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My Take On Derb's Rant

OK, I decided to do a mild (because there's actually much of it with which I agree) fisking of last week's piece.

Like the monster in some ghastly horror movie rising from the dead for the umpteenth time, the space shuttle is back on the launch pad. This grotesque, lethal white elephant — 14 deaths in 113 flights — is the grandest, grossest technological folly of our age.

He must not have been paying much attention to the space station program.

If the shuttle has any reason for existing, it is as an exceptionally clear symbol of our corrupt, sentimental, and dysfunctional political system. Its flights accomplish nothing and cost half a billion per.

This is a gross overstatement. They generally accomplish nothing that is remotely close to being worth half a billion dollars, but they do have some notable accomplishments (launching and servicing Hubble come to mind).

That, at least, is what a flight costs when the vehicle survives. If a shuttle blows up — which, depending on whether or not you think that 35 human lives (five original launchworthy Shuttles at seven astronauts each) would be too high a price to pay for ridding the nation of an embarrassing and expensive monstrosity, is either too often or not often enough** — then the cost, what with lost inventory, insurance payouts, and the endless subsequent investigations, is seven or eight times that.

That estimate is probably low, though the investigations don't cost much.

There is no longer much pretense that shuttle flights in particular, or manned space flight in general, has any practical value. You will still occasionally hear people repeating the old NASA lines about the joys of microgravity manufacturing and insights into osteoporesis, but if you repeat these tales to a materials scientist or a physiologist, you will get peals of laughter in return. To seek a cure for osteoporesis by spending $500 million to put seven persons and 2,000 tons of equipment into earth orbit is a bit like… well, it is so extravagantly preposterous that any simile you can come up with falls flat. It is like nothing else in the annals of human folly.

Well, hyperbole aside, it's hard to argue with that.

Anyone who finds it “easy to overlook the dangers of travel by rocket” just hasn’t been following the shuttle program very attentively. One astronaut death per eight flights!

Now here, we have a pointless statistic. It's really quite meaningless.

It provides no useful information about how safe, or dangerous, the vehicle is, because it's much more a function of the crew size than of the system reliability. Had it been designed for fourteen crew instead of seven, then the number would be one death every four flights, even though the reliability (two losses in over a hundred flights) would have been exactly the same. And if it only had a crew of two, it would be less than one astronaut death per twenty-five flights. Much safer!

Mr. Derbyshire should be ashamed of this particular argument. As a mathematician, he should know better.

The rest of the president’s address on that occasion was, to be blunt about it, insulting to the memories of the astronauts who died, and still more insulting to their grieving spouses, children, parents, and friends. If these astronauts believed that “they had a high and noble purpose in life,” they were mistaken, and someone should have set them straight on the point.

I have to think that somehow, the families will feel much more insulted by Derb than by the president, regardless (or perhaps because) of his degree of "bluntness." Bluntness, after all, does not confer correctness. High and noble purposes are in the eye of the beholder, after all, and his curmudgeonly gainsaying of their beliefs shouldn't be expected to have any effect on them.

Please note that “if.” The motivation of shuttle astronauts would, I suspect, make a very interesting study for some skillful psychologist. Here is Ken Bowersox, one of the astronauts who was actually on board the International Space Station (steady now, Derb, husband your wrath) when Columbia blew up. He is writing in the June 2005 issue of Popular Mechanics, putting the “pro” case in a debate on the continuation of the Shuttle program, versus former NASA historian Alex Roland arguing the “con.”

Alex Roland was (briefly) a NASA historian of aeronautics. He's never published anything of note about space, and many of his public pronouncements on the subject are laughable. True space historian Dwayne Day has unmasked him in the past, noting that "his frequent pessimism about NASA and its programs is based very little on facts or experience." Derb unknowingly actually damages his case by citing him.


"I’ve wanted to be in space from the time I was listening to the radio and heard about John Glenn circling the earth. Columbia was the klind of blow that could have made me walk away from it. As astronauts, though, we wouldn’t have been on the space station if we didn’t believe in the program. Even after losing our friends and our ride home, we still believed that exploration was important."

