Monday, July 25, 2011

Future of the Final Frontier

NASA's space shuttle flew its final mission last week. Despite occasional NASA braggadocio, there's no follow-on planned. Over 5,000 employees and contract workers are now unemployed.

Russia now is the primary sponsor of manned space-flight. NASA will refocus on unmanned exploration -- robots in space. And, of course, there's U.S. private sector programs for launch vehicles and, some years away, passenger service.

James Lileks mourns the death of the dream:
[T]here’s a general cultural anomie that seems content to watch movies about people in space, but indifferent to any plans to put them there. This makes me grind my teeth down to the roots, but I suppose that’s a standard reaction when the rest of your fellow citizenry doesn’t share the precise and exact parameters of your interests and concerns. That’s the problem when you grow up with magazines telling you where we’re going after the moon, with grade-school notebooks that had pictures of the space stations to come, when the push to Mars was regarded as an inevitable next step. . .

I can see the reason for taking our time -- develop new engines, perfect technology, gather the money and the will. It’s not like anything’s going anywhere. But it’s not like we’re going anywhere if we’re not going anywhere, either -- when nations, cultures stop exploring, it’s a bad sign. You’re ceding the future.
Characteristically, Lileks is realistic:
Just got hung up on the "why?" part, it seems. Also the "how" and the "how much" and other details.
What to think about the end of NASA's maned space operations?

Like Likeks, I grew up romancing the Right Stuff. (Early in my career, orbital colony proponent Gerard O’Neill was a client.) So, in some ways, this moment feels like a Frederick Jackson Turner death of the frontier. Does this mean the decline of American dynamism?

No. NASA still has a role to play in robotic space exploration. But, mostly, the problem with NASA's space program isn't space but NASA itself. Not, as a New York Times op-ed argues, because NASA was part of the "military-industrial complex" born in the cauldron of the Cold War, but because NASA typifies "big government." Plainly, big government demands big budgets--and isn't ideal for innovation. Think of "green jobs." Or even safety. Government may be essential at first (and I'm all for piggy-backing on military needs -- think GPS), but private sector competition can best respond to technical challenges.

Six years ago, I said this:
So let's prime the pump. Terminate all NASA's current missions, and redirect their efforts to an unmanned-Mars lander. That lander would carry a tiny payload--an unconditional note issued by the United States promising to pay the bearer $20 billion. Upon the successful Mars touchdown, NASA would publish a detailed map of the landing site--and then close. No more federal budget, no more agency. Just a potential future liability.

It worked for longitude--why not similarly jump-start the technological innovation necessary to get to Mars?
The only thing I'd change today: given our budgetary woes, make it a certified check.

(via Ed Driscoll)


OBloodyHell said...

>> What to think about the end of NASA's maned space operations?

Good, as far as that goes.

The solution isn't more government expenditures, but, as you suggest -- a number of 'X-Prizes'.

Come up with a set of realistic, clearly definable goals for Man-in-Space. Guestimate how much they might cost to accomplish if private industry does the job smartly.

Now put up 75% of that amount on accomplishment of the specifications defined, as long as the accepting organization licenses the technology for other companies to use as well as themselves.

Bingo -- competition for the prize, followed by competition for the most effective and inventive business usage of the tech.

As I have related here on other occasions -- the fact is, NASA hasn't had a clue for more than 20 years now.

Back in 1992, the World SF Convention was held in Orlando, FL. Being right next to The Cape, there was even more than the usual share of NASA panels (NASA's never been stupid in that regard -- they've always known a substantial, reliable, and very vocal portion of their backing came from the SF community).

At one such panel, after some subtle comments, the question wound up being asked of the panel of mid-level engineers:
"Could we put a man back on the moon in 10 years?"

The answer was a rather astounding "No".

The attendees seemed just a bit confused, they thought the question had been misinterpreted to "Is there the interest there to put a man on the moon in 10 years?"

No, the engineers claimed: They could not accomplish, somehow, with 1990s technology what was accomplished 30 years before with 1960s technology.

Needless to say, the attendees left that panel with a very bad taste in their mouth for ANY hope that NASA should be in charge of this activity... because they didn't buy that sh** any more than I did.

Yeah, the guys who built those rocket engines have died, and much of the artisanry involved died with them.

So F'in what? I wouldn't expect to attempt to do it the same way now that we did then. We have better tools, better materials, better techniques, all of which should be brought to bear on the problem, to find better ways than the sheer brute force that was used then. The computer design and testing phase alone should make up for the lost expertise.

I don't think this has gotten any better -- AJ Strata is/was associated with NASA. When I raised this story on his blog, he practically cursed me out and was really quite insulting. Nothing factual, just a lot of name calling. Background in physics, math, computers... "You're too incompetent to understand." Ahhh, yeah, OK. Excuse me while I write off YOUR opinion, AJ.

NASA's "Can Do!" attitude was first replaced by an arrogant "Can't Fail!"... and then, subsequently, by a clueless "Huh?" attitude.

Anonymous said...

Roy said:
Agreed. Except that I'd not make the X prize quite so large. Not sure one can extrapolate legit gov't business of defense into exploring space.

