Is NASA Necessary?

|

This week, after announcing a $104 billion plan for returning to the Moon for no particular reason, NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin explained why money for rebuilding New Orleans should not be diverted from his budget:

There will be a lot more hurricanes and a lot more other natural disasters to befall the United States and the world in that time, I hope none worse than Katrina. But the space program is a long-term investment in our future. We must deal with our short-term problems while not sacrificing our long-term investments in our future. When we have a hurricane, we don't cancel the Air Force. We don't cancel the Navy. And we're not going to cancel NASA.

I am a science fiction fan and space enthusiast who hopes NASA critic Robert Park is wrong when he says "human space exploration is essentially over." But that does not mean I am prepared to force other people to fund my dreams. I see a distinction between the armed forces and NASA that Griffin seems to be missing: The Navy and the Air Force protect us from our foreign enemies, a central function of government for anyone who concedes the legitimacy of government at all, whereas NASA spends a lot of money on projects of dubious scientific value that are supposed to make us feel good. Given the relatively low cost of the unmanned missions that (as Park notes) offer the biggest scientific payoff, and given the emergence of a launch industry for both commercial payloads and space tourists, it seems NASA is necessary mainly to pay for projects that are not worth funding. If we were menaced by invaders from Alpha Centauri, I might change my mind.

NEXT: Are Good Headlines an Endangered Species?

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. If we were menaced by invaders from Alpha Centauri, it’d be a job for the Space Marines – not NASA.

  2. You’re fuding the distinction between scientifically valid NASA missions – like Mars Rover – which also aren’t as immediately necessary as the Air Force, and boondoggles like the Moon mission.

  3. Do you want to know more?

    Seriously, though, just build a space elevator already.

  4. I dunno. Didn’t we actually get a lot of profitable and time-saving technology out of the old space program?

    And won’t a second push for the moon be much different from the first? I mean, isn’t this kind of like saying it’s pointless to visit Australia twice, since you’ve already been there once?

  5. “Do you want to know more?”

    Watching Doogie splash gore everywhere while dressed in a Nazi-like uniform was some of the best cinema in the ’90s.

  6. When did scientific value ever determine funding priorities. The reason for going to Mars is because someone thought it would sound neat when delivered in a State of the Union address.

  7. My own personal fantasy is private sector space elevators mining super-atmospheric solar power to convert seawater into hydrogen for fuel cells, thus making them not just self sustaining but profitable. Not being a scientist or an economist I have no idea how plausible this is.
    As for NASA, they should be throwing all they’ve got into an asteroid detection and neutralization program. The sky is fucking falling people! Its only a matter of time…

  8. I heard somewhere that the second moon trip will be much more expensive than the original Apollo program (factoring in inflation, of course). But I haven’t looked into it in detail.

    Let’s hope the abiogenic theory of oil is correct, cuz if it is then maybe the moon trip can pay for itself. Yeah, I know, the theory is dubious, and the expense would never be worth it, yadda yadda.

    Still, you gotta admit, it would be pretty frickin funny to build oil derricks on the moon. Until the lunar residents start funding terrorism. Then it would suck.

  9. If we were menaced by invaders from Alpha Centauri, it’d be a job for the Space Marines…

    Heretic! Evey Imperial school boy knows that the Ordo Xenos with the aid of the Space Wolves and Blood Angles orders of the Adeptus Astares cleansed Alpha Centauri through the holy rite of Exterminatus 12 score and 3 years ago!

    Who do you serve, traitor! The Eldar? The Tau? Which Chaos lord do you worship? Stay here while I fetch an Inquisitor!

  10. I’d like to see interstellar “burials” for dead rich people. Blast ’em off and send ’em out of the solar system on a one-way trip to infinity. Sure beats a dirt nap and who knows: maybe someone or something will find them in a few million years. I’m serious.

  11. I wonder if even privatizing space will ever work. The fact is regardless of where you go, you have to make a living when you get there. What could I possibly produce on the Moon or Mars that would justify the resources necessary to put me there? Certainly, scientific research can probably justify the expense. But that can be done by robots or at most a small settlement of scientists. Its difficult to imagine the world ever getting so short of resources or space travel ever getting cheap enough to justify mining it several million miles away. The boldly go where no man has gone before stuff only goes so far. You have to have some economic justification for it and I can’t see one ever arising outside a few niche areas like astronomy and tourism.

