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A Vision, Not A Destination

Jason Bates has an article on the current state of space policy development. As usual, it shows a space policy establishment mired in old Cold-War myths, blinkered in its view of the possibilities.

NASA needs a vision that includes a specific destination. That much a panel of space advocates who gathered in Washington today to celebrate the 100th anniversary of powered flight could agree on. There is less consensus about what that destination should be.

Well, if I'd been on that panel, the agreement would have been less than unanimous. I agree that NASA needs a vision, but I think that the focus on destination is distracting us from developing one, if for no other reason than it's probably not going to be possible to get agreement on it.

As the article clearly shows, some, like Paul Spudis, think we should go back to the moon, and others, like Bub Zubrin, will settle for no less than Mars, and consider our sister orb a useless distraction from the true (in his mind) goal. We are never going to resolve this fundamental, irreconciliable difference, as long as the argument is about destinations.

In addition, we need to change the language in which we discuss such things. Dr. Spudis is quoted as saying:

"? For the first time in the agency?s history there is no new human spaceflight mission in the pipeline. There is nothing beyond" the international space station."

Fred Singer of NOAA says:

The effort will prepare humans for more ambitious missions in the future, Singer said. "We need an overarching goal," he said. "We need something with unique science content, not a publicity stunt."

Gary Martin, NASA's space architect declares:

NASA?s new strategy would use Mars, for example, as the first step to future missions rather than as a destination in itself, Martin said. Robotic explorers will be trailblazers that can lay the groundwork for deeper space exploration, he said.

"...human spaceflight mission..."

"...unique science..."

" exploration..."

This is the language of yesteryear. This debate could have occurred, and in fact did occur, in the early 1970s, as Apollo wound down. There's nothing new here, and no reason to think that the output from it will result in affordable or sustainable space activities.

They say that we need a vision with a destination, but it's clear from this window into the process that, to them, the destination is the vision. It's not about why are we doing it (that's taken as a given--for "science" and "exploration"), nor is it about how we're doing it (e.g., giving NASA multi-gigabucks for a "mission" versus putting incentives into place for other agencies or private entities to do whatever "it" is)--it's all seemingly about the narrow topic of where we'll send NASA next with our billions of taxpayer dollars, as the scientists gather data while we sit at home and watch on teevee.

On the other hand, unlike the people quoted in the article, the science writer Timothy Ferris is starting to get it, as is Sir Martin Rees, the British Astronomer Royal, though both individuals are motivated foremost by space science.

At first glance, the Ferris op-ed seems just another plea for a return to the moon, but it goes beyond "missions" and science, and discusses the possibility of practical returns from such a venture. Moreover, this little paragraph indicates a little more "vision," than the one from the usual suspects above:

As such sugarplum visions of potential profits suggest, the long-term success of a lunar habitation will depend on the involvement of private enterprise, or what Harrison H. Schmitt, an Apollo astronaut, calls "a business-and-investor-based approach to a return to the Moon to stay." The important thing about involving entrepreneurs and oil-rig-grade roughnecks is that they can take personal and financial risks that are unacceptable, as a matter of national pride, when all the explorers are astronauts wearing national flags on their sleeves.

One reason aviation progressed so rapidly, going from the Wright brothers to supersonic jets in only 44 years, is that individuals got involved ? it wasn't just governments. Charles A. Lindbergh didn't risk his neck in 1927 purely for personal gratification: he was after the $25,000 Orteig Prize, offered by Raymond Orteig, a New York hotelier, for the first nonstop flight between New York and Paris. Had Lindbergh failed, his demise, though tragic, would have been viewed as a daredevil's acknowledged jeopardy, not a national catastrophe. Settling the Moon or Mars may at times mean taking greater risks than the 2 percent fatality rate that shuttle astronauts now face.

Sir Martin's comments are similar:

The American public's reaction to the shuttle's safety record - two disasters in 113 flights - suggests that it is unacceptable for tax-funded projects to expose civilians even to a 2% risk. The first explorers venturing towards Mars would confront, and would surely willingly accept, far higher risks than this. But they will never get the chance to go until costs come down to the level when the enterprise could be bankrolled by private consortia.