Far be it from me to pull rank on Astronaut Bowersox, but I’ve wanted to be in space for somewhat longer than that — since seeing those wonderful pictures by Chesley Bonestell in The Conquest of Space, circa 1952, or possibly after being taken to the movie Destination Moon at around the same time. The imaginative appeal of space travel is irresistible. I don’t think I could resist it, anyway. Even with two young kids who need me, and a wife who (I feel fairly sure) would miss me, I would still, if given the opportunity to go into space tomorrow, be on the next flight to Cape Canaveral. As Prof. Roland says in that Popular Mechanics exchange: “The real reason behind sending astronauts to Mars is that it’s thrilling and exciting.” Absolutely correct. The danger? Heck, we all have to go sometime. As President Bush said, I am sure quite truly: “These astronauts knew the dangers, and they faced them willingly…” It’s the president’s next clause I have trouble with: “…knowing they had a high and noble purpose in life.”

Did they really know that? My experience of pointless make-work, which is much more extensive than I would have wished when starting out in life, is that people engaged in it know they are engaged in it. Whether they mind or not depends on the rewards. For a thousand bucks an hour, I’d do make-work all day long — aye, and all night too! Astronaut salaries don’t rise to anything like that level, of course; but there are rewards other than the merely financial. I hope no one will take it amiss — I am very sorry for the astronauts who have died in the shuttle program, and for their loved ones — if I quietly speculate on whether, being engaged in such a supremely thrilling and glamorous style of make-work, one might not easily be able to convince oneself to, as Astronaut Bowersox says, “believe in the program.”

Well, of course, one could convince oneself to do so. That's how one comes to believe in anything. He says this as though there's something wrong with that. Of course, NASA can be very selective when it comes to picking astronauts, since there's a much greater supply than demand (one reason not to have so much national angst when we occasionally lose some). Doubtless one of their selection criteria are to "believe in the program." But that doesn't mean that there's anything insincere, or even invalid about their beliefs. No one knows better than astronauts how pointless much of NASA's activities are, but as long as the taxpayers continue to shell out the money, one can hardly blame them for wanting to experience something that very few have, to date. I'm not sure exactly what Derb's point is in this part of his little rant.

None of which is any reason why the rest of us should believe in it, let alone pay for it.


There is nothing — nothing, no thing, not one darned cotton-picking thing you can name — of either military, or commercial, or scientific, or national importance to be done in space, that could not be done twenty times better and at one thousandth the cost, by machines rather than human beings.

Now he simply pulls numbers out of the air. This is a popular myth, particularly among people who get their space expertise from the likes of Bob Park and Alex Roland, but the recent studies of robotically servicing the Hubble put the lie to this nonsense.

Mining the asteroids? Isaac Asimov famously claimed that the isotope Astatine-215 (I think it was) is so rare that if you were to sift through the entire crust of the earth, you would only find a trillion atoms of it. We could extract every one of that trillion, and make a brooch out of them, for one-tenth the cost of mining an asteroid.

Again, this is hyperbolic, and nonsensical. I could mine an asteroid for a few tens of billions of dollars, at the most. And that's just for the first one. The marginal cost of additional ones would be orders of magnitude less, if one did it sensibly.

The cost of chewing up the earth's crust is literally incalculable (even ignoring the many trillions of global wealth destroyed in the process).

The gross glutted wealth of the federal government; the venality and stupidity of our representatives; the lobbying power of big rent-seeking corporations; the romantic enthusiasms of millions of citizens; these are the things that 14 astronauts died for. To abandon all euphemism and pretense, they died for pork, for votes, for share prices, and for thrills (immediate in their own case, vicarious in ours).

Largely true, sadly. Such is the nature of our federal space program.

I mean no insult to their memories, and I doubt they would take offense. I am certain that I myself would not — certain, in fact, that, given the opportunity, I would gleefully do what they did, with all the dangers, and count the death, if it came, as anyway no worse than moldering away in some hospital bed at age ninety, watching a TV game show, with a tube in my arm and a diaper round my rear end. I should be embarrassed to ask the rest of you to pay for the adventure, though.

Somehow, I suspect that they will take offense, regardless of his intent. But I agree. Until we start making it possible for those (and they are many) who want to go to do so on their own dime, there's little prospect for either reducing the costs significantly, or increasing the size of the tiny club of space explorers. In fact, NASA's current plans will involve opportunities for many fewer astronauts, since we'll be going less often, and with smaller crews, than even the Shuttle flights. And as long as we continue to spend so much money, for such absurdly little activity, rants like this will continue to be written, and to a large degree (despite the errors and hyperbole), justified.

