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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Why do space at all?

Space Politics provides a summary of Paul Spudis's speech (the whole presentation is here) at the ISDC:
He also described the Ares program as "having all the disadvantages of a shuttle-derived system but none of the advantages"; he prefers a Shuttle-C or similar approach. The biggest problem? "NASA still doesn't really understand what its mission is," he said, creating "catalogs" of rationales rather than a single unified explanation. "I always thought that if you couldn't state your mission in a single sentence, you probably don't know what it is." His suggestion: "We're going to the Moon to learn how to live and work on another world. It's that simple."
My question is, why? Why do we need to learn how to live and work on another world? Why should the Moon be that other world? Why do it the way that NASA has chosen to do it? And why should NASA be the ones to do it?

I shall attempt to answer my own questions below, in reverse order.

Why should NASA be the ones to do it?

NASA has not had a real raison d'être since Armstrong and Aldrin returned from the moon. Apollos 12 through 17 only made sense as part of a larger purpose that simply wasn't there. Kennedy's speech set some very simple goals: land a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth before the end of the decade. Once the mission was accomplished, that should have been the end of NASA right then and there. It only made sense to pursue Apollo 12 as a backup in case Apollo 11 failed - but since Apollo 11 succeeded, the rest of the Apollo missions were quite simply pointless. The American public understood this; after Apollo 11 interest in NASA plummeted, reviving only during the narrowly-averted disaster during Apollo 13 and the disasters of Challenger and Columbia.

Of course, once a government bureaucracy is established it is very difficult indeed to shut it down. I doubt that there has ever been a government agency anywhere that has ever been shut down short of an overthrow of the entire government. Once affixed to the taxpayers' collective teat, a bureaucracy remains there in perpetuity.

So, given that NASA exists and is not likely to be shut down, it needs something to do. NASA's history ever since the moon landings has been a vivid illustration of the aphorism "a camel is a horse designed by committee". Nixon gave them something to do in the form of the space shuttles. Reagan and Clinton gave them something to do in the form of the Space Station Freedom / ISS kludge. GHW Bush gave them an abortive direction at a Mars mission, and GW Bush gave them the Vision for Space Exploration. All of those presidents attempted giving NASA something to do in order to justify its continued existence. The shuttles and the space station have been by any impartial measure abject failures, GHW Bush's manned Mars mission was stillborn, and all indications are that the VSE will fare no better.

One thing that NASA's continued existence has accomplished is to keep costs artificially high. The cost-plus accounting system in place at NASA worked in the short term, it got the job done when the proxy battle with the Russians (the race to the moon) was underway, but after that it simply forced costs higher and higher. It is a prime example of what Bill Whittington was talking about as he explained the Prisoner's Dilemma:
...short-term strategies for immediate gain at the cost of long-term success. A swarm of trinket vendors on a beach in Mexico all need to make an immediate sale in order to eat that day, even if the cost is being so annoying and frustrating to the tourists that it prevents them from ever returning. Short term gain, long term loss.

I make no value judgment on that behavior, because it works on some level or it would not be so prevalent. In societies where short term values trump long-term ones, it is easy, safe and stable to Screw the Other Guy. But in the long-term, nothing of consequence grows...
Sound familiar? It should. NASA chose a short-term solution - paying contractors for their costs, plus a fixed percentage, no matter what the cost - and they got to the moon, fast. It was a short-term gain. However, it is also an incentive to drive up the costs, a constant upward pressure. Apply it to the long term, such as over the last nearly four decades, and what do we see? Enormous - and either stagnant or growing - costs for space access. And, for nearly four decades, nothing of cosequence has grown.

Another example: the US manned space program is centered in only a few congressional districts. The congressmen control the pursestrings of NASA, and the voters in a those few congressional districts control who gets into congress, and those voters' jobs depend on NASA either directly or indirectly. So, we are left with the ridiculous situation of solid rocket boosters built in a single facility in Utah being shipped across the continent via railroad, external tanks built in a single facility in Louisiana shipped by barge around Florida, shuttles launched at a single facility on Florida's east coast, and missions controlled in a single facility in Texas. A few congressmen get a short-term gain - they get elected - and the national manned space program ends up with a brittle infrastructure, where a single hurricane or the derailing of a single train slows down the entire program at a cost of wasted billions. Short term gain, long term loss.

