Transterrestrial Musings  

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay

Alan Boyle (MSNBC)
Space Politics (Jeff Foust)
Space Transport News (Clark Lindsey)
NASA Watch
NASA Space Flight
Hobby Space
A Voyage To Arcturus (Jay Manifold)
Dispatches From The Final Frontier (Michael Belfiore)
Personal Spaceflight (Jeff Foust)
Mars Blog
The Flame Trench (Florida Today)
Space Cynic
Rocket Forge (Michael Mealing)
COTS Watch (Michael Mealing)
Curmudgeon's Corner (Mark Whittington)
Selenian Boondocks
Tales of the Heliosphere
Out Of The Cradle
Space For Commerce (Brian Dunbar)
True Anomaly
Kevin Parkin
The Speculist (Phil Bowermaster)
Spacecraft (Chris Hall)
Space Pragmatism (Dan Schrimpsher)
Eternal Golden Braid (Fred Kiesche)
Carried Away (Dan Schmelzer)
Laughing Wolf (C. Blake Powers)
Chair Force Engineer (Air Force Procurement)
Saturn Follies
JesusPhreaks (Scott Bell)
The Ombudsgod
Cut On The Bias (Susanna Cornett)
Joanne Jacobs

Site designed by

Powered by
Movable Type
Biting Commentary about Infinity, and Beyond!

« Going Group | Main | Apples To Apples »

Georgetown Space Policy Panel Report

More-than-occasional commenter Chuck Divine has a more extensive first-hand report from the panel discussion on space policy in Georgetown a few weeks ago.

On February 17, 2004, the Georgetown University Law Center hosted a panel discussion on the future of the U.S. space program. The panel consisted of Jim Muncy (Polispace), Col. Rick Searfoss (former astronaut), Edward L. Hudgins (Objectivist Center) and Robert Park (physicist and space critic). James Dunstan served as moderator.

Dunstan began the session with a review of the Bush space initiative. He covered the vision, the implementation, the budget and the politics. While discussing the budget, he noted that the plan calls for a total increase of $170 billion. In the near term there will be a $1 billion increase. Over 5 years an additional $26 billion will be budgeted.

Dunstan covered briefly political issues. Some in Congress view the new initiative negatively, some positively. There will be cutbacks to various centers ? this works against some political support, but in many ways is rational. The budget seems to make sense.

There is a real question as to whether NASA is up to the challenge. The GAO has stated that NASA is adrift on safety. The CAIB report was highly critical of the NASA culture. Dunstan noted that today various NASA codes are vying for supremacy in the new environment.

Hudgins presented a thoroughly libertarian take on the new initiative. He began by making several points:

  • Humans have a desire to understand the universe around us.
  • Only private entrepreneurs can bring down the cost of doing things in space.
  • The essential element to getting the private sector involved is the development of private property rights in space.
  • Government simply cannot open space to all.

Hudgins gave two reactions of his own. First, he thinks it great that NASA is getting back to exploration. But he also thinks that NASA can?t carry out the new plan?s goals.

Hudgins made a number of recommendations:

  • NASA should be restricted to science and exploration.
  • NASA functions that are not space related should be either shut down, privatized or turned over to other agencies.
  • The shuttle and ISS should be spun off ASAP.
  • Space commercialization acts should be enforced ? NASA should purchase services, not hardware.
  • Deregulate as much as possible.
  • Implement property rights in space.
  • Look for innovative ways to do what NASA wants to do.

Rick Searfoss was the next speaker. He gave his background as being from the military. He spoke about the need for leadership and teamwork. His dream is become the director of operations for a space tourism business. He is strongly patriotic and for a free market. Searfoss expressed the view that private enterprise will soon blow open the door into space. Burt Rutan is doing exciting things. Small entrepreneurs will lead the way.

Searfoss noted that NASA ? according to the CAIB ? is seriously adrift. He commented that real leadership has been dormant too long. In his view what will work best is synergy between NASA and the private sector. Only modest new expenditures will be required. Searfoss is cautiously optimistic about the future.

Robert Park began his speech with a reference to 18th century Luddites holding back progress. Today he said we are exploring Mars by using robots. The real explorers are the people operating the machines. Park made several points:

  • Robot senses are better than human.
  • We can explore now ? not wait for humans to get there.
  • Current space businesses are communication, weather and global positioning satellites.
  • Humans would contaminate Mars if they went there, making it more difficult to find genuine Martian life.
  • No space business has come from human space exploration.

Jim Muncy began by actually agreeing with Park to some extent. But, Muncy added, robots cannot create new life. Robots cannot feel or adapt as humans can. Humans need machines; machines need humans. Muncy commented that he grew up believing that NASA was opening space to humans. He also hopes that NASA will embrace the last chance being offered it by Bush?s plan. Muncy said this plan is really NASA?s last chance.

