Science Fiction

Science Fiction Faces Facts

NASA has fizzled, but Wernher von Braun's exuberant vision lives on.


During World War II, Wernher von Braun had a lot on his mind. The German rocket scientist was busy running Adolf Hitler's V-1 and V-2 programs, which sent more than 10,000 rockets into England in 1944 and 1945. But beneath Von Braun's famously exacting manner lurked a dreamer who throughout the conflict obtained a treasured subscription to Astounding Science Fiction by using a false name and a neutral mail drop in Sweden. The magazines made their way to Germany in diplomatic pouches. 

When Von Braun immigrated to the United States after the war, he took to the pages of a different magazine to launch one of the most influential popular science writing series of all time. Beginning with the March 22, 1952 issue of Collier's, Von Braun sketched out his vision of a manned space program—starting with orbiting and spinning space stations, working through lunar landings, and culminating in a massive expedition to Mars. Illustrated by the great astronomical artist Chesley Bonestell, the series fired the imaginations of a generation of tech lovers; it was science fiction with all the rivets showing. Many cite it as the true beginning of the U.S. space program. 

As Von Braun would put it, in an update to the old saw, "Late to bed, early to rise, work like hell, and advertise." The Collier's campaign was his way to use science fictional ideas to advertise the future he wanted to create. And it worked: Von Braun went on to run the famous Apollo program, which put a man on the moon.

Longtime National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) physicist Al Jackson says that Von Braun, "always practical," used the Collier's series to stress the importance of "establishing a 'node' in low earth orbit and so introduced the space station. It was to be an assembly point for expeditions to the Moon and Mars, a crucial logistical concept. It's much more economic to launch from earth orbit than from a deep potential well." An orbiting station had an obvious advantage as a fuel depot and viewpoint. Plus "the rockets can be much smaller."

Although NASA has gone to the moon and built a space station, more or less as Von Braun foresaw (although in reverse order), the agency now seems in retreat. America can't even reach its own International Space Station, since the ruinously expensive space shuttle program died a long death. Shuttles were to be renewable workhorses, but they killed two crews—one on launch, one on re-entry—and never solved the core engineering problem of heating on re-entry. The program lingered too long, sustained by ever-higher costs of gold-plated, out-of-date gear. The shuttle's original obsolescence date had been 1995, and NASA stumbled through several abortive programs to develop a new large booster to get astronauts to the station, wasting billions without result. 

Congress came to see NASA primarily as a jobs program, not an exploratory agency. Slowly, NASA complied with the post-Apollo vision—safety-obsessed, with few big goals for manned flight beyond low Earth orbit. Very little useful science got done in the space station. NASA never did the experiments needed to develop the technologies required for a genuine interplanetary expedition: centrifugal gravity to avoid bodily harm and a truly closed biosphere. The station was about camping in space, not living in space. In that respect it resembled the earlier Russian Mir Station, where crews were allowed a weekly vodka, cognac, and cigarette ration to pass the time.

"We had the shuttle to reach the station, and the station to give the shuttle a destination," an old NASA hand once told to me. "A school bus route writ large." NASA even tried to send a schoolteacher into space, killing her in the 1986 Challenger launch failure.

Seeing the space future through science fiction can be difficult. Much science fiction of the early era, the 1950s through the '70s, took an expansionist view. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) fueled some new near-space defense-related ideas, but then the Nixon–era bureaucracy descended. Lyndon Johnson had used NASA to develop Southern states; Richard Nixon turned it into a jobs program, and soon the thrill-seeking romance of spaceflight had lost its luster in the popular imagination.

There remains a core of authors still writing stories set within the solar system, most notably a flurry of Mars novels in the 1990s. Still, Arthur C. Clarke's vision of interplanetary travel in his 1968 novel 2001 looks sadly out of date in 2012.

The Fuel Tank Is Half Empty

Even before the first moon landing, English science fiction writer J.G. Ballard was writing nostalgic stories depicting the space program as a glorious folly of the 1960s. It took longer for the optimism of American science fiction writers to fade. The 1970s saw a multitude of space novels, especially about living in habitats there.

Many of the best science fiction writers, such as Clarke, Isaac Asimov (Foundation), and especially Robert A. Heinlein (Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress), set epics in futures that assumed ready access to space. But as the sad realities of the limping American space program became apparent, such settings became less common. Today the frontier imagery of interplanetary exploration is more often tied specifically to a more distant future of interstellar travel, as in Poul Anderson's Tau Zero (1970), Vonda McIntyre's Superluminal (1984), and Allen Steele's popular Coyote series (2002), rather than movement around our mere solar system. 

Through the 2000s NASA vacillated over building a new, huge launch rocket like the Apollo program's Saturn V. Costs mounted rapidly before any actual building began. "What was to be Apollo on steroids became Apollo on food stamps," NASA's Al Jackson says. Dithering over just how to build a big lifter ended with a 2011 report estimating its cost at $34 billion. The shock of this figure led to talk about ditching the Webb Telescope, Hubble's replacement, whose cost has soared from an initial $900 million to nearly $9 billion. The telescope vs. rocket debate exposed a rift in the space community: manned travel to Mars or asteroids vs. solid, mind-blowing science. No longer lean and swift, NASA's products could not even get off the ground.

Science fiction writers didn't predict the fade-out of NASA's manned space operations, and they weren't prepared with alternative routes to space when that decline became undeniable. Allen Steele, a journalist who once covered NASA and now writes award-winning stories and novels about it, remarks: "Those who equate NASA with space exploration can't see any other options. They got scared away from writing about space, or else became cynical about the whole thing and claimed that space exploration is a failure." This leaves us, Steele says, with a "small number of writers who foresaw NASA's twilight and who have long advocated private space exploration."

The Fuel Tank Is Half Full

One writer who has held onto the expansive Von Braun vision is Geoffrey A. Landis, a physicist at NASA Glenn Research Center. "After the early NASA and Soviet probes gave us the first looks at the real solar system, and we knew for sure that it was not the solar system of [astronomer and author Percival] Lowell's canal-covered Mars or the swampy Venus," Landis says, "science fiction moved outward, toward the stars, and also inward, returning to Earth. The solar system itself was little used as a setting, simply because we learned that it was so hostile." But lately, as in his novel Mars Crossing (2000), Landis has returned to his home system. "We realize that although we will never see the ancient Martian cities of [Ray]Bradbury," he says, "it is still a strange and wonderful place, quite as interesting, in its own way, as the fantasies of the early space age."

Stephen Baxter's alternate history novel Voyage (1996) explored a universe in which the Von Braun agenda played out. If the Nixon administration had opted to continue that approach, Baxter speculated, the cost would have been no more than that of the shuttle and space station, and we would have landed on Mars in 1986. "There's nothing more wistful," he says, "than looking at a 1970s Mars mission profile with long-gone 1980s launch dates." 

