All posts by Rand Simberg

Only Outlaws Will Be Clones, Part Deux

In my post about the Fox All Star cloning debate, in which I bemoan the fact that no one seems to think that they even have to offer a reason why human cloning is a Bad Thing, reader “Joe” writes:

The reason to be against human cloning is quite clear, which may be why some people don’t think they need to state. What do you do with failures?

If that’s your argument, it’s an argument against allowing procreation at all, since every pregnancy attempt has the potential for defects. As Professor Reynolds has correctly pointed out (probably on numerous occasions), that’s an argument against doing cloning badly–not against cloning per se. We had exactly the same issue with in-vitro fertilization, but somehow the world didn’t come to an end, ethically or otherwise, and there are many happy people in the universe who wouldn’t exist today if we had banned it.

Certainly it would be irresponsible to attempt to clone a human until we understand much more about the process, and have done it reliably and successfully on something similarly complex (e.g., chimps, which share about 98% of our DNA). And outlawing it will not prevent it–it will simply send it underground where it’s even more difficult to monitor or regulate it.

But I’m still awaiting an argument against cloning per se, other than the Leon Kass “ick” factor.

Faster Better Cheaper…From The Pentagon

According to an article over at today’s Spaceref, the Administration’s space transport policy is slowly starting to come into focus. What’s been going on in this area for the past year is mostly inertial activity from the Clinton/Goldin era, and it was pretty much business-as-usual, with the space industrial complex (NASA, Air Force, Congress and industry) going through the usual charade of faux requirements analysis and “convergence of interests” via “One Team” to determine what the “Next Space Transportation System” should look like. (i.e., a continued monopoly on launch system development. Can’t have any competition–it’s too inefficient. We commissars know what’s best…).

But a realization is starting to coalesce that the military, particularly in light of Secretary Rumsfeld’s forceful new doctrine of space control, truly has radically different space access requirements than NASA. And of equal (if not greater) interest is the fact that those requirements are much more congruent with commercial needs than NASA’s. That’s because NASA, as an agency, has very few ambitions in space (though there are no doubt many individuals within NASA who are very frustrated about this). They’ve been basically content to fly the Shuttle a few times a year, and this has resulted in the outrageously and unjustifiably high costs of manned space access, as I’ve discussed previously.

This was one of the many reasons that the X-33 program was such a massive failure. Although it had a veneer of commercial intent, the reality was that Lockheed Martin sized it as a Shuttle replacement, with a nod to the existing geosynchronous launch market as the commercial fig leaf, because they knew that was what the customer wanted, even if it wasn’t explicitly stated in the contract. This resulted in requirements that didn’t require a high flight rate (at least not a high enough flight rate to seriously reduce launch costs).

But the DoD, particularly the post-911 DoD, wants to be able to do routine sorties into orbit. This is going to require responsiveness and turnaround times orders of magnitude better than Shuttle can offer, and even better than anything NASA has seriously considered for their Space Launch Initiative. And of course, such a vehicle will be much lower cost (assuming that such a capability is utilized), for the reasons discussed previously. So ironically, unlike previous NASA activities, in which only the usual government-contractor suspects were willing to invest, the commercial markets may actually be interested in new vehicle concepts coming from the Department of Defense.

The best policy change to come out of this will be a reversal of the disastrous Clinton Administration decision, in the interest of state-socialist efficiency, to grant a monopoly to NASA in reusable launch systems, while putting the Pentagon in charge of expendables.

O’Keefe has said that the Clinton administration policy wherein reusable vehicle primacy was lead by NASA, and expendable vehicle development led by DoD was “in need of a complete review-a lot has changed since that policy was created.”

The new Administrator is being diplomatic. The policy was brainless at the time, and it makes absolutely no sense now.

One other comment worth noting:

Some industry skeptics suggest that the true cost of a fully reusable 2-stage launcher than would be capable of replacing the space shuttle in payload capability and onorbit operations is more in the range of $10-20 billion.

For “industry skeptics” read “usual suspects who have been bilking the taxpayer out of billions for years on programs like the National Aerospace Plane (NASP) and the X-33, while keeping launch costs unaffordably high.” Let’s ignore, for the moment, the disingenuousness of the false assumption that we need a single Shuttle replacement vehicle that does everything that Shuttle does. The real point is that the “industry skeptics” are doing quite well from the current modus operandi, and have no interest in seeing it change.

Do not look for innovation from people who are benefitting from the status quo. There are some refreshing signs that the Administration is starting to recognize the applicability of that ancient dictum to the problem of space access.

Cheaper By The Dozen

Todd Halvorson has an interesting article over at Space.com on the Shuttle and the International Space Station (ISS). It provides a good history and description of many of the issues involved with those programs, and their possible fate.

To summarize, ISS is way over budget, and as usual, NASA doesn’t even really know how far over budget it is, or even how much it will eventually cost to get it to the point that it can achieve its scientific objectives. It really is a programmatic disaster of (pardon the phrase) astronomical proportions. (Old NASA joke: “What’s the difference between space station and the Titanic? The Titanic had a band.”) As a result, the agency is going to have to make some difficult choices in the months and years ahead, and may undergo the most dramatic upheaval since it was chartered in 1958.

But there are some statements in the article that may be misleading, or are not properly given context and explanation.

… in a bid to save money, the agency’s $8 billion shuttle fleet will be flying fewer and fewer missions over the next four years, raising questions about the need for four orbiters, three processing hangars and twin launch pads here at Kennedy Space Center.

Well, cutting back flights is in theory a way to save money, but unfortunately, the annual program cost is not proportional to the flight rate, so it’s often a false economy. More on that in a minute.

But this paragraph inadvertently points out the real problem with the Shuttle and why it costs so much. It’s not because it’s a bad design (though there are plenty of things wrong with the design, from an operations-cost standpoint).

It’s because we fly it so little, and reducing the flight rate just exacerbates that problem. If we only fly one Shuttle flight a year, we still have to maintain most of the facilities. We could get rid of one of the pads, but then we don’t have any facilities redundancy, and the system becomes even more fragile.

We could mothball one or two Orbiters, but that won’t save that much either, and there’s a minimum amount of manpower that has to be in place to support even one annual launch. You can’t call them in to support the launch, and then lay them off for nine months, and hope to have them available the next time you launch. And even if you keep them on salary for the whole year, they forget their jobs if they’re not doing them on some kind of regular schedule, a problem that the article does point out, to a degree:

An astonishingly similar set of circumstances was considered as part of an internal NASA study conducted in the mid-1990s. Aimed at gauging the upshot of slashing the annual shuttle flight rate to fewer than five missions, the study came to the following conclusion:

“You don’t want the flight rate to be that low because you have a retention problem with the people. You have a skills erosion situation as people leave,” Sieck said.

But here’s the misleading part:

With nothing other than station missions booked after 2004, the annual shuttle flight rate will remain a constant quartet of missions unless other potential users approach NASA with money in hand.

“It’ll be on a pay-as-you-go basis,” O’Keefe said. “So the number (of shuttle flights) is going to be based on the demand, if you will, from other science and technology endeavors that we’ll be engaged in.”

Whether any other “customers” pony up the price of a shuttle launch — about $400 million — remains to be seen.

So what they’re saying is that four flights a year are planned, and that’s all that NASA has a need for, given the reduced activity level on the financially-crippled station. That’s one flight per vehicle per year. If the flight rate is going to go up, other customers will have to be found, because NASA doesn’t have the budget for it.

Fair enough, but that $400M/flight number is not really valid, for two reasons. First, it is probably extremely low at a flight rate of only four per year (it might be valid for a rate of eight per year). My guess, at that flight rate, the per-flight cost would be more like seven or eight hundred million. That’s because it’s an average cost. In other words, it is derived by taking all of the Shuttle program costs for a single year, and simply dividing it by the number of flights.

If one is looking for additional customers to boost the flight rate, the proper number to use is not the average cost, but the marginal cost. That is, the actual cost of flying the next Shuttle flight, given that you’re already launching some. This is basically the sum of the cost of the propellants and other consumables, the external tank that is thrown away, the cost of refurbishing the solid rocket boosters, and the mission-specific crew training. This is a much lower number than the average cost.

A good guess for this cost would actually be in the neighborhood of a hundred fifty million dollars or so. So if someone wanted to purchase an additional flight from NASA (or some private operator that has taken over Shuttle operations, as is also discussed in the article), they shouldn’t have to “pony up four hundred million”–any amount greater than that marginal cost will be worth doing a flight for, particularly since the operator gets the benefit of better utilizing the work force and keeping their skills honed.

Even at the marginal cost, Shuttle is still pretty uncompetitive with any other launcher (with the possible exception of the Titan), so it wouldn’t necessarily be unfair competition to allow sales of Orbiter flights. Only if it were to be sold below marginal cost would the taxpayer be subsidizing the system to the detriment of the commercial market. Of course, the main reason that anyone would choose Shuttle over another launcher is its unique ability to carry people comfortably to orbit, and return them.

Thus, this might provide an opportunity for an entrepreneur. Build a thirty-passenger module for the payload bay, buy a flight for a hundred fifty million, and charge ten million apiece. Rough profit, a hundred fifty million, and you’re undercutting the Russians by ten million dollars a ticket.

NASA has never been willing to consider such a use for the Shuttle in the past. But in the past, they’ve never been quite so desperate…

Gates Overreach?

This is amusing. Microsoft has sued Lindows (a windows emulator that runs in Linux) for trademark infringement, claiming that consumers will be “confused” about the name, and might think that it’s a Bellevue product (hmmmm…just shows you what Microsoft thinks about the average computer user’s intelligence…)

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), they may end up losing their own trademark over the issue, since Microsoft argued themselves in their case against Apple that “windows” was a generic industry term, and that no company had a claim on it…

“I’ll Give You The Moon…Hold The Stars”

Romanians are giving each other plots of land on the Moon as Valentine’s gifts.

While few gift recipients probably really care, these deeds are almost certainly worthless in practical terms, if for no other reason than they are in violation of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which effectively forbids private property rights in space (or at least any declaration of national sovereignty, which is almost a de facto requirement for enforcement of such rights).

Say, as long as we’re taking a fresh look at Kyoto and the ABM Treaty, maybe the environment is getting ripe for a fresh look at the OST. It was written at a different time, and the political planets may be coming into alignment to revise it to encourage, rather than discourage, free enterprise off the planet, as well as on it.