Friday night topic: What next for space exploration?

Now that the space shuttle program has launched its final mission, we’re facing some interesting questions about the future of U.S. space exploration and the fate of NASA. A number of possibilities and plans are on the table. In the short term, as I understand it, the only means of support for the International Space Station will be Russian rockets. Eventually, private firms in the U.S. are gearing up to launch satellites into orbit to perform some of the roles fulfilled by Ye Olde Space Truck. Going forward, NASA has plans for a manned mission to Mars, provided it actually gets adequate funding, and the success of unmanned robotic exploratory missions could prompt additional projects along those lines.

Are we going in the right direction with any of these things? Was retiring the shuttle program a good idea? Can private-sector efforts fulfill the shuttle’s role adequately? More importantly, how should NASA focus its efforts going forward: toward near-earth activities a la the shuttle and moon landing projects and the ISS, toward manned exploration, or more toward robotic exploration like the Mars rover project? Or should we scale it all back and take care of our needs here on Earth?

Personally, I want to support manned exploration. But space is huge, cold, and deadly, and manned exploration relies on fragile, quirky agents with short lifespans. Seems to me like we should send out lots more robots in the near term, at least. 

Which course of action do you think makes the most sense, and why? Discuss.

Comments closed
    • RcktsRGr8
    • 8 years ago

    First off, full disclosure, I’ve worked for Lockheed Martin for almost 8 years as a NASA contractor at Johnson Space Center. And for the last 4 years I’ve been a designer on the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. So my perspective is coming from “within the ranks” of the engineers that give birth to these machines.

    First, in regards to shuttle retirement. Every time NASA lights that candle, you’re watching approximately $1.3 billion of U.S. taxpayer money leave our soil and reach Mach 23 to enter low earth orbit (LOE) primarily to service the International Space Station (ISS) or Hubble. Why so expensive? In a word, tune-ups. The space shuttle is/ was a surprisingly fragile beast of a machine. When one returns from a several million mile voyage through the harshness of space and our own atmosphere, the repair bill is usually pretty astounding. All three main engines that got you there are removed, reworked, and replaced. Every single tile, RCC panel, and thermal blanket is inspected, and replaced if damaged. All propulsion systems, ECLS systems, power systems, windows… the list goes on and on… must be inspected and verified that it’s able to continue to function. Here’s my preferred analogy. It’s like taking your 30-year-old Ford F-150 into a mechanic and asking him to inspect EVERY single part of it before you re-enter it in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. But as you drive it out of the parking lot, if one of your headlights burns out, your truck explodes Hollywood style killing everyone in it. That’s what the shuttle has been for NASA, a workhorse of a vehicle, but with a wanton death wish that they’ve had to fight tooth and nail to keep running. And that’s just the Shuttle. Tack on the other two pieces of the puzzle, the External Tank (ET) and the Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) with their myriad of issues, and you’ve got the most complex moving vehicle the world has ever seen. It’s just inherently unsustainable. Multiply that by the risks that have to be taken every time you fly it (e.g. no feasible crew escape method, 30-year-old vehicle structure), and it’s clear we’ve reach the end of its life. I’m not trying to take away from its accomplishments. It’s performed some amazing feats of engineering, hauling tour bus-sized cargo into space without breaking it is no small achievement, let alone constructing ISS.

    So what’s next? For human space flight, it’s been a rocky transition, to say the least. When it was becoming clear that the Shuttle’s days were numbered, President Bush proposed the Constellation program back in 2004. NASA moved out with the plan to send humans back to the Moon, then Mars, and beyond. As is typical in today’s political environment, funding didn’t match planning. The space shuttle continued service (at ~$5B/yr) beyond its planned retirement, as well as the Space Station (which runs ~$2.3B/yr). Those are two humungous chunks of NASA budget that had been planned for Constellation but instead went to continuing funding Shuttle and ISS. Without retiring those programs as planned, NASA could not sustain a third equally massive project, and so most of Constellation was ended before it got off the ground. Some parts persisted though, Orion (the crew capsule portion of the program) being one of them, that are now part of NASA’s Exploration program where they plan to send humans to many targets beyond LOE, and not necessarily focus on the Moon exclusively, as had been Constellation’s first goal.

    Before I continue, a word about how NASA operates today. Much of what goes on within a new program at NASA is a battle of requirements. NASA (as the vehicle owner and operator) levies several hundred thousand requirements onto their chosen sub-contractor (vehicle designer and manufacturer) as to what the vehicle needs to be able to do (e.g. launch 6 crew, loiter in space for 120 days, sustain crew for 48 hours post-landing, weigh 20,000lbs, etc., etc.), and the sub-contractor goes to work on a design and comes back to NASA either meeting, meeting and exceeding, or failing to meet those requirements. At which point, the requirements are renegotiated. Maybe it becomes launch 4 crew, loiter for 90 days, sustain crew for 24 hours post-landing, and weigh 22,000lbs instead. But, understandably, NASA always asks for more first, so that they get the most capable vehicle possible in the end as requirements are slowly chipped away. Is this efficient? Nope. Does it work? It could, if the funding profile for a program weren’t so unstable. But with NASA’s budget flapping in the breeze at Congress’ whim and each President’s fancy, big complicated new programs are becoming near impossible to complete. NASA has a pretty hefty trail of programs mothballed for this primary reason. But that’s the process in a nutshell, as shabby as it may be.

    What many people misunderstand about “private” companies taking over what NASA has been doing in LOE these past 30 years is that those companies have yet to enter the hell that is “meeting NASA requirements.” (the reason I’ve put “private” in quotes there is that almost every single vehicle ever built for NASA has, in fact, been built by a private company, Lockheed Martin and Boeing are two easy one’s that come to mind, but the word private in this case is actually political jargon for “small disadvantaged businesses that are not already aerospace juggernauts”, i.e. folks that may or may not know what they’re doing, but will swear they can do it for cheaper than the big boys) These companies (Space X, Bigelow, Paragon, Orbital, ULA) have made bids for NASA contracts in a requirements vacuum, and NASA has taken the bait. Once the rubber meets the road and these companies have to prove their vehicles meet NASA’s stringent requirements, we will see who can really play ball in space. It’s one thing to work within your own company’s policies and regulations, it’s quite another to maintain the insane amount of documentation, testing, and certification protocols that NASA will be looking over your shoulder to verify have been done. There’s a little saying about the space shuttle. “Once the pile of paperwork reaches space, you’re ready to fly her there.” And that’s not very far from the truth. There’s no reason to believe it will be any different for future vehicles without NASA’s aversion to risk changing significantly.

    NASA is a lumbering bureaucracy, to be sure. But the documentation I just mentioned isn’t done for pure sport. It has a role. It’s the work that’s required to assure that if a measly human being like yourself were to board this vehicle and ride atop some powerful rocket into the depths of space, that you wouldn’t be shaken to death, or suffocated, or burned, or frozen, or irradiated, or blown into tiny bits. Space is harsh, and rockets are inherently risky. Until those two facts change, NASA will always need a guarantee that, when putting human lives on the line, things have been done right. They want to be sure you selected the proper steel from the steel mill, that you certified your fairing will separate 100 out of 100 times in testing, that you cycled your console switch 10,000 times without failure, and on and on for every single system on your vehicle. Much to everyone’s chagrin, documentation is the answer. And that’s where the aerospace giants have the experience that these newer players lack, and where we’ll see them start to struggle. They will have a design they think is perfect, but until NASA blesses it by looking over the pile of paper you hand to them, it’s not going anywhere with a NASA logo on it or astronauts aboard it. And if you can’t prove it’s perfect, then you’re back to the drawing board, and your costs just doubled. How cheaply did you say you could do this for again???

    So the real question is, “Does NASA hold some kind of exclusive rights to space exploration?” “Should they really be the end-all be-all of what goes into space?” Obviously they don’t/ shouldn’t, but there’s a reason

      • RcktsRGr8
      • 8 years ago

      (continued…) it’s not been done by private companies yet. Quite simply, there’s no profit in it. Virgin Galactic is the closest to sending humans to space for a fee and stands to make some kind of profit. But it’s a glorified 5 minute roller coaster ride for rich people which serves no other purpose, and once they’re actually flying regularly, God forbid they have an accident. Government funding is the only place where sending humans to space for long duration is attainable, the risks quantifiable, and is able to be non-profit, as inefficient as it may be

      So I’ve railed on a few topics that may or may not have been convincing, but I’ll close with this. The U.S. government could have easily funded NASA 80 times over with the money that’s been spent this year mailing lead and soldiers halfway around the world to Iraq and Afghanistan. Large scale warfare is one of the least effective uses of taxpayer money I can think of. So talk of NASA being a wasteful line-item on the U.S. budget is a joke to me with the myriad of better candidates for wastefulness much higher on the bill. I’m also a person that chalks human space exploration up there with cancer research as something humans must continue to do if we want to survive beyond the next cataclysmic event our precious planet is due for; be that an ice age, or a hot age, or a virus outbreak, or a rogue asteroid the size of Texas. Our survival will hang in the balance, and human space exploration may very well play a role in our survival. The more delays, the fluctuation of funding, the political games all make the work that could be accomplished much harder than it needs to be. But in the end, whether you like it or not, we’re not going anywhere fast in space without NASA in the driver’s seat, or we’re not going at all.