Muncy went on to define ten myths of the Bush space plan. The initiative:

  • Will destroy Hubble synergies.
  • Leaves us dependent on the Russians for the ISS. We already are dependent.
  • Gives money to Boeing and Lockheed Martin. There will be less money for corporate profit centers.
  • Kills ISS. NASA will focus instead on human adaptation to space.
  • Is a political ploy. Canceling programs and putting people out of work is not a political ploy.
  • Returning to the moon is boring. We should go straight to Mars. Muncy commented the plan is not a flags and footprints mission.
  • Will cost a trillion dollars. No ? NASA must be transformed. This could be hard to do.
  • Robots are better and cheaper. Humans are not just about learning science. This initiative supports the full range of human endeavors.
  • This is just about science. No ? the endeavor and space are about all things humans do.
  • And finally, it?s about NASA. Muncy noted that, for Eisenhower, space was about science and technology. Kennedy saw it differently. He viewed space as being about the human race and Americans in particular. Muncy noted that the noted explorers Lewis and Clark were charged with expanding human commerce ? all of human activity.

After Muncy?s brief presentation, the floor was opened to questions.

The first question raised was the Bush plan about maintaining space supremacy. Muncy replied that the proposal was really about free nations working together for mutual benefits. Hudgins indicated he wants to see a supremacy of principles.

The second question asked, in light of the fact that the Mars rover cost $1 billion, what would the cost of a human mission be. Muncy commented he didn?t how much it will cost. He added one real reform is the most important part of the agenda: NASA will now buy services. Hudgins compared the cost of a deep sea rover with the Mars rover.

The third question raised the issue of the fact that there are only a few places where humans can personally go in the solar system. In light of that fact, shouldn?t we go to Mars? Park recommended taking care of this planet first.

Ron Cowen of Space News raised the question of how the current plan differs from the earlier President Bush?s plans. Searfoss commented that the SEI proposal was representative of the old NASA. The huge budget proposed killed the plan. The new plan calls for significant change. Dunstan commented the old plan called for everything that NASA had requested. The new plan notes that ISS is not sustainable and old dinosaurs should be eliminated. Park commented that the research community opposed both ISS and shuttle.

The next question queried whether NASA was ready to go commercial. Dunstan was disappointed that Goddard was chosen to lead the Moon part of the mission. He added a focus on business and making money was necessary.

Ian Pryke asked about impediments for international partners. Dunstan observed there were two problems. The first was political: NASA doesn?t work well with others. The second was legal: the Iran nonproliferation act bans certain kinds of activities. Searfoss said the agency worked well with the Russians. Muncy noted the ISS was not about opening space to all people ? it was about spreading the financial burden.

The last question raised whether or not nongovernmental international cooperation was already happening. Muncy stated that it was. He added that there was a need to create the legal framework to allow and promote international cooperation.

Posted by Rand Simberg at March 02, 2004 09:33 PM
TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference this post from Transterrestrial Musings.

I see another mention of Hudgins comparing an undersea robot to a "space pod." Does anybody know the specifics of this comparison? He has made it many times, but I think it is a deeply flawed comparison. I want to know what specific proposals he is comparing.

Posted by Dwayne A. Day at March 3, 2004 08:30 AM

It's probably based on a piece that Bill Haynes wrote back in the eighties, in which he compared Deep Rover to the planned NASA Orbital Maneuvering Vehicle, and noted that for equivalent functionality in a harsh environment (extremely high pressure, corrosive salt water), there were about three orders of magnitude difference in cost.

Posted by Rand Simberg at March 3, 2004 08:40 AM

I will have to look at that. The analogy just does not hold up well for me. For starters, the environments are not similar. For instance, the temperature range for a spacecraft is huge, but not so for an undersea vehicle. A spacecraft also needs its own power supply, whereas an undersea vehicle can use several options--in this case probably rechargeable batteries. And weight is not really going to be a concern for the undersea vehicle, at least not as big a concern.

In addition, the responses to these differences are also going to be quite different. Undersea vehicles can solve a lot of problems, for instance, by simply adding weight--more steel, more batteries, heavier systems. Weight increases, even quite big ones, do not have substantial cost penalties. That is not true for spacecraft.

I think that a better comparison would be between equivalent spacecraft, rather than things that operate in entirely different environments and engineering fields.

Posted by Dwayne A. Day at March 3, 2004 01:17 PM

Probably the biggest difference is the weight issue (which is a consequence of needlessly high launch costs). But the marine environment is extremely harsh in its own ways.

It's not a perfect comparison, and certainly a space-space one would be better, but none (yet) exists. Nonetheless, it's a question worth asking, and a comparison worth at least thinking about, in terms of what the real cost drivers are. There's abundant evidence that at least an order of magnitude of the difference is a function of government (and particularly NASA) procurement practices.

