Saturday, December 6, 2003
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How about funding more HBO miniseries about outer space instead?
The International Herald-Tribune reports that the Bush administration has some ambitious ideas to revamp the space programme:
Sounds great -- exactly the kind of soaring vision that led to Neil Armstrong broadcasting from Tranquility Base.
However, I have some nagging questions:
NASA enthusiasts suggest that the cost of reconstituting a moon shot might be even greater than that. According to the IHT:
The other rationale is the human desire to explore -- which as a Star Trek geek I'll confess to having in spades. If this Washington Post story is true, then the Bush administration is fully cognizant of this attraction to the big idea -- in fact they're counting on it:
You know, follow-through is big, too. Trying to convert the Middle East into an area where democracy and capitalism is pretty damn ambitious as well. Hey, curing AIDS is pretty big, and the rewards much more tangible.
I'd like to see a mission to Mars. I'd just like to see a lot of other things happen first. In sum, I'm with Easterbrook on this one:
posted by Dan on 12.06.03 at 05:56 PM
Well, at least Bush is big at one thing: he's a BIG SPENDER. Which makes me, as a tax payer, a BIG PAYER. For conservatives this is BIG NEWS - and come election day it may bring the Bushies a BIG BLOW.posted by: Jack on 12.06.03 at 05:56 PM [permalink]
Daniel asks: before getting this big a treat?
This reminds the old saying, "the beatings will continue until morale improves!" We can continue to beat on NASA -- their incompetence, their idiocies, their inability to get the Shuttle and Mars missions right, etc. -- but don't be surprised if morale then continues to suffer.
Providing NASA with a new mission, one that excites people both within and outside of NASA, one that is worthy of hard work, long hours and dedication, is one sure way to improve that organization.
Regards,posted by: Steve White on 12.06.03 at 05:56 PM [permalink]
Admit it Daniel, this was just an excuse to link Britney Spears to your blog ;)posted by: Thorley Winston on 12.06.03 at 05:56 PM [permalink]
I think an idea from Aldrin needs to be taken seriously, not just because of who he is but because the idea itself seems to lead to something, in this case the development of a launching point for deep space missions. By contrast other actual or proposed NASA capabilitities -- the shuttle, the space station, a permanent moon base -- well, it's really not clear what they are for.
The problems with NASA go beyond the burden of sustaining the shuttle and space station. NASA is an agency in which several factions committed to a number of different missions vie for funding and attention. Choices need to be made between these missions, and while it is important that the best choices be made it is at least as important that some choices be made. NASA left to itself will not make the required choices -- it hasn't in the last three decades -- so choices among priorities will have to be imposed from the outside. Because making these choices is not a one-time exercise a permanent mechanism will be needed to ensure that NASA does not relapse into its historic pattern of trying to do too many missions with too small a budget.
The obvious option is to end NASA's standing as an independent agency, placing it under the authority of a Cabinet department. Because there are a number of other government agencies whose work is heavily scientific in nature, it makes sense to create a Department of Space and Physical Sciences, to which NASA would belong and to whose Secretary the administrator of NASA would report. Other agencies belonging to the DSPS could include the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the US Geological Survey.
Since NOAA, which includes the National Weather Service, is now the biggest single agency within the Department of Commerce there could be an opportunity here to eliminate that department, whose secretary has been mostly a glorified campaign fundraiser during the last several administrations. The DSPS could simply take over the office space now occupied by Commerce, making this a much less traumatic organizational change than the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, facilities for which won't be completed for years.
I would be glad to see a mission emerge for NASA so inspiring and spiritually uplifting as to sweep away all difficulties and decades of inertia. Realistically, though, I think the bureaucratic landscape has to change to make this possible -- NASA does not lack for inspiration now, but does operate in a way that allows rival inspirations to checkmate each other. That kind of environment is not going to be changed from the inside.posted by: Zathras on 12.06.03 at 05:56 PM [permalink]
The entry leaves out what to me is the most compelling argument for a permanent moon base: I don't want the People's Republic of China having one first.
Call me paranoid. Call me a cold-war hack. But to me: Communist China + nuclear weapons + permanent moon base = bad bad bad.posted by: Dan on 12.06.03 at 05:56 PM [permalink]
The big question is will this be a domestic Lunar base or a foreign one? JFK was leaning towards landing the Eagle in America, Johnson's biggest blow to NASA was the decision to surrender Luna to the UN.posted by: Ripper on 12.06.03 at 05:56 PM [permalink]
All these suggestions suffer from a common underlying assumption. That is that space equals NASA, and beyond that, that space is something that can only be done by the government, in the form of some grandiose goal. Space travel according to the Five-Year Plan.
