Monday, August 30, 2010

space philosophies

Something Rick Tumlinson said at the Orphans of Apollo premiere explains a lot of the arguments among space enthusiasts. He proposed three different space philosophies: von Braunian, Saganite, and O'Neillian. This was later expanded upon by Trent Waddington.

It makes a lot of sense. It makes the "manned versus unmanned" debate into a debate between the von Braun and O'Neill groups on one side with the Sagan group on the other. And the end of the Constellation program pits the von Braun idea against the O'Neill idea.

Recently Bob Werb wrote:
A friend of ours in DC describes the opposition to the proposed NASA budget as the “homers, haters and boomers.” The homers want as much federal spending as possible in their home state or district. The haters reflexively oppose anything at all that comes out of an Administration they despise. The boomers are nostalgic for the 60s and want to recreate the imagined glories of Apollo. Some of our most vigorous opponents affiliate with two, or even three of these disjointed fellowships (as do many on the other side.)
(hat tip to Rand Simberg)

There is no question that there are major divisions in the space community. Bob’s also right that the people that actually care about the topic – and who see it as the answer for so many of the problems here on Earth – are a small fraction of the population.

However, I think he’s got his categories wrong. I very much doubt that anyone in the space community rejects Obama’s position purely out of hate for the man or his other policies or even his political party. Indeed, it often seems as though on the one issue of space Republican and Democrat positions are switched around completely.

This might be due to the fact that there are so few people – and in particular so few Congressmen – who are actually interested in space in general or NASA in particular. Those outliers might be swaying the majority that doesn't care about space.

Similarly one cannot say that all Boomers are nostalgic for Apollo, nor are the “Homers” simply looking out for their own district at the expense of the country and its future. The categorizations just don't match reality.

I think that what Tumlinson and Waddington pointed out is on the right track, but symptomatic of something deeper. There are underlying reasons that lead people into these philosophical camps, and it goes beyond the old Left/Right labels. And, if those underlying reasons are not addressed, then no amount of discussion is going to budge anyone from the position they already hold.

Why is this important? Bob Werb goes on:
But the real enemy of progress in civil space is a dramatically more insidious opponent that infects the body politic, an adversary so sinister and commonplace that we have come to take it for granted, the corrosive background noise of democracy. Our real enemy is apathy... If you are one of the elect few willing to act, you should pick up the phone today and call your Congressperson to say that they should vote against whichever version of the NASA authorization bill comes up for a vote.
Well, that's all well and good for this budget, but the same problems remain after a Continuing Resolution. There are still the same deadlocked factions, arguing so much and jerking policy this way and that such that nothing ever gets done.

There is no consensus on what we should be doing in space, how to do it, and why we are doing it at all. And, we'll never figure that out unless we know why we hold the positions we do in our ongoing debate.

What makes some people decide that the only justifiable purpose for spaceflight is exploration? Or colonization? Or profit? What makes some people recoil at the thought of private ownership of extraterrestrial property, while others embrace the idea? What makes some people believe that humanity should not leave the planet and "contaminate" other worlds with our presence? What makes some believe that only national governments - or even a coalition of such, or the UN itself - should send people to deep space, while others have already ponied up the cash to go to orbit by themselves? What shapes our ideas about the future of spaceflight in general and NASA in particular?

The answers to these questions can be traced directly to political and economic philosophy. We are used to the Left/Right scale of economic freedom, with the least on the Left and the most on the Right. This is only one dimension, however, and by itself is inadequate. The other dimension is political control by the government, with the least at the Libertarian bottom of the scale and the most at the Authoritarian top of the scale.

This would divide people (and political systems, and squabbling space enthusiasts) into four quadrants: Authoritarian Left, Authoritarian Right, Libertarian Left, and Libertarian Right. Of course, this is not exactly rigorous and the axes are probably not strictly Cartesian but it is a fair second approximation.

To Godwin myself, it would place the Nazis so far up the Authoritarian scale that any Left/Right leanings would be irrelevant and lost in the noise. Both the Republicans and the Democrats would be more Authoritarian than Libertarian, and on the whole just marginally to the Right and Left, respectively. The Tea Party is more Libertarian than Authoritarian, and marginally on the Right. The people who mistakenly call themselves Anarchists as they riot at various venues are so far from political control that once again their Left/Right leanings are irrelevant and lost in the noise. You get the idea.

Let's take a look at how each quadrant would view Beyond Earth Orbit spaceflight. In what follows the positions expressed are intended to be representative of roughly the centers of each quadrant. The fringe positions - the outliers of a group already made of outliers - would range from the Machiavellian to the ridiculous.
Authoritarian Left: The moon and other celestial bodies are the heritage of all mankind. They don't belong to anyone, so they belong to everyone, including all future generations. Their use must somehow benefit the State. Therefore the only immediate legitimate purpose of spaceflight is scientific exploration, with the knowledge produced and any eventual resources obtained belonging to the State. Governments must control or oversee all aspects of spaceflight originating within their borders to assure the eventual benefits for all. Therefore all future spaceflight must be through State agencies and paid for by all.