        • dashbarron
        • 8 years ago

        I just wanted to say I appreciate your input and I found it an interesting read, thank you.

          • dpaus
          • 8 years ago

          WHAT HE SAID, BUT EVEN MORE!!! 🙂

            • RcktsRGr8
            • 8 years ago

            You’re quite welcome! Sorry for the length, it’s just a complicated topic that I believe is poorly served by short sound bites, and little if any discussion of facts. There’s a lot of grey area in the blackness of space exploration. It’s tricky to be cut and dry on any of it without at least a little explanation.

            • NeelyCam
            • 8 years ago

            I got the feeling that you didn’t have the best of weeks and wanted to blow off some steam.. But I greatly appreciated the informed inside view of all this. Thanks!

        • ronch
        • 8 years ago

        Thanks for all that info. Great post!

    • LiquidSpace
    • 8 years ago

    Instead of spending billions of Dollars on this worthless Space exploration missions, we could use these amazing amounts of money on developing green, eco-friendly technologies so it would benefit not one country but the whole world.
    We could also invest in develpoing a highly inteligent and adaptable Robots to take our place in the workplaces, so people like me won’t have to spend 10 hours a day putting up with shitty co-workers and boring ass stuff.
    We could also help developing the 3rd world nations by educating them on sex and how to use condoms so they would breed less reducing their huge un-necessary numbers so that the qaulity of life for each citizen will increase tremmendously.

      • sweatshopking
      • 8 years ago

      have you been to a “3rd world nation” (and you know that has nothing to do with the development level of a nation, just that it wasn’t allied to the US or USSR during the cold war, right?)? Which nation has “huge un-necessary) numbers? Europe? with the highest population density in the world? some nations are almost 1000 people per sq km, would that be unnecessary to you? I assume you’re aware that pretty much ANYONE in the world knows how to use a condom, and it’s not like people can’t figure them out. The issues with birth control are MUCH more complicated than that.

      I have no issue with your interest in developing green tech for earth to use today, that seems reasonable, but your opinions on developing nations seems a bit 1990’s to me. If you’re actually interested, i’d advise doing some research.

    • Kevlar
    • 8 years ago

    Deep sea diving is where its at. Theres alot of weird stuff down there.

    • SomeOtherGeek
    • 8 years ago

    I’m sorry to say this, but… We all know that everything is about money. So, we need to send spaceships out that will result in a massive revenue. So, why don’t they just get something to reach the asteroids or the moons of Jupiter and mine them? Of course, it will take getting the big money from all over the world to finance this. Why go to Mars or the moon? They are mineral poor. Exploration is great and all that, but there is a limit to it. Make space flight rich, convenient and then do the exploration. Right now, we have enough knowledge about space, we need to start making use of it. Just my opinion.

      • Sahrin
      • 8 years ago

      Seeing as how the moon is made of roughly the same material the Earth is (plus the material of all the asteroids that have hit it) I don’t see how you’ve come to the conclusion that it is mineral poor.

        • mtizzle
        • 8 years ago

        Sahrin is completely correct. Helium 3 is one example of mineral resources we could extract from the moon, but there could be plenty of others.

      • HurgyMcGurgyGurg
      • 8 years ago

      Unless we develop (comparatively) insanely cheap transport like a space elevator, picking up even solid gold bars from the surface of the moon is still stretching it for cost justification. Mining can make sense for use for infrastructure building in space (asteroid mining while setting up assembly and processing at a Lagrange point), but the cost hits to getting things out of gravity wells is just immense. Current optimistic projections aim for an eventual $500 a pound bare minimum with realistic near future goals of around $1000. Add in the investment cost for setting up the operations, R&D, and it gets pretty hard to justify. It’ll be cheaper to mine from the bottom of the ocean, which is shaping up to be the next big operation (think about it, all the resources washed out from all the rivers in the world eventually ends up in silt piles on the ocean floor.) If you can process that silt, you’re set.

      For now, my money is on billionaires and tourism getting the industry going until it can support other ventures such as mining.

      • Voldenuit
      • 8 years ago

      [quote<]Why go to Mars or the moon? They are mineral poor.[/quote<] The moon is rich in helium-3, which is one of the best fusion fuels around. Earth is low in helium-3 as our magnetosphere blocks out most of the helium-3 which is carried in the solar wind. Missions to Mars are more about expanding our knowledge in the search for extraterrestrial life. If we're talking about practical space travel, the moon should be our first next stop. Mining Jupiter's moons is a bad idea, as you're entering a deep gravity well to do so (as well as large amounts of magnetic and electrical flux for the closer moons). We might be better off finding rare metals and carbon compounds from the asteroid belt.

        • Thrashdog
        • 8 years ago

        “Rich” is a bit of a overstatement there — He-3 is present in lunar regolith, but only at about ten parts per *billion.* Then, once you’ve got it, you have to have a practical fusion plant to put it into. Even after that, you’re talking about processing hundreds of millions of tons of lunar regolith for He3 just run a single gigawatt-scale plant for a year.

    • Captain Ned
    • 8 years ago

    Orion.

      • Voldenuit
      • 8 years ago

      A bit behind the times? Project Constellation (which comprised the Ares I and Ares V launch vehicles and the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle) was cancelled in October of last year.

      Under Obama’s new plan, the shell of Orion is to be used as an escape vehicle for the International Space Station. Sort of a reverse space vehicle, then. Oh, the ignomy!

        • Thrashdog
        • 8 years ago

        I’m guessing he’s referring to a [url=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Orion_(nuclear_propulsion)<]somewhat more ambitious Orion[/url<].

          • Voldenuit
          • 8 years ago

          Which has been dead for even longer.

      • Krogoth
      • 8 years ago

      We first need to have the ability to build a vehicle in LEO.

    • blastdoor
    • 8 years ago

    We cannot have nice things.

    • BoBzeBuilder
    • 8 years ago

    100!

    • albundy
    • 8 years ago

    how is it possible that money doesnt grow on trees! for shame! No warp drive = waste of time and money, cus your just exploring dead planets around you with no bio life signs.

    • ronch
    • 8 years ago

    I think what should be in everyone’s minds, and what IS in most people’s minds, is not the future of space exploration, but their own future. These space explorations can be done without (heck, we didn’t get to where we are because of space exploration). Maybe a few oddballs here and there, like how Einstein’s theory enables some technological wonders like your cellphones or GPS, but if you think we’ll discover something in outer space that will enable us to feed everybody or make everyone apart from the die-hard scientists happy, well, you need to get your head out of the clouds.

    Sometimes I wonder whether humans will really someday come up with something like the USS Enterprise. But the thing is, we have more pressing problems here on the ground, and the billions of dollars they spend to launch a rocket may well be much better spent trying to feed more people or spent on medical research. I mean, it’s not like you’ll get a full stomach or get cured of cancer if somebody up there figures out how planet formation happens.

      • dpaus
      • 8 years ago

      Without agreeing with you, if we’re looking for places to quit spending billions of dollars, can I suggest overseas military missions before space research?

        • ronch
        • 8 years ago

        Uh huh. I NEVER mentioned anything about the military missions. Read my message again and double check.

        No wonder the U.S. has such a big hole in its economy. People don’t know where to spend the country’s money where it needs to be spent. If the U.S. spends the money to launch a satellite into orbit for medical research instead, say, a cure for cancer or something, it could make more money selling that drug to other nations than telling everyone how it reached the moon and all that. As it is, people like you are exactly why the U.S. is becoming an increasingly difficult place to be in.

          • dpaus
          • 8 years ago

          Hunh/What?? You said that you thought that the money spent on space research could be better spent on earth, and I simply pointed out that the amount the U.S. spent in Iraq and Afghanistan [i<][b<]dwarfs[/i<][/b<] the amount spent by NASA many, many times over. So, if you're looking for places to cut wasteful spending, look at overseas limitary missions before space research: space research at least holds out the [i<]hope[/i<] for some progress (and [i<]has[/i<] paid off many times), overseas military spending does not.

            • ronch
            • 8 years ago

            Sorry, I think I misunderstood your post. You are righ there, man. Too much money being wasted on military missions. If they cut back on that, perhaps they can allocate more for NASA. But heck, good luck counting on that.

    • Kaleid
    • 8 years ago

    Supposedly it means more of the work will be left over to private companies. And they will then work more on space tourism rather than science.