There is a new vision just starting to emerge, exemplified by the X-Prize. Private industry is given incentives to develop space travel, without any higher power deciding how it should be done, or what the ultimate purpose is. Also with the assumption that development should be in small steps with re-usable space-craft, so lots of low-cost experimenting and learning is possible along the way.
If the trillion-or-so dollars that NASA has squandered since Apollo had been spent in this way, we would probably now have much cheaper launch costs, and a trip to the moon might cost a tenth of what it will under the sort of "Apollo II" being discussed.
It's odd that many people who normally believe in private-sector solutions shy away from them where space is concerned. I suspect we have an unconscious fear of space, and we continue to support a "state-socialist" model because it will keep space travel under the control of cautious bureaucracies.posted by: John Weidner on 12.06.03 at 05:56 PM [permalink]
Mr. Weidner makes a good point, and as a conservative-leaning person, I'm happy to endorse it to a point. Government could start by opening the satellite launch business even more to Boeing, Martin, et al., and get NASA out of the satellite launch business completely.
Then: how about a design competition, with the winner not only getting to build a station for L1, but the right to operate it (within certain parameters). Government helps to underwrite the enterprise by guarenteeing to be a customer for certain parts of the station. The rest is open to private enterprise for whatever they want to do. Getting an L1 station up and running means solving the "big dumb booster" problem. That's useful in many more ways. And having L1 gets us rather close to a permanent moon station.posted by: Steve White on 12.06.03 at 05:56 PM [permalink]
Tracking with your first post, but don't know about your follow-up with John.
I don't think its a BDB problem, I think it's a 'Big Dumb Company' problem. At least for the foreseeable future. This is national airline carriers writ large. Will they eventually create a market to sort themselves out. Sure. But, even today, where is the Jet-travel business without massive government subz?
LEO Sats? Of course. But Space Stations are for one thing only - colonists. And colonization is a government project. No market forces at play if we have to create a fake "Big dumb Company" to do it.
Sorry, I mean, of course, a second one.posted by: TommyG on 12.06.03 at 05:56 PM [permalink]
As Mr. Dan has rightly suggested three posts up, Mr. Foster.posted by: Art Wellesley on 12.06.03 at 05:56 PM [permalink]
Aldrin may be right from a scientific perspective, but I don't think the paying public is going to ooh and ahhh about reaching an empty point in space called "L1". Although I'm not convinced that NASA is the right choice to make the trip, going back to the Moon makes a lot more sense than Mars, particularly if we make it as part of an ongoing lunar exploration and basing project. Even though Mars is an inviting target, the length trips and assumed difficulties in developing the hardware required for this trip would likely result in it being a "one-off" trip like the Apollo landings, rather than something that can be sustained.posted by: snellenr on 12.06.03 at 05:56 PM [permalink]
I have some sympathy, but no money, for private enterprise in space.
Look, there has got to be some value in identifying private entities interested in using space and working out agreed rules under which they may do so. We went through similar processes in the early years of commercial aviation and broadcasting as well, so this is nothing new. The curious thing is how some self-described libertarians are not talking about this at all -- what they are after is government rejecting the "central-planning" model NASA represents in favor of government "incentives" for private entities to explore and or make commercial use of space.
Basically, the incentives are subsidies. Evidently it's all right to throw money at the problem as long as it isn't used to pay government employees. We have seen this before as well; it is an approach that has some successes to its credit but many more boondoggles -- books could be written about the billions wasted in subsidies aimed at developing new technologies in the energy sector alone. There is nothing to recommend it over emphasizing space-related programs in government agencies like NASA.posted by: Zathras on 12.06.03 at 05:56 PM [permalink]
As this is a subject that is near and dear to my heart, I have mixed feelings about this announcement.
On the one hand, I think space is its own reward. The advances that come from space-based and spinoff research are not, in and of themselves, a reason, since the money spent on said research could usually reach the same results with less expenditure than catapulting tons of materials into orbit. However, I think there's value to be had here that goes beyond the tangible. Major accomplishments in space build a kind of bipartisan national pride that simply has no drawback--unless you're vehemently dead-set in your belief in the worthlessness of the space program, you can't fail to feel some level of that kind of communal pride; the kind of unity that the space race helped produce is something that would be beyond priceless, with the bitter polarization our country has been suffering in the last few years. It would be nice to have at least one subject I can discuss with a dyed-in-the-wool conservative without eventually coming to rhetorical blows.