Posted by Rand Simberg at June 20, 2005 08:17 AM
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What really bugged me was the whole false generalization of Derbyshire's rant.

Conservatives such as Derbyshire cite convincing proof of the failure of all sorts of government programs. Does Derbyshire conclude that shuttle is yet another government failure? No, he claims the whole idea of humans in space is ridiculous fantasy.

Derbyshire really should consider more the history of past pioneering efforts. It takes a long time to get things right. Why should space be any exception? Especially when government -- a dysfunctional government agency at that -- is so dominant?

The man should stick to things he actually knows something about.

Posted by Chuck Divine at June 20, 2005 09:18 AM

Again, I will state that I have no issue with his displeasure with the Shuttle program. My issue is simply his transference of the shuttle experience onto the whole of human space activities outside of the shuttle program. That and his crass remarks regarding the Astronauts that sreved no purpose IMO.

Posted by Mike Puckett at June 20, 2005 10:03 AM

"And if it only had a crew of two, it would be less than one astronaut death per hundred flights."

4/~100 = ~25

Too much blood in the caffeine stream again?

Posted by Kathy Rages at June 20, 2005 10:12 AM

Nah, I don't do caffeine. Just a normal cerebellum f@rt.


Posted by Rand Simberg at June 20, 2005 10:18 AM

I wrote Derbyshire immediately after this article appeared. I received no answer. Here are my comments to him:

"Admittedly, the Shuttle can be viewed as a technological mistake, but it's hardly the complete and utter disaster you paint it to be.

But the real leap of logic in your piece was to go from irrational ranting against the Shuttle to an all-out condemnation of human space flight. If you are so enamored of machines, get on a robotically piloted aircraft for your next trip into New York LaGuardia. Or let a robot surgically take out your appendix.

As for your claims that science can be best done by robots, I would counter "Not my science" -- I'm a geologist, studying the history and evolution of the solar system. I need a trained observer with real geological field experience in the environment I'm studying to make real progress. And please don't try to throw the Mars Rovers in my face -- for all the hype and pictures of rock-strewn landscapes, all we've learned are a few clues as to the rock types at those sites and some rudimentary chemistry, but we still don't how the those sites are put together, what their geological histories are, and what it means for the overall history of Mars. If robots are so wonderful, draw me a geological cross section of one of the MER sites -- that's something a human geologist could do after a couple hours of field work. The MER robots have been on Mars over a year and we still can't do it.

Machines are not as good as their proponents claim and humans are not as useless. Both have their place in any exploration strategy. When we return to the Moon and explore the planets beyond, I have no doubt both will go and work together, accomplishing much more than either could alone.

As for the Shuttle, the new Presidential Space Vision wisely retires the vehicle as soon as possible (currently by 2010, although the new Administrator wants to do it earlier, if possible), in order to build a safer vehicle for human access to space. Space flight will never be risk-free; some of us don't think that means that it's worthless."

Posted by Paul Spudis at June 20, 2005 10:57 AM

Thanks, Rand, for the rational look at Derb's disparaging article. The "sucks to be you" response he's gotten from others isn't going to change any minds and degrades the conversation, and gives Derbyshire a wonderful strawman to mock. We might *think* that, but you demonstrate the advantage of civility in debate.

Posted by Stewart at June 20, 2005 11:17 AM

I think that Derbyshire is essentially correct about the shuttle and NASA, in general. I think that his transference of the problems associated with the shuttle to all of human activity in space is a bit loopy.

Because NASA has prevented the development of low-cost space transportation, we really have no idea what humans can do in space. We have never had the chance to properly find out.

There is another aspect to Derby's ranting and raving, coupled with his strong conservative beliefs, that I find most amusing when I think about it. Derbyshire implies in his condemnation of human space activities that human settlement of space is an impossible task and that such a notion should be treated as nothing more than a wet dream. He is implying that great human asperations (like space colonization) are impossible and therefor we should not attempt them. If great asperations are not worthwhile, other than hedonism and pleasure-seeking, what else is there in life that is worthwhile? Being the conservative that he is, he would most certainly believe that hedonism and pleasure-seeking is bad and evil. Given this, would it not make more sense (in being consistant with his conservative principles) for him to promote great human asperations, even if their success is not certain?

