Category Archives: Space

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.

A New Beginning

It was an improbable-looking harbinger of a new age in space.

Tiny, white, at the east end of the Mojave Airport runway, it looked fragile and miniscule next to the support truck, and surrounded by busy ground crew, readying it for its upcoming public debut. Finally, they moved away, leaving the pilot, Dick Rutan, in the cockpit. The Long-EZ chase plane approached it from the rear at a couple hundred feet, and we could see the sudden shimmering of heat in the cool desert air over the craft as two toggle switches were flicked in the cramped cockpit, and twin engines of the XCOR Aerospace EZ-Rocket were lit.

It took it no time at all to start heading west into the gusting wind, its long wings wobbling tentatively as it was buffeted by the ever-shifting forces of the invisible medium in which it was about to take flight. About the time it was almost level with us, a few seconds after we first heard the roar of its engines, Rutan rotated the nose, and it almost leaped off the runway. The sound was similar to that of a jet, of which there are many in Mojave, and loud, though not as loud as, say, a fighter on afterburners.

It started to climb, more rapidly than I’ve ever seen any Long-EZ ascend–the chase plane couldn’t keep up with it. It made a slow turn to the left, still climbing at a seemingly-impossible, ever-steeper angle as the propellant load rapidly decreased and its acceleration increased, until it finally leveled out at what appeared to be several thousand feet, and the chase plane eventually caught up with it, albeit at a lower altitude.

There were some scattered clouds at altitude, and we occasionally lost the planes in them. But they were scattered only, and we eventually reacquired the object of our momentary devotion. As it headed back west over our heads, we could hear the engines start to sputter as they became starved for oxygen, and then a sudden eerie silence as the rocket engines were shut down, and the altitude was too great to hear the faithful pistons of the chase plane.

The two planes made slow, beautiful circles over the airport, gently spiraling down over a period of several minutes until, finally, as they approached the east end of the runway, they dropped gear, made a final sharp left bank, lined up and gently touched down, buffeted once more by the capricious gusting winds. The Long-EZ braked and taxied back over to the viewing area, and the EZ-Rocket slowed to a stop at the end of the runway, to be towed back to the waiting crowd.

OK, I know. You’re asking, why is this a big deal? We are (literally) in a war to save western civilization. Millions are starving in the world. Millions (often the same millions) live in depradation and slavery. An airplane just crashed in Queens, and we don’t know why. So just why am I wasting bandwidth talking about a home-built airplane that has a couple little (400-lbf thrust each) lox-alcohol rocket engines installed where the pusher prop used to be?

To ask that question is, to me, akin to asking, what was the big deal about the fact that a couple bicycle mechanics in Dayton, Ohio put a crude gasoline engine and propeller on a big kite, and managed to controllably get it off the ground, for a shorter distance than the wing span of a Boeing 747, almost a hundred years ago?

First of all, I think that space is important, for lots of reasons, but primarily for its potential for future human freedom. But I’m not going to argue that here–I’ll just assume that people who read this weblog agree.

As I pointed out in my recent disquisition on the wrong-headed Economist editorial of a couple of weeks ago, what is keeping us from getting into space in the way that many of us want is its unaffordability to any but governments. And what is keeping it unaffordable is the fact that only governments do it, and they don’t do very much of it, and when you don’t do very much of something, the unit costs get very high.

While we need technology development, we don’t need it in the way that NASA likes to think (with billion-dollar failures like X-33, to develop unobtainium, and fancy new propulsion systems). The only technology that we need is to integrate what we have in hand into actual vehicles, and learn how it works, and what doesn’t work, and fly it, day in and day out, and accumulate hours on engines and airframes, just the way we do with airplanes.

XCOR Aerospace is doing just that.

And, I should add, our need for technology development is nowhere as intense as our need for market development, and sensible FAA regulations, and a rational (as opposed to the “Right Stuff”) approach to space operations. What XCOR Aerospace (and other companies–I don’t mean to slight anyone, but I am writing about the XCOR rollout here) is doing will contribute to that also, in a way that NASA is not, and cannot.

While EZ-Rocket doesn’t fly high, or fast–unlike NASA’s reusable rocket programs–it actually flies. And in fact, though it doesn’t fly particularly high, or fast, it is a testament to the neglect of this field that, had XCOR bothered to call the appropriate French certification agency to have them witness today’s flight, they would have simultaneously awarded it the new world’s records for height, speed, and time to climb for a rocket plane.

