unmanned throwaway rockets, and astronauts will stop dying to perform humdrum tasks. The crew of Challenger died trying to deliver to orbit a data-relay satellite; the crew of Columbia died after conducting some minor experiments that an automated probe could have handled at one-tenth the price.
Sorry, Gregg, but people die doing "humdrum tasks" every day. What is so special about space that people cannot risk their lives to accomplish things of economic benefit? Why are space workers' lives so much more valuable than, say, construction workers, or coal miners, or truck drivers?
Yes, I know, astronauts have a high value because it costs a lot to train them, but that's just because NASA has artificially created this myth of a superhuman called an "astronaut." In reality, a lot of the useful things that people can do in space could be blue-collar work.
If you can truly do it at lower cost (and risk) without using people, then fine--that's the criterion on which the decision should be made--not whether or not they're risking their lives. Shuttle is so expensive that it probably does make sense to use other vehicles to deliver payloads, but not because of the risk of astronauts' lives. Until we clarify our flawed thinking on this issue, which is a holdover from the Cold War space program, we aren't going to be able to come up with the right solutions.
But a shuttle replacement is exactly what's called for, and a small spaceplane for people, plus new throwaway rockets for cargo, would fit the bill. Once such systems existed, we could think about going back to the Moon, or onward to Mars. Right now NASA isn't even planning trips to either place, because the shuttle stands in the way.
Gregg continues to believe that there's no private demand for human space activities, and that only NASA can take us to the Moon or Mars, or even to LEO. He's wrong, and his proposed solution, while perhaps an improvement over Shuttle, will simply continue to put off the day that we have affordable, low-cost access to space.
We need to recognize that we have a chicken and egg problem. We will only get low costs and reliability with high activity levels, and we will only get high activity levels with vehicles designed to sustain them, at low cost (and that means not throwing them away). Gregg's proposal does nothing to move us in that direction--it's just a continuation of limited space activities by the government, at a slightly lower cost than the current program.Posted by Rand Simberg at February 07, 2003 10:34 AM
Being an Internet standards person I've come across chicken and egg problems before. We (the IETF) have many things that we know the Internet needs but which will never be implemented simply because the current installed base and economics prevent them, but if they were imlemented would create a much better network with higher value for everyone (distributed search comes to mind. Search engines are the most horribly innefficient way to go from an information science perspective).
What you are trying to do with space is create a value network where at least two nodes have to spring into existence at the same time, which isn't possible unless you have enough cash to pay to make them happen (i.e. Microsoft having enough cash to loose money on Windows in order to create a new value network). And no, its simply not economically possible for a government agency to do that. Legal frameworks can, as in when the government gave out land grants for railroads.
The entire problem here is a business problem and it needs a business point of view, not a technical one. We all need to stop reading books in the science fiction section and move over to the business section of the book store.
IMHO, there are two methods: 1) we all build businesses unrelated to space and create enough wealth among us that we can pay to have that value network built for us (there is imperical evidence that this works) 2) we figure out disruptive technologies/products/business methods that change the underlying assumptions about space and its relationship to people on the planet. The first one is tractable and relatively easy. The second is much more fun and potentially paradigm changing but extremely hard.
I think the entire discussion would be much more productive if we could move it away from vehicles , programs "grand purposes" and into markets, products and value networks.Posted by Michael Mealling at February 7, 2003 11:19 AM
I agree. That's why I try to avoid getting sucked into discussion about what the vehicle should look like, or what kind of propellants it should use. It's also why I call myself a "recovering" engineer. It's absolutely not an engineering problem. It's a business and institutional problem.Posted by Rand Simberg at February 7, 2003 11:35 AM
So if that's what we think the discussion should be about, let's have it! If we want private enterprise to bear the brunt of the cost and reap the benefits then we have to be able to identify markets. So far everyone has been stymied when it comes to what consumers are willing to buy that's space related outside the traditional comsat markets.
So when you talk about tourism, harzardous science or manufacturing, asteroid mining, etc, there has to be some way of getting from here to there business wise. You can't just walk into a VC's office asking for several billion dollars to jump completely into the market as though it were completely formed. No one invests that way. You have to figure out a way to start with a small piece of the market and build it up. What can we start doing now that will being to build that value network? I'll ask the question I always ask: what, if anythign, are you willing to buy that is actually space related at this very moment. What would actually elicit a "Cool! I'll buy that!"