    Neil deGrasse Tyson at UB: What NASA Means to America’s Future
    [url<]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RQhNZENMG1o[/url<]

    • Arclight
    • 8 years ago

    I think we should first take care of the technical aspects of space travell that won’t be solved by just taking a manned spacreft in Earth’s orbit, or Mars orbit for that matter.

    We need to find a realible and powerfull energy source, a very efficient propulsion that can take advantage of the energy source, radiation shielding to protect humans during deep space travell. If you think raditation and micro meteriotes shower are bad inside the sollar system…wait untill you leave the Sun’s magnetic field protection, it’s hell out there.

    Artificial gravity, a spining tube doesn’t seem ideal to me.

    Supplies…..and cryogenic stasis or near light speed travell to slow down time in order to enable the astronauts to reach their destination during their lifetime.

    Or pure and simple find the wholy Grail of space exploration…faster than light speed travell…

    As it is right now, we found all there is to know in our small part of the Universe, in terms of spacecraft design. We need to think bigger and find solutions for harder problems. For now, imo, we should just take care of the basic needs, like launching satelites and deep space probes.

      • dpaus
      • 8 years ago

      Or develop transdimensional aperatures (“wormholes”) and simply bypass every one of those problems in a single step.

    • ShadowTiger
    • 8 years ago

    I would suggest transitioning to underwater exploration. We can find out all kinds of stuff, and we don’t have to leave home. Honestly, the space program is a waste of money right now, if we wait 20 years then we can do way more and it will cost way less.

    • Antias
    • 8 years ago

    Interesting…
    Ok, was just reading this chain of comments here on my little netbook over lunch at the University I currently am contracted to (I’m a Business Systems Analyst), and decided to throw this question at the “highbrows” sitting at the table with me…

    The most fascinating resonse came from the head of physics:
    “why do you feel we have to “travel” from here to there? why spend so much energy and time in a vehicle? Can’t we just be here then, then there?”

    I aksed him what he meant by that and he said “come and sit in on some of my classes, you’ll understand what I mean” and he got up and left with a smirk on his face… (why do eggheads have to be so damn irritating?)

    After a brief discussion with some of his compatriots, they dumbed it down for me, he’s talking about dimensional travel, wormholes and such. It seems that THIS sort of technology is not as far fetched nor as far in the future as we may think and WAY more economical than physically travelling from here to there.. wherever there is..

    Reminds me of Peter F Hamiltons Commonwealth Saga series of books..

    Just some food for thought!

      • dpaus
      • 8 years ago

      Precisely what I said in the very first comment: we should be pouring the money into research on transdimensional aperatures, popularly known as ‘wormholes’. We know (or think we ‘know’) that they are possible, and if they are, they neatly bypass all of the dozens of serious challenges of interstellar travel.

    • PenGun
    • 8 years ago

    Although we have looked quite extensively we have found no intelligent life.

    It is possible the early universe was just too violent for any species to survive to intelligence. We may be the first.

    We need to get off the planet ASAP and spread out around the solar system. If we can do that we will be essentially invulnerable to most cosmic catastrophe as we could lose our planet and still go on. We could do very well.

      • mutarasector
      • 8 years ago

      “We need to get off the planet ASAP and spread out around the solar system. If we can do that we will be essentially invulnerable to most cosmic catastrophe as we could lose our planet and still go on. We could do very well.”

      Or be wiped out even still by one well placed/aimed ‘geyser shot’ from a quasar gamma burst wiping out life in the _entire solar system_ instantly. Just getting out into the solar system is not sufficient to guarantee humanity’s survival either. At best, it provides a bit of additional security against local phenomena (of solar scale) only.

      Scotty, we need warp speed – NOW……….. :).

        • PenGun
        • 8 years ago

        It will have to do for now. It’s orders of magnitude more likely that something will smack the planet than some kind of beaming event produced by a high energy interaction will be both close enough and exactly oriented enough to fry our asses.

          • mutarasector
          • 8 years ago

          True, it will have to do for now if only because a logical progression in doing so would be required. But my point is the goal has to be pushed beyond the Sol system.

          BTW, it isn’t orders of magnitude less likely as there have already been determined there are several potential quasar threats pointed in the general direction of our solar system as evidenced by Hubble photos. Currently there are about 60 known (I say again, *known*) such Quasars, or potential “BLAZARS’.

          Space is far more hostile than most of us realize, and statistical likelihood is not limited to or purely because of local proximity…

      • Kaleid
      • 8 years ago

      There is no quite extensively in such a large place as the universe, we have barely begun.

      • trackerben
      • 8 years ago

      Species survival is not requisite given that historically, people always emerge who can be counted on to fight and survive, as well as compete to be king of the hill. The high orbitals are about the highest of heights to command. There is an emergent faith which holds humanity to be petty and peripheral to all things, or somehow even a “problem” needing some ecoreligious “final solution”.

    • mutarasector
    • 8 years ago

    Starting with near earth (LEO?) platforms, perhaps a ‘tether-vator’ with an eye towards maintaining a handful of manned orbital stations with nuclear engine powered ‘puddle jumper’ shuttles between them. The stations are primarily for research purposes, but can also serve as a launching point for a…..

    …building a lunar base.

    A more permanent luna colony with an eye towards maintaining a mining, manufacturing and launching facility of materials/supplies to…

    …. Lagrange colonies.

    Personally, I feel a manned Mars expedition is a waste of resources (mostly *time*) on our part and rather premature. What we should be focusing on is getting Gerard O’Neill’s Lagrange colony built with an eye towards two primary goals, moving heavy/toxic manufacturing to space, and establishing mining of useful metals/elements from the asteroid belt for use in the colony to build additional Lagrange colonies, and nuclear fusion powered spaceships for hauling those materials and/or expedition projects such as Mars, Io, or Europa.

    It’s more of a logical ‘lilly pad’ approach that emphasizes/prioritizes robotic missions during the earlier phases of a long term program. Even while mining actual raw materials, robotic missions could still benefit us with data collection for ‘mining’ once they return, or we can develop advanced telemetry/communications to meet the harsh conditions of deep space. Not to mention, a regular run, or route to the asteroid belt can also serve as part of an early detection/warning scheme for roque asteroids heading our way, perhaps even as a first line of defense against such scenarios.

      • dpaus
      • 8 years ago

      I had the great fortune to meet Gerard K O’Neill waaayyy back in the day, and was always deeply impressed by two things about him: the sheer power of his personal visions, and the staggering depth of his innocence when it came to political realities. Although he’s best remembered as a proselytizers for space colonies, he’s also the co-inventor of mass drivers (popularized as the ‘rail gun’ in the Schwarzenegger movie ‘Eraser’) and owned a patent on GPS-based vehicle navigation.

        • mutarasector
        • 8 years ago

        I would have loved to meet the man. He was truly an ‘Edison’ type and quite a visionary. Just think of it – had we started actually working on his idea back in the 70’s, we’d *have* an O’Neill colony at L4 or L5 right now, and be less than 50 years away of solving the world’s energy crisis by spot-beaming converted solar energy as microwave energy to receptor stations here on earth, and climate change due to man contributed warming effect of a fossil fuel powered industrialization would practically be eliminated.

        As it stands, the only O’Niell colony right now is a cylinder of his ashes sharing an orbital slot ‘apartment’ with Roddenberry…

          • trackerben
          • 8 years ago

          That kind of future will be driven by two enablers and an overriding issue – reliable and cheap (relative to staged lift and fancy winged taxis) SSO heavy-lift capacity to allow construction at orbitals up to Lagrange, leading to economically viable solar power constellations, ideally with expeditionary military applications. DC-X was just the proving ground and perhaps these Falcons will show a better way. Blaze a path and put in the incentives and people and organizations with frontier spirit will lead us into the future.

          The overriding necessity is the future need to exploit minerals and fuels from the moon and interceptable bollides to support the inception of LEO industry and perhaps even commerce. Extracting fuel and material for provisioning NASA missions heading for interplanetary or even extrasolar space is incidental to this priority need to jumpstart infrastructure. The reason for involving the military is not just to keep war-winning capabilities but to ally with a partner with huge budgets and to initially push enough material and people up out of the gravity well into a permanent space presence. When fabrication shops, assembly plants, and self-powered and sustaining ecosystems are happening is when humanity can be said to be opening up the new frontier and not just visiting it.

            • Voldenuit
            • 8 years ago

            Single Stage to Orbit (SSTO) isn’t happening with chemical rockets. Staging is the most efficient way to launch a vehicle into space and maintain a usable payload fraction. If you go SSTO, you have to sacrifice a lot of structural (and engine) mass budget, which makes the spacecraft more fragile and/or drives up the cost of the vehicle.

            Now if we were talking about Nuclear Thermal Rockets (NTR), that may change (because of the huge Isp values attainable and the high mass of the nuclear engine), but I don’t think anyone is going to be launching NTRs from a populated planet anytime soon.