It not only flies, but it can, given small amounts of money (equivalent to just a fraction of the overruns on programs like X-34 and X-33), fly every day, or twice a day, for mere hundreds of dollars per flight. And the experience developed from it can lead to bigger, faster rocket planes, that can also fly every day, or twice or thrice a day, and teach us how to fly rocket planes, and by selling experiment time, or even (heaven forfend!) rides to wealthy people who want a thrill, make a little money while doing it. We may have rocket racing competitions, sponsored by ESPN, or the Xtreme Sports Channel, or Pratt & Whitney.

And the records will get faster, and higher, and the revenues will grow, until we are offering rides to orbit, and people (with fortunes less than Bill Gates and Larry Ellison) are buying. And then some crazy fool will develop a space suit, and haul up enough parts to build a space hotel, and we’ll offer week-long stays, instead of barn-storming joy rides. And someone else will actually rent space in the hotel and perhaps do some research, or figure out how to build something bigger, like a Mars mission vehicle, that can be afforded by the Planetary Society, or the Mars Society, or even the (renamed?) National Geographic Society.

Why isn’t NASA doing this? They are institutionally incapable of it. NASA gets its funding, unfortunately, not to get us into space, but to maintain the jobs base in places like Houston, and Huntsville, and Cocoa Beach, and Huntington Beach. And even if NASA wanted to do something like this, and the Congress agreed to fund it, they still couldn’t–there are too many government procurement regulations, and budget cycles, and fragile ricebowls to be protected. NASA can’t do this because…well, because, as Hayek and others have pointed out, socialism doesn’t work. Capitalism does.

There are two fundamental drivers to progress–greed and fear. Because we initiated our space activities in the middle of a struggle between fundamentally-incompatible ideologies, almost four-and-a-half decades ago, the focus was on the fear. We made some progress, but ultimately, and in a most politically-incorrect (but traditionally American) manner, we must now harness greed. XCOR has figured this out, and their efforts, as well as those who emulate their philosophy, will ultimately open up the space frontier for all.


We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: sending people into space is pointless.

They say this as though it’s a fact, rather than an opinion, and a rather uninformed opinion at that.

It is dangerous, costly and scientifically useless.

Yes, human spaceflight is currently dangerous and costly, but to read this sentence, and the rest of the piece, one would infer that these are intrinsic features of space, rather than contingent properties of the way that we’ve chosen to go about it for the past four and a half decades. To say that it’s scientifically useless is flat-out wrong. It may not currently provide scientific value commensurate with the cost in dollars and risk, but its value is certainly not zero. And the statement itself betrays a common and damaging misperception among journalists and policy makers alike–that science is the raison d’etre of space.

But this clearly can’t be the case, because if the purpose of space is science and science alone, NASA, even the unmanned bits, would never be able to justify the money that it gets. Just compare NASA’s space science budget (leave out Shuttle and station for the moment) to the National Science Foundation’s budget. It dwarfs it. Add the manned portions back in and it becomes much worse. If one were to measure only by federal expenditure, space science would be more important than all other types of science combined, if the purpose of space spending were for science. But we know that it’s not–it is for national prestige, foreign relations, jobs in favored congressional districts, national security, etc. Science is a very low priority, but it makes for a more idealistic and lofty-sounding motive than the real ones. To continue with the editorial…

Most of these crises have been budgetary (the combined cost of the International Space Station and the fleet of space shuttles needed to service it is almost $5 1/2 billion a year). But even the explosion of a shuttle in the mid 1980s, which killed its crew and a civilian passenger, was not enough to close down the manned-spaceflight programme.

They write this as though it’s surprising, as though.. “of course, we should quit doing something simply because we have a setback and a few people die.” People die every day, in lots of ways. Vehicles have accidents and are destroyed by the dozens. Yet we continue to fly, to drive, to ride bicycles, to…well, get out of bed. They don’t explain why we should treat human spaceflight differently than other human endeavors, and give it up in the face of a little adversity; they simply seem perplexed that we don’t. Well, so much for the first paragraph. On to the next.

At the moment, this is kept alive by three things. The first is showmanship. NASA feels (correctly) that it has to keep the taxpayers on its side, and also (more dubiously) that manned flights are the way to do that.

I should stop here to point out that if this is true, that NASA is probably in violation of the spirit, if not letter, of the law. Federal agencies are not supposed to lobby or drum up support for themselves among the populace or the policy makers. Of course, if this were a crime, most agencies would be doing hard time…

Second, the space station helps diplomatic relations with Russia, the number-two partner in the enterprise, and also keeps lots of Russian rocket scientists out of the pay of countries such as Iraq and North Korea.

Well, that’s the theory. But not the effect, based on the evidence. Ask Congressman Weldon, and he will be pleased to show you unclassified evidence that brand-new IMU’s from Russian ICBMs have been showing up in Iranian (and probably Iraqi) missile technology.

Also, I suspect that ESA, Japan and Canada will be a little miffed to find out that Russia is the “number-two partner,” particularly since the Russians have had trouble coming up with the money for their end (quite a bit of it, including the US contribution that was supposed to go to hardware, somehow got diverted to Mercedes sedans, summer dachas, yachts, Cayman accounts, and whatnot).

They also (perhaps because they’re a pseudo-European publication) fail to mention the fact that by involving ESA and Japan in the ISS, we minimize the (already quite low) probability that they will go off on their own and actually doing something useful or interesting in manned space–it keeps them on the reservation, as well as the Russians.

And by the way guys, there’s no such thing as a “rocket scientist.” They’re called engineers.

Third, and most disgracefully, it puts billions of dollars into the pockets of aerospace companies like Boeing. It is, in other words, a disguised industrial subsidy.

Well, sure. This is true, as far as it goes. But they neglect to mention the billions of dollars that also go into the various empires, fiefdoms, and duchies at the major NASA centers, like JSC, Marshall and the Cape, which also keeps various congresspeople and Senators on key appropriation and authorization committees happy.

So, OK, they’ve gotten some of this part right.

There is now a chance to change direction. In the past few days both Daniel Goldin, the agency’s boss, and Joseph Rothenberg, the man in charge of the space station and the shuttle programme, have resigned. New brooms can therefore sweep. And, during his time, Mr. Goldin pointed the direction in which they should be sweeping. He conceived, and delivered, “faster, better, cheaper” unmanned scientific missions. In the old days, a mission could cost up to $1 billion. Now, stuff gets done for a fraction of that sum. Mars Odyssey, which has just gone into orbit around its intended target, is regarded as expensive at $300M

Well, let’s see if I understand the logic here. Mr. Goldin, champion of “betterfastercheaper” is leaving, therefore now is the time to implement FBC. Huh?

And notice, again the emphasis on science, as though there’s nothing else in space worth doing. Newsflash, guys. Science is not very important.

NASA knows, even if The Economist doesn’t seem to, that if they tried to justify what they are doing on the basis of science, they’d get almost no budget at all, as already discussed.

Also, while I actually do like the idea of launching planetary probes cheaper and more often, it’s a little simplistic to compare Mars Odyssey to, say, Galileo. One has to look at bang for the buck as well–the expensive battlestar galacticas really did provide a lot of science, when they worked. Also, we must take into consideration the fact that many of Goldin’s FBC missions were total failures (because, f’rinstance, someone forgot to convert from nautical miles to kilometers, and so they had controlled flight into terrain). But at least NASA can fail much more cheaply these days…

“Faster, better, cheaper” is a hard philosophy to apply to the manned side of the agency’s remit.

More unsubstantiated and unsubstantiable opinion masquerading as fact.

How do they know this? Has NASA ever actually tried to do FBC manned spaceflight? Noooooo, because it doesn’t need to be fast, or good, or cheap–as already described, it just has to provide jobs in Texas, Alabama and Florida, and midnight basketball for the Russians, and in fact it does those things better if it’s slower, worse and more expensive. Or do they mean that it’s hard precisely for those political, as opposed to technical and economic, reasons? They don’t say, but they should, because the two cases require entirely different policy prescriptions.

First, therefore, America should kill the space station.

Meaning what? Abandon it to the elements (to eventually fall on our heads)? Put it on the auction block? Cut it up into pieces and return it in the Shuttle? This is a very vague recommendation.

That would upset Russians and the aerospace industry, but would have a negligible impact on science.

And that’s OK, because science is the only thing of any value, right?

And if all those Russian rocket scientists are still seen as a threat, a liberal showering of American work permits ought to disperse it.

Sure, as long as the “rocket scientists” (I hate that stupid phrase) aren’t competing for jobs with those good ol’ boy engineers down in Texas and Alabama and Florida and California, and their congressmen don’t get accordingly upset. Midnight basketball for the Russians in Russia is entirely a different matter than the same thing in the US.

Second, a plan for phasing out the shuttle fleet should be devised. Throway rockets can do the job perfectly adequately.

Well, that begs the question: What is “the job”? To read the last paragraph of the editorial, which waxes eloquent about what wonderful things NASA could do in space science if they weren’t distracted by all that yucky shuttle and space station stuff (and which I won’t include to attempt to stay out of “fair use” trouble), “the job” is science uber alles, and anything that anyone else wants to do in space be damned. And no need to come up with anything better than Shuttles–expensive expendables are good enough, for now and into the foreseeable future, as long as Congress comes to its senses and gives the planetary scientists all the taxpayers’ money that they need to fly on them.

And finally, leaving aside the Simon Legree management style, the lack of accounting and accountability, the clinically-diagnosable schizophrenia, the War against The Worm, letting George Abbey run the agency into the ground, and the annual lies to Congress, the real problem with Dan Goldin was that he had the same mind set as the editorial writers at the Economist. His goals for NASA weren’t to reduce the cost of access, or to allow ordinary people and companies into space (as evidenced by his manic vendetta against Dennis Tito’s flight) or to use space to solve earthly problems. No, in his strategic plan, his long-term goals were to look for planets in other star systems, and search for life, or meaning. Rather than get serious about whether or not cheap access to space could exist, he was more interested in if God exists, or if ET exists.

This editorial is breathtaking in its narrow-minded naivety. Editorial writers, like much of the public, seem to operate under a set of false assumptions. Some of them are:

  • The primary purpose of a government civil space program is science and exploration
  • Space is really really hard, and really really expensive, and this is an intrinsic characteristic of it, and it always will be, and its difficulty and expense has nothing to do with the dunderheaded way that we’ve been doing it since the beginning of the Cold War
  • Because space is soooooo expensive, only governments can afford to do things there
  • If only we’d quite wasting money on all this manned space stuff, we could shift the money that we’re currently spending on it to that much more valuable and interesting science
  • That if we could only convince the politicians and the public how wonderful space science is, we could just get them to fund that adequately (where adequately is more money than all other federal science expenditures combined), and we wouldn’t have all these silly turf fights, and lobbying by these evil aerospace corporations

Here’s the scoop folks. Space is expensive and dangerous because it’s done by the government, for governmental reasons. And it’s done by the government not because it’s too expensive for anyone else to do it, but because we simply fell into that rut in 1958, after Sputnik, when rather than being viewed as a new sphere of economic activity, to be developed in the time-honored American free-enterprise manner, it instead became a propaganda battlefield in the Cold War, to be developed in a socialistic way to demonstrate not that capitalism was better than socialism, but rather, that democracy was better than totalitarianism. We didn’t set it up as a competition of economic systems, because we wanted to keep the AFL-CIO and UAW on board at home, and the Eurosocialists on board abroad–both would have been offended at a brazen display of capitalism, but were comfortable with NASA as a democratic-socialist state enterprise. And after we won the Space Race, and even after we won the Cold War, we remain stuck with a socialistic space program.

Yes, we probably need to figure out how to make lemonade from Shuttle and station (notice that the editorial writers don’t get into any of the messy details about how one “kills” it). But what we really need to do is get people to stop equating NASA with space, and start identifying and quantifying markets, and putting together business plans, and building infrastructure to satisfy them, and to rearrange federal policy to encourage, rather than discourage, capitalists from doing these things, because the reason that space is expensive is, simply put, because we hardly do any of it. If Ford spent a billion dollars developing the Mustang (which is a reasonable approximation of what it costs to develop a new car model), and only built half a dozen of them, even Bill Gates wouldn’t buy one. But NASA would.

Once we drive down access costs by increasing space activities, The Economist’s (and Dan Goldin’s) sacred space science will become cheap and abundant as well. I used to have a sig on my emails, and it still applies: NASA’s job is not to send a man to Mars. NASA’s (and the rest of the federal government’s) job is to make it possible for the National Geographic Society to send a man (and woman) to Mars.