Landis and Baxter both believe that pop science fiction has distorted the difficulties of space. "Exploring space is so very easy," Landis says. "You just jump in your ship and go, and nobody ever questions why or asks 'Who's funding this?' or even 'What's the energy source here?' In the real world, there's little margin for error. That guy who says, 'It's a crazy idea, but it just might work!'—well, in the real world, 99 times out of a hundred, it doesn't work."

DARPA is quite aware of how hard space flight is. At the end of September it held a conference, the 100 Year Starship Symposium, to stimulate fresh thinking. The gathering felt much like a science fiction convention, but with solid content. DARPA intends to spur research and select an organization that will sustain and develop interplanetary resources during the next century, culminating in an interstellar launch. David Neyland, DARPA's director of tactical technology, spoke of "creating a culture centered on human expansion into the solar system, and onward to the stars." Such dreams are science fiction staples, so DARPA needs science fiction writers, who appeared on several panels and gave papers. There were presentations on social issues ("Did Jesus Die for Klingons, Too?"), but most concerned the hard issues of propulsion and life support for decades (at least) of very high-speed flight. "Vision without execution is daydreaming," Neyland dryly noted.

Many at the Starship Symposium felt that  if NASA doesn't show the world it has a goal (most favored Mars), it will be savaged in the budget battles soon to come. Nuclear thermal rockets, like those initially envisioned by Von Braun and others, are the sole economical way we have to reach such places as the distant L2 Lagrange point, where the Webb telescope would be stationed. 

At the symposium, Landis reported on the NASA Glenn nuclear thermal rocket program, the third generation of development (after the NERVA (Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application) program of the 1960s and '70s and Timberwind, a still-classified program of the 1980s and '90s). Stan Borowski, an engineer at NASA Glenn, projects a manned Mars expedition by 2033—a goal close enough to inspire a new generation.

Meanwhile, in today's frugal climate, space is going commercial. A nuclear thermal rocket to be used only in space, and resupplied with fuel by the launchers we have now, could open whole new industries. Some envision profitable businesses that could build a genuine interplanetary future: repowering of satellites in geosynchronous orbits, big spinning-wheel "hotels" resembling structures in the Bonestell paintings Von Braun used in Collier's, asteroid mining, and more. Getting people into orbit can best be done not with risky rockets but in two stages, with an airplane carrying a rocket plane. Such new ideas about safety mesh well with the vehicles in development now by Virgin and SpaceX. Takeoff will be not on a Roman candle but on a runway. 

Allen Steele's recent Hugo Award–winning story "The Emperor of Mars" depicts a privately funded Mars exploration program. So did my own novel The Martian Race, which tells the story of a prize-based race to Mars won by an entrepreneur. Science fiction is becoming more economically literate, Stephen Baxter believes, because the history of post-1972 NASA has sobered the writers. They know the unglamorous scientific and political realities; of the living writers mentioned here, all but Steele have Ph.Ds.

Much of the passion in science fiction springs from a deep-rooted human need: to reach out, to prefer movement to stasis, to understand. The Collier's paradigm has its share of unspoken and unargued assumptions, yet it keeps coming back. Science fiction is pre-eminently the literature of the intellectually discontented, those who feel there must be more to life than this; and therein lies its maturity. Paradoxically, some see this as perpetual adolescent yearning.

NASA has a choice: swing for the bleachers or die. But even if NASA shrinks to a minor agency, the commercial uses of space will remain. There are plenty of science fiction writers who believe that that alone will bring about a future as grand as the one envisioned by Wernher von Braun.

Contributing Editor Gregory Benford is a novelist and a professor of physics at U.C.-Irvine.

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  1. Once we get to Mars, what do we do there? NASA’s answer:”look at rocks and stuff”

    Industry will not have this problem. It will go to the Moon to mine things, build bases to refine fuel, repair machinery. When we go out to Mars it will have a purpose.

    1. The cost of mining on Mars make me skeptical that a profit could be had. What would you be mining there that wouldn’t be cheaper to mine on Earth?

      1. When did anything done by government take profit and loss into account?

        1. When did “industry” become “government”? The point being that industry has very little incentive to go to Mars. Until getting there is very, very cheap.

          1. I don’t see either industry nor government going to the Moon or Mars. I believe that if they will be colonized, they will be colonized by “Pilgrims” who would have their own political, religious, or other ideological reasons for making the trip.

            1. Or just think its cool and don’t give a fuck about leaving Earth.

            2. The Amish! Mars will be colonized by The Amish!

              1. Horse & buggy to the stars.

            3. Moon has lots of platinum/palladium. I can see someone setting up a mining operation within the next 25 years.

            4. When that happens, I have a prediction to make about what happens next, and I would bet everything I own on it.

              After that first group of pilgrims successfully establish their colony, what our government could not acheive in more than 30 years (using 1986 as the forecasted date for Nasa to get a manned mission to Mars), they will acheive in the very same year. Washington will throw aside everything they are doing and make getting an entourage of bureaocrats and IRS agents to MARS the top national priority.

              Anyone who believes that the US government is going to let anyone, anywhere in the universe live in peace without their lives being intruded into in every possible way, are really not thinking clearly.

            5. will be colonized by “Pilgrims” who would have their own political, religious, or other ideological reasons for making the trip

              Moonsteading! Liberals can’t wait for libertarians to make the trip so they can finally turn the whole world into California!

          2. It doesn’t have to be very, very cheap. It has to be not insanely expensive. There’s a huge gulf between those two things.

            One thing about actually colonizing celestial bodies is that there will be space-based industry needed to support those colonies. The real issue right now is getting over the Earth-to-orbit hump. Once that’s done, after a short time, we’ll have the infrastructure in space to support and spur commercial development.

            This is an exciting time in space exploration, as we’re on the verge of getting access to space down to a reasonable level.

            1. $200K for five minutes of zero-g is hardly what I would call reasonable.

              1. It’s better than NASA’s prices.

              2. I’ll go ahead and say right now that we’ll have $100/pound to orbit before the decade is out.

                I’m going to go say that at Rice University so people will view me as some sort of space god, like Kennedy.

                1. $100/lb by the end of the decade is a bit ambitious, from a technical standpoint we might be able to achieve it but the regulations and bureaucratic interference slow the process down way too much.

                  There’s been a lot of talk about having commercial industry do the work instead of NASA and it gives the impression that the bureaucracy is being peeled back. Really all they’re doing is slapping a new logo on the side and pretending it’s new. What people don’t realize is that commercial companies already do all the work for NASA. NASA designs and builds almost nothing; everything gets done by commercial contractors. NASA just provides oversight by reviewing everything and giving their approval before we can proceed from one step to the next. The inefficiencies occur because we are forced to follow NASA’s horribly bureaucratic process.

                  The next generation of launch vehicle may end up having a SpaceX logo on the side instead of a NASA logo but NASA still has way too much involvement in their approval process. I’ve already seen firsthand where NASA program managers have been stepping in and slowing SpaceX and the others down.