            • trackerben
            • 8 years ago

            Testing for an operational SSTO (my word!) design is crucial because of the need to fit operational requirements more like that of an airline running on schedules than of a quasi-military organization launching expendable artillery-like packages. The operational difference may well mean economic viability of the kind overpromised by the Shuttle. Mission costs can then be planned for in terms of multiples of fuel costs and depreciation (which can be incentivived), instead of in write offs of complete structures and motors engineered to a use-once spec. From this perspective it’s no longer useful to think in terms of a structure but of reusable aerospaceframes, which is the type of cost model the airline industry runs on. Unlike in the 1950s we now have reliable use-many rocket motors and designs capable of near orbit on their own, and to LEO with external assist from all kinds of airbreathing lift like mother planes, or landable RATO which are not just expendable boosters like the Shuttle’s were. Rutan’s designs are in this line.

            Perhaps I should have mentioned the SSX proposal which spun-off into the 1990s DCX, SSX envisioned skunkworks X-planes iteratively pushing the limits of spaceplane until almost-orbit was achievable. What we have now is mostly speculation as the programs were not funded or did not pan out. But if they had been, at some risky point in the development cycle orbit would have been attempted as proof of concept. With such success payload would translate conceptually into cargo as per airfreight cost model. There are many unknowns as yet, especially on re-entry modes and landing geometry. But the required engines are already rated and ready, and lots of designs and new materials are available to test.

            There’s a possibility it is already being done but in the black. Although NASA isn’t pursuing this seeing as how the Shuttle siphoned off most development funds, the USAF has secret programs which may feature something similar although more of a atmosphere skipper, a fast point-point delivery or recon platform rather than a ground to orbit and back spacecraft. One of the declassified studies was HAVE REGION which showed that designs having mass ratios and strength exceeding the minimum required for SSTO without payload are already possible with current technologies. Finding the difference in actual builds and test attempts is going to yield figures for economic cargo to LEO. I’ve read elsewhere that a payload of almost 10,000 lbs is possible with current designs that are practical and resuable. Questions remain as to lifespan and maintenance, the other major cost bases.

            Why we need to get up there and build systems to beam microwave energy down and sling science missions into deep space is a civilizational imperative. To get stuff up to LEO reliably and economically as cargo rather than as payload means a decision to treat the problem as an economic one solvable through operations analysis, and studies show the odds remain high on SSTO being the likely candidate in the near future.

            • Voldenuit
            • 8 years ago

            There is no reason advances in materials and manufacturing that enable SSTO designs can’t be applied to conventional multi-stage rockets with or without reusable components (such as the shuttle’s booster engines, which are recaptured after launch), and with greater benefits (the rocket equation rewards weight savings in multi stage designs even more than in single stage designs, as the savings compound with each stage).

            As for the putative 10,000 lb payload, the shuttle already carries 50,000 lbs to LEO. So you’re proposing a massive increase in cost and complexity to go backwards.

            I’m not saying SSTO is physically impossible, I’m saying that it is a goal that is an end chasing its means rather than as a means to an end (be that end cost, payload or efficiency). By their nature, such designs are rarely justified when it comes time to crunch economic realities. Perhaps I’ll be proven wrong when (or more likely, if) Skylon (born from the ashes of the failed HOTOL proposal) takes flight, but I’m not holding my breath. So far, they’ve been a huge money suck with nothing to show for it.

            As for Rutan’s designs, they have
            a. no range (110km ceiling)
            b. no payload
            and
            c. no capability for re-entry at orbital speeds
            They’re essentially a toy shuttlecock with people inside, and of little to no relevance to a human or economic presence in space.

            Lastly, I’m very doubtful of black projects in the post-Cold War world. Aside from the difficulty in hiding the enormous amount of funding involved, there is little strategic benefit left in hiding them from the public. If the USAF did in fact have a Mach 6 plane (*cough*Aurora), they’d be touting it as a means to gain more funding rather than hiding it.

            • trackerben
            • 8 years ago

            Yes, staged lift will always have the advantage if you are designing to a mission profile which defines most of what is a disintegrating candle as throwaway mass. That mission would then be most efficient at shedding non-payload for the sake of hurdling the 25Kfps velocity bar. The ultimate staged system was Saturn which delivered 110K lbs of payload on a gross liftoff weight about 60x that. With today’s engines, higher exhaust velocities could allow for SSTO designs with mass ratios in the 10x range. Of course it would be impractical given worst case numbers as proponents like Hudson and Woodcock have shown it can’t range much higher and still result in something resembling a cargo vehicle.

            We get slightly lower mass ratios assuming best cases for delta in coefficients for atmospheric drag and for optimum motive efficiencies in flight transitions (one thing we do know is that vacuum lsps are higher for Pratt & Whitney’s latest hydrogen burner), and with the best cases we finally get values for some cargo. Perhaps even a lot of cargo. But only for best cases, as the actual rocket science isn’t complete. The funding, the test flights, the data collection never happened, and analysis remains insufficient. The aerospaceframe lifespan numbers crucial to further validation can’t be reliably estimated because only an actual test regime can give clues as to long-term structural integrity and minimum gauge and fuel margins for a given design.

            I mentioned Rutan because he has at least achieved a proof of concept, although only to near-orbit with monkey payload as you point out. The real significance is he showed that a small private enterprise can gather the will and expertise to go beyond atmosphere into suborbitals at a tiny fractional cost of a workhorse Delta IV launch, never mind a $Billion shuttle mission. Not to mention Scaled did this on an organizational and staffing basis not much bigger than NASA’s PR and liason establishment. Each Space Shuttle had some 5,000 highly-paid NASA positions behind it in support and to keep it a going concern. With four shuttles this meant a $2Billion+ yearly payroll for the ground spacers’ happiness.

            Looking at another model, we see that each USAF SR-71 launch was intensely planned and prepped like a space launch as these spyplanes were transiting large swathes of the globe at altitudes around 80,000 feet. It was a highly technical and over-resourced black program and yet apparently it required far fewer than a hundred people per airframe to keep going, including administration and oversight. SSTO’s candidacy as a cheap, reliable, and flexible heavy-lift rocketry path to populating LEO is premised more on the operating assumptions behind the SR-71 than the Showboat ‘n jobs extravaganza that is the space shuttle program.

            As for the fabled Aurora, I’d like to hear contrary arguments as to how something can not matter when highly aerospace-competent third parties are interested in following it. [url<]http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/newsnight/5079044.stm[/url<] I understand it would mainly be, if it ever was, a flexible method for delivering loud prejudice to any point on earth within 120 minutes of a presidential finding. The precursors as it surfs on the atmosphere would light up every early-warning array on that side of the globe. But a platform so capable at transamospheric flight may have many uses. Even if this mythical flyer does not represent the only stage of a misdirecting black SSTO program, should its design accomodate nonconformal payloads then a version could still serve as a launcher for one. The previous administration wisely decided to deemphasize spysat programs which were caught up in technical boondoogles, and all those funds were freed up for other things. Like the current Falcon, CAV, and who knows what else $10billion in repurposed funds can buy. Which is 10x more than what Reagan's space advisory council estimated back then for doing serious SSTO trials towards a 20K lbs payload target. Perhaps this administration should funnel some of that towards Skylon in return for expanded basing rights on Diego Garcia. Some say it is a good site for studying the tethered path to the stars, a.k.a. Clarke's Space Elevator.

            • Thrashdog
            • 8 years ago

            Trying to launch more than a basic bootstrap kit into orbit is the wrong way to go about things — heck, putting space industry in any kind of gravity well is pointless and counterproductive, because the majority of the useful minerals we have on Earth or would find on the Moon come from asteroids. There are plenty of viable NEOs to target for mining operations, and once you’ve got the basic necessities for manufacturing up from Earth you can just build out from there and avoid the prohibitive cost of launching materials and equipment. A single decent-sized nickel-iron asteroid would provide enough metals for decades to centuries of manufacturing, and a carbonaceous chondrite would provide most of the volatiles needed for fuel production and life support.

            • trackerben
            • 8 years ago

            Every pound counts, but bootstrapping on a shoestring may not be easy because of the need for large crews in excess of minimum needed for maintenance and life support. Humans are poorly adapted to zero-gravity and even the fittest men will inevitably waste away during long stays in that environment. Manning resource limits for a space-based construction project may resemble that of hotzone work in nuclear submarines, whose plant crews suffer high turnover relative to other “industries” due to exposure limits as much as stressful workloads.

            Automated robotics and teleoperation across light-hour lags have to develop within acceptable failure rates. Then it might become possible to emplace mine-in-a-box packages on asteroids which can do some extraction work while the rock is slowly nudged into tighter orbits for later collection. Whether it would be economic to do so in the long run would also depend on the project horizon and unforeseen contingencies. It wouldn’t do the numbers any good if a batch of rocks is already mined out but downstream manufacturing is abandoned or stretched out in favor of earth-side union jobs by the next Democrat administration to come long.