Future expeditions to the moon and beyond will only be politically and financially feasible if they are cut-price ventures, spearheaded by individuals who accept that they may never return. The Columbia disaster should motivate Nasa to set new goals for manned space flight - to collaborate with private groups to develop a more cost-effective and inspiring programme than we've had for the past 30 years.

Yes, somehow we've got to break out of this national mentality that the loss of astronauts is always unacceptable, or we'll never make any progress in space. The handwringing and inappropriate mourning of the Columbia astronauts, almost eleven months ago, showed that the nation hasn't yet grown up when it comes to space. Had we taken such an attitude with aviation, or seafaring, we wouldn't have an aviation industry today, and in fact, we'd not even have settled the Americas. To venture is to risk, and the first step of a new vision for our nation is the acceptance of that fact. But I think that Mr. Ferris is right--it won't be possible as long as we continue to send national astronauts on a voyeuristic program of "exploration"--it will have to await the emergence of the private sector, and I don't see anything in the "vision" discussions that either recognizes this, or is developing policy to help enable and implement it.

There's really only one way to resolve this disparity of visions, and that's to come up with a vision that can encompass all of them, and more, because the people who are interested in uses of space beside and beyond "science," and "exploration," and "missions," are apparently still being forced to sit on the sidelines, at least to judge by the article.

Here's my vision.

I have a vision of hundreds of flights of privately-operated vehicles going to and from low earth orbit every year, reducing the costs of doing so to tens of dollars per pound. Much of their cargo is people who are visiting orbital resorts, or even cruise ships around the moon, but the important things is that it will be people paying to deliver cargo, or themselves, to space, for their own purposes, regardless of what NASA's "vision" is.

At that price, the Mars Society can raise the money (perhaps jointly with the National Geographic Society and the Planetary Society) to send their own expedition off to Mars. Dr. Spudis and others of like mind can raise the funds to establish lunar bases, or even hotels, and start to learn how to operate there and start tapping its resources. Still others may decide to go off and visit an asteroid, perhaps even take a contract from the government to divert its path, should it be a dangerous one for earthly inhabitants.

My vision for space is a vast array of people doing things there, for a variety of reasons far beyond science and "exploration." The barrier to this is the cost of access, and the barrier to bringing down the cost of access is not, despite pronouncements to the contrary by government officials, a lack of technology. It's a lack of activity. When we come up with a space policy that addresses that, I'll consider it visionary. Until then, it's just more of the same myopia that got us into the current mess, and sending a few astronauts off to the Moon, or Mars, for billions of dollars, isn't going to get us out of it any more than does three astronauts circling the earth in a multi-decabillion space station.

There's no lack of destinations. What we continue to lack is true vision.

[Monday evening update]

As is often the case, Mark Whittington utterly misstates my position, which is clarified in the comments section. Also as usual, I don't mind that much, because most people can figure that out on their own, and links are links.

Posted by Rand Simberg at December 22, 2003 10:26 AM
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I remember an old saying: "getting there is half the fun". That is usually true whether it be over the river and through the wood to Grandma's or to Mars. However, In the case of Mars, I would recommend reexamining colonizing the Moon first as an interim step. Yes, it puts a Mars landing off for a longer time but I believe the effort will be worth it. we must avoid two things: gummint involvement (any gummint)and a scenerio such as in Heinlein's "the Moon is a harsh mistress".

Posted by MARKBERT at December 22, 2003 11:42 AM

Until launch costs come down significantly, government visions are the only ones we will see in space. But once the cost of going into space becomes affordable, who know what uses people will come up with? So called visionaries can never predict what the future will bring, as famously shown by Thomas J. Watson Jr., chairman of IBM in 1943 ?

I think there is a world market for about five computers.

If we took the majority of the money we spend on NASA and instead used it to fund research into building fully reusable space transports, we would drastically reduce the cost of all these competing ?visions? and allow us to do all of them and more.

Posted by Rocket Man Blog at December 22, 2003 12:26 PM

At the beginning of the space age, it used to be gospel that only the government had the resources to do space. Now we have another gospel that only the private sector has the flexbility to do the same.

Oddly enough both are right and wrong at the same time.

What is needed to the tried and true method of finding a synergy between public and private, so that the strengths of both are brought into play.