  12. John-

    One can imagine exotic manufacturing processes (especially chemistry and biomaterials) that might be best done in zero-G. That could justify orbiting platforms, especially if the orbiting platforms also pull in tourism dollars. But I’m not an expert on those zero-G applications.

    Hypothetically, one can envision technological advances that might make asteroid mining profitable, especially if those asteroids turned out to have have elements that are rare in the earth’s crust. But that’s all very speculative.

    Mining on the moon or Mars seems much less likely to ever become profitable, since there’s the cost of pulling resources out of the gravity well.

  13. They should combine the Katrina money and the NASA budget and rebuild New Orleans on the moon. No hurricanes there.

  14. Oh sure, wait until Alpha Centauri invades, and then fund NASA. It’ll be too late, and we’ll all be farmed for our water.

    Why do you hate Earth?

  15. I dunno. Didn’t we actually get a lot of profitable and time-saving technology out of the old space program?

    Plus Tang! You forgot Tang!

    Would it not be more efficient to directly fund research into profitable and time-saving technology, rather than wait for such technology to emerge as a by-product of space exploration?

    If that’s the govt’s role, that is…

  16. Jacob,

    If we were menaced by invaders from Alpha Centauri, I suspect that it would be ordinary people like Ryan Asmussen from Matt Taibbi’s Katrina dispatch in the post above that would be on the front line in helping retrieve people from their laser-scorched homes. NASA and Michael Griffin would be as useless in that scenario as they are now, but I bet you’d find that the “society of volunteer rescuers” would get out there and do what needs to be done. Unless, of course, the space invaders attacked the FEMA headquarters. Then it’s every bureaucrat for himself!

  17. Over the years, I have gone from optimist to downright cynic in regards to NASA and government funded space exploration. It’s not just the question of funding, but it’s also the years upon years of being told that our return to the moon or a Mars mission was only a “decade” or so away. Notice how it’s ALWAYS a decade away and this has been going on since the 70s. After a while you can only take so much until you realize that boyhood dreams of a spacefaring America are just that, boyhood dreams. Yeah, pretty pictures from robot probes are fun to trade with your fellow amatuer astronomers, but there is no romance in sending a machine to do a man’s work. No drama. No opera.

    Trouble is, manned space flight maybe one of those ventures that maybe eternally too expensive for even the free market to handle. As cool as asteriod mining, o’neil conlones, and diging for H3 on luna sounds, the costs will proboably never pan out into profits, keeping serious investors away. I guess I’m going to have accept living in a world where

    God, I hate growing up and having nothing to dream about anymore.

  18. Whoops, forgot to finish:

    I guess I’m going to have a accept a boring world where everyone has their feet all-too firmly planted on the ground.

  19. Well, Akira, there’s always the Center Of The Earth.

  20. I heard somewhere that the second moon trip will be much more expensive than the original Apollo program (factoring in inflation, of course).

    Well, Griffin is estimating it will be about 55% the cost of Apollo. How true that will turn out to be is anyone’s guess.

    Didn’t we actually get a lot of profitable and time-saving technology out of the old space program?

    That’s the rumour. Problem is, when you start asking for specifics, it turns out the many of the technologies that are credited to the space program actually were developed by somebody else (Velcro, Teflon, microprocessors, etc.).

    One can imagine exotic manufacturing processes (especially chemistry and biomaterials) that might be best done in zero-G.

    Unfortunately, “imagining” is mostly what you’d be doing. So far no one has been able to identify a zero-G manufacturing process for anything that couldn’t be more economically replicated on earth.

    I see a distinction between the armed forces and NASA that Griffin seems to be missing: The Navy and the Air Force protect us from our foreign enemies, a central function of government for anyone who concedes the legitimacy of government at all, whereas NASA spends a lot of money on projects of dubious scientific value that are supposed to make us feel good.

    Not entirely true. If our competetors, such as Russia and China, are establishing a miliary presence in space, then if behooves us to acquire the technology to counter them. Of course, right there you have an argument for folding the space program back into the military. Which, from the perspective of a space buff, isn’t an entirely bad idea. Look at the budget the military gets, as opposed to the budget NASA gets.

  21. Unfortunately, “imagining” is mostly what you’d be doing. So far no one has been able to identify a zero-G manufacturing process for anything that couldn’t be more economically replicated on earth.

    Agreed. My goal was to identify plausible and implausible future scenarios, not urge anybody to invest right now.

    For now, the only profitable uses for space seem to be communication and observation satellites (and probably some other satellite uses that I’m not thinking of) and perhaps tourism. Long term, maybe exotic manufacturing. Maybe. If asteroids yield exotic minerals and the price is right, one can see that. But mining the moon and Mars seems very, very unlikely.