                  1. $100/lb by the end of the decade is a bit ambitious, from a technical standpoint we might be able to achieve it but the regulations and bureaucratic interference slow the process down way too much.

                    Keep the regs and bureaucracy in place, but give subsidies to space companies!

                    If it moves, regulate it, yadda yadda.

                  2. I’ve already seen firsthand where NASA program managers have been stepping in and slowing SpaceX and the others down.

                    Just wait, it gets worse. The CCDev projects that have been funded so far have been under space act agreements, just wait until NASA switches to a traditional cost-plus style contract and they have to comply with the FARs. All of a sudden the costs for Spacex et al are going to “magically” increase to about the same as the dinosaur contractors like LM & Boeing. Don’t even get me started on the “man-rating” requirements.

                    1. SpaceX and its fellow travelers desperately need some nongovernmental clients. Soon.

                    2. FWIW Spacex has a huge backlog of orders for satellite launches, most of them commercial. In fact I seem to recall reading or hearing somewhere recently that Elon Musk has stated that if NASA interferes too much he’ll just take his ball and go home. He doesn’t need to put up with their bullshit.

                    3. I’ve heard that, too.

              3. $1 million for a Bugatti isn’t reasonable either, but its the going rate.

          3. OR conversly the profit is very large. And simply put, at some point in the future it will be very profitable to go into space. There are tons of rare and valuable minerals and materials that we need to fund out technological lifestyle.

      2. Asteroids seem cheaper than Mars. Why go back down into a hole?

        1. What I meant is if they go to Mars it will makes sense. There’s a whole new industrial revolution that’s going to occur in space, once we get the basic engineering solved.

          The thing with Gubmint is they tend to pick shit that sounds great but makes no real sense. A landing on Mars may fit that category.

        2. You just want to have a reason for your asymmetric beard, rob.

          1. Im not moving to Wunderland. Or learning German.

            Was it around Alpha Centauri?

            Belters had the belter strip, which was basically a short mohawk. Get your Known Space hair styles correct.

            1. I believe you are correct, but IIRC, Belters also did some asymmetric body painting. That might have been what I was thinking of, but then that didn’t sound as cool either.

      3. It took one year for China clippers to reach their destination, and another year to return, yet the market of that day managed to make the investment profitable. Are you telling me we are not on par with capitalist of two hundred years ago?

        1. So what we need is a mildly addictive drug that only grows in space.

          1. And porn you can’t get anywhere else.

        2. China Clipper crews did not have to boost things out of gravity wells, continuously shield against interplanetary radiation, and carry their own environment around with them merely to exist from moment to moment.

          Technically there is a form of wind in space, but your sails are on the order of square miles, and you’re not going to build an emergency replacement out of Martian palm fronds.

          1. Uh . . .actually, they DID have to do all of those things. They had to lift payloads, deal with the same radiation source that astronauts do, carry food and water, and put dozens and even hundreds of men on each ship to do the work that today is done by motors and circuits.

            And they had to make enough of a profit doing so that it was worth building the ships, training and hiring the men, and losing about 20 percent of them for one reason or another.

            This was so worthwhile that entirely new technologies were developed to do more of it.

            1. I can’t believe you are even making the comparison.

              How is loading crates on a ship is even remotely comparable to boosting your entire self contained environment thousands of miles, and having to delta-V for millions more to achieve a Mars orbital insertion?

              Oh, my, they had to carry some food and water in crates. Very comparable to having to generate/recycle/scrub the very air and water you need to breathe. And don’t think *food* recycling hasn’t been considered for space travel. I’ll let you ponder that one for a bit.

              And when a space mission goes nonlinear, only losing 20% would require divine intervention of some sort.

            2. Human life was much cheaper then. Any government or industry that suffered anything close to a 20% mortality rate would be brought to a standstill instantly. Hell, the US Army in WWII offered better odds of survival than that.

      4. Resources for building cities and civilization on Mars far, far away from stupid Earth?

        To me mining on other worlds has always implied you’re there to stay.

        Yeah, Mars could turn stupid, too, but I figure in hostile environments the penalty for being an idiot is a trip out the nearest airlock while in your undies, so unnatural selection might at least breed an intelligent civilization early on.

        1. The only differences between Mars and a lot of the places we routinely mine here on Earth is that Mars is farther away.

          You don’t need to build cities — you just need to be able to dig holes, which is kind of the point of sending miners, right . . ?

          1. The key line in my post was “To me mining on other worlds has always implied you’re there to stay.”

      5. Perhaps the question should be “What can be MADE there which can’t be made cheaper on Earth?”

        Zero-g and low-g smelting processes can’t be duplicated here, for instance. Chemistry also could benefit from the conditions of low-g and vacuum or near-vacuum.

        These just are the first two things that come to mind.

    2. When we get to Mars the Chinese will already be there with guns.

  2. People need to face up to the fact that without some incredible, stunning breakthroughs in propulsion, gravity tech, and our ideas about the speed of light, we aren’t going anywhere. The idea that we can even get to Mars–over four years of travel–is preposterous, let alone another star system. It will take forever, the vessels would need to be (literally) bulletproof, and lack of gravity would destroy all the bodies on board.

    There’s a reason scifi writers have to make up grav-plates and hyperspace and super dense materials. Because we don’t have any of those things, and without them, space travels is fucking impossible.

    1. Hard, difficult, impractical not impossible.

      1. Explain to me, in detail, how you will alleviate the brutal effects of zero gravity on the human body without artificial gravity. Don’t spin me any tales of rotating cylinders, either, since those will be instantly prone to breakdown and there are no spare parts in space, not to mention that angular acceleration is a poor substitute for gravity.

        1. Force due to acceleration vs Force due to gravity are interchangeable. Unless you think gravitons play a key part in the health of the body.

          1. Would you care to do the math and the calculations on what sort of wheel would be required, and at what rotational speed, to produce 1 gees? I’d like you to get on designing that wheel, rob, and it can never fail or wear out. Let me know how that goes.

            Retarded statements about “yeah, we can technically do it” are useless. We can technically do a ton of things that we absolutely cannot do in the real world.

            1. Wouldnt need spin at all if we accelerate at 1g. Or maybe at mars standard gravity, since we are gonna have to get used to it.

              A bigger question for Mars is the long term effects of .38g.

              1. So explain to me what propulsion system you will maintain 1 gee with, rob. And then you have to maintain one gee deceleration until orbit around your destination, at which point, you must land or be at zero gees.

                I don’t care if it technically can be done, with fairy tale equipment that you pull out of your ass. Describe to me exactly how you will do it. Also: your journey will take fucking forever.

                Until then, you are making shit up.

                1. Actually, at .38g, the journey is surpisingly short, because at turnover you are moving fucking fast.

                  A .38g propulsion system isnt the problem (obviously, we can do well over 1g or we couldnt get to space), its running at .38g for that amount of time.