Posted by Kurt at June 20, 2005 03:07 PM

Rand makes an interesting point that the dysfunctional way NASA has been doing exploration has empowered people like Derbyshire. However, I can remember that there was even more of the kind of nonsense Derb has put out back when Apollo was running like a Swiss watch (at least in comparison.) I suspect, also, that Derb thinks that private efforts, like Rutan's, are equally as frivolous (and evil) as NASA's, with the sole virtue that he doesn't have to pay the tiny amount of his taxes that go to NASA's budget for them.

And, as usual, Dr. Spudis nukes the whole robots vrs humans canard.

Posted by Mark R. Whittington at June 20, 2005 03:14 PM

In my latest book, "The Next Shuttle", I take 117 sources and 3 eyars of effort to answer thi quetion,what should we be flying. As a rocketeer sinc3e the age of 9 nely 40 years agao, and a writer for the TRA and NAR with works in telemetry, small shuttle design,aerodynamics and propulsion. And I bring to bear my 20 year career in nuclear power as an engineer.

What went wrong witht eh Shuttle falls on the feet of Nixon, OMB, Casper Wiegnberger and the federal doma that dictated a design of minimal design cost and over stress engines. Take the Saturn V J-2 engine. NASA strapped one into a MSFC test cell and ran it an hour and a half with starts and stops. Any good Mechanical Engineer will tell you start such an engine generates the largeset amount of wear. But the J-2 had none. The SSME in its orginal design by Rockwell had 5 oscilation modes, undersized steel bearing and took some 200 parts. Only when Pratt and Whittney stepped in to redesign the turbopumps did we get an engine worth flying. If we want good turbo machinery there is only one good company in the USA doing it.

Putting cargo and people on the same vehicle wsa never a great idea. You want the ability to seperte the crew from the craft. because in every 100 flights on average you will lose a vehicle. And those folks proclaiming the return to Apollo like capsules ignore the efforts at Edwards. Max Faget was a brilliant engineer at MSFC who really knew the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo designs. But did not know anything substancial on the shuttle designs. His concepts had straight wings that would be in a stall down to 20K feet and very prone to spin. The underside thermodynamics was even worse.

Going with a lifting body get you reuability beacuse with a higher surface area the heat flux is lowre, as is the gee load. But the reentry time is longer compared to a capsule. But you can cross range a lifting body about 800 miles north and south of a givn orbit and that buys a crew time to get home sooner.

And without giving out more details ( you can buy my book) go take a look at a little Edwards effort called Space Wedge. Couple that idea with an Andrews Space and Technology "Gyphoon" air breather / air liquifier and you can get to orbit for about 40 to 50 million a flight.

NASA is not going down this road yet. They are headed back to the moon. But if my guess is right Lockheed's CEV is the better design. We will have to see how the battle likes form up. But I hve down the reseach and when I saw the Lockheed CEV design I felt a degree of vindication. We could even go to a metal thermal protection system and rid ourself of the tiles. But flying an aluminum structure like the Space shuttle is foolish. Better to go with a hot structure like the old X-20. We all know the DC-3 was over designed and some still fly today. That what we need in spoace .... a Chevy. That is reliable , reusable and can be part of the Moon and Mars effort.

And those even thinking that a Delta IV HEavy or Atlas 5 will hall up a 90 day mission to the Moon, fail in basic phyics. Boeing, DOD and Lockheed want us to fly thier EELV's that can only put 50-60K into LEO. You need 5 launches just get the parts into LEO. A far easie answer is to convert the onld SRB and ET into a cargo ship. With the right design you can loft 387K into LEO. That gets you a lander big enough to support a crew of 4-6 on the moon for 90 days at a crack. Griffin will go down that road I believe. And KSC will remain in business. the real problem in all this is not the CEV or the heavy lifter. It woill be the lander, the super LEM. Is it worth it, yes it is. we need to get to Mars. Becuse in 20-30 yers we will know what solar systems will have earth like worlds via the TPF program. and the game for the human race will take a turn for the better I hope.

Posted by Dave Ketchledge at June 20, 2005 07:12 PM

"In my latest book, "The Next Shuttle", I take 117 sources and 3 eyars of effort to answer thi quetion,what should we be flying. As a rocketeer sinc3e the age of 9 nely 40 years agao..."

Wow! Is your entire book written like this?

Looks like a page-turner!