So why should NASA be doing anything at all? If past history is any indication, the costs of the VSE will go up and up, the mission scope will creep, the capabilities of the final product will not be anywhere near what is advertised, and even getting off the ground at all is doubtful (*cough* X33 *cough*).

So, let's assume for a moment that there should be an American manned presence in space. NASA has proven that they can do it, I have to give them that. However, they have basically followed the path of Samuel Langley, flying barely-workable (or unworkable) kludges on the taxpayers' dime - with the exception that Langley actually had a purpose. If it is to be done at all, there needs to be a real paradigm shift, akin to the Wright Brothers' development of aeronautical engineering.

Enter private industry. Although NASA managed to keep costs artificially high, and thus maintained outer space as their personal fiefdom for decades, some things have happened over the last few years that have been beyond NASA's control.

For one thing, the Soviet Union collapsed, bringing down with it the Russians' ability to maintain their space program without private investment. NASA managed to keep John Denver and Lance Bass grounded, but they couldn't stop the Russians from bringing other space tourists up to the ISS. No longer is space access limited to NASA-vetted ├╝bermenchen with The Right Stuff.

For another thing, computers have changed everything. No longer must engineers use slide rules to approximate answers; no longer do teams of what used to be known as "computers" (i.e. people good at math) manually figure out mathematical calculations; no longer do computing machines take up entire gymnasiums with four-bit, four-kilobyte memories. That computer sitting in front of you has more computing power than all of NASA combined had at its disposal in 1969.

Finally, people have slowly come to realize that rocket science is not as insanely difficult as it was 40, 50, 60 years ago. All of the mathematical formulae involved have already been worked out. The environment of everywhere in cislunar space has been a known quantity since the late 1960s. Small teams of people can and do build their own reliable, high-powered rocket engines. And private companies are starting to put people into suborbital space, to build and launch their own full-scale rockets, and to build and launch what are effectively space stations. All this is going on while the current crop at NASA warms the seats of the real pioneers of the space age, most long since dead or retired.

So should NASA be the ones doing it? I think that the best we can hope for is that NASA manages to stay out of the way of those who are doing the real cutting-edge work, while it continues its largely-irrelevant nerd-welfare program.

Why do it the way that NASA has chosen to do it?

If the implementation of the VSE is left completely up to NASA, then we're stuck with the Ares. It is quite simply NASA's nature. It can't help that it is a scorpion. There is a small glimmer of hope in the COTS program and the Centennial Challenges, which might be a thin edge of the wedge. However, the funding of these programs are at the whims of congress and whomever happens to be NASA administrator. Mike Griffin might be a great guy and all, but it is unlikely he will be administrator for the entire 30-year span of the VSE, or that he would even be able to keep those programs afloat as the costs for Ares balloon, as has been the case for every NASA launch system.

So, what are the alternatives? Some people are trying to get NASA to change course early in the VSE, while it still can, hoping to scrap the Ares system and replace it with DIRECT, or as Paul Spudis suggests, the Shuttle-C. While these might be better proposals, I am not sanguine about their chances of being implemented by NASA. Ever. Not Invented Here, you know.

So we're stuck with Ares. Or, are we? As I mentioned above, NASA isn't the only player in the game anymore. At my last count, there are over 80 private space businesses out there, the lion's share of them in the US. Suppose that, like businesses in every other economic sector, a large portion of them fail within their first five years. The flipside of this is that a small portion of them will succeed. The market will sort out the good business models from the flawed, the good designs from the flawed, the good long-range plans from the flawed. And while many of those companies are dying out, new companies are coming into the market at a faster rate than the business failures.

These companies are bringing with them a huge array of different methods for every single aspect of spaceflight. A quick count gives at least four radically different methods of getting to orbit - ground launch, air launch, space elevator, and airship-to-orbit. Some companies are specializing in space habitats, others in rocket engines, others in spacesuits, others in flight control systems, others... you get the picture.

I have to mention here an article that Jon Goff of Selenian Boondocks wrote last year, entitled Technologies Necessary for a Spacefaring Society. If there is anything at all that NASA should be doing, this is it - planting the seed, developing those technologies that would allow the full force of the market to be brought to bear on achieving humanity's goals in space. Take care of developing those technologies, and private companies will achieve the goals of the VSE all by themselves, because it will profit them to do so. Either that, or get the hell out of the way.