                  I think it could be done with easily forseeable technology (as Turing pointed out, you dont design the next generation with today’s technology, you design with the techonology that will exist then).

                  If my very quick back of envelope calculations are correct (and Im doubting them, but maybe not), at its closest point, Mars is 22 hours away at .38g with turnover half way.

                  Can we build a propulsion system that can run for a day?

                  1. Can we build a propulsion system that can run for a day?

                    Apparently not. When you can, get back to me. Also, let me know how you’re going to get the fuel–you know, that magical fuel you haven’t determined yet to power the magical engine you haven’t defined yet–into LEO.

                    1. Getting mass into space is a solved problem. It may be pricy, but we can get the fuel up to LEO.

                      I dont need to define the magical engine. But I will anyway. Orion? Good enough for you? Its a fucking 50 year old design. It think it can average .38g for a day, if we bring along enough nukes. Of course, it will start lower and build up as the mass drops, but that means turnover is closer to Mars. Not gonna do the math on how that changes the time, because too many variables I couldnt account for, but as a random non-ME/AE, I think I have thrown out a viable possibility that real astronautical engineers could turn into reality.

                    2. The design is a lot easier if its a one-way trip.

                    3. Here you go, epi. Freeman Dyson says you are full of shit.

                      No need to get fuel to LEO either, his plans include launching from earth.

                    4. When you’ve done a successful test of an Orion style vessel, rob, you let me know.

                    5. Why do we need a successful test? That is stage one of doing it. We have fucking blueprints on how to do it.

                      Well some kinks have to be worked out if we did it for realz? Of course, but so fucking what? If the US commited to sending an orion to Mars by 2030, we could do it.

                    6. Does the Pascal-B test from Operation Plumbob count? Short of an actual orbital vehicle, I can imagine what more of a test you could want.

                    7. My first successful test of an Orion-syle vehicle took place sometime in the mid-1960s. My launch vehicle was the S-IVB(ean and Bacon) booster, and it reached apogee of about 40 feet from a single firecracker, when a second firecracker launched the payload into a suborbital trajectory sufficient to take it over two houses into the next neighborhood.

                      If I had been able to arrange an injector to toss a series of firecrackers into the booster, I’m confident that I would have been able to meet the altitude record of the local model rocketry club.

                      So, what’s your point?

                2. You realize, of course, that spinning a wheel-shaped craft requires no more than a very minimal one-time use of rockets or other thrust (ions…), and the presence of adjustable gyroscopes (to keep the craft oriented w/o needing more rocketry.) There’s no friction in space; once spinning, the only additional energy you’d need would be if you wanted it to STOP spinning. And there would be no moving parts, other than the gyros, which are well understood and reliable tech. The benefits – 1G acceleration (at the wheel rim — less elsewhere… implies a lot less engineering for strength than you’d initially think), and variable acceleration towards the center, are numerous; a significant downside, as far as I know, doesn’t exist, unless you’re trying to use the craft as a long-exposure observatory. Also, the statement that rotation is a poor replacement for gravity is simply nonsense. There’s no significant difference.

                  So: exactly how to get 1G: (1) build wheel shaped object (or round etc.), add spin using one time thrust application, maintain orientation (which will otherwise shift as people move around internally) by some system such as gyros, more thrust, pumping water storage around, etc.

                  It’s low tech, 100% reliable, easy to engineer, easy to maintain, doesn’t require much power even to start.

                  So there you go. That’s one problem solved, and easily.

                  The real problem is in order to have a short journey, you need a lot axial thrust for a long time, so you need high impulse, long duration thrusters, and *that* we don’t have.

                  We *do* have low impulse, long duration thrusters though, which is interesting.

            2. Retarded statements about “yeah, we can technically do it” are useless. We can technically do a ton of things that we absolutely cannot do in the real world.

              Technically, we can’t do anything that we can’t do in the real world. Talk about retarded statements.

              A man on Mars is as likely to happen in our lifetime as not. My estimate.

              1. If you aren’t capable of understanding what I meant, which is to say can’t do it for many reasons including overall cost and the cooperation of the entire world, don’t waste my fucking time by responding with stupid contrarian responses.

                1. Says the man apparently incapable of understanding simple sentences in a SCOTUS opinion who nevertheless posted a contrarian response on the topic.

                  1. I never posted on a SCOTUS thread, genius. You got spoofed, and hard. Learn to tell when it’s not me, because we have epic griefers here. If you’re not sure, email me to confirm if you want, but that was not me.

                    1. When Butthurt Becomes a Toxic Event: The Hit and Run Story

                    2. Episiarch|1.23.12 @ 1:26PM|#
                      You’re misreading that, the “protected area” is the private property referenced is his lawn, which they had to cross to get to the Jeep.

                      Trespassing WAS his issue with this, NOT what you said.


                      It seems unlikely someone would bother to make a spoof post like that but whatever.

                2. don’t waste my fucking time

                  Takes two to tango.

                3. Look Epi, I can’t help it if you are an idiot that wants to defend your absolutist position on this issue. It you want to say that we can’t technically do many things that are theoretically possible, then say it. But to say we can’t technically do things we can technically do it just retarded. As for “contrarian” responses…I believe you are the one being the contrarian on this thread.

                  I think a realistic assessment of the trends is space travel indicate that most of your concerns are currently in the process of being solved. Any claim that they are unsolvable doesn’t pass a smell test.

                  While interstellar travel ain’t happening for a long time if ever, the idea that it is IMPOSSIBLE to get to Mars is just the rantings of an uninformed windbag. A little knowledge, dangerous, yadda yadda.

              1. That’s a pipe dream. There are too many problems with using angular acceleration.

                1. You’re one of those “We Never Went to the Moon” cultists, aren’t you?

                2. No, there aren’t. There aren’t *any* significant problems. Or perhaps you’d care to name one?


            3. We have to crack ground to orbit. That may be closer now that actual evil corporations are running that show.

              Zero G is a problem, faster propulsion is one possible answer, so is spining all or part of the spacecraft- but if I had to guess I’d say in 20 years robots will be doing everything people would be needed for in 2012. No zero G problems, no radiation exposure, no complicated life support systems, no need for super fast travel.

              1. what happened to that special aluminum they used in Apollo project to keep the radiation out? Do hey still make it. Why do they bother to make nuclear reactors the old fashion way with several feet of concrete containing them when there is stuff like that available?

                1. “what happened to that special aluminum they used in Apollo project to keep the radiation out?”

                  I’m not aware of any aluminum that will stop high-energy radiation. Otherwise they’d use it instead of lead shields at the dentist’s office. A far more practical solution is to store all the water (and some extra) needed for the mission in between the hull and the living area and use that as a shield. Sure it will be less effective at the end, but we know that a few weeks of exposure are not fatal.