            • Voldenuit
            • 8 years ago

            I think you’re jumping the gun a bit there. We don’t have the expertise or experience to manufacture or refine in zero gravity.

            Without gravity, any mining robot or installation would have to be tethered to the asteroid. You also would not be able to easily separate raw ore based on density (to get at those precious heavy metals) and smelting out metals based on differing melting points and densities gets really tricky.

            As trackerben mentioned, teleoperation across light hours of distance is also tricky, and AI is not yet at the stage where it could autonomously survey and manage mining operations by itself.

            Until that time, a waystation to refine and process the ores is a good idea. You could situate the refineries on Mars to process raw ores that are mined from asteroids. You can also produce rocket fuel from the Martian atmosphere (converting CO to CH4 or other hydrocarbons) for the return trip to Earth. And the radio lag from Mars to the asteroid belt is a lot less than from Earth, so communication and control of the robot miners is more feasible.

            Whether the huge infrastructure costs involved (for both zero g or Martian refining) are economically viable is another matter. I don’t think asteroid mining will be profitable until Earth reserves are severely depleted.

            • Thrashdog
            • 8 years ago

            Conceptually it would be feasible to excavate an internal torus from a metallic asteroid and spin it up to generate a partial g environment, which would allow for centrifugal ore separation and create a more habitable environment for operators. Not that you’d want to mine every asteroid that way, or that it’d even be possible on many of them, but as a home-base for operations it could work.

            [quote<]I don't think asteroid mining will be profitable until Earth reserves are severely depleted.[/quote<] I agree, but by many estimates that'll begin to happen in a few decades, or even several years for many rare earths. Current electronics and photovoltaics are extremely dependent on rare earth production. An operation aimed at extracting rare earths that entered development now could very well be profitable by the time it was ready to start launching rockets.

            • mutarasector
            • 8 years ago

            The initial O’Neill colony would not be terribly huge (relatively speaking to the full sized one he wanted to see built), but would be sufficient for accommodating up to 10,000 inhabitants. At that population level, and manufacturing ‘ring’ facilities, a 2nd colony could be built much faster than the first, larger, accommodate far more inhabitants, and provide for increased heavy manufacturing in lo-G space, and be knocking out materials for solar collectors and building materials for yet another colony. Some estimates have placed up to 4 such colonies could have have been in existence by 2080, even starting with 1970’s technology, with the first taking about 40 years to build, the second one (several times larger no less) in another 25-30 years after that, a third colony 15-20 years after that, and a fourth in just 10 years after that. Another researcher postulated that the original Lagrange colony could even be ‘cut’ up along it’s axis into 3rds, and the lowered in a slow controlled decent to the moon’s surface in order to reuse the resulting 3 structures as part of pressurized arched structures to build a city sized Luna colony practically overnight.

            All of the ideas I’ve heard of or seen so far require a cliff-wall steep investiture curve, but acceleration of the whole project would occur relatively rapidly once a sizable workforce was up there, and at almost a geometric progressive rate.

            • trackerben
            • 8 years ago

            Such dreams, but these are what the next generation needs to get motivated and fly starward. Yes that’s a lot of real spending money there. Only governments or coalitions can fund a long-term stream of this magnitude. Just to validate the concepts and initial capabilities for solar collectors and power transmission will mean expenditures in the $Trillions. And that’s on top of building cheap and routine access to low orbit by whichever lifting or slinging model works. Which means a sizeable lifting fleet or infrastructure likely costing a major fraction of another $Trillion. Once a critical mass of people and plant are up there, and if solar power satellites are found not just to work, but to also work economically by generating reinvestible savings for earth grids, then we may have the beginnings of a properly virtous cycle of industry and commerce in space.

            Or perhaps production powersats can be skipped until later, and we just bootstrap the energy needs of the LEO infrastructure with fissionables and volatiles extracted from the moon and nearby rocks. But until then the entire scheme would be a grand leap of faith for any national leader to sign off on, even if only for initial studies and tests which would surely be terribly expensive.

        • BobbinThreadbare
        • 8 years ago

        Just one little nit pick, I don’t think Eraser popularized anything, and I’m pretty sure the term rail gun predates it.

    • sschaem
    • 8 years ago

    [url<]http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/142458main_FY07_budget_full.pdf[/url<] This was planned a long time ago, and the money as been moved around. NASA budget is still huge.

      • Kaleid
      • 8 years ago

      No, see my youtube video with Neil Degresse Tyson in this topic, NASA is very cheap.

      Bush wanted USA to go to Mars, but that would have demanded a lot of extra funding.

    • Ragnar Dan
    • 8 years ago

    Some here would appear to imagine that short term thinking is somehow related to a free economy. Quite the contrary. A government which debases the monopoly currency, violates contracts, and destroys property rights through both theft and regulation makes long term planning impossible, or at best extraordinarily expensive to buy insurance to protect. Even putative plans of government are reversed by the same government once they decide spending for political gain is more important. The shuttle’s replacement was eliminated in 2009’s NASA spending, and even a modernized capsule to make one of multiple launch vehicles capable of human/payload transport has been delayed to spend the money elsewhere.

    Inflation alone destroys long term planning. Even for those who are unaware of it, as illustrated by the moral collapses of the 1960’s and late 1970’s. Even children understood it implicitly, though most not in economic terms. Inflation does give governments a greater fraction of national output, though.

    • FuturePastNow
    • 8 years ago

    I’m pretty down on the future of manned space flight. Sadly, we’ve turned into a culture that just isn’t inspired by the awesomeness of exploding a human into space.

    The private sector can get the job done as far as far as launching satellites into orbit, but scientific research is something only the government can do. There’s no short-term profit in it.

      • sschaem
      • 8 years ago

      ? The US didn’t eliminate NASA budget. The budget is actually growing.

      What we dont have is a very, very costly taxi service to the ISS. Let china , rusia pay the bill for a while to send supply up there.

      NASA can do better things with its 17+ billion budget then servicing the 30 years old shuttles.

    • HurgyMcGurgyGurg
    • 8 years ago

    Infodump on current situation:

    Short version:

    Space exploration will be alright. It’ll get done one way or another. NASA looks to be out of the rocket business as its latest development program was canceled and, Space X (one of the private companies) is basically catching up to the point where they can get a very nice rocket ready before NASA can. This isn’t too bad. Space X currently looks to be able to do it about 8 times cheaper than the Shuttle. Budget savings should allow NASA to focus on its robotics, rovers, probes, and telescopes instead, saving the projects that get the most bang for the buck and scientific advancement. Manned (US) space missions are gone for a few years however no matter what.

    Long version:

    The shuttle has done some amazing things, but space exploration isn’t really one of them. Shuttle gets you to LEO. We’ve been in LEO for 60 years, not too much you can call exploration there. Sure, it helps with figuring out how to get humans to live in space for extended periods of time, but it isn’t doing active space exploration. All real space exploration has (since Apollo) been done by robots and satellites. (The one important exception is Hubble which the Shuttle did deliver.)

    Luckily all of those missions use launch vehicles other than the Shuttle (Atlas, Titan, and Delta series primarily). Unmanned space exploration will not take much of a hit.

    It’s not nice to say it, but it’s actually rather good to get rid of the Shuttle. What was originally billed as the cheapest launch system in history, ended up being the most expensive. It was functional and worked (almost all the time), just it was pretty much like an old, failing car that, if you added up the repair and maintenance cost to keep it running, you quickly realize you could buy two new cars instead.

    So what’s next? Well, the current hotshot is Space X. The founder, Elon Musk, wants to retire on Mars, you’ve got to love their vision. Their Falcon 9 rocket has secured a resupply contract to the ISS for about 6 or so missions. They’ve had two successful launches and they are schedule for two more launches this year including the first resupply mission (but it will probably be delayed to 2012). Compared to the Shuttle, the Falcon 9 is on the small side and can only deliver half its payload. However, it costs 8 times less, so, it’s still 4 times cheaper. The Falcon 9 is man rated, so NASA might let it do manned missions if the cargo resupplies go well.

    Next up for them is developing the Falcon 9 Heavy, which is scheduled to have it’s first test flight next year with around a 2014 operational likelihood. This guy is what really looks promising. It should be able to deliver twice the payload of the shuttle (enough to start assembling moon, mars, and asteroid missions) at a quarter of the cost. Will it pan out? Hopefully, but no one can be sure.

    So where does this leave NASA? Well, the embarrassing thing is that Space X is now building rockets cheaper and quicker than NASA’s subcontractors (Boeing, Lockheed, and ATK primarily) can do. NASA’s next rocket was canceled last year in light of the standard cost overruns and delays (it wouldn’t have been operational till 2014 at the earliest and one congressional study pointed to a 2017 likelihood). The writing on the wall seems to be that NASA is out of the rocket business.

