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Thinking The Unthinkable

Back at the beginning of the Cold War, with the threat of nuclear holocaust overhanging the nation, and the world, physicist Herman Kahn wrote a paper about "thinking the unthinkable."

It was about nuclear war, and it ultimately resulted in the theory of "Mutually Assured Destruction," with the appropriate acronym, MAD. No matter how horrible the consequences of some potential policy outcomes, they must be thought about, to minimize the probability of them occurring, or at least, of the damage resulting from their occurrence.

For the past month, NASA has been picking through the few recovered shattered shards of its first reusable spaceship, attempting to put together a tragic jigsaw puzzle, with misshapen pieces burned and warped, and most of them missing, in an attempt to try to find out definitively why it has to do so. But even before a conclusion has been reached, the agency has come under fire for alleged poor judgement during the flight, and for withholding information from the public in an attempt to provide upholstery for the keesters of senior management.

These accusations may turn out to be accurate but, to me, they're premature, and, for now, misguided.

I say this not because I'm unable to believe that NASA would do such a thing, nor is it because I'm some kind of reflexive defender of the space agency. Anyone who's been reading my columns in this space for the past year knows that, if anything, I'm the last person to defend NASA, an entity that I believe has been, in many ways, delaying and holding us back from our ultimate destiny in space for decades. In fact, I find it ironic, and frustrating, that in such circumstances I find myself in the position of defending the Shuttle program, and the agency itself. I do so not because I am happy with it, or even because I would like to see it continue to exist in its current form.

My concern is that, in a witch hunt to find out "what did they know, and when did they know it," we'll lose sight of the real issues, the fundamental issues of space policy that led to this disaster. In an era in which many of our government institutions have shown themselves to have feet of clay, it's very easy to point fingers at one that has lost two orbiters with fourteen people, flown a supposedly orbiting vehicle into the Martian surface under complete agency control, and launched an ostensibly far-seeing telescope that turned out to need glasses, like some kind of multi-billion-dollar space geek. Moreover, it's one that doesn't seem to provide a lot of value for the money invested in it, at least as far as the ostensible purpose--progress in getting humans into space.

And of course, it's always fun to play Monday-morning quarterback. When the apparent mode of destruction corresponds very closely with some engineers' pre-entry predictions, it's easy, and even gratifying, to cry "cover up"!

But in doing so, we fall into the trap of criticizing it for the wrong reasons, and once again being distracted from the real problem, which is that we don't, as a nation, really know what we're trying to accomplish in space. Until we resolve that issue, putting NASA into the stocks and throwing tomatoes at it is not only pointless, but counterproductive.

The people who work at NASA are, well, people. They're even good people, for the most part. But put yourself in their place for a moment.

Columbia is in orbit, for better or worse. There may have been damage to the tiles on the wing leading edge. The damage may or may not be critical, even catastrophic. If so, due to decisions made decades earlier, decisions made by people, most of whom are retired or dead, there's little that can be done about it. The thermal protection system has been accepted for years as a critical subsystem, just like a wing on an aircraft, and if it's lost, the vehicle is lost. The only solution to that problem is to prevent it from being lost.

The notion that it has been fatally compromised, with no realistic solution, may be discussed as a "what if" scenario in an email, but it's not something that can be easily contemplated as a reality.

To do so is to contemplate the loss of a quarter of the nation's fleet of orbiters, and to consign seven brave and exemplary men and women to an almost instantaneous incineration. To do so is to "think the unthinkable."

War gamers, military planners, RAND Corporation analysts, are used to doing so. NASA engineers are not.

Many will complain that this is a result of budget shortfall. To the degree that that's true, it has little to do with recent NASA budgets.

It's a result of a budget shortfall a quarter of a century ago, when we decided that we would have a single vehicle provide access for humans to orbit, when we decided that that vehicle must not only deliver humans to orbit, but sixty-thousand-pound payloads, and have a thousand miles of cross-range capability on landing, and act as a space station, rather than simply a delivery truck.

Most importantly, it's when we decided that we would only provide half of the money that engineers said would be required to develop such a vehicle, so compromises were made, that resulted in multi-segment solids that destroyed the Challenger in 1986. It also resulted in a fragile thermal protection system that looks increasingly like it doomed Columbia a little over a month ago, in a way that was beyond the means of frustrated engineers at NASA--and the United Space Alliance, and Boeing--to do anything about, to the point that it was painful to even think about.

Let me propose some (apparently) unthinkable thinking, that might get us out of the rut that we've been digging since the end of Apollo.