  22. Pig: Also look at the neat stuff the military develops, as opposed to NASA. The military might be bloated, but at least they contract with private companies to make neat toys. The M1-A1, the F-22 Raptor, UAVs…look at the progress military technology has made since the early 80s, then look at NASA still flying that damnable shuttle, and tell me who has a better model. But, yeah DoD does get a lot more money, which probably helps them hire the expensive outside contractors.

  23. Pig Man,

    “Didn’t we actually get a lot of profitable and time-saving technology out of the old space program?”

    “That’s the rumour. Problem is, when you start asking for specifics, it turns out the many of the technologies that are credited to the space program actually were developed by somebody else (Velcro, Teflon, microprocessors, etc.).”

    Hey now! What about that writes-in-any-position pressurized space pen? Huh, what about that?

  24. God, I hate growing up and having nothing to dream about anymore.

    Why? You can still dream big government dreams.

  25. Alpha Centauri, eh? If we’re very very unlucky, we’ll be hit by Santiago hellbent on revenge and riding mind worms. Or it will be Miriam who will make all the unconverted undergo nerve stapling until they see Jesus 24/7.

    I’m hoping for Deidre since she’ll institute government-sponsored free love. Of course you guys are boring enough to wish for Morgan and his uncanny ways of turning even fungal blooms into pure profit.

  26. I think historically NASA was mostly about getting young U.S. students interested in engineering, generally. (EG, my father worked on some arcane aspect of the moon landing, and 20 years later he talked me into getting an engineering degree — so there is one anecdote).

    Now that the US can import low cost foreign engineers, there seems to be a lot less reason for NASA.

  27. cs:

    Your referencing Sid Meier, right?

  28. The Apollo program gave us spray-on cheese.

    And why can’t I find any Tang?

  29. If we were menaced by invaders from Alpha Centauri, I might change my mind.

    What if we could win the game by colonizing Alpha Centauri?

  30. I’d much rather spend the money building bigger and better space observatories. At least they can produce data that helps mankind understand how the universe works. In comparison, going to the moon is like driving 12 hours out of the way to see the country’s second biggest ball of twine.

  31. I think the manned space program ought to be turned over to the Air Force. There may eventually be a need for manned aircraft capable of defending the US in near Earth space, so let the Air Force take over that work. (Although even that need may not be great, since there is a lot of work being done developing unmanned vehicles.)

    There’s no need to send humans back to the Moon anytime soon, even as a stepping stone to Mars. (And there’s no need to go to Mars now at all.) Robots can do most of the work of humans plus some things humans can’t do, so let NASA continue sending robotic explorers into space. Or maybe even turn that work over to NSF, and convert NASA back to NACA.

    Someday in the far future the Moon may serve as a launching platform for sending vehicles into deep space, using a magnetic rail system as Heinlein described in “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress” (powered of course by Martin-Douglas Sun Power Screens). Then (and only then?) will it make sense to try to go to Mars, Jupiter, etc.

  32. Lots of fun comments here, but this is a serious subject.

    1. Exploration always pays off—unless you give up on it. The Chinese were set to explore the world in the 1200s in huge ocean going fleets, and then politically gave up on it. If they hadn’t, Columbus would have met the Great Khan of the Caribbean!

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/sultan/explorers.html

    2. It’s all about will, not cash. We went from launching things that weighed maybe fifteen pounds into low Earth orbit to landing two guys and an electric golf cart on the moon—in ten years. So it’ll take us MORE time NOW? Failure of the will, again, with the ever-loving press telling us why we can’t do things, as always.

    3. Profits in space/robots in space. False argument. We don’t know all we can do. Poke fun at microgravity research if you wish. Look at how we STILL don’t know if there is life on Mars. The robots have gone and looked, and every one of them needed to do things it would take a person about five minutes to do. And life on another planet would tell us a great deal about life on this one. Finally, being able to protect the planet from asteroid or comet impact is vital—and we do little about it.

    Cash value? If a 100 meter rock hit Los Angeles, how much damage, and how much to “fix” it all? Now compare it to the money it would cost to have prevented it in the first place.

    It’s like folks at my university, who hate to pay for service contracts…even though fixing the equipment when it is broken is hideously expensive…they just don’t want to pay for the upkeep!

    4. Fools in NASA—of course! They are just looking after their paychecks. We need vision, not paperwork. Too many bureaucrats, too few engineers.