Posted by Mark R. Whittington at December 22, 2003 01:52 PM

What's needed is for the government to put up the money, in the form of land grants, contracts, prizes, etc., then get out of the way and let others compete to fulfill those needs, as opposed to the present way were bureaucrats spend their time trying to justify their jobs and increase their budgets.

It's said that one of the things that really helped jumpstart commercial aviation in the US was "airmail", where the postoffice would pay contractors to deliver the mail. How and why and what risks were taken were of little concern to the post office, as long as the mail went through on time (as contracted). Note that the Post Office didn't spend years and millions building a perfect Mail Aeronautical Delivery System, and then making sure that no one else could possible run the system they came up with.

Posted by Raoul Ortega at December 22, 2003 02:58 PM

Mark W, I've no objective to government involvement, and even if I did, it would be pointless, since the government is going to be involved regardless. I'm just trying to come up with some policy that creates that happy medium, something that I don't see any signs of happening, other than a promising congressional hearing or two.

And to the other Mark (Rocketman), when you say: If we took the majority of the money we spend on NASA and instead used it to fund research into building fully reusable space transports..., be careful what you wish for. That sounds very much like the X-33 program.

It's really not a technology problem per se, though it would be nice for NASA to develop some enhancing technologies. If by "fund research into..." you mean putting up prizes for competitive and successful efforts, than I'm all for it, but no more cost-plus development contracts to big aerospace. Let's get people to do it who see R&D as a cost of doing business, rather than a profit center.

Posted by Rand Simberg at December 22, 2003 03:33 PM

I was thinking more along the lines of the government funding research into materials, engines and thermal protection systems rather than vehicles Rand. Let private industry build the vehicles as they see fit rather than as the government mandates.

But as you said, government is "going to be involved regardless," so in my opinion that involvement should include funding research into enabling technologies that is unlikely to be performed without government money, although prizes would be another good use for the money.

I guess the best way to describe my position is that I would like to see the government be an enabler rather than a driver of space access.

Posted by Mark Oakley at December 22, 2003 07:01 PM

The point is that we already have the "enabling" technologies needed for low (or at least much lower) cost access to space. If NASA works on technologies now, they'll be enhancing, not enabling (not a bad thing, but terminology is important). To say that they're working on enabling technologies is to concede the falsehood, promulgated by them, that we can't do it until they develop them.

Posted by Rand Simberg at December 22, 2003 08:07 PM

Rand, I must confess that I'm a little confused. You were quite eloquent about what you do not want in your original blog post. No publically funded space projects. No return to the Moon (with government dollars.) No Mars expeditions (on government dollars.) Your "space vision" was a very nice, libertarian dream filled with private space ships, private space expeditions, private this, and private that with absolutely no sense of how such is achievable.

Now your "clarification" seems to contradict your original position. OK, some publically funded space projects are acceptable. Which ones and under what conditions, you fail to reveal. In previous posts you seem to suggest that technology R&D could be done without actually testing that technology. Prizes too seem to now be acceptable, though you've contradicted a previously stated position that NASA ought not to sponser such.

You've accused me of mistating your position. That is wrong of you. Perhaps if you were to have a clear and consistant position you would have less cause for complaints.

Posted by Mark R. Whittington at December 22, 2003 09:29 PM

You were quite eloquent about what you do not want in your original blog post. No publically funded space projects.

I never said that. I have no control over how you choose to misinterpret what I say.

Posted by Rand Simberg at December 22, 2003 09:33 PM

I agree Rand that no new technologies are needed to reduce the cost of space access below what it is today, so I guess I am guilty of falling victim to the semantic infiltration you describe in using the term enabling versus enhancing.

However, I think you would agree that the lower we can get the cost of space access, the more demand there will be for that access. I know you have proposed in the past that ?

The decision makers must consider the possibility of simply putting out an order for currently-unthinkable numbers of launches and pounds of payload to orbit, to allow the private sector to do what it does best--driving down costs and increasing quality through competition and volume.

which is an excellent way bringing the cost down because it solves one of the major hurdles to reducing the cost of space access: The historically low volume of launches.