Posted by William Berger at June 20, 2005 08:44 PM

Rand agrees with Derbyshire that the shuttle program is largely useless. He wants to shut it down in favor of renewed lunar exploration. That would replace a program of zero-G research for one of Lunar geology, with certainly no reduction in cost, quite possibly an increase. What is the real value to humanity of Lunar geology? The vast majority of the rocks brought back by Apollo astronauts are still sitting in vaults at JSC thirty years later. Even the geologists don't want to look at them. Basic science always seems expensive and of little immediate practical value. If I had to choose between a vigorous program of zero gravity research into Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Astronomy and even Earth Science on the one hand and Lunar geology on the other, I would pick the former. If I really had my druthers, I would do both.
At the peak of the Apollo program, NASA had some 4% of the federal budget. Today that would be one hundred billion dollars! NASA's actual budget is somewhere between fifteen and twenty billion dollars. Can you imagine what we might have accomplished if NASA's budget since the 1960s had merely kept up with inflation, much less retained its 4% proportion of the federal budget? But, of course, space research is not "worth" that much.
Rand, you wrote, "No one knows better than astronauts how pointless much of NASA's activities are." When I worked at JSC in the 1990s, no one I knew, including astronauts, ever expressed such a view, quite the opposite. I have been out of it for some time now though and things may have changed. Now I am not trying to be snippy here, I genuinely want to know, because its important, do you know of any astronauts who have actually expressed such an opinion?

Posted by Michael at June 20, 2005 10:10 PM


Well, for starters, study of the lunar samples gave us a completely different paradigm for how the biological process of evolution works.

Because we went to the Moon and we had to understand the formation of the craters there, we had to understand the physics and chemistry of hypervelocity impact. This led to the recognition that giant impacts had occurred in Earth's past and led to mass extinctions of life, most famously, the demise of the dinosaur family at the end of the Cretaceous. This insight came because we had first went to the Moon -- the evidence for impact had always been there, but went completely unrecognized in the years preceeding Apollo.

But that isn't even the real point. We are NOT going to the Moon to do geology; lunar geology is one science that is enabled by virtue of our being on the Moon. The reason we're going to the Moon is to learn the skills and acquire the knowledge we need to live and work effectively off-planet. That includes habitation, resource development and extraction, and how to productively explore and work on another planetary surface.

The story of life on Earth is the story of extinction, from one cause or another. This is not theory -- it is inevitable. The only question is when, not if. Thus, if we can live on other worlds, we need to get started learning how to do that. That's the fundamental rationale for human spaceflight. And the Moon is the first step on that endless journey.

Posted by Paul Spudis at June 21, 2005 02:07 AM

Rand agrees with Derbyshire that the shuttle program is largely useless. He wants to shut it down in favor of renewed lunar exploration.

I'm struggling to figure out why you believe that this is what I want.

What I want is low-cost access to space, something that the administration has apparently completely given up on.

Posted by Rand Simberg at June 21, 2005 07:41 AM

Dr. Spudis writes:

Thus, if we can live on other worlds, we need to get started learning how to do that. That's the fundamental rationale for human spaceflight.

I agree with this 100% - - and whether it takes 50 years or 150 years or 250 years, the key tipping point will be learning how to (or whether we can) safely conceive, bear and raise children out there - - I assert that a spacefaring species can only be defined as one which can safely and routinely bear offspring at more than one celestial location.

And given the power of exponential growth inherent in all biological populations, whichever subset of humanity gets out there "fust-est with the most-est" will own the solar system in 500 to 1000 years.

Another reason we Americans need to get our act together and get out there. Of course, the "Rapture" would render this whole discussion moot.


Posted by Bill White at June 21, 2005 12:00 PM

"What I want is low-cost access to space"

An interesting corollary to that is, that "low-cost" service/product cannot be usually achieved without "high-volume", which implies that either NASA would be hiring hundreds of times more astronauts if we stuck to the NASA=space paradigm, or more likely, regular people will get to go

Posted by kert at June 21, 2005 12:33 PM

"I assert that a spacefaring species can only be defined as one which can safely and routinely bear offspring at more than one celestial location."

Remember that ? : We should ask, critically and with appeal to the numbers, whether the best site for a growing advancing industrial society is Earth, the Moon, Mars, some other planet, or somewhere else entirely. Surprisingly, the answer will be inescapable: the best site is "somewhere else entirely."

There should be no physical problems with bearing children in artificial one-G environment, should there? But it would be an important experiment to carry out with lab animals the sooner the better.

Posted by kert at June 21, 2005 12:42 PM

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