                  1. that shit right there:


                    Suppose to be radiation proofed. Where can I get it?

                2. Aluminum is aluminum. And if concrete works fine and is cheap, why not use it? A reactor is different and bigger than a space capsule.

                  1. I love concrete as much as the next guy, but not practical for an on campus nuclear pile at the heart of up coming Spring project. Apologies for the anonpussy crap, but a certain someone is looking for me at the moment, and would be curious what I’m up to asking these questions.

                    1. Ceramic. Refractory brick or something. I don’t know what stops radiation, but aluminum damn sure isn’t going to stop that kind of heat. Maybe just dig a hole and cover it.

                    2. some universities have been experimenting with electrified plasma as a way to block radiation.

              2. Ground to orbit has long been cracked — now we’re working on getting from the “Sopwith Camel” stage to the “DC-3” stage.

                The real problem with getting off the ground is that it takes a LOT of power, and that means heavy engines — but those engines DON’T HAVE TO GO WITH YOU. Imagine a booster which is nothing more than a tank full of water, which is superheated by a laser which remains on the ground. The effect is the same as those toy rockets which are filled with water then pressurized with an air pump.

                Once in orbit, conventional reaction jets handle OMS and de-orbit tasks.

            4. Retarded statements about “yeah, we can technically do it” are useless. We can technically do a ton of things that we absolutely cannot do in the real world.

              It’s not just that Epi, as I’m sure you are aware. If a government attempts this, how long until the people start getting miffed at the literal annual trillion dollar expenditure required? If private industry does it, how long until they go out of business? When the Space Shittle(yes, that’s how I spell it) was around it cost 10,000 inflated Fed funny bucks to put one POUND of something into space. For an average fatass American, that’s $2M. No wonder NASA hasn’t (and is incapable of) doing any thing worth a damn. They’d need the budget of the “Defense” department for 20 years just to build a Moonbase. And the bleeding hearts aren’t going to sign off on anything like that if it could pay for their beloved “free” healthcare and “free” “higher” “education.”

              I’m onboard with your realism/pessimism. Without some scientific breakthroughs coupled with people not afraid to die in space, humans are stuck. Essentially, it’s an economic problem. Unless the cost of blasting mass around is reduced, and the speed at which said mass can blasted is increased, nerds’ fantasies of fucking in zero-G will have to stay fantasies.

              1. Pulled from the Spacex wiki: At various conferences, SpaceX has revealed concept slides for future engine, stage, and launch vehicle designs. Development of these designs would be predicated on demand for increased performance. Company plans in 2004 called for “development of a heavy lift product and even a super-heavy, if there is customer demand” with each size increase resulting in a significant decrease in cost per pound to orbit. Projected dollar cost per pound to orbit could drop from $4,000 to $1,300 ($8,800/kg to $2,900/kg) between Falcon 1 and the five-engine concept vehicle, Falcon 5. CEO Elon Musk said: “I believe $500 per pound ($1,100/kg) or less is very achievable.”

                Not to mention that another guy has envisioned a giant ocean rail gun that would simply launch materials into an unstable orbit, where a ship could retrieve the raw materials. The ability to live in space is much more achievable, and cost effective, than some would believe; really the only thing that is stopping us is lack of a real reason. Eventually we will go when the demand for rare materials gets high enough.

                1. This must be fairly old. They ditched the Falcon 5 for the Falcon 9 3-4 years ago.

          2. Translational acceleration is indistinguishable from gravity.

            Rotational accelertion is not fully interchangeable with gravity.

            1. No, but it’s close enough. Ever ridden a Tilt-A-Whirl?

              1. Doesn’t apply anyway; that’s a sum of two very large accelerations – rotation in space in a non-accelerating vehicle is not; given the radius needed for a living space, storage of food and water, growing space, fuel, thrust production, shielding (yes, can be water, but only if you have a *lot* left over after human and cultivation needs) and equipment including a lander or landers and people’s personal effects, the acceleration gradient across the head and ear is negligible. Such a craft would be very large, limited to zero gee environments, and would offer an unlimited gradient of accelerations useful for all manner of things as you moved in from the rim.

        2. The rotating cylinder/wheel part is the easiest part. Clothes dryers, for example, are amazingly dependable and simple. I have one that is 30 years old, has never needed repair, and works as well as any I have ever owned or seen. Similarly simple and reliable mechanisms can be used to spin our hypothetical “gravity ship.”

          A key problem, however, is the necessary size of a spinning structure. You want to minimize tidal effects (differences in gravitational force) within a reasonable 3D living space for humans, and that means the associated radius needs to be fairly big. We’re talking about the MINIMUM acceptable structure, radius-wise, anyway, being in the class of the Astrodome or similar buildings. The big structure, in turn, presents a much bigger target for hurtling space-rocks and other debris, and also needs to be “bulletproof” throughout. Putting something like that together — in space, probably — would pose significant logistical and engineering challenges.

          1. No electric motors or moving parts are necessary to keep the thing spinning.

            1. Have attitude rockets on the side of your circular ship at a tangent to the circle.
            2. Fire all the rockets for a bit.
            3. Spin.

            You will start to spin and will never stop spinning until you fire rockets going the opposite direction for the same duration as the initial blast.

        3. To be fair Epi, Mars is supposedly only ~6 months away. The greatest challenges are artificial gravity on the trip (to prevent bone density loss) and radiation exposure.

        4. Couldn’t you say the same things about airplanes episarch? The fact is human beings have consistently made the impossible, possible.

    2. and lack of gravity would destroy all the bodies on board

      Barring artificial gravity, we could always gene-mod future space travelers to thrive in micro-g environments.

      1. So you’re basically writing science fiction. Gene-mod? In what way? Do you have a zero-gravity thriving species from which to crib genes?

        Look, I want this as much as anyone, but the reality is it ain’t gonna happen unless some really, really big things change.

        1. I would be very pleasantly surprised if humans could reproduce in a microgravity environment.

          1. I would be very pleasantly surprised if humans could reproduce in a microgravity environment.

            Whatever the answer, it will be fun trying.

          2. Why would they NOT be able to? It seems that it doesn’t matter which direction is up, to sperm and egg, or contraception would be a simple matter of sexual position.

        2. So you’re basically writing science fiction.

          Well, duh. By definition, until someone does it, interplanetary travel is science fiction.

          Do you have a zero-gravity thriving species from which to crib genes?

          Zero-G? No. But it seems aquatic species have less problems with micro-G.

          Look, I want this as much as anyone, but the reality is it ain’t gonna happen unless some really, really big things change.

          I don’t deny this.