    5. I like Jerry Pournelle’s idea for private industry: offer a cash prize (like the X-Prize did) for the first company to accomplish a specific goal: launch three humans to orbit, return them safely, and do it again two weeks later….and so on. To be honest, it worked in the early days of aviation!

    Sorry for the long post. I had my dreams of space travel stolen by politics. What are frustrating to me are the negativists and the politicians.

    Thanks for listening…

    -Mark Martin

  33. Well, in response to thoreau, the latest pop-sci for what it’s worth has a story estimating the new moon shot at 100Billion between now and 2020.

    It seems according to that story and others that in fact Nasa is running two programs in paralell. One that runs the space contracts the old fashioned way: that is, awarding giant contracts to the well known aero-space companies based on proposals they submit and contract bids, and a second program that has private firms developing technology for their own good and Nasa giving them grants based on proven successes and meeting certain criteria.

    The first program is designed to replace the shuttle program, and the second is designed to obtain a cost effective back-up and small payload vehicle for maitnenance and rescue missions along the lines of the Soyuz capsule.

    In response to linguist:

    Yes and no.

    Many of our technologies may be owned invented and patented by private corporations (thank god Nasa has certified that special sleep foam though) but it is not unreasonable to argue that companies like Dow, DuPont, et al. would not have devoted research and resources to those areas of study without the space program and the potential for profits. Certainly the demand and pay-off for high strength high temperature ceramics was hugely influenced by the space prgram.

    Unfortunately the latest pop-sci also mentions that the current lead design for a new crew capsule is extremely similar to the original Apollo capsules. It seems this mission so far may be an attempt for NASA to go backwards for a little while to see if they can figure out where they missed a more promising turn-off.

  34. Lots of fun comments here, but this is a serious subject.

    1. Exploration always pays off—unless you give up on it. The Chinese were set to explore the world in the 1200s in huge ocean going fleets, and then politically gave up on it. If they hadn’t, Columbus would have met the Great Khan of the Caribbean!

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/sultan/explorers.html

    2. It’s all about will, not cash. We went from launching things that weighed maybe fifteen pounds into low Earth orbit to landing two guys and an electric golf cart on the moon—in ten years. So it’ll take us MORE time NOW? Failure of the will, again, with the ever-loving press telling us why we can’t do things, as always.

    3. Profits in space/robots in space. False argument. We don’t know all we can do. Poke fun at microgravity research if you wish. Look at how we STILL don’t know if there is life on Mars. The robots have gone and looked, and every one of them needed to do things it would take a person about five minutes to do. And life on another planet would tell us a great deal about life on this one. Finally, being able to protect the planet from asteroid or comet impact is vital—and we do little about it.

    Cash value? If a 100 meter rock hit Los Angeles, how much damage, and how much to “fix” it all? Now compare it to the money it would cost to have prevented it in the first place.

    It’s like folks at my university, who hate to pay for service contracts…even though fixing the equipment when it is broken is hideously expensive…they just don’t want to pay for the upkeep!

    4. Fools in NASA—of course! They are just looking after their paychecks. We need vision, not paperwork. Too many bureaucrats, too few engineers.

    5. I like Jerry Pournelle’s idea for private industry: offer a cash prize (like the X-Prize did) for the first company to accomplish a specific goal: launch three humans to orbit, return them safely, and do it again two weeks later….and so on. To be honest, it worked in the early days of aviation!

    Sorry for the long post. I had my dreams of space travel stolen by politics. What are frustrating to me are the negativists and the politicians.

    Thanks for listening…

    -Mark Martin

  35. Well, in response to thoreau, the latest pop-sci for what it’s worth has a story estimating the new moon shot at 100Billion between now and 2020.

    It seems according to that story and others that in fact Nasa is running two programs in paralell. One that runs the space contracts the old fashioned way: that is, awarding giant contracts to the well known aero-space companies based on proposals they submit and contract bids, and a second program that has private firms developing technology for their own good and Nasa giving them grants based on proven successes and meeting certain criteria.

    The first program is designed to replace the shuttle program, and the second is designed to obtain a cost effective back-up and small payload vehicle for maitnenance and rescue missions along the lines of the Soyuz capsule.

    In response to linguist:

    Yes and no.

    Many of our technologies may be owned invented and patented by private corporations (thank god Nasa has certified that special sleep foam though) but it is not unreasonable to argue that companies like Dow, DuPont, et al. would not have devoted research and resources to those areas of study without the space program and the potential for profits. Certainly the demand and pay-off for high strength high temperature ceramics was hugely influenced by the space prgram.