Why the Moon?

Or, why only the Moon? If one is limited to NASA doing it using NASA's proprietary technology, then a single destination is forced. NASA is on a budget tightrope as it is, and if they have to do it all themselves then landing a few people on the Moon is the best they can hope for. If the full power of the market is involved however, then the whole solar system opens up. I will explain further in my next blog post. For now, let's just say that all NASA has is a hammer, and when that's all you've got, everything begins to look like a nail. However, if you've got a full machine shop (i.e. a real space industry) then all sorts of other possibilities open up.

Why do we need to learn how to live and work on another world?

I agree with Mark Whittington that Spudis is correct about having a simple definition for the mission. However, I have to disagree with Spudis's specific definition (while agreeing with much of what he put forth in his presentation, linked at the top of this article).

We have to go into space, on a large scale. Not just a few of us, not just the lucky handful carefully selected by NASA to take tentative baby steps to the moon 20 years from now. No, the vast majority of humanity needs to get out into space, or be born there in the first place. Yes, I mean you, reading this right now. Why? Because right now, all our eggs are in one basket. One global thermonuclear war, and it is all over. One big asteroid strike, and it is all over. One incident of Grey Goo and it is all over. One massive supervolcano eruption and it is all over. One (insert your own hypothetical end-of-the-world scenario here) and it is all over.

Even discounting those hypothetical end-of-the-world scenarios, we're still sitting here completely dependent on a single ecosystem, with a large but finite amount of resources. And yet, out there in space there is a virtually limitless amount of solar energy available, and (an estimated) more than one million asteroids over a kilometer in diameter out there. By dismantling Ceres, the largest asteroid, we could create enough large space habitats to provide the equivalent of 300 to 500 times the surface area of the earth, each of these tailored to suit the needs of human, plant, and animal life. Going to space means abundance for all, and spreads out this tiny enclave of life across the entire solar system, hedging our bets against all of the above-mentioned scenarios.

Why learn to live and work on another world? It is a stepping stone, a way for us to learn to utilize the resources of the entire solar system. And why do that? It is nothing less than an insurance policy, ensuring the survival of life.

The dinosaurs weren't spacefaring, and if we aren't, then we will share their fate.

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Blogger Paul Spudis said...

I don't disagree with very much of what you've written. However, I want to clarify my position on a few points.

I do not advocate going only to the Moon -- the VSE is focused initially on the Moon because a) it's close; and b) it contains the material and energy resources with which we can begin to learn how to harvest, process, and convert into useful forms. I have no problem with destinations beyond, including asteroids. But the Moon is a logical and necessary first step. If we can live on and extract what we need from the Moon, we can do it anywhere else in the Solar System.

The whole NASA v. private sector argument seems more theological than technical to me. But I'll just make one point: NASA (or more properly the federal government) has legitimate interests in space (including on the Moon) and I believe it is entirely appropriate for them to be striving in that direction. Moreover, as you correctly note, they are not likely to be dismantled at any time in the near future, so as they are already spending $16 billion per year, they might as well spend it on developing systems and technologies useful for the long-range settlement of space.

Finally, I do agree that human survival is the ultimate rationale for human spaceflight and space settlement. By going to the Moon to do the mission the Vision outlines, we will lay the groundwork for such a move. I'm not against citizen space travelers, but the state of the art cannot support that yet. In the meantime, let's use the tool we have at hand (NASA) to do fundamental work and research into learning exactly how we'll ultimately live on other planets.

3:19 AM  
Blogger T. F. Stern said...

Very well presented, but I'm not entirely sure that mankind was ever supposed to leave this planet. This world was created for us; a pretty neat gift, and somewhere in my "feeling" of how things should be is the idea that we belong here and no where else.
That thought is reserved only during our mortal life; after that anything goes.

7:24 AM  
Blogger Brian Dunbar said...

The whole NASA v. private sector argument seems more theological than technical to me.

Nice way to put it. Me - I prefer the pragmatic approach: Whatever Works.