        3. The whole Gene-Mod idea was already conjured up by Peter K. Hamiliton(if not scores of other SF writers) in the Night’s Dawn Trilogy. However, in Hamiliton’s universe, the modified genes served to:

          1)Keep everyone hot and fuckable
          2)Reduce the effects of Zero-G
          3)Increase the strength of human organs/bones to prevent shattering during insane G’s pulled during combat
          4)Ensure tits don’t sag (I guess that could be rolled into #1)

          He also threw in the idea that, for the most part, cybernetic humans could mitigate the effects of space travel. Of course, this is all bullshit I’m not going to see in the 10-11ish months I have to live (End of the World in 2012 bitches!).

          1. I think Gingrich could be persuaded to support anti tit sagging research.

    3. what?

    4. Spin for gravity.

      Of the problems you have noted, that one is solved.

      1. Show me your solution. I want to see the design, the parts, the schematic, the power source.

        Solved? Don’t make me laugh.

        1. That nobody has done it is proof that it cannot work.

          Isn’t that the same argument used by those who say libertarianism can never work?

          1. No. It’s asking you to give me a blueprint, which you absolutely cannot do at this point.

            There are intractable problems with space travel at this point, and until they are conclusively solved…we ain’t spacefarin’ for shit.

            1. There are intractable problems with space travel at this point, and until they are conclusively solved…

              Pay a team of engineers for a few years and it could be solved. But who’s going to do that? No private company will because there’s no profit to be had. That leaves government.

              1. “A few years”?

                Christ, dude.

                1. How long did it take to solve the engineering problems for the nuclear bomb, or moon landing?
                  And that was without modern computers.
                  They were using slide rules for fuck’s sake!

                  1. sarcasmic is a stupid asshole, pass it on!

              2. No private company will because there’s no profit to be had. That leaves government.

                We’ve been paying NASA for decades to wrestle with these problems and all they’ve been able to do is put evolved apes on a lifeless rock. Impressive, yes but what have they done since? If anything they’ve regressed. Trusting the government to handle this isn’t a panacea for the problem.

                Instead of wishing to bone hot blue alien chicks, we should be building flying cars and personal jetpacks and banging our friends’ mothers like all red-blooded ‘Mericans.

                1. Trusting the government to handle this isn’t a panacea for the problem.

                  The only thing I will trust government to do is waste money.

                  1. So…we agree on this.

                    1. I was saying that the only agency that would pay engineers to solve a problem that could never result in a profit would be government.
                      I didn’t mean to imply that they would do it well or on the cheap.

                    2. disagree. think sports teams, outlandish UAE architecture, amazonian body guards… those with irrational trophy wife money to spend will do it to for the prestige and not worry about the profit.

                      and once the potential is there think
                      venture capital and the amount of money pharmaceutical and software companies spend on research. most of those investments do not pan out but they spend it anyway because it only takes one hit.

                    3. those with irrational trophy wife money to spend will do it to for the prestige

                      Free Kim Dotcom!!!

            2. >..There are intractable problems with space travel at this point..

              1. Ok, the rest of my comment was. There are no intractable engineering problems. The technology has been their for half a century. Political and business
                case problems – oh yeah. So what problems are you talking about?

        2. Somebody needs a hug.

        3. You don’ t need much of a power source since once it starts spinning in space there is little friction to stop it. You can get it going with a rocket and probably a small electric motor would be all that is needed to keep it going.

        4. Diagram. Can be powered by electricity or the very economical homeless.

        5. Don’t provide him with this, anyone. He is going to steal your plans and build it into his evil interplanetary ship, the hedonism IV, and fly off to Mars to start a colony and avoid paying taxes.

          1. Damn your truthiness, Hyperion!

      2. It’s not solved.

        A spinning object where the mass distribution varies over time (the people move around) will precess. If the changes happen quickly, it can create significant vibrational stresses.

        The Wright Brothers “solved” the problem of flight in 1901. Yet numerous people died aboard de Haviland Comets half a century later.

        1. Not every boat aiming for America made it across the ocean.

          1. Like I said above, we need people not afraid to die. You know, depressed high schoolers.

        2. It doesn’t have to be a wheel. Two counterwieghting cans on the opposite ends of a long wire will do nicely. Set them to spinning about their center of mass and you’ve got a nice artificial gravity going.

          Slow acceleration via ion engine can be applied at the center of mass. For rapid acceleration you’d likely need to reel in the counterwieghts and decelerate as a unit.

          Not blueprints and engineering specs.. but a workable outline that requires few moving parts and no technical leaps.

          1. A larger vesion of this will work too.

      3. Here is a program which shows how many revolutions per minute and how big a diameter you need for various gravities.

        To get one G for one revolution per minute you need 3000 feet diameter. Three revolution per minute you need 1000 feet diameter.


    5. Mission is four years to Mars. Travel in a ballistic arc is about 6 months. So six months out, 2 years to wait for optimal ballistic path, 6 months back.

    6. It wouldn’t take four years of travel to get to Mars. Mars Direct, for instance, involves a six-month trip each way. Even without spinning anything or constant acceleration–which I don’t think are the overwhelming technical challenges you suggest–astronauts have done okay in zero gravity for longer times that that.

      We could probably do the trip faster than that with better propulsion, which would solve some problems, too.

      A manned Mars mission that’s intended to be more than a one-and-done trip needs a cheap Earth-to-orbit infrastructure to work, so that we can assemble spacecraft in orbit with adequate shielding for the radiation they have to deal with inflight and so on.

      1. If you use constant acceleration it would necessarily be at a very low rate. It would produce “artificial gravity” but not enough to be useful for keeping water in the glass or muscles from atrophying.

    7. Re: Super-dense materials. We have rather.

    8. Although we don’t need FTL to fully exploit the Solar System (which can keep us happy and occupied for many a millennium), the big ticket is propulsion, especially in and out of the planetary gravity wells. Once in space you just light up your nuclear candle and go. We could do Mars in a couple weeks right now if people stopped believing space is some sort of pristine environment that needs to be protected.

      Seriously, I’ve heard people say nuclear propulsion would “pollute” space with radiation. Meanwhile the latest solar flare is making airlines stop polar flights and dropping cell phone calls. Derp. Space is almost nothing BUT radiation.

  3. “…NASA has now fizzled…”


    no, nasa’a mission has morphed into unmanned exploration.

    1. Robots are only suitable for basic research.

      NASA* has fizzled.

      *”Not Actually Spacegoing Anymore”

  4. Von Braun’s exuberant vision lives on.

    Is this the one about the Aryan master race?

    1. shhhh – dont mention vonbraun’s (ahem) questionable associations & affiliations.

    2. A man whose allegiance is ruled by expedience,
      Call him a NAZI he won’t even frown,
      “Nazi, Schmazi” says Werner von Braun
      -Tom Lehrer

      1. “Ze rockets go up,
        who cares where zhey come down;
        that’s not my depahtment,”
        says Wernher von Braun

        “In german oder english
        I know how to count down.
        Und I’m learning chinese,”
        says Wernher von Braun.