Posted by Rand Simberg at March 3, 2004 01:25 PM

Nice report!


I don?t see any mention of a ?space pod.? Are you referring to this - ?Hudgins compared the cost of a deep sea rover with the Mars rover??

I consider the deep ocean environment to be far more hostile than the Mars surface or the space environment through most of the solar system (exceptions for Jupiter?s belts, near the sun, etc.) Frankly, I just don?t see what is supposed to be so harsh about the Mars environment for a machine.

Posted by VR at March 3, 2004 02:14 PM

The big problem with Mars (and space in general) seems to be coping with massive thermal variations, while being stuck with only radiative forms of heat management. (At least for long mission durations or where volatile resupply is not an option - sublimation was employed extensively on Apollo). It's those thermal variations that will likely kill the Mars Rovers, once the power supplies are too low to effectivily regulate the internal temperature. Thermal variation were also what did in Magellan.

The other big cost driver is radiation hardening key electronics from solar protons.

Both of these are not factors in the deep sea environment.

I will add a third - I expect positive internal pressures are structurally a lot harder to design for than negative internal pressure - most materials are stronger in compression than tension.

Posted by Duncan Young at March 4, 2004 02:10 AM

Duncan Young:

The problems of themal variations and rad hardening are very bad with small vehicles, but they are no big deal with large vehicles.

And structures with positive internal pressure are much easier to design than with negative internal pressure.

A pressure vessel that has 1 atmosphere internal pressure is quite light and simple, while a vacuum chamber for the same pressure difference will need very thick walls or reinforcements to avoid buckling.

The best way to get cheaper and more rugged spacecraft is to throw mass at them. This is not as easy as it sounds, since it requires a fundamental change in mindset for an industry that has tried to save weight for the last 30 years. But even with todays launchers you could save a lot of money by making spacecraft heavier.

Posted by Rüdiger Klaehn at March 4, 2004 04:35 AM

while a vacuum chamber for the same pressure difference will need very thick walls or reinforcements to avoid buckling.

Um, I'm not a structural engineer, but light bulbs seem to do just fine. I haven't done the test but I would hesitate to pressurize one to net positive 1 atmosphere.

But even with todays launchers you could save a lot of money by making spacecraft heavier.

I dont see how dropping the payload in the Atlantic as opposed to putting it in orbit saves you money. Or maybe I have missed your point.

Posted by Duncan Young at March 4, 2004 05:27 AM

I might be sticking my neck out in an area where I am not qualified, so I am going to phrase some of this as a question.

It seems that heavier vessels would deal with some of the problems associated with long term human space travel. Thicker walls deal with, or at least alleviate, the radiation problem. Thicker walls also alleviate the thermal variation issue. I recognize that there are massive terrestrial launch costs here, but would lunar processing facilities be able to deal with this type of vehicle? What I am suggesting is that perhaps some of the issues associated with manned space presence are caused by our terrestrial launch base. If we dont have to worry about launching all the materials involved, then mass becomes much less of a limiting factor. While the undersea view seems flawed in comparison with current design parameters, perhaps this will change as our launch parameters change. Would it be beneficial to use lunar regolith derived concrete or metals as a shell for exploration vessels? This obviously doesnt deal with the problems associated with landing modules and robotic probes, but it could be useful in the area of orbital/interplanetary/ activities. You also would have to deal with guiding all that mass, but it could have application as the base station from which more mobile craft are deployed.

As for the application to the current launch reality, massive craft cant be put up in one launch, but multiple launches can work wonders. We need to develop standardized orbit linkages anyway for mid to long term station development. Again, I am only suggesting this in order to ensure that more than one approach to building is considered. Mass can be our friend (once it gets out of the gravity well at least).

Posted by Nathan Horsley at March 4, 2004 06:16 AM

Um, I'm not a structural engineer

With all due respect, Duncan, it shows...

Most materials are much stronger in tension than in compression. Masonry is the exception. Building a negative pressure vessel is much more difficult (and will be much heavier) than a positive one from any metal (or even glass).

And we generally avoid building positive pressure vessels from glass not because it's not sufficiently strong, but because its failure mode is sudden and catastrophic.

Posted by Rand Simberg at March 4, 2004 09:01 AM

Thanks for the education :)
I'm a geologist - and with respect to brittle failure, the earth's crust is generally twice as strong in compression as in tension.
Probably due to that significant lithostatic component.
There is my bias.

With humility,

Posted by Duncan Young at March 4, 2004 09:45 AM


Thanks for posting my report.

The comments so far intrigue me. They all seem to be triggered by Hudgins' deep sea vs. space comparison -- even Dwayne Day's.

What did people think about the rest of the report? While there, I thought the most interesting parts were Searfoss' and Muncy's.