    Unfortunately the latest pop-sci also mentions that the current lead design for a new crew capsule is extremely similar to the original Apollo capsules. It seems this mission so far may be an attempt for NASA to go backwards for a little while to see if they can figure out where they missed a more promising turn-off.

  36. NASA does have a purpose, but it is very limited compared to the missions they attempt today. The Shuttle is the piece-o-crap that it is because the Air Force (in return for giving up their own space program) demanded something big enough to put spy satelites into high orbit. That was the right decision for the Air Force, but a bad move for “Mars Rover NASA”.

    NASA should do stuff like Hubble and Cassini. That’s good science right there, and there isn’t any other government agency with a clear mandate to do it. Who else would have sent the Mars probes? No one. If private industry ever feels like enough of the risk has been sucked out of space ventures to make it worth it, it will be because NASA trailblazed the way. Government does play a useful role in such endeavors, as the examples of Queen Isabella funding Columbus and President Jefferson funding the “Corp of Discovery” (aka, Lewis & Clark) should demonstrate.

    There are a couple things that NASA does NOT need to do. One is the Space Shuttle. The only thing that’s used for today is getting people to the ISS and back. That’s overkill. The Shuttle is practically a space station all by itself. If we’re set on keeping ISS up there smaller rockets with 4-man capsules will do the job just fine (see t/Space as an example). For anything that needs a heavy load (like the Air Force’s space hardware), heavy lift boosters like the Delta IV are a much better way to go. Boosters in development, such as SpaceX’s Falcon, would do the same job for cheaper.

    What REALLY had to go though is NASA’s Command & Control organization and culture. There is simply no reason they have to do everything in house with hundreds of engineers and thousands of support staff. That’s a 1950’s business model, and it has to go. So does cost-plus contracting. NASA needs to adopt the most efficient organization model it can, and then constantly improve on it. That might be asking too much of a government agency, but they’ll take their budget thousands of times further than they could imagine if they ever do.

  37. I mean, isn’t this kind of like saying it’s pointless to visit Australia twice, since you’ve already been there once?

    well….

  38. It’s all about will, not cash. We went from launching things that weighed maybe fifteen pounds into low Earth orbit to landing two guys and an electric golf cart on the moon—in ten years. So it’ll take us MORE time NOW?

    Just as the atomic bomb would not have been developed in 1945 without World War II, the moon landing would not have happened in 1969 without the Cold War.

    The 1960’s space race was a one-time miracle of political circumstance — a battle in the Cold War — a repeat of which should be neither expected nor wanted. The political will to pay for real space advances ended just as NASA ossified. In fact, I suspect that the former strongly led to the latter as reduction in funding and future projects meant beaurocrats had to reorient to protect their own turf rather than target the next leap.

  39. Regrading the cost of the space program in Apollo days to now-a-days, this is my favorite tidbit:

    NASA spent thousands (millions?) of dollars developing a pen that wrote in outerspace. What did the Russians do?

    They used pencils.

    DOH! What are the odds we’ve learned to be more efficient?

  40. What did the Russians do? They used pencils.

    Arguably, this urban legend is a good example of what NASA should be doing: making simple specifications that private interests meet at their own expense.

  41. They’re going to take our money in taxes anyway, better a moon base amnd some asteroid habitats than a bridge to nowhere in Alaska or 5 million in aid to Chad.

  42. This is one of those issues that’s tough for libertarians. Obviously, we’d all rather have the private sector leading the way, without all of the bureaucratic flab that is NASA. On the other hand, the importance of establishing a permanent manned presence in space is quite high. And, to be frank, if the U.S. doesn’t do it, some other country will, and we absolutely cannot afford to cede space completely to a competing nation.

    I’m hopeful that private efforts in the U.S. will end up taking over the new space race, but there’s no telling for sure. If NASA is smart, it will focus much more on figuring out a cheap method for reaching orbit (maybe hopping on to the America’s Space Prize contest bandwagon) than on rehashing Apollo. I’m quite impressed with the possibility of constructing a space elevator or a space fountain, either of which would be insanely cheaper than rockets, and NASA seems to finally be interested in these advanced lift options. If we’re lucky, the private efforts will be so successful that NASA can be pushed aside; then the real exploration and exploitation of space can begin in earnest.