  5. I was obsessed with space as a teen, but now my thoughts have turned to biotech. I tink human genetic engineering will come before a permanent settlement on Mars. Genetics and nanoscale engineering are moving so quickly cyborgs seem like a more realistic goal than space for now. Obviously there’s a host of thermodynamic issues at the nano-level, and AI seems to have stalled for now, but holy cow genetics and biochemistry are moving quickly.

    1. We need Gamorans like in the Old Man’s War universe. Human brains uploaded into bodies modified for vacuum and zero-g.

  6. “”…NASA has now fizzled…”


    no, nasa’a mission has morphed into unmanned exploration.

    At which they are terrible. Did you read the part of the article pertaining to the James Webb Observatory budget overruns. It’s only an order of magnitude.

    NASA’s robotic exploratory missions are ‘successful’ in large part because they are all coordinated out of JPL. The relationship with Cal Tech cannot be understated. Students and professors compete for PhD’s, glory, and funding. Even this is a sad shadow in the Platonic sense of what it could be.

    This all neglects the fundamental argument that no one has the right to force others at the point of a gun to fund their research projects.

    1. A big problem with the James Webb telescope is that they wanted something much bigger then Hubble but their rockets are not big enough to carry it up without having to have a complex and expensive unfolding operation done in deep space where there is no one to kick something if it become stuck. They bit off more then their rockets could carry.

      1. What’s the advantage of using a LaGrange point to site an observatory? Seems like as much a PITA as any number of other locations, with no pluses.

        1. Much longer observing time. In Earth Orbit the Earth blocks the view for a large part of the orbit. Out at the LaGrange point they can keep the telescope pointed for long periods and get very dim and distant objects.

          But its at the cost of being so far out that no human can visit now and do repairs. So if something breaks its broken.

          1. Huh…when I posted that, I was thinking that a LaGrange point would keep it too close to Earth to get an advantage vs. just about any solar orbit.

  7. Didn’t the space shuttles fail roughly as many times as they estimated could happen for the number of missions they conducted?

    1. Uh. It depends on who you ask. The stated safety goal was 1 catastrophic accident per 1000 launches. At least one engineer who worked on the project is documented in Richard Feynman’s memoir on the Challenger Review Panel as estimating at 1 in 50. I think the actual was 1 in 43.

      1. Good enough for government work. Its within the ballpark. Or maybe the Atlantic Ocean. And the Southeastern United States.

        1. You know, I bet China isn’t as risk averse as we are when it comes to astronaut deaths. While I don’t think they have the infrastructure to send men to Mars anytime soon, they could go the path of buying access to orbit to build a one-way spacecraft. They might think it worth it to dump a couple of guys there so they can say, “First!”

          1. Cordwainer Smith wrote a story about China colonizing Venus with that approach. A few million deaths just didn’t matter if there was even one success back in those romantic Maoist days of yore.

        2. If you read the subtext of the Feynman doc, the working engineers said 1 in 50; the higher up the ladder, the lower the probability. One administrator went as small as 1 in 10000.

      2. IIRC there were 134 total shuttle missions, 2 catastrophic failures, so that would put it at 1 in 67.

        1. Yup. I’m wrong.

  8. It isn’t only post-NASA writers who have envisioned private space travel. The pioneering efforts to reach the moon in Heinlein’s canon were undertaken by Harriman Enterprises, a private corporation, with mostly interference from government, rather than assistance.

    1. RAH wrote the “Man on the Moon” story several times. NOT ONCE was the first landing a government project. In several, private research led to government acceptance later, the same as aviation.

      Interestingly, “Destination Moon” includes a divided government — some agencies trying to stop or control the flight, others actively assisting — and this was a precursor to private spaceflight projects of the 1960s onward.

  9. Thanks, Gregory Benford for the article and for your fiction.

    1. And for not writing Jar Jar Binx level crap.

  10. Teleport a black hole to the center of Mars that is calibrated to supply the differential between Earth gravity and Martian gravity, the problem is solved. No need to fuck up the human genome with subspecies too ugly to bone.

  11. Just when I thought libertarians had solved the problems of microbrews and deep-dish pizza, they’ve gone and solved the problems of interstellar space travel! Is there anything they can’t do in a chat room?

    1. Benford wrote a story once about a little microbrewery on a quaint little arid planet. ‘All the Beer on Mars.’

      1. Was it served with deep-dish or NY style?

        1. I don’t remember that depth of detail. It was published in Asimov’s a quarter of a century ago.
          The astronauts mistook a yeast culture for alien life.

          1. They wouldn’t let me tour with them because of that.
            I coulda been a contender.
            I coulda been somebody.

        2. Must have been deep-dish. We all know about Aricebo, but I can’t think of a New York radioastronomical facility of any note.

  12. Episiarch is a Mars hater.

    That is all…

    1. There is no I in TEAM!!!

  13. When German rocket scientist, slave master, and war criminal Wernher Von Braun immigrated was captured and given the choice of “cooperating” with the U.S. military or being sent to prison for the rest of his life

    I think the above revisions make the article a bit more accurate. Also, Episiarch is totally right about the total impracticality of real space travel.

    1. No he isnt. Boom Boom.

      1. To the moon, robc.
        Bang! Zoom!

    2. Von Braun and his team debated who to surrender to, packed what gear they could save onto barges, and intentionally surrendered to the USA. They were not forced by any means. There is a long interview with him about this out there on the interwebz.

    3. He didn’t say impractical, he said impossible. And that makes him, technically, wrong.

  14. I’m disappointed in the almost precautionary principle level of lack of faith in humanity going on in this thread. We didn’t get to the top of the evolutionary heap by reasoned committees discussing practical solutions. We got there by early chemists trying every goddamn substance not known to man until we hit a breakthrough or died. One man\woman dies, humanity gets the cure. I mean we’re the species who figured out how to kill buffalo by leading them off cliffs. Now we fret over school lunches and bicycle helmets. Pathetic.

    And what about velcro, playdo, post it notes and ritalin — all things created for one purpose that were much better another. Happens all the time. The solution is out there and won’t be spelled out in this thread or it already would have been tried.

    1. Yes, I agree it is a little depressing. Manned missions to other planets is going to happen, all the problems will be solved and it will happen, it’s just a question of time.

      To say it is impossible is a lot like cave men 10,000 years ago arguing that it is impossible to hold a little object in your hand and talk to someone on the other side of the planet.

      The biggest thing standing in our way is politics, which has crippled and nearly killed our national space program. Private enterprise is the only way to do this, and it will have to be profit driven, like nearly all other advances in technology.

  15. “Flight by machines heavier than air is unpractical and insignificant, if not utterly impossible.” — Simon Newcomb

    1. There are 100s of other examples of things that were impossible, that have now been done. And there will be many more to follow.

      1. No one is saying impossible, are they? There are HUGE hurdles in manned space exploration. Flowery words or trotting out the Newcomb quote (at best a non sequitur because it applies to a different time, a different technology and a whole other subset of physical laws) don’t make them go away.