I've found it very interesting to compare/contrast the exploration, exploitation, colonization of the Americas (N, S) with the space enterprise. The latter requires much larger capital investment (not merely numerically larger, but percentage of, say, GDP larger). Rewards for the latter nowhere nearly as evident nor immediate as for the former.

word verif = rockles heh

Carl said...

Roy: If the rewards from space exploration are neither evident nor immediate, should we want to encourage private sector space development, might we have to make the "prize" amount even larger?

OBH: I agree NASA long has been clueless. It was not clueless to conceive of a re-usable space vehicle. It WAS clueless to say the shuttle met that design.

And I assume they answered "no" to that question because they didn't have the budget, not because they didn't have the technology.

Anonymous said...

Roy responded:
Carl, any we who wants may encourage private sector development. Might even get significant return for the investment.

Historical parallel examples for pondering: which of N, C, S America was developed in larger part by private enterprise? How did that difference influence what sorts of development were attempted?

Carl said...

Roy: True, but the costs (and risks) of space travel are substantially greater. The passengers on the Mayflower knew there would be arable land, water and air. Space settlement requires one to assume you have to bring all three.

OBloodyHell said...

> And I assume they answered "no" to that question because they didn't have the budget, not because they didn't have the technology.

**NO**, CARL.

Trust me: the audience established that VERY clearly -- we asked them, "You mean you don't think there's the will to fund it...", that seeming like a fairly reasonable interpretation of their response.

The reply was NO -- they did not believe it could be done with the technology no matter the funding level.

Still dumbfounded, we reiterated -- "You mean that, if we found the funding and public interest as they had in the 60s, it could still not be done?" and they replied, basically "Yes, that is correct."

That was one pissed off audience, to hear that kind of "can't do" stupidity coming from these so-called engineers.

And AJ Strata was no different when I told this story in his blog about 2-3 years ago.

He didn't try and defend them, or explain, or anything. He just started calling me names instead, essentially claiming 'I was so stupid I could not possibly understand' and so forth.

NASA was ruined by the late 70s, it's why the Shuttle is such an abortion, and why we lost two shuttles despite their flying far, far fewer missions than they were supposedly capable of.

I think the name for the Challenger's replacement more than amply demonstrated the absolute lack of creativity rampant throughout NASA: "Challenger II".

Me, I would've named it "Phoenix".

A bird that arises from the ashes of its predecessor.

Could you get more appropriate than that? I don't think so.

OBloodyHell said...

>> Roy: True, but the costs (and risks) of space travel are substantially greater. The passengers on the Mayflower knew there would be arable land, water and air. Space settlement requires one to assume you have to bring all three.

Uhhh, Carl, the risks are actually LESS, since we understand more of them than they did then.

Remember, the Mass colony almost DIED that first year, had it not been for the Amerinds they would have.

Roanoke DID die. Because they really didn't know what was edible, what would grow here, and the weather conditions, and were far, far too resource poor to take anything suitable with them to make up for that lack of knowledge.

In this case, we know what we need to survive there. The biggest issue is that we live at the bottom of a fairly steep gravity well. The amount of energy needed to leave the planet is quite nontrivial.

Escape "velocity" is a misnomer -- it's a scalar, not a vector ("Escape SPEED" is more accurate).

Excepting for atmospheric drag, if you're going escape velocity/speed -- 7 miles per SECOND -- in ANY direction (except, "duh", into the ground) you're going to leave the Earth's gravity well.

Now think about that -- 7miles/s is substantially faster than ANYTHING that is vaguely within normal human experience even TODAY.

A modern ultra high-velocity bullet only has a muzzle velocity of about 1,200 meters/s, which is about 1/10th that.

And that's a single freakin' bullet, which we can accelerate instantly to that speed.

You have to be more gentle with most of the cargoes we want in space, which means a lot more care has to be taken to get them up to that speed.

What we really need to build is a laser launch system. That would have a much better mass-to-orbit ratio than all current systems, and we really need that to do anything up there until we can get some form of rail gun launcher setup on the moon -- and that's where the parts for such would best come from, along with the necessary equipment to bring an asteroid into circumlunar or L5 orbit, esp. since we want to practice our maneuvering with said asteroid first, given that an error would be diametrically opposite to A Real Good Thing.

The problem with space is that, while it's raining soup out there, the up front expenditures to put a hat up there to catch it with are pretty non-trivial. It is hard to get any corporation to justify that kind of expenditure to its shareholders unless you can provide a clear and definite payback time frame.

You know enough about business accounting, I'm sure, to understand my point. A corp CAN make a 20-year payback investment -- but it needs to have reassurances that there WILL be a good chance of payback.

Carl said...

OBH: The parts of the Americas that turned out ok were settled by people who moved there--freebooters if you will. The parts of the Americas that are less well off were explored by people who had no intention of staying; they wanted to collect booty and return to Europe and be presented at court.

My point is that, right now, we have no real idea what investment or technology it would take to live, in a self-sustaining manner, either in space or on other worlds. That's why I see the "space gap" as much higher.

And I'm not aware of any investment that involves both a 20 year payback AND the amount of risk involved in space colonies of any sort. Launch vehicles and passenger trips, sure. But settlement -- even with laser launch -- seems beyond our reach for now. Like you, I'm optimistic that this will change--but I think it will require some substantial technological breakthrough.