    I’ve already found a nice piece of land that I want to buy on Mars. Though I plan to pay less since I’ve learned than the Earth will obstruct my view of Venus.

  43. Funding human spaceflight improves our odds of surviving as a species. Apparently one meteoroid the size of a VW could take us back to the stone age, or worse. No off-world colonies, no backup plan.

    Nobody ever thought the Virginia colony would amount to anything. Boy were they wrong. Hate to say this, but it was “the vision thing.”

    Somebody will eventually go to the moon — if it’s not us, it will be the PRC. If we cede this to them, we might as well just accept that we’re a has-been civilization.

    Granted, the space program, particularly as (historically) administered by NASA is a boondoggle. At least it’s supporting scientists, engineers and people who actually *produce* something, like miniaturized electronics. No, NASA didn’t “invent” much, but contractors working to NASA spec with NASA bucks did.

    Liberal do-gooders hate the space program because it’s “elitist.” Not a good reason in itself, but satisfying. They’d piss the money away on social programs that would ultimately produce more people needing social programs…

  44. Pig Mannix – My guess about Griffin’s prediction is “way the hell off”. The shuttle worked exactly the same way: low cost! frequent flights! And we know how it turned out, costing way more than predicted and flying way less than predicted. I recently did a paper on knowledge management within NASA, and the conclusion I came to, basically, was that NASA never changes unless it becomes politically impossible not to change; the Moon race was one of those times, although it was probably also helped by the fact that NASA was fairly young.

    I, like many of you, grew up with dreams of space travel, but by now I have a different way of looking at it. Supporting NASA because you like space exploration is like supporting the DMV because you like cars.

  45. Seriously, though, just build a space elevator already.

    I’m intrigued by this “airship to orbit” concept that I stumbled across the other day. And it looks like something that can be done at relatively low cost. (The Web site is a little hokey, but maybe they’re just spending their money where they think it’s most critical.) And safer than rockets, too.

    Check out the PDF on the side. “Seven years to completion,” folks!

    And since, last I heard, H&R is only allowing one link per post, I’ll use another post to acknowledge that …

  46. … the “airship to orbit” concept does have its doubters:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orbital_airship

    Also, these guys have their own take on the concept, and their “artist’s conceptions” are way, way more cool.

    http://www.cruiser.ru/eng/releases.php#

    (The incompetent Russian-to-English translation at that last site is part of its charm.)

  47. FUCK! I only had ONE hreffed link in this post originally, and it still got filtered into limbo. I guess you can’t even have more than one URL in a post, hreffed or not?

    What I meant to say was:

    … the “airship to orbit” concept does have its doubters:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orbital_airship

    And one most post on this coming up…

  48. And one more post on this topic:

    Also, these guys have their own take on the concept, and their “artist’s conceptions” are way, way more cool.

    (The incompetent Russian-to-English translation at that last site is part of its charm.)

  49. Testing. Can you have more than one URL in a post, even if it’s not hreffed as a direct link?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orbital_airship

    http://www.cruiser.ru/eng/releases.php#

  50. Yes. Okay, then why was my last post filtered?

    Let’s try two URLs, one hreffed, one not.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orbital_airship

    http://www.cruiser.ru/eng/releases.php#

  51. Yes. OK, then why was my last post filtered?

    Let’s try two URLs, one hreffed, one not.

    [Post filtered out.]

    OK. Apparently if you HREF a link, then you can’t have any other URLs in your posted, HREFfed or not.

    Is a partial listing of rules for what you can and cannot post available anywhere on this site?

  52. I think there’s a hell of a lot of work to do down here on Earth before we start spending any more money on space travel.

    OK I don’t really think that. Frankly I’m really for spending money on space travel, because I’m getting tired of living on the same planet as Paul Anka and Barry Manilow.

  53. There is no comparison between colonizing N America and setting up a colony on the Moon. Basic necessities like air, food, and water could be easily obtained; the colonists lifestyle was not radically different from what they left behind.
    A better analogy would be to compare it to colonizing Antarctica. Both are extremely harsh environments that will quickly kill you if you make a mistake or your equipment breaks down. And the main reson for going there is scientific knowledge; there’s not a lot of wealth coming from the South Pole.

  54. If Columbus could have used robot ships to bring spices back from India, would he have gone in person? I think not.
    From deep space, the only stuff of value is information. That can now be obtained without going in person.

    Ask me again in a thousand years, and I may have a different opinion.

  55. Deadhead:

    There is no comparison between colonizing N America and setting up a colony on the Moon…

    That’s very easy to say looking backward from the early 21st century. I think you’re overlooking how different the worldview of the early 17th century englishman was from your own.

    Basic necessities like air, food, and water could be easily obtained; the colonists lifestyle was not radically different from what they left behind.

    Air and water, yes. Food, no. There was serious malnutrition in the Jamestown colony the first year. And it was radically different from what they left behind. [sfx: buzzzer]

    Clueless:

    If Columbus could have used robot ships to bring spices back from India, would he have gone in person? I think not.

    Your first sentence betrays a woeful lack of historical knowledge. The bit about the spices was just a pitch to the money men; Columbus was all about the exploration. Your second sentence is quite amusing, although I assume unintentionally so. [sfx: buzzzer]

    Thanks you both for being on the show, and enjoy your year’s supplies of Rice-A-Roni(r)…

  56. Tonio, you’re being silly. The life skills of farming and hunting that the colonists used back in England were all they needed to survive in the new world. They did not need any new technology in order to survive, just better planning — like finding out what winters were like.

    It would be possible to send people to the Moon, or Mars, for a brief period of time, taking all the food, water, and air they need. But why? There’s no reason to send people; send robots. If the robots find something that makes it worthwhile to send people, the Earth will send people.

    Here’s an idea for you: stick to game-show hosting, and let us scientists and engineers figure out what to do in space.

  57. Dedskin, I think Mark Martin and the unnecessarily combative Tonio are closer to the truth.

    We think the colonization of the Americas wasn’t as challenging colonizing space because we lack the perspective of those earlier colonists. Just being able to feed yourself or keep yourself from freezing in the winter wasn’t something you could take for granted (in Europe or America). The settlers required their equivalent of “high-tech.” Sailing across the Atlantic was not a cheap, everyday thing.

    There are economic gains to be made in space, and a role for human beings. We already take weather and communication satellites for granted; I think the next big space industry will be Earth-orbit tourism. (If people are willing to pay for it, it’s wealth.)

    Next, heavy industry — and humans will be needed for supervisory roles, at least. (And we’ll need to build places for them to live.) For power, there’s intense sunlight that doesn’t turn off every 12 hours or on stormy days. For raw materials, it’s cheaper to lift what we can from the Moon’s surface and bring it to Earth orbit, than to bring it from Earth’s surface. The Moon’s surface is basically pulverized silicon, aluminum, and oxygen compounds. In some ways it’s easier to mine bodies in space for metals — you don’t have to dig up a forest full of Bambis and spotted owls to get at it.

    If you can haul one asteriod in from the Asteroid Belt, you have supplied the world’s demand for iron and nickel for many decades, if not centuries.

    Trivia: Do you know that the Earthly economy already relies upon the Asteroid Belt as the source of at least 10%-20% of the world’s nickel? (And a lot of copper and platinum.) Two billion years ago, an asteroid about 5-10 miles wide hit the region that is now Sudbury Ontario and made a nice deposit. That became one of the biggest single sources of nickel for what used to be called the Free World.

    Robots may be our scouts, but once you have an economy built up Out There, I don’t see it as being entirely run by automation. And of course, there’s the libertarian imperative — some people will want to put some physical space between themselves and a world where things are a bit too over-regulated.

    Having said all that, I don’t think NASA should be in charge of all this. I think private individuals like Burt Rutan, Gary Hudson, Richard Branson and Peter Diamandis should be.

    I think if the Apollo program hadn’t been run as a government project spurred by the Cold War, we would just now be making plans to send people to the Moon. I think Apollo was a false step, made when we didn’t yet have the technology for a sustained effort. Neil Armstrong was our Leif Ericson, but we haven’t seen our Christopher Columbus, let alone our William Penn.

  58. Stevo Darkly,
    Not to pooh pooh excessively, but, even if I were Pecos Bill, I don’t think you could hire me to lasso an asteroid and ride it to Earth.

    A comment by Burt Rutan here would be nice.

  59. Not to pooh pooh excessively,

    Take Pepto-Bismol!

  60. Stevo-

    To be fair, building living quarters for asteroid miners will be somewhat more expensive than building living quarters for miners on earth.

    And while roads and trucks or trains and railroad tracks to haul metals from mines to cities aren’t cheap, neither are spacecraft.

    So I’m not holding my breath for asteroid mining.

    Then again, I do concede that in some future day the costs could change considerably. I think space tourism is on the verge of viability, and will spurn the developments that might some day lead to asteroid mining.