Artificially increasing the demand for launches as you propose would drive private industry to research enhancing technologies and further reduce the cost of space access, but it essentially amounts to the government funding that research, although they would not be controlling it, which is a good thing. And since multiple companies would be conducting that research in a desire to win those contracts, the government would get more bang for their buck than they would if they funded just one company to do the same type of research.

What I was doing was looking at the problem from a demand perspective. Assuming no significant increase in the demand for launches in the near term, the best way for the government to help in decreasing the cost of space access would be to fund research into enhancing technologies so that building a more cost effective launcher would be economical without an increase in demand.

I actually like your idea better, because it almost completely removes the government form the decision making process of how to decrease the costs. But I don?t know if it is politically feasible or not (you would know that better than I). If for whatever reason it is not politically feasible, and ?since the government is going to be involved regardless,? I believe we should use the money they are going to spend anyway and research enhancing technologies.

Posted by Mark Oakley at December 22, 2003 09:56 PM

I'm sorry, Rand, but I can't let that last heated accusation go. I don't "choose to misinterpret" anything. I can only judge your position by what you actually write, not by reading your mind or by guessing how it's going to get clarified.

I also caution you not to ascribe malicious intent to me. That's uncalled for.

Posted by Mark R. Whittington at December 22, 2003 10:04 PM

By the way, Rand. Here are your words, not mind.

"To venture is to risk, and the first step of a new vision for our nation is the acceptance of that fact. But I think that Mr. Ferris is right--it won't be possible as long as we continue to send national astronauts on a voyeuristic program of "exploration"--it will have to await the emergence of the private sector, and I don't see anything in the "vision" discussions that either recognizes this, or is developing policy to help enable and implement it."

So tell me again how I've "mistated your position."

Posted by Mark R. Whittington at December 22, 2003 10:17 PM

There is nothing in those words that say that government money shouldn't be spent on opening up the space frontier. The issue is how those funds are expended, not whether.

I infer intent because you do this repeatedly, despite continued correction on my part, and no basis for your interpretation to anyone with a good comprehension of the English language.

Posted by Rand Simberg at December 22, 2003 10:33 PM

I'm not sure how else one is supposed to interpret "it will have to await for the emergence of the private sector." In fact, there was nothing in your original post, except for a vague reference to contracting out asteroid diversion, about any support of public sector space whatsoever. Lots of verbage opposing it, of course.

I can't stop you from inferring anything you want. If you want to believe that I'm out to get you, then it is your privledge to do so. But you would still be wrong to react that way to anyone who dares to suggest that your views are mistaken.

Posted by Mark R. Whittington at December 23, 2003 03:28 AM

I'm not sure how else one is supposed to interpret "it will have to await for the emergence of the private sector."

You're supposed to interpret it the way it was intended, to anyone who can read plain English. We will not have a robust spacefaring capability until the emergence of the private sector as a major factor. That doesn't meant that government resources won't be required to help make that happen.

You're the one who's inferring false things, not me, and you do so mistakenly, since I don't even imply them.

Posted by Rand Simberg at December 23, 2003 08:43 AM

Wow. That's a pretty big blind spot you have there, Mark. When anyone starts talking about (gasp!) not doing something purely by government dictate you start yelling "Libertarian!" I'm guessing you don't like libertarians much and are trying to turn this into a libertarian debate?

From what *I* can see, he's talking about developing space commercial markets, beyond comsats, in addition to the current government space "markets." That would increase demand for space launch capability, ultimately expanding the launch market and lowering costs. NOWHERE in there does the government market go away, and in fact, would increase, though actual costs might drop. If costs dropped to something reasonable, MASA would be flying 30 ton probes around the solar system, and setting up vast telescope arrays that could show detailed images of earth sized planets in other solar systems.

Anyway, this is basic economics, just applied to a new market. If you STILL don't get it, just repeat after me: "Even Democrats do business! Business is NOT pure evil!" Say that a few hundred times, and maybe the idea that government and business can coexist will start getting through.

Posted by VR at December 24, 2003 03:28 AM

Rand, I've read your blog off and on for a little over a year now, and it's just more of the same:

You're quick to critisize NASA (which is easy and hip), but your offerings of an alternative are thin, or sound naive for someone of your obvious cred.

Posted by Dr.z3n at January 8, 2004 08:35 PM

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