        Get the cost to orbit to 1/100 what it is now and maybe we’ll start seeing something.

        The “impossible” things happened before because there was a real need. We don’t have that here outside the fever dreams of geeks raised on too much sci0fi where space travel is reduced to a triviality and when there is a problem, well, Chewbacca just hops into the Jeffries tube with a sonic screwdriver and reroutes the flow of whatsis to wherever.

        And, yeah, an asteroid might kill us all so we need to move into space, and yada yada tired old arguments. Quick! The Sun is going to die in 2 billions years! DO SOMETHING!

        1. I didn’t hear anyone say impossible, in the context that it would always be impossible. Not here in this thread, but I have never the less heard it a thousand times.

          What was the need of the first brave adenturers to sail across the Atlantic in search of …. something, despite the fact that they would surely fall of the edge of the flat world, or be eaten by monsters from the deep. There was no need, it was all done out of curiosity and an adventurous spirit. The same reason that space travel will be done, along with profit eventually.

          1. WRONG!

            Those “brave adventurers” were in search of the same thing others had been searching for since humans first left Africa – new land (land not already “owned” by someone else).

            Over-population has fuelled human expansion from the beginning; it may well be the reason we eventually colonise other parts of the solar system (we’ve passed 7 billion with no real signs of slowing down). And, yes, the Chinese have the greatest incentive to do it.

            But for now, space explorers fall into 2 camps: those who are interested in the science and those who want to plant flags.

            The people who are doing it for science know it’s cheaper and more effectively done with robots. Those who want to plant flags “know” it can only be done “properly” by humans. For them, the cost is irrelevant and the end justifies the means. They want to go because it’s there. They want a repeat of Apollo for Mars (iow, spend huge sums of money for no other “benefit” than being able to say “We did it!”.

            All the pseudo-technical babble spouted by some about the means of colonising space is just the dreamers getting high off their own farts. Until such time when it becomes cheap enough for would-be space colonists to pay their own way entirely, it’s better to leave it to the robots.

            If you don’t believe me, write a list of all the places in the solar system that have been visited by robots (some multiple times) then compare it to the ONE place humans have been.

          2. That seems an over-romanticized view of history. Generally people were seeking trade routes, fleeing oppression, or looking for fortune and glory.


  16. I am thinking that next manned missions to anywhere will be private ventures funded in part by the oil sheiks. I guess they have already bought into part of Virgin Galactic. I have to admire these guys at least a little due to the fact that they seem to have some vision. I mean look at Dubai. At least they aren’t a bunch of wussies like we have become in the US, afraid to do anything bold. I am prepared to get flamed for this (:

  17. I mean look at Dubai. At least they aren’t a bunch of wussies like we have become in the US, afraid to do anything bold. I am prepared to get flamed for this (:

    Right hand not cut off yet? We fix this!

  18. Sadly this article seems to already be dated and full of myths. The company that was to refuel satellites, has had its big customer cancel. The “nuclear thermal rocket to be used only in space” was developed in the late ’60’s and shelved, politically unacceptable. [How there was to be a business case in this is a good question?] Virgin’s years behind its plans, and its still a open question if they can develop the desired suborbital market, and with its profits (or some other) fund the development of orbital capacities ? and more critically markets.

    SpaceX is years behind, with a terrible failure rate, inability to lower real costs to real customers, and management is increasingly making outlandish claims and increasingly hostile to any questions ? while their cash flows dominated by NASA donations and potential NASA contracts (with open hostility toward both in congress), not the huge commercial market they forecast.

  19. There are 2 reasons to return to the moon and establish a permanent manned base there. First, the moon is a great source of Helium 3, which is rare on earth, and is potentially the best fuel for a nuclear fusion reactor. The country that can obtain the fuel and build and sell the reactors will control the world’s economy. The Chinese know this. Second, the moon is the best place to test the technologies required for the exploration and exploitation of the rest of the planets and moons in the solar system.

  20. It saddens me that the comment section is overrun by people who are so poorly educated on our current technological capabilities, on economics and on the actual resource allocation of the solar system.

    We stand at the cusp of the most important endeavor that it is possible for life to make. There is nothing in the history of the universe that can rival life moving beyond its planet of origin, it is more important and has much greater potential than the very emergence of life itself.

    As for feasibility, while the government needs $10,000 per pound to launch into low earth orbit, Elon Musk’s SpaceX is taking orders for launches at $1,000 per pound and has an engineering path to less than $100 per pound. He isn’t “years behind”, he is moving faster than any country every has. He is also facing competition from other private launch developers such as Blue Origin started by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

    Launch costs are an obstacle that is falling.

    What reason is there to go to space? The same reason it was important for the very first life that formed over 2 billion years ago to find its way out of that one tiny tidal pool… today we are trapped on a tiny planet that holds only a fraction of a single percent of the energy, resources and real estate available to us.

    I don’t live in Canada so I can send resources back to England and we won’t go to space solely to send resources back to Earth. The trillions of dollars garnered by sending rare earth elements and platinum group metals back to earth will be a byproduct of living and working in space, not the goal. The same with the terrawatts from space based solar power.

    There are problems to work on but those are simply engineering exercises that we can overcome in the doing. If humanity is to have a prosperous future worth living, if we want an earth that isn’t over run by industry, if we want to avoid a Malthusian dystopia, if we want to leave a joy filled life of adventure and possibilities for our children… then the only answer is to become a space faring civilization.

    If we truly turn our back on space and remain curled up in the cradle of life, there is no future but for a slow fading away to a dull whimper as the planet of our birth becomes our grave.

  21. to use science fictional ideas to advertise the future he wanted to create.

  22. s way to use science fictional ideas to advertise the future he wanted to create. And it worked: Von Braun went on to r

  23. against forward contamination is to prevent equipment designed to detect

  24. I just realized this was written in 2002. I wonder what the gun crime rate is now. Any government that tells you that you have no right to self defense is not looking after your best interest. Self defense is the most basic right anyone has. No government or police can protect you. I can’t believe you all allow this to continue. I keep a gun at home for self defense and have a license to carry it concealed any where I go. And I do. If I am attacked then at least I have a chance to stay alive. By the time the police arrive they can either arrange for my body to be picked up or take a statement from me. I choose the later. Britons let a right be taken from them and now it will be much harder to get it back. But you should try.
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  25. Hello! I just want to offer you a huge thumbs up for the excellent info you have right here on this post. I’ll be returning to your blog for more soon.

  26. Stephen Baxter’s alternate history novel Voyage (1996) explored a universe in which the Von Braun agenda played out. If the Nixon administration had opted to continue that approach, Baxter speculated, the cost would have been no more than that of the shuttle and space station, and we would have landed on Mars in 1986. “There’s nothing more wistful,” he says, “than looking at a 1970s Mars mission profile with long-gone 1980s launch dates.”
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