    Unless we get another space race going with the Chinese or something, NASA’s budget isn’t going to fair the best. At this point, it all becomes about bang for the buck. Well, this could be a good thing. Getting out of the rocket business allows NASA to focus on what it does best, designing and building the robotics, rovers, probes, telescopes, and in the future, the lunar or mars base. Basically the scientific stuff.

    From now on, it looks like the private companies might be the freight trains to get them there.

      • trackerben
      • 8 years ago

      “sic itur ad astra” – “alis aquilae”

      • mcnabney
      • 8 years ago

      There isn’t going to be a manned Martian mission in either of our lifetimes. Unless you are planning a one-way trip.

      Here is the key reason why – getting in and out of a Martian gravity well.

      Mars has very little atmosphere, making a soft landing extremely difficult. Current probes crash land in a giant air bag. Not something squishy humans are ready to do. And recall, those probes are about as big as a lawn tractor. Factoring in people would be a nightmare.

      And most important, you have to land a rocket with the capability to get the people back into orbit. That means trying to soft land something the size of a Delta rocket. We have enough of a headache getting a reliable rocket to take off here, imagine hauling one to Mars, finding some way to LAND something that huge (or even assemble it on the surface), and then getting it ready for launch.

      Let’s leave Mars to the dreamers and keep the engineers focused on finding cheaper ways to get material into Earth orbit (either through a new lift capability or mining asteroids/comets/moon).

        • bthylafh
        • 8 years ago

        FWIW we /have/ gotten a rocket to take off and land on Earth.

        [url<]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McDonnell_Douglas_DC-X[/url<] So it's not an insurmountable problem, just rather difficult.

        • HurgyMcGurgyGurg
        • 8 years ago

        I agree that materials mining is very important as well, and I agree that we don’t want to just sink effort into another token landing and not get beyond it, but the pessimism about landing on Mars is maybe a bit overstated.

        Steps are being made in the right direction. The most recent rover, the Mars Science Laboratory is the size of a Mini Cooper and will be landed using rocket thrusters and [url=http://www.wired.co.uk/magazine/archive/2011/07/features/rover-returns/viewgallery#!image-number=4/<]a sky-crane[/url<] being developed by JPL because it needs exactly the kind of soft landing you're talking about. Mars is only double the Moon's escape velocity, so it seems relatively likely that it can be done. Ultimately, it's kind of embarrassing, but until the industry is far more mature, the only viable source of income seems to be tourism (outside of earth orbit), so shooting for the high targets might be worth it. Plus, it's not always either or, getting to Mars will still develop a lot of the tech needed (like better lift capacity).

    • TEAMSWITCHER
    • 8 years ago

    The SETI project! If we find an alien intelligence greater than our own, it could advance our technology in ways that we can’t even imagine. We might even learn how to cross the vast interstellar distances. Which would be awesome since our solar system only has one hospitable planet.

      • dpaus
      • 8 years ago

      Aren’t you making a rather large assumption about their intentions? I can just imagine the North American natives watching the huge sailing ships pulling up to their coast and saying “If they’re that advanced, they must be peaceful…”

      • Cyril
      • 8 years ago

      That seems like kind of a longshot—not just because a spacefaring alien civilization visiting us might not necessarily be peaceful, but because the vastness of space and time stack the odds against it.

      Carl Sagan [url=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dilKJ6uLCc8<]estimated[/url<] that there may be only about 10 technological civilizations in the Milky Way right now. That calculation might be a little out of date—I think recent data suggests stars are more likely to harbor planets than he assumed. Even so, we're probably looking at few handfuls of blips out of the hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy. Now, how many of those civilizations would, at this present stage in their evolution, have the technology to travel potentially tens of thousands of light years to our planet? And why would they come here, out of the countless star systems in the galaxy? Our first radio signals only extend to about a hundred light years, and the Milky Way's diameter is a [i<]thousand[/i<] times that. The chances are, quite literally, astronomical.

      • lilbuddhaman
      • 8 years ago

      I remember reading somewhere that even if there was a planet that was as or more technologically advanced than us, the chances they have discovered some form of space travel that exceeds the speed of light are extremely low. and even IF they were able to travel at that speed, that would mean that the closest neighboring solar system, Alpha Centauri is ~4.5 years away from us…but that would be assuming there is life there and that life is hyper-advanced.

      Unfortunately, other planets with advanced life like our own are likely suffering the same issues as us, no real means of traveling in space extremely quickly.

      • mutarasector
      • 8 years ago

      [quote<]The SETI project! If we find an alien intelligence greater than our own, it could advance our technology in ways that we can't even imagine.[/quote<] Unlikely scenario. A civilization advanced beyond our own would most likely operate under some sort of Prime Directive. Besides, the question of whether or not we *should* go to space should not be predicated simply on the existence of other intelligent life, but more out of necessity.

        • moose17145
        • 8 years ago

        Even if they are not operating under some sort of prime directive… lets look at simple facts from our own planet…. typically civilizations more advanced than others don’t like sharing their more advanced technology with others…. also lets assume that they are willing to share their technology with us… if they are even half as advanced as you say they could be (ie can travel around the galaxy about as easily as i can buy a plane ticket and head to another part of the country / planet), then the chances of us understanding their sciences and technology would be almost nothing anyways. It’d be like giving a caveman a computer and then trying to explain to him how it worked. Even if he was the smartest caveman on the planet… he is still a caveman and wouldn’t understand a single thing i am trying to explain to him anyways. And i would be willing to bet that the technological and intelligence gap between a typical computer nerd today and that caveman would be a lot smaller than our civilization today and an alien civilization that can traverse the stars.

          • Antimatter
          • 8 years ago

          An advance civilization just wouldn’t be that interested in us. Its possible that they would have created some form of artificial intelligence that would have ‘god-like’ intelligence. We would be like insects or even paramecia compared to them.

        • dpaus
        • 8 years ago

        To paraphrase:

        [quote<]I can just imagine the North American natives watching the huge sailing ships pulling up to their coast and saying "If they're that advanced, they must operate under some form of Prime Directive...[/quote<]

        • mutarasector
        • 8 years ago

        To whoever “-1” me for my comment, if this was done because of some perceived slight of the SETI project, it was not intended to be such. Rather, it was merely made to point out that we can’t pin our hopes on it. Doing so is a crap shoot, and ET doesn’t like hostile aliens either.

        For the “-1”, thanks for proving my point. 😛

          • dpaus
          • 8 years ago

          No, I think you got a ‘-1’ for posting an intelligent comment. That seems to happen a lot around here.

    • Krogoth
    • 8 years ago

    If want our “species” to last any significant geological span of time, space travel is a must. The Earth cannot sustain us forever. The reality is that we got so much BS (all levels) that prevents us from focusing on long-term solutions. We want the immediate benefits now! To hell with long-term consequences.

      • Vasilyfav
      • 8 years ago

      That is blatantly false. We have the technology to solve our energy problems here on earth and lead a sustainable life, yet we aren’t even close to agreeing or beginning to do anything significant about it.

      And you want us to infect other planets with the consuming parasite that is humanity? Lol, ok.

        • Krogoth
        • 8 years ago

        That’s assuming you want to regress back to stone ages/hunter gathers with the global population number within a few million and be at the mercy of environment changes.

        There isn’t enough energy and resources to sustain modern civilization for geological spans of time (thousands of years). We have to look elsewhere beyond the blue planet. There is plenty of resources in the Solar system.

        Planets aren’t sentient or living beings. They are merely inanimate objects.

        • mutarasector
        • 8 years ago

        If “we have the technology” , but we’re also a bunch of “consuming parasites”, doesn’t that make us the >G’uald<, and essentially >evil<?

      • Voldenuit
      • 8 years ago

      I agree with Vasilyfav. The fact that we are unable to focus on long term survival means that we don’t deserve to (survive). The universe might be a better place without us, after all.

        • Krogoth
        • 8 years ago

        Universe doesn’t care or is sentient/aware. It operates on scales that makes any of our endeavors look hopelessly insignificant.

          • mutarasector
          • 8 years ago

          …So lets not even try then, right?

            • Krogoth
            • 8 years ago

            No, I am just saying that Universe is so mind-bogging huge and operates on scales that makes anything we do look completely insignificant by comparison.

            I am not saying it is completely futile to try to explore as much as possible.

    • tdsevern
    • 8 years ago

    Let me just say this, without NASA and its dedication to space exploration, the world would be a TOTALLY different place. Computers, plastics, composites, ceramics, clothing, TV’s, cars, power plants, GPS, cell phones, and satellite imagery to name a few were all greatly advanced or even invented by research done by NASA. Although it seems expensive by itself, it’s nothing compared to what we spend on debt for example. I think it’s a huge mistake to cut funding for space exploration. I could rant all day about the completely backwards ideas of the Obama administration (such as…. the US funding a quarter of all UN expenses, yet we “can’t afford” funding research that creates jobs in the US!)