Authoritarian Right: Under international law the moon and other celestial bodies may not be claimed by any government, so they cannot be "owned" by citizens of any nation. Also under international law, such places may not be used for military purposes, but can be explored for scientific research. Governments must control or oversee all aspects of spaceflight originating within their borders to assure control of access to space and to assure that big businesses with ties to Defense and other departments are rewarded with contracts. Therefore all US manned spaceflight must be carefully controlled through NASA and must maintain the large NASA workforce.

Libertarian Left: The moon and other celestial bodies are the heritage of all mankind. They don't belong to anyone, so they belong to everyone, including all future generations. Everyone should benefit equally from any advances in space. Therefore the only immediate legitimate purpose of spaceflight is scientific exploration, with the knowledge produced and any eventual resources obtained belonging to all mankind. Everyone should contribute a little bit, maybe through the UN, to those exploration efforts, since the benefits will be spread to everyone.

Libertarian Right: The moon and other celestial bodies don't belong to anyone, yet. Whoever gets there first and starts working the material effectively owns the product of their labor. The only legitimate purpose of manned or unmanned spaceflight is to make money at it. Governments should stop distorting the space industry and get the hell out of the way.
So how does this quadrant idea produce the main von Braunian, Saganite, and O'Neillian groups that Tumlinson described?

Well, they don't fall neatly into the quadrants described above. The von Braunian group is more Authoritarian than Libertarian, but split between Left and Right. The Saganite group is more Left than Right but split between Authoritarian and Libertarian. And the O'Neillian group is more Right than Left but split among Authoritarian and Libertarian. And all are closer to the center than the fringes. Thereabouts, anyhow. Other positions would be Heinleinian (Libertarian Right), Machiavellian (way up the Authoritarian scale), and the way NASA has been run since Apollo (starting von Braunian and slowly drifting Left).

I have tried to avoid strawman positions in the above, and in the case of Libertarian Left found that difficult. This is either a failure of imagination on my part or a flaw in the whole quadrant idea. If the former, mea culpa, but if the latter, then I contend that it is at least better than Left-Right alone. I am certain I only scratched the surface. If readers have additional ideas to fill in these quadrants better, feel free to leave them in the comments.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Copenhagen Suborbitals testing

Right now, the launch countdown clock on Copenhagen Suborbital's website reads 4 days 18 hours. This test launch, from a floating platform in the Baltic sea, will go to a maximum of 30 km. Presumably the submarine will be used both for towing pushing the launch catamaran and as launch control.

Both the rocket and the submarine were built without any government funding - only volunteer labor, corporate sponsorships, donations, and the vision and guidance of Peter Madsen.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

no way to run a space program

So, Congress and the Senate each have their own ideas about what NASA should be doing, with Congress demanding the return of the Ares-V and the Senate going so far as to design their own "Nelson Rocket". The Senate is demanding that NASA build a rocket that uses the existing shuttle solid rocket boosters and launch pad, and that it be able to lift 70 to 100 tons to orbit. It is also insisting that NASA start on this next year.

Why? Is it merely to preserve the standing army currently employed in Shuttle launch? That standing army is the primary reason that launch costs for NASA do not go down. The Senate (led by Bill Nelson on this issue) are deliberately doing all they can to kill the space industry in the cradle, once again. It is a deliberate waste of taxpayer money in a transparent attempt to generate pork in Utah and Florida.

What possible requirement is there for such a lift capacity, when there are already commercial rockets capable of lifting 10 to 30 tons to orbit right now?

What would this lift capacity be used for? A 70 ton lift capacity is not enough to get people even as far as the moon in one launch. So, orbital rendezvous of multiple launches is going to be required to do anything useful beyond low earth orbit anyhow.

There is one thing that can be said for NASA's past 15 years with the otherwise-white-elephant International Space Station: the assembly of the station has generated an enormous amount of knowledge about rendezvous, assembly, and maintenance of large manned structures over a period of years in orbit. Orbital assembly is something NASA now has considerable experience doing.

What NASA hasn't done in more than 30 years of trying and tens of billions of dollars wasted is: build a new rocket that makes it all the way to low earth orbit.

So, once again, why not use existing commercial rockets and just have more launches, thus eliminating R&D costs and much of the operational costs. More launches means lower individual launch prices as the commercial provider can amortize fixed and sunk costs over more units sold. Going with the smaller, commercially available rockets like Delta IV, Atlas V, and Falcon 9 (and soon Taurus II) also means smaller teams required to launch any one rocket, another big cost savings.

Then NASA could use the billions that would otherwise go into heavy-lift shuttle-derived R&D and eventual operations a decade down the road into instead purchasing existing payload capacity right now.

It could also lead to a real multiplier effect, where NASA demand for launch services drives down prices to the point where other entities can start purchasing launches, thus attracting not only more customers to existing companies, but also venture capital to new companies involved in all aspects of space launch and low earth orbit operations.

NASA has already blazed the trail to low earth orbit. By taking advantage of the already available commercial option, NASA can continue to blaze the trail further, beyond low earth orbit, to the lunar poles and asteroids and beyond. They are creative people; they should be creating completely new capabilities rather than - at best- repeating old capabilities.