Unfortunately--and here's where some of that polarization is going to seep in--I have a really hard time taking this proposal from the Bush administration seriously. In fairness, I'd have a hard time taking it seriously /regardless/ of who was in office, all else about the state of our country being equal. Dan points out the issue of cost with his Easterbrook link--and frankly, I think the estimates there are a bit on the conservative side. I cannot imagine how we could possibly devote this kind of money to a new "space race" without repealing Bush's notorious tax cuts, resolving Iraq so that it doesn't become an ongoing multi-billion dollar sinkhole, and waiting for the economy to right itself.
All things considered, this has the distinct odor of pure politics to it. It's fundamentally impossible to follow up on this kind of proposal anytime in the near future, and Bush /has/ to know that--which tells me it falls into the same category of things he announces to make himself look good (like additional money for AIDS research, and the ill-named NCLB), knowing that most people aren't paying enough attention to realize there's no substance or money to back it up.posted by: Catsy on 12.06.03 at 05:56 PM [permalink]
Privatize space, absolutely!
What can we do out there in space? There's the satellite launch-industry, scientific exploration, military interests and there's showing the flag.
The satellite launch-industry should of course be private. There's no reason for the US government to subsidize this.
Scientific exploration can be done by a government agency, a sort of NASA lite. But for the foreseeable future, let it focus on unmanned missions with a lot of scientific possibilities. Give NASA lite a very limited budget, and let an expert committee decide on the scientific merits of missions. And launch these scientific missions as much as possible with privately built rockets.
Defense ditto. Launch it as much as possible with privately built rockets. Of course the technology for launching rockets should not be lost to the USA, but franky, with all the demand for launching satellites I cannot foresee any halt to such launches in the foreseeable future.
And about waving the flag in space: Would it not be the greatest source of pride if space were to be conquered not by government agencies and subsidies but by real American entrepeneurs? now that would be a really great thing to see.posted by: Harmen Breedeveld on 12.06.03 at 05:56 PM [permalink]
L1 is unstable. L5 is a much better choice, although it's in the same orbit as the moon. L4 and L5 lead and trail the moon in its orbit and are stable, i.e. it takes no fuel expenditure to maintain position.posted by: Slartibartfast on 12.06.03 at 05:56 PM [permalink]
The problem I have is that going back to the moon does nothing to advance the areas of space travel that we are going to need going forward as far as both exploration and heavy orbit lifts. Space elevators are real and practical solutions by all current thinking. Space elevators would be an absolutley seminal technological turning point in the history of the human race, just as deep sea sailing ships changed history. What will benefit us more in the next century, a Lunar 'Mir' with a bunch of guys and gals counting rocks and hitting golf balls, or the ability to lift arbtirary amounts of mass into orbit for pennies?posted by: Mark Buehner on 12.06.03 at 05:56 PM [permalink]
Space elevators are real and practical solutions by all current thinking.
I beg to differ. They're an attractive idea, as an abstraction. It's when you start looking at the fine detail that problems pop up. Actually, problems pop up right away, when one considers suitable materials. But assuming that suitably strong materials can be accessible sometime in the next couple of decades in size and quantity, those other issues (how the lateral reaction forces exerted by the ascending object can be controlled, for instance) will still be around. Somehow, the object being brought up has to gain velocity consistent with the change in radius from the center of the earth. Lift it 1000 miles, and it has to gain 1250 miles per hour, approximately. Lift it higher, and it has to gain more. Another problem is that you aren't actually in any kind of circular orbit unless you lift it to geostationary altitude, which is about 24000 miles. At that altitude, you will have to have added a substantial tangential velocity using a structure that's essentially a cable. This is just one of many issues that have to be resolved in order for a space elevator to be usable. A space elevator is practically useless for lifting anything in LEO, because you have to add six or seven kilometers per second sideways to keep the orbit's eccentricity from being close to unity. Which is just a fancy way of saying that its "orbit" would intersect the ground fairly close to the base of the elevator.
This is not to say we oughtn't to be looking into space elevators. Just that they're not going to make us all astronauts in the near future.posted by: Slartibartfast on 12.06.03 at 05:56 PM [permalink]
I blogged recently about the parallels between the space and computer industries. In both cases, government subsidized the invention of prototypes that only a government program could sustain. The early mainframes (made possible by advances in transistor and, later, intergrated circuit technology) and satellite launches represented a limited array of commercial applications for these industries. The PC revolution drastically lowered the cost of computing and brought about many new uses for the computer. (And the modem, a product of both the computer and telecommunications industry, became commercially legal when a law prohibiting companies from simultaneously operating in both industries was rescinded.) We are still in the IBM mainframe era of space flight. It's gonna take some serious technological and marketing knowhow to change that. It'll also take capital, which is being drained by a certain useless international space boondoggle.posted by: Alan K. Henderson on 12.06.03 at 05:56 PM [permalink]
Alan Henderson is the only blogger on this thread that even questions the practicality of spending potentially trillions of dollars on a space exploratory exercise that will not lead to colonization of humans in space, weapons launching pads or anything more than additional technological advances that could be achieved, as we have already proven - on earth.