    NASA 2011 budget: $19 B/yr (0.5% of total budget)
    US Air conditioning bill for Iraq troops: $20 B/yr (Thank you troops! Now lets get you home!)
    US Interest on debt: $251 B/yr (6.5% of total budget)

    There are tons of brilliant people working at NASA. Give them the money and let them figure out what would benefit the country the most. That is what they have always done.

      • xeridea
      • 8 years ago

      Glow in the dark was invented by NASA……, and the Obamanation administration needs to burn in hell.

    • Voldenuit
    • 8 years ago

    The future of space exploration isn’t bright. In the short term, NASA has contracted out ISS supply to commercial entities such as SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, as well as relying on Russian rockets.

    In the long term, we (the world, not just the US) have no viable launch vehicle or space capsule capable of carrying a manned mission to any other planets. Project Constellation, which was supposed to return the US to the moon, was hoped to be able to be extended to Mars missions, but was cancelled. SpaceX has announced ambitions to reach Mars within the next decade, but it is hard to see how such a venture would be fundable (let alone profitable) in the private sector. China and India are pursuing their own space programs, but are very secretive about their goals and abilities.

    Humanity never reached more than the cusp of space exploration, I am not certain that it will ever go beyond what it’s already achieved. We need access to space to address the growing power needs of mankind (with orbital solar farms), and colonization of space will improve the odds of the species’ long-term survival by spreading humanity so that extinction events (asteroids, cosmic flares, ecological collapse) at a single location will not wipe out the entire species. Will it ever happen? I’m not sure. We have the physical resources and intellectual capacity to start exploring space, but not the economic resources nor the public will to commit them.

    • RickyTick
    • 8 years ago

    The problem seems to be speed (or velocity). We just don’t seem to have the ability to travel very far in any reasonable amount of time. Sure we could go to Mars, or maybe even Jupiter. Maybe we need to spend some time and resources developing better propulsion or something. Relative to the size of just our solar system, we are travelling at less than a snails pace.

    • ryan345
    • 8 years ago

    Since we don’t have enough money to do everything, I’d vote for:
    1) Robotic missions both for science and to generate interest in the program. Do something more approachable and entertaining like capture some HD video panning around some interesting feature on Mars. A cave was discovered last year, sounds like an interesting target, after exploring around the cave awhile from the surface, parachute in and broadcast out some video.
    2) Research on cheaper lift vehicles. Some way or other we need to drop the cost per pound to lift something into space.

    • SnowboardingTobi
    • 8 years ago

    Without space exploration, Uranus jokes just aren’t the same.

    … nah, they’re still funny…

    • dpaus
    • 8 years ago

    Can I do a mini-hijack? Show of hands, please: who thinks that – assuming that we can establish with reasonable confidence that there is no life on Mars – we should start a project to terraform the Red Planet?

      • sweatshopking
      • 8 years ago

      duh. of course we should. Cause i’m always looking for interesting places to make out.

      • jensend
      • 8 years ago

      It’s an intriguing idea, but we probably need a full century of more basic research into materials, ecology, and Mars before it makes sense to start such a project.

      • Voldenuit
      • 8 years ago

      I believe the next robotic rover NASA is sending – named Curiosity – is supposed to go looking for evidence of life (past or present) on Mars, but they are still considering which landing sites would give the best representation of the planet.

      Assuming the planet is found to be barren, I would like to see humanity establish a presence on the planet, but terraforming a whole planet is no simple matter. Humans have been doing it (albeit as a side effect) for over 200 years and have made only a few degrees’ rise (if any) in global temperatures on Earth.

      Mars [i<]may[/i<] be simpler since it doesn't have the negative feedback loops of the oceans or of plant-life. Pumping greenhouse gases into the Martian atmosphere may be enough to start a positive feedback loop to unfreeze the dry ice and water locked in the poles, which will thicken the atmosphere and continue to raise the temperature by trapping yet more heat. Unfortunately, the current Martian atmosphere is already 95% CO2, and levels above 1% (at STP) are already toxic to humans, so greenhousing the planet is not enough to terraform it. Even in the best case scenarios, it will take centuries to transform the planet into something habitable for humans, and it is highly unlikely that humanity as a species will ever be able to maintain a concerted will to do so for that long. Not to mention that the financial and physical resources required for such a project are probably beyond the GDP of the entire planet (speculation on my part - I haven't done the math),

        • sweatshopking
        • 8 years ago

        DUDE. haven’t you seen star trek iv? that was like the 80’s and we knew how to do it then…

          • dpaus
          • 8 years ago

          That was Star Trek II. I just lost all my respect for you….

            • mutarasector
            • 8 years ago

            In ST:Enterprise, man was already terra-forming Mars in the prequel era to ST:TOS/movies time frame…

            • dpaus
            • 8 years ago

            Speaking of timeline contamination…. ssk was talking about the movies, and actually mentioned the 80s. Jeez, is it only Voldenuit and I that know ST canon around here? Both of you should be ashamed…. And especially you, with that name!

            • sweatshopking
            • 8 years ago

            It would seem 🙁 I was born in the mid 80’s, and actually haven’t seen the movies in at least a decade. I thought it was the one with the whales… It would seem not.. I guess i’ll have to watch them all again….

            • dpaus
            • 8 years ago

            Right! And this time, take notes. Detailed notes (hmm, that might require watching the blu-ray editions)

        • ryan345
        • 8 years ago

        I agree with most of this except the sustained effort and cost. It might be possible to seed the planet with a chain of organisms, over a long period of time. Drop genetically engineered mold species A into the atmosphere, wait 1000 years, drop fungus species B, wait 200 years, etc. Or, a bit further in the future, drop self-replicating robot/nanobot colony 1, wait 50 years, drop colony 2, etc.

          • andyfrasier
          • 8 years ago

          I think the problem with Mars is that it has no magnetosphere, like the earth, so it is unprotected. The sun has already “blown away” most of the Martian atmosphere and water.

          It seems that when you start to talk seriously about human space exploration, the more and more it seems unfeasible. We are products of this planet, this level of gravity, this atmospheric composition. We do not adjust well to changes in these fundamental environmental parameters. So we are left with the prospect of attempting to re-create earth like conditions everywhere OR evolve very quickly.

            • moose17145
            • 8 years ago

            Thank you… I was hoping at least one person understood that we cannot simply add more gases to mars’ atmosphere due to the lack of magnetosphere. It will simply blow away into space due to solar winds coming from our sun.

        • bthylafh
        • 8 years ago

        The big problem with colonizing Mars is that any colonists will be 100% reliant on Earth for supplies for a very long time. It’s nothing like settling the Americas was – no breathable atmo, no ready sources of food or water, nor any natives to trade with if you’ve forgotten something. There won’t be any equivalent to cash crops the colony can send home to ease the trade imbalance, and unless there’s some rare isotope in the soil that’s easy to get to, sending ore back is unrealistic.

        The other thing is that Mars doesn’t have a magnetic field to speak of, meaning that dangerous amounts of solar radiation get to the surface, and if we can somehow build up the atmo to being human-survivable, it’ll still wind up blowing away in a few thousand years (Mars’ lesser gravity will play a role here as well).

        I’d love to see it happen, but it just won’t in our lifetimes.

          • Voldenuit
          • 8 years ago

          Agreed, except that I think any long term mission to Mars (not just colonization) will try to grow their own food. NASA and other space agencies have been looking at that for years now.

          You’re right that Mars has little (known) resources of itself to offer in trade to offset any colonization attempt. Its (economic) value to humanity will most likely be as a way station and base for farming the asteroid belt, which [i<]has[/i<] a lot of mineral value. Mars could supply long term living facilities to asteroid farmers and refine/process ores before transit to Earth (maybe via mass drivers, as they suggest for transporting lunar Helium-3). Although it might be simpler to just use robotic agents to mine the asteroids (Asimov used that as a device in some of his Robot stories). I do agree that Martian colonization is unlikely to happen in our lifetimes, though, if ever.

      • TurtlePerson2
      • 8 years ago

      I think that we’re supposed to wait for the Earth to start dying first. At least that’s what happens in all of the sci-fi.

        • yogibbear
        • 8 years ago

        So does a pro-space exploration person therefore commit themselves to a lifetime of trying to destroy earth?

          • mutarasector
          • 8 years ago

          That would be indeed the ultimate classic “forced problem/solution”, no?

    • PhilipMcc
    • 8 years ago

    NASA has a near earth object program. Let’s try out some of the ideas that have been posed to protect planet earth.