Very well presented, but I'm not entirely sure that mankind was ever supposed to leave this planet. This world was created for us; a pretty neat gift,

It is indeed.

I was reading something yesterday - the link is long gone but the memory remains. Hundreds of extra-solar planets have been discovered, many many other solar systems examined.

The author pointed out that most of those planets have highly elliptic orbits - those plents could not support Life As We Know It. Too hot, too cold - any atmosphere boils away or freezes.

Our planet seems uniquely setup to support life. Our Solar system might be seen in the same light.

And we - tool bearing primates or beings with a spark of divinity take your pick - are smart enough to remake the universe to suit us.

11:09 AM  
Blogger -c. said...

welfare for space nerds. i agree. the nasa guys i've met have all been twits and largely unimpressive. i was not surprised about that foot/meter conversion, but i was dismayed about the human arm that landed on the kindergarden playground here in texas. the world must think nasa is a bunch of buffoons. it'll be no time at all until other world powers pick up the slack. you're right- rocket science aint no big deal.

i dont understand what kind of mass exodus everybody is thinking about here either. we cant even feed shelter or clothe the human population how we gonna buy em all a ticket to the moon?? where are energy and resources gonna come from? cant we focus on not shitting where we eat instead of just leaving?

12:12 PM  
Blogger Brian Dunbar said...

cant we focus on not shitting where we eat instead of just leaving?

The thing is that the assets that come from space and the activity generated by space activities generate wealth.

Wealth creates jobs and capital. Wealth increases the amount of money available to charity. Wealthy cultures can afford welfare.

Some of us don't want to leave - we want to make the place a better place to live. Some others of us think that 'leaving' and 'cleaning the place up' are not contradictory activities.

3:39 PM  
Blogger Stephen said...

This world was created for us;.

We evolved, adapting to this world. It suggests alot of things. For example, changing the world too quickly is not a good idea. It will take time to adapt to other environments.

9:15 AM  
Anonymous ams said...

I largely agree with the goal of getting mankind into space. I also agree that the private sector is much more dynamic and creative than any government program will ever be, including NASA.

However, the private sector doesn't just *do* things for the hell of it (that requires extremely rich people with time on their hands, and even they can't do anything society-moving indefinitely). Whatever the activation energy of any given private activity, there has to be a payoff for it to self-sustain. Minerals don't cut it - we can get arbitrary amounts of any element on the periodic table for equivalent capital investment here on Earth than we can in space.

For mankind to go into space, there has to be either an ROI, or low enough barriers that people can take the loss to get away from Earth for a mere lifestyle change. (That implies both incredible levels of industrial-equipment wealth by today's standards and conditions that people would want to flee from - seems contradictory).

In order to settle space, creating and running an entire industrial ecosystem, such that you can render rock down into metal, and volatiles, metal and volatiles into habitats and factories, and run those habitats and factories with as little human attention as we pay today in the maintenance of our houses. That's a bit different than our modern condition.

Never mind solar power - just to get into space and move mass from place to place with any elegance implies energy and power being produced with such ease and concentration that it is well past the threshold of chemistry. Making life of any sort *work* on worlds that are ground-state oxidized undifferentiated rock requires something to drive that chemistry.


I don't want to rain on anyone's parade. It is my ambition too to see mankind settle space. I just want to point out some aspects of what that has to look like to be viable.

Hopefully with sufficiently advanced atomic energy to enable us to overcome the energy and power barriers (both in transportation logistics and driving the chemistry), and with sufficiently advanced manufacturing and tools (3-d printing, small scale machining, ect), (to lower the economic/industrial/manpower barriers) it can be done.

PS - I don't think our natural condition on earth should be anything to guide or limit our aspirations. In our "natural condition" we were dying out on the Savannah with our neanderthal cousins. It is only through our minds and technology that we have been able to survive, and in this modern age more insistently than any other, the ability to understand the world and create technology seems to promise us the means to do *anything*.

6:58 PM  
Anonymous ams said...

PS - I don't mean to imply that our present small scale efforts are worthless. On the contrary, they are essential. Technology doesn't come out of nowhere - without trying to go the distance, we might never learn how to do it better.

7:07 PM  
Blogger Lupus Solus said...

Let's work on deflecting those asteroids.

6:14 PM  

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