Let's think about multiple vehicle types for people to orbit, all American. Let's think about vehicles that can deliver anyone who wants to go, and has the money to do so, instead of government employees. Let's think about generating huge markets for space activities, instead of constraining ourselves to paltry notions of three, or six civil servants permanently in orbit at once. Let's think about building infrastructure, on the ground and in orbit, that will provide "tow-trucks," and hangars, and maintenance capability for vehicles in trouble, just as we do in every venue on earth.

Let's think the truly unthinkable--making space not a program, but just a place.

Posted by Rand Simberg at March 05, 2003 10:14 PM
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Rand: Before we can begin thinking about that kind of space future, our decision makers need to understand better what went wrong with our space past.

I did studied basic astronautical and aeronautical engineering at the Air Force Academy in the late 1970s, and was a financial analyst researching Morton Thiokol at the time of the Challenger disaster. In looking at the shuttle program in 1986 in the wake of the Challenger disaster, I didn't see how the shuttle program could be fixed. For two reasons. First, the design was bad - highly complicated, tens of thousands of moving parts and SRM's that just weren't suited for human space launch. I saw no way to take the existing design and "fix" it to make it safe enough to fly (my acceptable disaster rate would probably be 1/500 flights). Secondly, even if the existing design could be "fixed", the economics stunk. Without the ability to get up to geosynchronous orbit and work on the hundreds of communications satellites, there's not enough economic use for the shuttle in orbit to bother launching it.

So I was surprised when the program got going again, but paid little attention because by then I was married, doing a different job and just not interested. I stupidly assumed that NASA had addressed many of the failings that doomed Challenger - but in truth, the NASA of the moment seems little changed from the NASA of the Challenger era. From my informed perspective, they had a space shuttle program that STILL HAD A Catastrophic FAILURE RISK OF APPROXIMATELY 1/50 to 1/100, and yet they had almost no contingency plans for dealing with the most likely set of system failures.

To my mind that's what NASA should be most criticized for . . . . . (1) they should have known that the catastrophic failure rate was perhaps 1/50 to 1/100, (2) they should have known that by tracking the incidence rate of minor system failures on each mission (as Feynman suggested - so if the incidence rate of minor system failures is rising, then the catastrophic failure rate is also rising), (3) given that the shuttle was that dangerous, they should have either (a) stopped flying entirely, or (b) developed concrete contingency plans for the 10 most likely catastrophic problems.

And based on everything I know, I would say that TPS problems would have had to be one of the ten. I mean, c'mon, tens and sometimes hundreds of tiles were coming back damaged from successful flights. THAT's a FACT. Given that was happening, shouldn't the NASA engineers have worked up a systematic way to evaluate TPS damage to the shuttle while in orbit PLUS some capability for making repairs? And it's not like nobody ever thought of it, there was even a contract let at one point to have a contractor work on a TPS repair kit.

Before we do anything else, we need to give the shuttle program a fair, rational economic hearing and decide whether or not to keep it. And the answer today is even more compelling than before: Kill it. Kill it dead. It MAKES NO economic sense. Spend the dollars on something new, but not on the shuttle.

Posted by Anarchus at March 6, 2003 06:17 AM


I've wanted to replace the STS as much as the next guy. But if we kill the space shuttle now, what happens to the ISS hardware on the ground and our commitments with space agencies over seas?

Posted by John Kavanagh at March 6, 2003 06:37 AM

But as others have said, you can't evaluate the shuttle in that way until you've figured out what its actual mission requirements are. And we don't have that. I agree that the shuttle doesn't match any sane mission requirement but if we simply scrap it and start again without really evaluating why we're doing this, then we will be rewarded with the exact same problems, just in a different form factor.
Why do you want us in space?


Posted by Michael Mealling at March 6, 2003 06:49 AM

Ok, we've beaten this meme to death here. But it doesn't seem to be catching on anywhere else. John Carter McKnight picked it up. But I haven't seen anything beyond that. How do we move this issue beyond a handful of blogs?

Posted by Michael Mealling at March 6, 2003 06:55 AM

Why space?

A great question. First, though, I still want to say that the shuttle as designed and constructed is a near-worthless asset under any mission requirements. Kill it, kill it dead and start over with a clean sheet of paper.

In my opinion, there are three primary reasons to have a space program: (1) exploration of the universe, (2) obtaining valuable minerals in short supply on earth, and (3) human colonization.

Space exploration is very important - and requires better propulsion systems so that unmanned probes can go farther before they wear out and stop working.

Obtaining valuable minerals at economic cost is a pipe dream at present, but it's still worthwhile having an ongoing R&D program that tests out ideas on a small scale: trying to land on or "capture" a nearby asteroid, trying to find a way to build a space elevator using nanotechnology so the moon could be mined, etc.