To date, what great knowledge advancement can we claim beyond placement of the Hubble Telescope and basic data on other planets gathered by unmanned flights.
Space colonization is a fantasy that is self-feeding on the assumption that there could be a better life environment anywhere but on planet earth. The money spent on the fantasy of colonizing space could be better spent on developing ways to better habitize the fringe areas of our own planet.
This is all a boon for the self-interested scientists and indutrialists that will be the primary benefactors of all our tax money. We citizens will be the benefactors of better can openers and microwave appliances for the trillions we will be asked to cough up.
Unfortunately, the issue of strategic military advantage in space is another rationale that will not see fruition, as international treaties will preclude the placement of military weapons systems in space.
So, offer me more tangible and convincing arguement for your space exploration programs that will justify the expenditure of trillions of dollars of more borrowed money.posted by: Marcel Perez on 12.06.03 at 05:56 PM [permalink]
He's just the only blogger on this thread. I didn't bring it up because it seemed a lot like pointing out that the sun is really, really hot. Rand Simberg's been beating this drum for a few years now, and I think a chorus of this sort of thing is more than what's needed.
There are a couple of reasons I can see to exploit space. The first is, as Rand's been espousing, purely related to tourism. The second is exploitation of resources for profit. I can't imagine the government being interested in the former; the latter might be a valid pursuit (if, for instance, we were starting to run out of resources like nickel or platinum), but the government's not identifying either as a goal.posted by: Slartibartfast on 12.06.03 at 05:56 PM [permalink]
If we get desperately low on such resources as nickle and platinum there will be a concerted effort to find and tap other, as yet unknown, earthly sources. Failing that, inventive substitutes will be found.
I'm convinced that we have only begun to tap some of these needed mineral resources and have been limited by the state of mining technology and political constraints.
Tourism is probably the least conscionable reason for space exploration. This will be limited to the folks that used to ride the Concorde across the Atlantic and paid $8 thousand or so to save a few hours on the round trip flight.
There better be plenty of on-board entertainment, because there will be much time when very little will be seen out the windows (assuming there will be windows).
The potential danger factor of space ship disaster, I believe, will preclude sending numbers of civilians into space in any event.
So, in my estimation, it boils down to the purely scientific search for the end of the universe and the answer to the religious/spiritual/scientific debate over what was the source of all creation.
All the other sub-plots just muddy the water with distractingly attractive justifications that the lay citizenry can grasp on to.posted by: Marcel Perez on 12.06.03 at 05:56 PM [permalink]
LOTS of things that we ordinary people enjoy now were first sold to the wealthy, and then became cheaper as the volume of production increased. The indulgences of the rich should not be sneered at, they are pioneers in many areas of life.
For various good reasons supersonic passenger flight was a dead end. But if it HAD happened, it would have been because the rich used the Concorde and paid to show what was possible.
The first tourists in space will be taking risks, comparable to "adventure tourism," or climbing Mt Everest. So what! Early airplanes were extremely dangerous, but fortunately all sorts of "civilians" flew in them anyway, and by their experimenting made aviation increasingly safe and cheap.
The same could happen to space travel, but only if we have a lot more of it going on. There's no reason I can think of that spacecraft couldn't achieve safety comparable to aircraft. (Also, on-board entertainment won't be needed, because space tourism in any volume would justify much more interesting spacecraft and space stations than the dreary industrial tin-cans currently produced by dull bureaucrats. Think, for example, of large balloon-like space habitats where you could strap on a pair of wings and fly!)
As for the reasons for going to space, those we will discover only when large numbers of people are able to spend lots of time there. Like other frontiers, space will be valuable for what people make of it, and no one can predict that in advance.posted by: John Weidner on 12.06.03 at 05:56 PM [permalink]
Your enthusiasm is not to be denied or put down, so I won't do that.
I just hope that your great-grandchildren live long enough to realize your vision of the future.
These things may happen, but neither you nor I will know that.