The panel wasn't all that much about hardware per se.

Posted by Chuck Divine at March 4, 2004 11:15 AM


It was a great report. I tended to agree with Hudgins? positions, though not completely. They should continue with research, but ?air? should be included along with ?space.? Things I?d like to see ? no more whole spacecraft or spaceplane designs dictated by NASA, no more whole spacecraft design programs. Their focus should be reliability and cost, new technology should be used to support that, but shouldn?t be a goal in itself. Research on better pieces (reliable engines, tougher heat shielding). Logical development programs: If you can get to space ten times cheaper and reliably, a space station can be much bigger, cheaper or both. And so on.

As for the comments, don?t knock ?em, it shows people are reading, and care. And, well . . . Dwayne started the fight! (heh)

Posted by VR at March 4, 2004 01:53 PM

Yeah, I started the fight--with a question. I still have not seen a satisfactory answer. And it is essentially besides the point to say "you can make space cheaper by building stuff bigger, as long as you've lowered the launch costs." I wasn't asking about hypothetical futures, but about a real analogy existing in the present time (when increasing payload mass on a spacecraft has tremendous impacts and costs).

As for the overall comments on the panel discussion, I didn't comment on the review of the other speakers because I did not think they were notable. But Hudgins seems to have made a few claims that I find questionable. The other one was this: "The shuttle and ISS should be spun off ASAP." I would like to know how that can be done.

Posted by Dwayne A. Day at March 4, 2004 03:25 PM

Well, I didn't really think of it as a fight so much as a discussion.

There are many factors that go into the high cost of space hardware, as I've often discussed here (e.g., government procurement procedures, the elevation of pork over function, overspecification, and the high cost of getting things into space). The main point is that space hardware doesn't have to be intrinsically expensive just because it's space hardware.

Private development will probably mitigate the institutional causes of high cost, and (dramtically) lower launch costs will eliminate those high costs that are due to the perceived need for weight reduction. But this will all remain speculation until we get private entities doing things in space with reduced launch costs. The examples provided here and in the next post simply provide a hint that this may be the case, not indisputable proof.

Posted by Rand Simberg at March 4, 2004 03:31 PM

And my comment was a joke. It was intended to be interpreted as ?Nah, Nah, He started it!? silliness (the ?heh? was a hint).

Rand, that pretty sums up my thoughts on the subject. The process is the real issue.

I am NOT putting down the current Mars rovers, but shocking as it sounds, you can find very harsh environments on this planet, and we manage to deal with those without so much cost. Deep ocean is one of the worst. THAT is the point of comparison for the rovers.

Regarding some of the earlier comments - the Apollo LM had a pressure shell of aluminum about the thickness of heavy-duty foil. Unmanned craft generally don?t even bother with a pressure shell. For deep ocean, there have to be moving parts that will operate at pressures that can reach more than 1000 times atmospheric pressure, water that is cold enough to gel many lubricants, pressure enough to change the way chemicals work. High pressure water will rush in microscopic abrasions, salt will not react well with electricity. How is that easier than Mars? Regular hardware deals with temperature swings in the hundreds of degrees every day, and can last decades. Mars radiation is trivial compared to Jupiter?s rad belts, and we designed for that already. Mars has an environment we know how to deal with, and it shouldn?t be THAT expensive.

Dwayne, if Rand didn?t make it clear enough, lower launch cost means far more than just meaning you can build heavier probes. It changes the entire equation ? you can try more things, build more, use less sophisticated techniques and you still come out ahead. The current throw away launch process is a big part of the problem.

Posted by VR at March 4, 2004 05:07 PM

VR, I am _not_ disputing that lower launch costs could do those things. I am saying that the space probe=underwater probe (and the particular one that Hudgins cites) is a Bad Analogy.

I am being nitpicky or whatever you want to call it, but bad analogies are bad analogies. You cannot _prove_ that lower launch costs are magical solutions by using an inappropriate analogy.

Posted by Dwayne A. Day at March 4, 2004 05:32 PM

VR, All,

I wasn't knocking the comments at all. I am glad I was able to offer a decent report of the event and that people appreciated it. I was just making an observation about the discussion. I apologize to anyone who thought I was criticizing them.

Posted by Chuck Divine at March 5, 2004 06:02 AM

Didn't think you were criticizing, Chuck. I just suspected that you didn't realize that it is common for comments to focus on one point, but that it is usually good there ARE comments because it shows people were reading. One of the biggest problems with written conversations is that they don't carry the emotions we hear in voices or see on faces, so it is very easy to misinterpret a writer's intention. That's one reason there are so many Usenet/Internet flame wars. I wasn't annoyed by ANYTHING in this thread, but I did enjoy the discussion.

Posted by VR at March 5, 2004 02:50 PM

Post a comment

Email Address: