Category Archives: Space

Space Is A Place, Not A Program


A reader, who will remain nameless to protect the guilty (unless (s)he tells me that (s)he wants me to expose him or her) writes, presumably in response to some of my recent space policy postings:

I’d like to put my two cents in on how to get moving forward in space. This is probably too long and boring for a comment, but feel free to use it as you wish.

Well, it’s not boring at all, at least to me, and I wish to use it as a typical example of exactly what’s wrong with our thinking about space policy. And to show that, despite the fact that it was emailed to me, the author hasn’t really read what I’ve been writing, or else (equally likely) I’ve been abysmally unsuccessful in making my points. Gee, I’ll bet he/she’s glad that they offered it to me now…

(Also, I hope that this doesn’t discourage anyone from emailing me in future. I actually thank the writer–it’s a good letter in the Limbaughian sense, in that it provides an opportunity to make the host look good…)

I believe that NASA has three legitimate functions:
a. Provide infrastructure for low cost access to low earth orbit
b. Perform research and development of space technologies (propulsion, navigation, life support, reentry, etc.)
c. Utilize space technologies for pure science (planetary exploration, satellite observatories, biomedical research, etc.)

Well, legitimate meaning “legal,” NASA’s legitimate functions are described in its (somewhat vague) charter. It doesn’t include the first item here (even assuming that we could agree on what “infrastructure” means). It could be construed to include the second. It certainly includes the third.

If you mean “legitimate” in some esoteric Constitutional sense, it’s arguable whether the existence of NASA itself is legitimate (a characteristic that it shares with many federal agencies).

Of these three functions, low cost access to low earth orbit is the most important at this time and should receive at least 80% of funding. It’s reasonable and probably unavoidable that the government will have to finance these activities. They are too expensive and too long term for most investors.

While I agree that low-cost access to LEO is important if we want to make any national progress in space, the assumption that NASA can or should make this happen, or that 80% of its funding should go toward that goal are highly questionable.

As to the second statement (like almost all the contents of the email), this is conventional wisdom, and it is utterly wrong. There is nothing intrinsically expensive about space stuff, except in the way that we’ve chosen to do it for forty years. And even if it were, private investments of many billions of dollars are made every yearjust ask Intel, or GM. As to its being long-term return, this is not a barrier either. Weyerhauser plants trees that won’t provide timber for many years, even decades. Oil companies fund and build pipelines that may be half a decade or more from delivering oil.

No, the only thing keeping necessary private investment out of space right now is perception of the risk, in terms of technical risk, market risk, and most importantly, regulatory risk.

It seems to me that there are at least three approaches to reaching low earth orbit that NASA should examine:

And when you say “approaches,” you mean, of course, technical approaches. You believe that the dominant risk is technical, and that if we can just come up with the “right” kind of technical solution, and have NASA build it, we can reduce costs. OK, I’ll play along.

a. Conventional rockets optimized for low cost, not man rated. This would include the Shuttle Derived Heavy Lift Vehicle and could also include advanced designs that rely only on chemical rocket engines (e.g. aerospike and X-33 type engines). These can provide a short term solution that should be able to reduce the cost to orbit by a factor of 10 and that can be fielded in 5 to 10 years (the Shuttle Derived system could probably fly in 2 to 3 years).

There’s little reason to think that this approach would reduce costs by that much, unless the market increases dramatically. And if the market increases dramatically, even existing rockets (certainly Russian and Chinese ones, but probably EELV) will do it. But if it only reduced costs by a factor of ten, it wouldn’t be worth the investment, because it almost certainly wouldn’t expand the market much–it’s relatively inelastic in that range.

b. Systems that use aerodynamic lift and are man rated.

I’m going to stop right here and make the point that there’s not really any such thing as “man rated.” It’s an oxymoron when talking about reusable launch systems (which I assume that you are). “Man rating” is a concept that NASA came up with in the 1960s to describe how materials, quality control and design would be modified to allow us to have some vague comfort level in putting a human on top of munitions (i.e., ICBM’s). It was deemed necessary to take measures to get the missile as reliable as possible, since the payload was very valuable–even priceless.

For reusable launch systems (I prefer the apellation “space transports”) it’s a meaningless concept. The vehicles themselves will be of such high value that adding people in the mix will make no difference in designed reliability. There’s no such thing as a “man-rated” airplane, and similarly there will be no such creature as a man-rated space transport.

This would include revisiting failed approaches such as NASP and X-33 and scaling up systems like Pegasus. More likely, this approach could yield a solution similar to the original, fully reusable shuttle concept. These systems would deliver modest payloads, be fully reusable, and have rapid turnaround. Target should be at least one flight per month per vehicle, preferably more frequent.


ONE FLIGHT PER MONTH (he repeated in stunned disbelief)??!!

If we are only going to get one flight per month, any moneys expended on a new system may as well be flushed down the toilet, or, equivalently, spent on some other new government program.

Any launch system that doesn’t fly multiple times per week is not worth building–it will not reduce costs significantly below what we are currently paying.

The long pole for this system is reusable rocket engines.

Actually, that is not the long pole, at least if you study Shuttle turnaround timelines. But those are probably not relevant to a modern space transport.

Hopefully we’ve learned enough from the Shuttle to design reliable, reusable engines.

I don’t know about that. We’ve probably learned quite a bit about how not to design them. What we’ve primarily learned from the Shuttle (or at least what we should have learned) is that NASA should never, EVER again be put in charge of developing an operational space transport.

The aero-lift system should reduce the cost of delivering astronauts to orbit by 10 to 100 fold and could probably be fielded in 10 to 20 years.

There is no reason to suppose that aero-lift will help the problem (nor that it won’t) and all of the numbers provided here are purely guess work, and certainly not adequate to use as a basis for policy decisions.

c. Limited skyhook system. I read an article at least 20 years ago in AIAA Journal (sorry I don’t have the citation) that proposed a low orbit space station with a long cable and winch. At the end of the winch is a docking module. Vehicles would launch from Earth in a suborbital elipse and rendevous at the apex of their trajectory with the docking module. Once docked, the vehicle would be simply winched up to the space station. This process would lower the orbit of the space
station slightly, but either rail gun or ion thrusters could return the station to its desired orbit. Winching satellites away from Earth could easily provide the force to insert the vehicles into transfer orbits to geosynchronous orbit, the moon, or beyond. The beauty of this system is that it opens space to a wide array of commercial vehicles that are feasible today and that it reduces costs by many orders of magnitude. This is a long term project that will probably take more than 25 years, but also offers the best alternative for low cost access to space.

Skyhooks are neat. Sometime, in the future, when it’s clear that there is adequate market for millions of pounds up and down, and the technology matures, someone will put forth the money and build one.

But for the purposes of this discussion, skyhooks are also irrelevant.

As is any discussion about: whether the vehicle has wings or not; uses scramjets or rockets; uses hydrogen or kerosene or propane or methane for fuel, uses vertical or horizontal takeoff or landing; has one, two or twenty stages; breathes air or pixie dust, hypersonically, or otherwise, etc. These are all theological issues, and they will not be resolved by posts on the web, or emailed opinions, or even extensive analyses by government contractors.

There are many ways to lower the cost of launch, but none of them will succeed unless they are funded, and funded in such a way that the goal of reducing launch costs is important (as opposed to the goal of simply feeding funding to NASA and its contractors). No one knows for sure what the launch system should look like.

That is a question that will only be resolved by the marketplace–a marketplace that, to first order, does not currently exist. If the federal government wants to make a contribution to space transportation, it will remove the barriers to space commerce, which are mentioned above. The market is uncertain, and the regulatory environment is frightening. In addition, we have been inured, for over forty years, to the bizarre notion that space transportation is unbelievably expensive, and something that is only in the realm of government, so investors will enter only at extreme peril. In the face of this reality, figuring what the launch vehicle should look like is like figuring out where the deck chairs should be located on the Titanic.

NASA’s legitimate objective should be to develop the technologies to make space flight routine and inexpensive. In effect, I’d like to see NASA act like the government agencies that built and maintained canals and locks to facilitate trade.

The history of government subsidization of particular modes of transportation is not as beneficent as your historical analogy implies. Whenever the government sticks its nose into the transportation business, some other transportation business suffers. Canals were nice, but it isn’t clear that they were the best way to move freight and people in the late 18th century. Government-subsidized railroads opened up the west, but they drove the canals out of business, perhaps before their time. The federal highway system destroyed much of the cargo, and most of the passenger rail system, perhaps at the cost of economic and energy efficiency. Bob Poole, founder of the Reason Foundation, has published numerous articles and papers on this subject.

To the degree that the government should play a role here (and it’s not at all clear that NASA should even continue to exist, let alone develop launch systems), it will be to clarify the regulatory situation, and to help provide a market for space transportation. A real market, not a few people to space station a few times a year. The precedent for this is the airmail subsidy in the 1930s that helped develop the modern aviation industry. Hang a big enough carrot out there, and let the providers figure out what the vehicle should look like.

Why should the government do such a thing? Because it’s in our national security interest to do so. We just won a major phase of the war against terrorism because we had assets in space. Without them, we would have been unable to deliver ordinance precisely. The enemy would have escaped much of the devastation (or it would have cost us much more, in money and lives to provide it) and many more civilians would have been killed, and their property destroyed. Had the enemy had the capacity to eliminate our space-based assets, he surely would have done so.

We dominate space, in the sense that no other country has as much power as we do there, but we do not control it. Had someone launched a missile to take out our satellites, there’s nothing we could have done to prevent it. Nor could we have replaced it quickly. A robust space transportation infrastructure would solve this problem, but the most efficient way to accomplish this is through the private sector, satisfying market needs. The space policy challenge is not in figuring out what a vehicle should look like, or coming up with technologies to build it, but in putting in place the proper institutional incentives to develop such an industry and infrastructure, to make us a truly space-faring nation.

As the Space Frontier Society says, “space is a place, not a program.” We need to think about it in exactly the same way that we think about land, sea and air. We don’t have a national Truck program. We don’t have a national Ship program. We don’t have a national Airplane program. It is just as nonsensical to have a national Launch Vehicle program.

I hope that everyone who has persevered to the end of this post will now understand that I am interested, even eager, to receive input as to how to solve this fundamental policy problem. I also hope that they understand that any comments, or emails, with ideas about what the next “national launch vehicle” should look like will be deleted with extreme prejudice.

Why This Blog Bores People About Space Stuff

As a follow up to today’s rant over our “allies” in Europe, over at USS Clueless, Steven den Beste has an excellent disquisition on the fundamental differences between Europe and the U.S. They don’t, and cannot, understand that the U.S. exists and thrives because it is the UnEurope, that it was built by people who left Europe (and other places) because they wanted freedom.

I say this not to offer simply a pale imitation of Steven’s disquisition (which is the best I could do, at least tonight), but to explain why I spend so much time talking about space policy here. It’s not (just) because I’m a space nut, or because I used to do it for a living, and so have some knowledge to disseminate. It’s because it’s important to me, and it should be important to everyone who is concerned about dynamism and liberty.

And the reason that it’s important is because there may be a time in the future, perhaps not even the distant future, when the U.S. will no longer be a haven for those who seek sanctuary from oppressive government. The trends over the past several decades are not always encouraging, and as at least a social insurance policy, we may need a new frontier into which freedom can expand.

Half a millenium ago, Europe discovered a New World. Unfortunately for its inhabitants (who had discovered it previously), the Europeans had superior technology and social structures that allowed them to conquer it.

Now, in the last couple hundred years, we have discovered how vast our universe is, and in the last couple decades, we have discovered how rich in resources it is, given will and technology. As did the eastern seaboard of the present U.S. in the late eighteenth century, it offers mankind a fertile petri dish for new societal arrangements and experiments, and ultimately, an isolated frontier from which we will be able to escape from possible future terrestrial disasters, whether of natural or human origin.

If, as many unfortunately in this country seem to wish, freedom is constricted in the U.S., the last earthly abode of true libertarian principles, it may offer an ultimate safety valve for those of us who wish to continue the dream of the founders of this nation, sans slavery or native Americans–we can found it without the flawed circumstances of 1787.

That is why space, and particularly free-enterprise space, is important.

All For One And One For All

Fresh from the X-33 debacle, the iron triangle of the aerospace industry is coming up with a plan for a new round of corporate welfare, under the pretense of lowering launch costs.

Now don’t get me wrong–no one wants to lower launch costs more than I do. It’s been a personal crusade for more years than I like to think. My business plans and personal plans rely on it. But if a definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over, expecting different results, then NASA and the Air Force have to be, at this point, certifiable.

The activity to bring NASA and the Air Force together is being led by a group, called the One Team, that is undertaking a four- month RLV assessment. The goal is to devise a program that would build on funding from both government departments and could see first flight of a prototype system around 2007.

“One Team,” eh? 2007, eh? Well, five-year plans are in the best tradition of Lenin, Mao, etc. To heck with this competition nonsense. We don’t need no stinkin’ markets…

But finding a way to combine the civil space and military requirements won’t be easy. Already, analysts assessing the two constituencies’ needs are finding that they don’t coalesce in several areas.

No kidding?

Once upon a time, there was a launch vehicle program. It was supposed to meet NASA’s needs in space, to provide cheap transportation to the space station that they were going to launch once upon another time, and it was to be called the Space Shuttle. And it came to pass that the evil King wouldn’t allot the funding for it unless it received the blessing of the knights of the realm (aka the Air Force). The knights wanted it to not only go into space, but to be able to carry 65,000 lbs. into space, and to have a landing cross range of a thousand miles. And so it grew. Then the various lords of the manor said, “but it must provide jobs for us in the fiefdom of Houston. And Huntsville. And Cape Canaveral.” And the Duke of Rockwell North American said, “but we accepted the blame for the loss of Sir Apollo 1, in the deadly conflagration, the fault for which was rightfully NASA’s, and so it must also provide us jobs in southern California.”

And thus was born a vehicle designed by a committee, and it was good. Except it only flew a half dozen times a year, and cost over half a billion dollars a flight.

Well, there is one hopeful thing about the article. At least they are no longer deluding themselves that a single vehicle can satisfy both NASA and DoD requirements. However, they continue to delude themselves that one vehicle can satisfy DoD, and another one NASA. This is about 90% as foolish as the Shuttle “one-size-fits-all” assumption.

The problem is that we lock ourselves into failure with our assumptions.

The thinking goes something like this. Space vehicle development is very expensive. Therefore, we can only develop one vehicle. Therefore we have to make damn sure that we develop the right vehicle, so we have to do lots of studies, and have lots of government reviews, and make sure that the risk is minimized, and that we don’t lose any vehicles. All this, of course, makes the vehicle very expensive to develop (and operate), and thus is the prophecy fulfilled.

And of course, since both agencies want to do such trivially few activities in space, there is no way to get the costs down, because there are no economies of scale.

But NASA will continue to develop technologies, because when you’re a technology hammer, all problems look like nails–never mind the fact that the problem of launch costs is not a technological one.

If they could take just one percent of the money that they plan to waste^H^H^H^H^Hspend on technology development on market research and analyses to figure out how to generate much larger traffic models, they’d be way ahead of the game.

But that won’t provide jobs in Houston, Huntsville, Cocoa Beach, Canoga Park and Orange County.

Ad Astra Per Ardua

Sixteen years ago today, I was sitting in a meeting at the Rockwell Space Transportation Systems Division in Downey, California. It was a status review meeting for a contract on which I was working, called the Space Transportation Architecture Study. It was a joint NASA/USAF contract, and its ostensible purpose was to determine what kind of new launch systems should replace or complement the Space Shuttle. Its real purpose was to try to get the Air Force and NASA Marshall to learn how to play together nicely and stop squabbling over turf and vehicle designs (it failed).

It was a large meeting, with many people in attendance from El Segundo and Colorado Springs (Air Force) and Houston, Huntsville and the Cape (NASA) as well as many Rockwell attendees.

As I sat there, waiting for the meeting to begin, one of my colleagues came running into the room, his face white as a freshly-bleached bedsheet. He leaned over and told me and others, in an insistent sotto voce, “I just saw the Challenger blow up.”

We stared at him in momentary disbelief.

“I’m serious. I just came from the mission control center. It just exploded about a minute after launch.”

One could actually see the news travel across the large meeting room as expressions of early-morning torpor transformed into incredulity and shock. More than most people, even with no more information than the above, we understood the implications. While there was speculation in the media all morning that the crew might be saved, we knew instantly that they were lost. We knew also that we had lost a quarter of the Shuttle fleet, with a replacement cost of a couple billion dollars and several years, and that there would be no flights for a long time, until we understood what had happened.

The ironic purpose of our meeting became at once more significant and utterly meaningless. Most of the NASA people immediately made arrangements to fly back to Houston, Huntsville and the Cape, and we held the session without them, in a perfunctory manner.

This was one of those events, like the more recent one in September, that is indelibly etched into memory–where you were, what you were doing, what you were feeling. I’m curious about any inputs from others, either in comments here or email.

Oh, and I should note that it’s an easy date to remember for me–it was (and remains still) the anniversary of my date of birth…

Preserving Space

You know, when I first saw this a few days ago, I didn’t mention it, because I thought it was a joke. But when I went and did a search at Thomas, it turned out to be real. Dennis “the Menace” Kucinich (D-Ohio) actually introduced it. This is loonytunes squared.

Going against my normal posting style, in the interest of HTML simplicity, I’m going to italicize my comments from here on in, rather than the quoted text:

Space Preservation Act of 2001 (Introduced in the House)

HR 2977 IH


1st Session

H. R. 2977


October 2, 2001

Mr. KUCINICH introduced the following bill; which was referred to the Committee on Science, and in addition to the Committees on Armed Services, and International Relations, for a period to be subsequently determined by the Speaker, in each case for consideration of such provisions as fall within the jurisdiction of the committee concerned


To preserve the cooperative, peaceful uses of space for the benefit of all humankind by permanently prohibiting the basing of weapons in space by the United States, and to require the President to take action to adopt and implement a world treaty banning space-based weapons.

So, it’s OK to have weapons pass through space (e.g., ballistic missiles), as long as we don’t actually base them there? Yes, by all means, let’s preserve space as a sanctuary for missiles. Let’s go on, and see just how he defines “space-based,” and “weapons.”

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,


This Act may be cited as the `Space Preservation Act of 2001′.


Congress reaffirms the policy expressed in section 102(a) of the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 (42 U.S.C. 2451(a)), stating that it `is the policy of the United States that activities in space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind.’.


The President shall–

(1) implement a permanent ban on space-based weapons of the United States and remove from space any existing space-based weapons of the United States; and

(2) immediately order the permanent termination of research and development, testing, manufacturing, production, and deployment of all space-based weapons of the United States and their components.

Hmmmm…while this is a monumentally dumb concept to begin with (gun control?–that trick never works…), we’ll have to get down to the definitions section (what’s “space-based”? What’s a “weapon”? What’s a “space-based weapon”?) before we can really tear it to shreds, and demonstrate just how disastrous a policy it would be for anyone who hopes to develop space. Of course, one suspects that Mr. Kucinich and whatever other loons he found to co-sponsor don’t actually care much about that


The President shall direct the United States representatives to the United Nations and other international organizations to immediately work toward negotiating, adopting, and implementing a world agreement banning space-based weapons.

Yeah! That’s it! A treaty!

Everyone always obeys treaties! And if anyone tries to cheat, and put any of those nasty “space-based weapons” up there, well, space isn’t all that big–we’ll find ’em…


The President shall submit to Congress not later than 90 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, and every 90 days thereafter, a report on–

(1) the implementation of the permanent ban on space-based weapons required by section 3; and

(2) progress toward negotiating, adopting, and implementing the agreement described in section 4.

Dear Congress:

Over the past ninety days, we talked to lots of countries, and made lots of progress in negotiating, adopting, and implementing the agreement.


GW (space cowboy) Bush

repeat as necessary


Nothing in this Act may be construed as prohibiting the use of funds for–

(1) space exploration;

(2) space research and development;

(3) testing, manufacturing, or production that is not related to space-based weapons or systems; or

(4) civil, commercial, or defense activities (including communications, navigation, surveillance, reconnaissance, early warning, or remote sensing) that are not related to space-based weapons or systems.

Well, that’s a relief. Glad to know that they don’t want to restrict exploration (which may result in the discovery of asteroids that could be diverted as “weapons”), or research and development (which might be applied to “space-based weapons”), or testing, manufacturing, or production that is not related to space-based weapons systems (wonder how they’ll know?), or communications, navigation, surveillance, reconnaissance, early-warning, or remote sensing (that are all necessary in order to build or effectively use “weapons”).

Now, for the truly fun part, for the lawyers among us…


In this Act:

(1) The term `space’ means all space extending upward from an altitude greater than 60 kilometers above the surface of the earth and any celestial body in such space.

Hmmm…, where did they come up with that number? It used to be fifty miles to get astronaut’s wings, and the international standard is a hundred kilometers (or approximately 62 statute miles). I wonder if someone screwed up their units, like NASA with the Mars probe?

(2)(A) The terms `weapon’ and `weapons system’ mean a device capable of any of the following:

(i) Damaging or destroying an object (whether in outer space, in the atmosphere, or on earth) by–

(I) firing one or more projectiles to collide with that object;

Like throwing a wrench from a space station?

(II) detonating one or more explosive devices in close proximity to that object;

Ya mean, like the propellant tanks of an orbital transfer stage?

(III) directing a source of energy (including molecular or atomic energy, subatomic particle beams, electromagnetic radiation, plasma, or extremely low frequency (ELF) or ultra low frequency (ULF) energy radiation) against that object; or

As in, e.g., beaming power from one platform to another, or to provide clean energy to the earth from orbit? Or by sending communications that could hack it and command some destructive activity?

(IV) any other unacknowledged or as yet undeveloped means.

Well, I guess they covered all their bases…

(ii) Inflicting death or injury on, or damaging or destroying, a person (or the biological life, bodily health, mental health, or physical and economic well-being of a person)–

(I) through the use of any of the means described in clause (i) or subparagraph (B);

(II) through the use of land-based, sea-based, or space-based systems using radiation, electromagnetic, psychotronic, sonic, laser, or other energies directed at individual persons or targeted populations for the purpose of information war, mood management, or mind control of such persons or populations; or

Psychotronic? Mood management? Mind control?

[cue theme from The Twilight Zone]

Doo, de, doo, doo, Doo, de, doo, doo, Doo, de, doo, doo, Doo, de, doo, doo…

(III) by expelling chemical or biological agents in the vicinity of a person.

Ummmm… you mean like rocket exhaust?

(B) Such terms include exotic weapons systems such as–

(i) electronic, psychotronic, or information weapons;

(ii) chemtrails;

Chemtrails? WTF are chemtrails?

(iii) high altitude ultra low frequency weapons systems;

(iv) plasma, electromagnetic, sonic, or ultrasonic weapons;

(v) laser weapons systems;

(vi) strategic, theater, tactical, or extraterrestrial weapons; and

(vii) chemical, biological, environmental, climate, or tectonic weapons.

Tectonic weapons?

Someone’s paranoia engine was running in overdrive here.

(C) The term `exotic weapons systems’ includes weapons designed to damage space or natural ecosystems (such as the ionosphere and upper atmosphere) or climate, weather, and tectonic systems with the purpose of inducing damage or destruction upon a target population or region on earth or in space.

I’m at a loss for words

Fortunately, I can’t imagine this ever getting out of the Science Committee, with its present composition. But if the Dems take over the House this year, look out next year…

They Still Don’t Get It

According to Aviation Now, NASA is now focused on airbreathers, or to be more precise, Rocket-Based Combined Cycle (RBCC) propulsion for the next generations of space transport.

Although virtually all of the third-generation reusable launch vehicle (RLV) concepts currently being considered by NASA rely on some form of combined-cycle propulsion to get to orbit, the space agency is still not insisting on single-stage vehicles.

Well, it’s nice that they’re not insisting on SSTO, I guess…

Obviously, the RBCC hobby shop at Marshall is winning the bureaucratic turf war.

Here’s a concept, guys. How about just putting out an RFQ for X pounds and Y people delivered to orbit, and let the market figure it out?

Nahhhh, that would mean the technology sandbox might get emptied…

They Still Don’t Get It

According to Aviation Now, NASA is now focused on airbreathers, or to be more precise, Rocket-Based Combined Cycle (RBCC) propulsion for the next generations of space transport.

Although virtually all of the third-generation reusable launch vehicle (RLV) concepts currently being considered by NASA rely on some form of combined-cycle propulsion to get to orbit, the space agency is still not insisting on single-stage vehicles.

Well, it’s nice that they’re not insisting on SSTO, I guess…

Obviously, the RBCC hobby shop at Marshall is winning the bureaucratic turf war.

Here’s a concept, guys. How about just putting out an RFQ for X pounds and Y people delivered to orbit, and let the market figure it out?

Nahhhh, that would mean the technology sandbox might get emptied…

They Still Don’t Get It

According to Aviation Now, NASA is now focused on airbreathers, or to be more precise, Rocket-Based Combined Cycle (RBCC) propulsion for the next generations of space transport.

Although virtually all of the third-generation reusable launch vehicle (RLV) concepts currently being considered by NASA rely on some form of combined-cycle propulsion to get to orbit, the space agency is still not insisting on single-stage vehicles.

Well, it’s nice that they’re not insisting on SSTO, I guess…

Obviously, the RBCC hobby shop at Marshall is winning the bureaucratic turf war.

Here’s a concept, guys. How about just putting out an RFQ for X pounds and Y people delivered to orbit, and let the market figure it out?

Nahhhh, that would mean the technology sandbox might get emptied…

Dodging Cosmic Bullets, Part Trois

I previously missed this column by Jim Pinkerton at TechCentralStation from December 31st (thanks to Ralph Buttigieg for the link). Though he’s generally a political commentator, he’s a closet space enthusiast (I met him briefly at the Cato conference last spring). This is a general piece about space policy, some of which I agree with (though not his assessment of Dan Goldin), but I cite it because he expends quite a bit of it on the asteroid defense issue.

He claims that it is not a NASA responsibility, but a DoD one. I agree, with the caveat that it shouldn’t even be viewed as planetary defense per se. The DoD should definitely be in charge of defending us against willful agents (i.e., bug-eyed monsters from Zeta Reticula, or Marvin the Martian and his disintegrator ray), but not natural events.

No, the natural terrestrial analogue for asteroid management is flood control, or fire control. Thus, I believe that it should be made the responsibility of the Corps of Engineers. When the populace lies in a flood plain, they build dams to mitigate the danger. When earth lies in the path of potential planet-busting objects, they should land things on them to divert them. Taking NASA out of the picture would have the effect of forcing an emphasis on more practical solutions, rather than “science,” or “international cooperation,” or endless “technology development” that only feeds sandboxes in Huntsville or Hampton.

Also, as Ralph points out, it would provide NASA with some useful and much-needed competition.

This needs to be thrown into the space policy mix with which Sean O’Keefe is grappling right now.

Dodging Cosmic Bullets, Part Deux

My, it’s a red-letter day. I’m compelled to disagree with Iain Murray twice in a single day, on two different subjects.

The Professor is worried about asteroids on InstaPundit.Com. I take his point that he’s not worried about this particular rock, but Steve Milloy’s point on is important here:

Gasp! Shock, horror! Er… hang on. Doesn’t this particular rock cross the orbits of Mars, Earth, Venus and Mercury (twice) every 1,321 days (3.6 Earth years)? And hasn’t it been doing so for millions of years? Wow! That was a close call alright…

Mr. Milloy is indulging in a fallacy here, similar to the one of the man who jumps off the building, and calls out as he passes every floor, “Doing fine so far!”

It was a very close call in astronomical terms. And in fact it doesn’t “cross the orbits” of those planets with any regularity–space is three dimensional. There is no way to know for how many millions of years that particular object has been avoiding hitting planets (it may be a chunk broken off from a larger one that did, in fact, collide with some planet, such as our own Moon).

Of course we shouldn’t lie awake now sweating over the fear that this particular object will hit us the next time around the carousel. The point is that it’s a reminder that many such objects are out there, some of them have our number on them eventually (as evidenced by past extinctions, and the cratered surface of the Moon, which didn’t get that way from too many sweets during adolescence), and that now that we have a civilization worth saving, and the technical means to save it, we should be thinking about it and devoting appropriate resources toward that end.

Of course we must colonize whatever worlds we can, but at the moment that’s beyond us. So let’s just keep on with our lives until we have the technology. Until then it’s best for us to treat this as the interplanetary equivalent of crossing the road. Look both ways, don’t build a bridge.

I’m not sure what Iain’s point is here. It is not, in fact, beyond us to colonize other worlds now–we simply choose not to. Will it be more affordable in the future? Of course. But that rationale can also be used to put off forever the decision to buy a new computer.

When he says, “just keep on with our lives until we have the technology,” one might infer from that that acquiring this magical “technology” is a passive act, like receiving manna from heaven, or cargo from the airplanes and control towers built from palm fronds. Technology is something that we develop (active voice), in response to some perceived need. Glenn and I point this little event out as a reminder that there might be reasons to develop space technology sooner rather than later.

How much we should devote to such an endeavor depends on the expected value of it (i.e., the probability of a catastrophic extraterrestrial event times the cost of it should it occur). I haven’t done that computation, partly because I don’t know the probabilities (because we aren’t even spending the trivial amounts necessary to adequately fund the sky surveys to gather the data with which to do so). But it’s certainly not zero, which is approximately how much we’re currently spending on it.

And as for “…Look both ways, don’t build a bridge,” I have no idea what this means in the context of the discussion. The point of the article was that even if we “look both ways” (right now, as I said, we are barely looking at all) we currently have no policy options if we see the car is bearing down on us–bridges are entirely beside the point.

[Update at 10 PM PST]

A reader who calls him/herself “skeptic” asks:

What is the probability and how was it calculated? If it is based on known events and conditions, that is fine. But what is it?

As I pointed out, we don’t know, because we haven’t even spent the money needed to gather the data necessary to do the calculation. The known events are many (e.g., in 1910 a meteor or comet known as the “Tonguska Event” hit a remote region of Siberia. Had it occurred in a populated area today, it would have caused billions of dollars in damage, and thousands, perhaps millions, of lives).

If it is based on what we don’t know, that is *not* fine. I don?t care what it is; it is speculation.

So we should ignore it if it’s based on willful ignorance?

What can we do about it? It would take a massive, massive amount of energy to alter the orbit of anything substantial.

Do you have some calculations to back up this claim? In fact, the amount of energy required to divert an object from its path sufficiently to prevent a collision with earth is quite small.

Hydrogen Bombs would be insignificant.

Ummm… no. Do you have any idea whatsoever what you’re talking about?

Even if we could amass the required energy, how would it be delivered?

By landing a small probe on the body, setting up a solar-powered or nuclear de-vice that could utilize its own mass as a rocket to divert it the few meters per second that would be required to prevent the catastrophe.

I am all in favor of space exploration. But I am not big on tax-funded research: who gets to set priorities? Politicians ? I hope not. Speculators ? I hope not. Scientists – How do we choose?

I said nothing about tax-funded research. Presumably we would choose based on who would do the best job of providing results.