Category Archives: Technology and Society

The Lunar Tardigrade Mess

Loren Grush has probably the most comprehensive story to date on what happened, and its implications.

I’m concerned with statements like this:

While the Arch Mission Foundation didn’t violate any official international regulations for space contamination, the nonprofit may have put Israel and the US in a vulnerable position by not explicitly asking for permission first. And the tardigrades are part of a growing trend of companies that are sending things into space that don’t have any scientific value without prior approval.

…”What’s the point?” Linda Billings, a former consultant to NASA’s Planetary Protection Office and a current consultant to NASA’s astrobiology and planetary defense programs, tells The Verge. “To me, it’s just the height of arrogance to say this is what I want to do and I’m going to do it even though it serves no public purpose. There’s no benefit to humankind.” The Arch Mission Foundation claims they are making a backup of human history, but Billings notes that other organizations, like the Lifeboat Foundation, are already taking on this endeavor, too.

The US has been fairly relaxed about people sending things into space that do not serve a scientific purpose. Numerous art projects — such as Rocket Lab’s disco ball-like satellite, the Humanity Star, or Trevor Paglen’s Orbital Reflector, a giant inflatable balloon connected to a satellite — have gone up into orbit. Those have irked astronomers, who fear these reflective objects will mess up their sensitive images of the night sky. Most notably, SpaceX launched its CEO’s sports car into deep space during the inaugural launch of the Falcon Heavy, sending the vehicle on an orbit around the Sun that crosses paths with the orbit of Mars. [Emphasis added]

There is an implication here that there is no purpose to civil space activities other than science and “exploration” (“space exploration” is a phrase that I hate, because it implies that it is an end, rather than a means.) The late great Tom Rogers used to tartly reply, when asked why he wanted to go into space, “None of your goddamned business!” But the OST was written in an era in which space = science was the prevailing view. Fortunately, it has sufficient ambiguity that we can probably still develop space while remaining compliant. I may write an essay somewhere about this topic (I sort of did three years ago, but not in the context of the OST). I think that, in light of this incident, we need to broaden the conversation of why we do the space activities that are “the province of all mankind,” because we’re going to be getting a lot of pushback from people like Linda and the other “anti-colonialists” about space.

[Afternoon update]

I have some more thoughts over on Twitter.

Trump And Gun Supporters

Is he following in the footsteps of George H. W. Bush?

This has always been the problem with Trump: He doesn’t have any firm ideological principles and is first and foremost a populist. This would be an opportunity for him to explain why these things won’t work, but it’s not clear that he even understands that, and instead he is going along with them.

Blue Origin

They’re filing a lawsuit against the USAF over launch procurement.

I don’t understand why the Air Force wouldn’t want more than two launch providers.

[Afternoon update]

I have some thoughts on Twitter, based on some of the comments here.

First, since people are saying that Blue Origin should demonstrate the ability to develop an orbital rocket, it’s fair to say that so should ULA. They’re flying vehicles developed by other companies over two decades ago.

Arguably, only two teams with recent orbital launcher development experience are SpaceX and NGIS (by acquiring Orbital ATK). Vulcan and New Glenn both currently remain paper rockets. At this point in time, SpaceX has the most experienced launch-development team on the planet.

And while NGIS does have the Antares experience, that won’t necessarily apply to their new vehicle. Even if it was a good idea, no one has successfully developed an orbital launcher based on a large segmented solid rocket. We know that Ares I had teething issues. And of course, this all ignores the reusability factor.

I assume that ULA still wants to recover engines, but that won’t make them competitive with Falcon series, let alone a successful Starship program. At least Blue plans booster reuse.

And ULA will remain hobbled by its parents’ unwillingness to allow it to spend sufficient resources on Vulcan development (and forget ACES). So the trajectory is that, if only two providers, Blue Origin and SpaceX are the way for the USAF to bet.

Also, both Blue Origin and SpaceX will have large commercial markets. Because it probably won’t be cost competitive, Vulcan probably won’t. But there are political reasons for the blue suits (if they remain in charge of launch procurement) to want to keep ULA alive.

If I were the head of Pentagon procurement, I’d go talk to the FECFTC about forcing a divestiture of ULA from its parents, not just on legitimate charges of child abuse, but because of the huge changes that have occurred in the launch market since 2006. But USAF seems to be stuck in the past, when it comes to procuring launches.

[Tuesday-morning update]

A nice history of the RD-180 and how it’s about to be superceded by both BE-4 and Raptor. The days of Russian dominance in rocket propulsion have come to an end.