    So I have big hopes but I’m not ready to invest yet.

  61. thoreau, conceded, but I think it’s inevitable that costs of mining on Earth (including environmental preservation costs) will get relatively higher and the costs of getting people into space, and keeping them alive there, will become relatively less expensive. At some point, the balance will shift, and someone will decide it’s less expensive to start mining the Moon or asteroids than the Earth.

    Ruthless: A comment by Burt Rutan here would be nice.

    Perhaps significantly, I couldn’t find a statement by Rutan where he explicitly buys into a grand vision of human being settling the Solar System beyond the Moon.

    He is focused right now on getting people affordably into Earth orbit, and on space tourism. He does think it will become accessible to thousands of ordinary people a year — one of his slogans is “space for the rest of us.”

    And note! Devising an affordable way to get from Earth’s surface to Earth orbit isn’t just the first small step. It’s the first great big step. Once you achieve that, you’re very close to opening up the entire Solar System to colonization.

    Jerry Pournelle tells a story about a conversation that a younger SF writer (it might have been Pournelle himself) once had with Robert Heinlein. The younger writer was struggling with an idea for an SF story. For the plot to work, he needed a ship that could readily get from Earth’s surface to Earth orbit, but not go so far as the Moon. The writer saw he had a plausibility problem. “After all,” he said, “once you get to Earth orbit, you’re halfway to the Moon.”

    “No,” said Heinlein, “You’re halfway to anywhere.”

    The younger did the math and saw that “Heinlein was very nearly right.” The energy (or more precisely, the delta vee) you need to get from Earth surface to orbit is about the same as you need to get from Earth orbit to orbit around nearly any other body in the Solar System.

    Unfortunately, if you go in a slow but minimum-energy manner, you have the problem of keeping people alive during the trip — not a minor obstacle.

    But it’s very interesting to read the book Project Orion about a “nuclear pulse” spacecraft that was proposed in the 1960s. Basically, the thing would have pushed itself along by throwing nuclear bombs out its tailpipe and letting the epanding explosion hit a giant shock-abosrber plate. The book is a very interesting read about the project’s possibilities and problems. Tecnically, a single Orion could have let us haul a big colony to Mars, all in one piece, in a matter of weeks — except it was totally unsuitable, for safety reasons, for launching from Earth’s surface. Primarily for bystanders. You don’t want a bunch of nukes exploding in the atmosphere. You don’t want to explain that it would raise global risks of cancer even a very tiny fraction of a percent. And if one bomb failed to go off after being ejected while the craft was still climbing to orbital velocity, that would be, um, problematic.

    If Orion could be built in and launched from Earth orbit, however — or to be extra safe, built and launched from the Moon — it could be the Conestoga wagon of the Space Age.

    Anyway, even Rutan believes people will routinely fly at least as far as the Moon, and soon. I found this quote (but lost the URL):

    “The goal is affordable travel above low earth orbit. In other words,” he [Rutan] explains, “affordable travel for us to go to the moon. Affordable travel. That means not just NASA astronauts, but thousands of people being able to go to the moon.”

    In the longer term, Rutan hints at being a technological optimist, when he says: “I have often said that confidence in nonsense is a requirement for creativity.”

    Admittedly, you can go too far with that. But if humans do settle other worlds, it’ll be done by people who believe we can, not by people who believe we can’t.

  62. Stevo D,
    There may emerge a good economic reason for humans to head for space. I’m thinking mining is too prosaic.
    More likely would be rumors of a Fountain of Youth or something like that up there.

  63. Dedskin and Ruthless: I apologize for the unwarranted and childish personal attack in my 9/25 post. I also apologize to everyone for lowering the level of discourse on H&R. Sorry.

    Stevo: Thanks for pointing this out in a gentle and constructive manner.

    Dedskin: You certainly deserved to get in a shot at me. For the record: I am a real scientist, though not in an aerospace-related field.

  64. Tonio,
    Apology accepted, and by the way you’re one of the few bloggers I’ve ever seen who’ve done that; shows integrity.

    Stevo D and others,
    I think you’re forgetting that in Apollo the Moon travellers had to throw away 98 percent of their ship to get there. Contrarily ocean sailing had been around for over two hundred years, and these ships could carry months’ worths of provisions and a storehouse of tools.

    I’m not saying humans won’t venture into and colonize space someday, I just don’t see any reason, for now, to spend billions to go to the Moon, or Mars, or the Asteroid belt. Send robots. Then if they find something worth sending humans to develop, it will get done.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.