A moon rock?
Posted by Michael Mealling at February 7, 2003 12:00 PM
After a couple X-Prize competitors get their vehicles going in the next year or so, it will be a ride into space.Posted by Rand Simberg at February 7, 2003 12:22 PM
Not that I'm arguing this to be the case, but what if the answer is there is no justification for a single company to expand in space; but the justification for humanity to do so already exists (ie. getting our eggs out of this single basket. Which we probably will do before the big one hits... unless the big one is a cosmic event that takes out the solar system rather than just this one rock.)
Regarding reusables vs. expendables. That's a rather easy question. You have two kinds of costs, those amortized over the life of the vehicle and per launch costs. You can assume an expendable to be just a reusable with an amortization period of one.
So if the launch cost of the reusable is more than that of the expendable, no amount of use will make it less expensive (and that's the situation with the shuttle.)
Am I missing something?
That's right. Of course, the Shuttle is only partly reusable. And it's expensive because of the parts that get thrown away, and because it flies so few flights that the fixed costs per flight remain extremely high.Posted by Rand Simberg at February 7, 2003 02:00 PM
The chicken or the egg problem has already been solved. The US military has over the years developed a space based network that runs almost the entire thing. I think the first 'economical' launch vehicle will be developed by them. The need to rapidly deploy satilites to replace failed ones will be the driving force. Just think about it, if all of our COM sats and GPS sats were taken out most of our modern military equipment would be useless.Posted by Ryan Gosse at February 7, 2003 02:53 PM
There aren't enough military satellites to justify the development of new launch systems, unless someone comes up with a way to shoot them down, and we have to replace them quickly.Posted by Rand Simberg at February 7, 2003 03:06 PM
Question about the x-prize. There is no requirement that the winner has to get to orbital velocity is there? Its a flight up to a certain altitude, return to Earth, and turn around and fly again. Assuming an x-prize can do that is getting up to orbital velocities a non-issue, or simply the next step?
Would it be beneficial to NASA and space industry in general to launch a cargo or two worth of fuel into orbit (assuming leakage, etc, could be dealt with). Sort of a gas station, an oasis in the desert. Sort of government provided infrastructure to help jumpstart efforts out of the gravity well?Posted by ruprecht at February 7, 2003 05:01 PM
Maybe Ryan Gosse has hit on some of the impetus for space commerce. Now we talk about lifting new satellites to replace old or broken ones. Whether the satellite are for the military or private companies (NOAA, GPS, XM Radio, TV, Telephone, etc.) we could repair or refurbish them in place. I spent most of my working career doing just that at the bottom of the gravity well. I never delivered a new "widget" when the old one quit working and left the old one in place. I repaired or up-graded the old one in place. New technologies do replace old ones, but not every service call is to replace the old with the new. This is not a 100% solution but it could be one area to look to.
I do agree with Rand that NASA has built the myth of the highly trained Space Professional. The right stuff my arse! Most of the work I did as a civilian was based on training I got in the Navy. When I was in the Navy I was trained to do my job and then we also trained for basic shipboard survival, i.e. fire fighting, general knowledge of my ships systems. We trained and practiced much more for ship casualties than for our basic job skill. I did not have to go to college and get a PH.D. in Marine Engineering to do my job, I did not need to be able to DESIGN marine systems to operate and repair them. I was taught how they worked, and the same should be true of most people we send into space for science or whatever. From what I read and have seen in industry, most of the experiments done in space by our highly trained and equally, expensive, astronaut corps, would be done by a 40 hour a week, non-salaried, lab tech here on earth. That?s millions for schooling and years of training against, several thousand for an Associate Degree, and then the basic space shipboard survival basics, call it another 2 years. We would have a cost system that a for profit, company could manage. The same system would work for repairing satellites. Any good Electronics Tech from any branch of the military should be able to repair the equipment in place.
Currently, NASA is building and operating the ISS. And then, under the banner of "space commercialization" they try to sell its research capabilities. Shouldnt it be the other way around ? What kind of a business opportunity is low-G research on ISS ? Who would want to buy that ?
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