No nation will be able to afford the resources necessary to see these things happen in our lifetimes, because we are still too preoccupied battling the basic human problems of survival on Mother Earth. Human progress cannot be achieved by leapfrogging the natural events that will secure that progress. In other words, technological progress cannot supersede the social civilization of a presently uncivilized world.posted by: Marcel Perez on 12.06.03 at 05:56 PM [permalink]
Odd. Sitting here at my computer under the glow of fluorescent lighting in a climate-controlled building built to withstand hurricane-force winds, within a country that has not known internal strife for about a hundred and forty years, I'm wondering when we've been more civilized.
Sure, there's lots of killing in the world. There always has been. It doesn't point to a complete lack of civilization, just to that for every age there's a few that are willing to engage in wholesale slaughter to enrich themselves. I'd assert that the world is, percentage-wise, more civilized than we've been at any point in our past.posted by: Slartibartfast on 12.06.03 at 05:56 PM [permalink]
My reference to an uncivilized world describes the unbelievable amount of resources now devoted to destroying regimes and damaging countries' infrastructures just to rebuild them again.
Fighting civil insurrections in numerous places in the world. Fortifying national borders against foreseen invasions (as in N. and S. Korea). A international war against terrorism that has taken on a life not unlike a military conflict. Millions of poor people on this earth living 19th century lives in a 21st century world. Abominable rates of homicide, sexual assault, drug addiction, suicide in our own country. Many societies on the brink of economic collapse.
Active warfare in Afghanistan, Iraq, West Bank/Palestine/Israel, Russia/Chechnya.
These are just a few indicators of the uncivilized world outside your bombproof, air conditioned world. Space exploration is far down the list in importance as long as we have all these earthly problems unsettled.posted by: Marcel Perez on 12.06.03 at 05:56 PM [permalink]
"Space colonization is a fantasy that is self-feeding on the assumption that there could be a better life environment anywhere but on planet earth. The money spent on the fantasy of colonizing space could be better spent on developing ways to better habitize the fringe areas of our own planet."
Of course there could be a better life environment elsewhere in the Solar System. A colony that's beyond the reach of the DEA, the FDA, Department of Education, the FCC, EEOC, the Social Security Administration, and so on could end up being a much better environment than anyplace on Earth, even if you do have to pay your oxygen bill.
"Unfortunately, the issue of strategic military advantage in space is another rationale that will not see fruition, as international treaties will preclude the placement of military weapons systems in space."
They will if we're complete idiots. If we've got any sense at all, we won't touch such treaties with a 10 foot pole, and we'll pull out of all such existing treaties. We've already got military assets in space that need protecting (unless you don't like the idea of pinpoint attacks on military installations that almost completely avoid civilian populations, or non-trivial military operations with American casualties in the low triple digits).
"No nation will be able to afford the resources necessary to see these things happen in our lifetimes, because we are still too preoccupied battling the basic human problems of survival on Mother Earth."
The existence of problems on Earth does not preclude the use of resources to colonize space. It's better to leave some of those problems temporarily unsolved than to condemn ourselves to permanent stagnation here on Earth. If we wait until all our Earthly problems are solved, we'll be waiting a mighty long time.posted by: Ken on 12.06.03 at 05:56 PM [permalink]
Now I'm prepared to hear descriptions of warp speed travel,object tranportation through space and time, travel to other gallaxies with advanced life forms superior to us and cloaking ability to become invisible in the event they are not hospitable.
After all, aren't there millions, if not billions of gallaxies in the known universe. There must be advanced life forms on a number of planets, moons, asteroids, etc. We can put space explorers in deep hibernation in order to travel the millenia to get there. They can report their findings to our ancestors in the next century.
Yes, I enjoy watching the adventures of Captains Janeway, Kirk, and the others. And I imagine many others on this thread do, too.
At 12:00, when Star Trek is over, so are my thoughts of space travel.posted by: Marcel Perez on 12.06.03 at 05:56 PM [permalink]
We can put space explorers in deep hibernation in order to travel the millenia to get there.
Outside of science fiction books, we don't have the technology to do that. Still, if that's our objective, it must be our overt objective. Therefore, putting a man on the moon or establishing a colony at one of the Earth-Moon libration points (or even L4/L5 of the Earth/Sun libration points) must be a step toward that goal.
My reference to an uncivilized world describes the unbelievable amount of resources now devoted to destroying regimes and damaging countries' infrastructures just to rebuild them again.
As if that's never happened before. Attila, anyone? The Mongol expansion? The Crusades? The cult of conquest that was the Celts? Alliteration wholly unintended, rest assured. Sure, we're occasionally savage, but mass killing by impalement is currently frowned upon.
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