Last, if colonization is a worthy goal, and I think it is, why not approach it as a 50-100 year project with lots of learning as we go? Rather than spend a fortune on a not-very-worthwhile manned mission to Mars, I'd much rather see us developing new life support systems, trying to create a self-sufficient biosphere that could be tested with around-the-moon-and-back manned missions, and also working hard on the artificial gravity necessary to keep humans healthy on long space trips.

What I object to wholeheartedly is the adventure for adventure's sake attitude of some enthusiasts. Rather than spending several hundred billion dollars on a manned mission to mars, wouldn't it be smarter to take most of the money and spend it in rational development of the skill set necessary for colonization somewhere to be named later, but not specifically Mars?

Posted by Anarchus at March 6, 2003 09:44 AM

Ok now we're getting somewhere. Although the term "exploration" is also a pet peeve of mine. Exploration is an action, not a reason. Actions are what you do once you have a reason to do them. Is it simple curiosity (i.e. science)? Or do you eventually want to go there? Its really difficult to make the case for manned space flight if your goal is pure science. Its also hard to get people to pay for it. You're always beholden to a political process unless you can figure out how to do the Cousteou thing...

As for colonization being a 50-100 year thing, I really disagree. The Moon Society has speced out a permanent lunar base for $3 billion that can be on the surface in 5 years. The hardest part is figuring out the economic incentives for being there (power transmission, dangerous industrial stuff, nanotech research, etc). I think that if you were to build up a better LEO infrastructure you could have people trying to eek out a living on the moon within 10-20 years. It wouldn't be easy but no one ever said emmigration was supposed to be comfortable.

Posted by Michael Mealling at March 6, 2003 11:12 AM

Well, the problem with your pet peeve against "exploration" is that how can you know until you know what's there?

For example, we've been probing Jupiter's moons in the past and have an ongoing effort there, but we ought to be working on faster propulsion systems in order to make possible the exploration of systems further away.

The problem with a permanent moon or mars colony to my mind is that the economics don't work with today's technology, and unless somebody can come up with something really useful on the surface of the moon (titanium oxide or ilmenite would be nice), I don't see any reason to establish a permanent base there. Although if the cost is only $3 billion or so, Billy Gates could swing that, easy.

Posted by Anarchus at March 6, 2003 12:14 PM

Ok, I'll ask it more simply: why do you want to know what's there? Simple curiosity or do you want to actually exploit it once you're there? Those two alternatives suggest two completely different mission profiles. Do you intend on coming back once you know what's there? If so then you probably want to leave some resources there for any followup work.

I agree, the economics of a lunar base are hard. We have some ideas but without markets its hard. But that $3 billion is using existing launch services. If we had a more sustainable launch infrastructure we could probably cut that cost in half. Which starts to put it in the realm of possibility for lots of industrial consortia.

Posted by Michael Mealling at March 6, 2003 12:44 PM

At heart, any MAJOR project comes down to economics and making money. That's what nearly all the exploration of the earth was about . . . . . .

The best analogy for the curiousity seekers is the "exploration" experience of the people racing to the north and south poles, and the people who still climb Mount Everest and other peaks. That's fine as far as I'm concerned, but I don't think that society ought to be financing those efforts, particularly when people such as Bill Gates and Paul Allen and Larry Ellison and Warren Buffett have tens of billions to sling around.

Don't ask me where the line between major and minor is - like pornography, I know it when I see it; and so do you, I suspect.

But we ought to be probing and researching and prepping for some MAJOR effort in the future, even if we're not ready to do anything big yet . . . . .

Posted by Anarchus at March 6, 2003 06:06 PM

Well if we explored for purely scientific reason then NASA could just stay in the business of sending robots into space to do our exploring for us. But there is more to that for as human being we have a curiosity and an emotional drive to create experiences first hand. Whether its that one person that ventures out and creates history and becomes a part of history and gets elevated to hero status. Or, for all the countless millions of people afterwards that follow in their footsteps to see and feel for themselves the physical realities of our universe around us. Anyone can pull up a sattelite photo of most anywhere in the U.S. on the MSN site. Yet when we take a trip in an airplane and get a window seat we still stick our heads over the window and watch the ground roll by. Think of all those tourists that go the grand canyon, what are they doing there? They walk around and until they find a sign that says "scenic point" or "historical marker" and they take a picture or they just stand there and look around and take it all in. Or countless people travel to the Caribbean every year and snorkel and scuba dive off the coral reefs to peer into a new world of aquatic life and underwater wonders. If the transportation system to the Moon was reliable and cheap enough. And the accomodations once you got there would be adequate. I would think that a great many people would make the trip to the Moon just to experience a Earth rise or stand on the rim of a crater. Some things you just can't put a price on.

Posted by Hefty at March 7, 2003 09:58 AM

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