    • UberGerbil
    • 8 years ago

    Cut-backs mean even unmanned exploration will be subject to delays or outright cancellation. The successor to Hubble, the James Webb Space Telescope, [url=http://arstechnica.com/science/news/2011/07/hubbles-successor-may-be-casualty-of-government-cutbacks.ars<]may be getting axed[/url<].

      • sweatshopking
      • 8 years ago

      this kind of research NEEDS to be publicly funded. Commercial exploration simply isn’t the same. It’s a shame to see this situation. Our once great nations have learned nothing from the past. it is through investment in education and knowledge that a society blossoms. “let’s let somebody else look into space, i’ve got enough on my plate”. The reality is that we’ll all lose out in the end.

        • dpaus
        • 8 years ago

        As your friend, I’ll defend to my death your right to be so horribly wrong. 🙂

        The basic technology of spaceflight hasn’t changed since about, oh, 1943. In fact, aside from general advancements on manufacturing – the avionics equivalent of a process shrink – the only significant change has been the (admittedly staggering) progress in real-time computing technology, as sen in the DC-X, for instance. And since computing power is so cheap and avionics manufacturing is so well-established, it’s time for commercial interests to take over – just like Douglas and Boeing (and Vickers and Avro) did after WWII.

        Consider for instance, the progress made by Airbus and Boeing (and Bombardier and that Brazilian company whose name I can never remember) in efficiency in commercial avionics manufacturing, and compare it to the boondoggle that is the F-35. And then tell me that public funding is the only way to do it.

          • Inkling
          • 8 years ago

          [url=http://www.embraer.com/en-US/Pages/Home.aspx<]Embraer[/url<]

            • sweatshopking
            • 8 years ago

            brazilian government controlled, btw. technically they are private, but government has veto, through golden shares, and was started as a government company.

          • sweatshopking
          • 8 years ago

          I’m not sure that performing the actual FLIGHTS is the thing that needs to be continued, it’s the research and exploration that needs to continue. You’re right that the tech HASN’T really changed, and that sucks, but I want to have the public sphere to be a leader in exploration and research. I don’t really care how they get it done, just that we’re learning something, and discovering new things.

          and thanks homie! bff! ♥

            • dpaus
            • 8 years ago

            I just learned something… Ewwwww…..

            Anyway, my point is: even if it’s being done by private firms, we [i<]are[/i<] learning things. Hell, take a look at CPU/GPU technology; would we be better off if it was being done by government research labs?

            • BobbinThreadbare
            • 8 years ago

            I don’t think the incentives are right for the private sector to take over space exploration.

            There isn’t much money to be made quickly from it.

            • dpaus
            • 8 years ago

            So, after an evening of spirited discussion, I think we’ve ended up at the point you made here: the flights themselves can be taken over by the private sector (which [i<]should[/i<] drive down costs), but there is still an important role for NASA to play in 'piggy-backing' on those efforts to conduct 'pure' exploration and research. Well done, young padawan!

          • Vulk
          • 8 years ago

          You do realize that the F-35 was built by private companies right? And in WWII the planes were built by Douglas and Vickers just like after the war? Public funding doesn’t mean a project WILL be a boondoggle there are plenty of counter examples (TVA, Interstate Highways, etc.)… Private companies have produced plenty of Boondoggles too, Boeings 717 and 787 proejects come to mind just from the last 20 years. There’s no private industry magic, the only thing is that it’s not tax dollars being wasted (although the US Govt bails out those companies when they fail so, it sort of is anyway).

          Honestly what is the compelling commercial interest that will make companies invest billions into space flight? In the short term? In the long term cheap energy, food production, and the sheer abundance of minerals will take us there. In the short term though I don’t see it. The money is barely there for launching satellites, otherwise more companies would be doing it.

          The private market is good for solving things problems that have commercial incentives. It kind of sucks at everything else, which is why we have public financed projects. It’s not like NASA was created and prohibited private companies from doing this stuff. It was formed because no one was doing it and the country had a perceived need that wasn’t being met.

          If you think private industry would have put up a space station if the government would just get out of the way, I think you’re crazy. If you think they’ll put up the satellites that we need for basic research into the origins of the universe… Again I think you’re crazy.

            • dpaus
            • 8 years ago

            [quote<]Private companies have produced plenty of boondoggles too, like the Boeing 717 and 787 projects[/quote<] You forgot to mention Larrabee 😛 Good points, all, and no, I'm not crazy. But the point is that transferring as much as possible of the work to the private sector will [i<]drive[/i<] the commercial incentives, and that will drive real progress. But I wouldn't go so far as to say there's no role left for publicly-funded research. Just that we'd probably get a lot more bang-for-buck by piggy-backing on commercial efforts. Kinda like has happened in terrestrial aerospace.

          • BobbinThreadbare
          • 8 years ago

          [quote<]The basic technology of spaceflight hasn't changed since about, oh, 1943[/quote<] That's totally and completely wrong, unless you mean we're still using chemical powered rockets to achieve escape velocity. Which if that's what you mean, then car technology hasn't changed since like 1910, and it's been the private sector driving that market for the past 100 years.

            • dpaus
            • 8 years ago

            [quote<]it's been the private sector driving that market for the past 100 years[/quote<] Correct and precisely my point: the basic technology is mature, let's make it efficient and start getting some return on it. Oh, dear, I think my CEO hat is showing....

            • sweatshopking
            • 8 years ago

            wtf. are you an f’ing ceo!? get me a job!

            • dpaus
            • 8 years ago

            You mean… You mean you said you loved me [i<]before[/i<] you knew that?!? Awww, that's so sweet. 🙂 If you want a technology job, why are you living in Nova Scotia?? Wait, I take that back; we have some great consultants who live in Lower Canada.

            • sweatshopking
            • 8 years ago

            I live in NS, because my marriage is better here. When we came back from africa, we were out west, but it was a nightmare on my wife (even though we’re both from the west, originally). We needed to find some place we could live until she finishes university, and NS was such a place. I’m hoping to go back to school in sept, working with EI to get them to pay for it, since i got laid off. Looking to do business admin, because I want to open an orphanage in the next 5 years, and i think it will assist with it.

            I have, but probably shouldn’t, work in the technology sector. I can fix windows pc’s and do basic networking, up to probably 50 pcs, but besides those, i’m f’ed. I don’t remember too much of DOS, and without a linux GUI, i’m f’ed, though with it, i’m pretty good.

            My passion is Africa, and that’s where I can really apply myself. I am quite good at navigating and brokering agreements with people that side. Let me know if you want to make a donation to a well drilling project i’m currently working on…. 🙂 trying to get one put in for my daughters village….

            • dpaus
            • 8 years ago

            Take a look at – maybe even contact – [url=http://www.glenergy.ca/<]Glenergy Inc[/url<] Take a look under their "World Development" - maybe Glen will install some solar lights around that well (full disclaimer: the CEO is a friend and former schoolchum of mine)

            • sweatshopking
            • 8 years ago

            I would like to, but they would either get stolen, or sold. 🙁 things have to be pretty much unstealable there…

            • dpaus
            • 8 years ago

            [quote<]I want to open an orphanage in the next 5 years[/quote<] I salute you, sir! But if I might make a suggestion? When you do open it, perhaps you should pick a different screen name....?

            • sweatshopking
            • 8 years ago

            I have this name, because when i was there, i managed a sweatshop. part of my real life experiences, and was a huge eye opener for me. I now know how your average human being lives.

            • BobbinThreadbare
            • 8 years ago

            What do you mean “start getting some return on it?” Are you not enjoying things like velcro or the hundreds of other technologies invented by NASA which have been turned over to the private sector?

            Also, I disagree the commercial sector will be more efficient, and I don’t see how incentive to explore space will suddenly appear because NASA exits the marketplace. I mean isn’t competition supposed to drive innovation? Are companies just too big of wusses to compete with NASA?

            • dpaus
            • 8 years ago

            Hey, don’t forget my favorite example of astro-technology spin-off: the space pen. The entertainment value alone of the associated urban legends are well worth the hundreds of millions of dollars spent.

            [quote<]isn't competition supposed to drive innovation?[/quote<] Yes, and it does, and it's already started with space technology. Instead of designing and building it's own next-generation of launch vehicles, NASA should simply purchase launch-to-NEO services from the private sector (and I mean 'private sector' anywhere on earth, not just within the U.S.) And no exclusive contracts; buy from a variety of providers. Competition for that business will indeed drive innovation, which will (over time, true) lower costs and increase efficiency. That way, NASA can allocate much more of it's limited budget to the creation and deployment of the highly-specialized exploration tools that will be used from NEO.

            • mutarasector
            • 8 years ago

            Uhhh…. Velcro was not invented by NASA. That traitorous Vulcan wench (T’Pol) leaked it to a private sector, nearly corrupted the timeline doing so!

            😛

            • Voldenuit
            • 8 years ago

            That was T’Mir, not T’Pol, and there was no time travel involved, so no timeline contamination. There was a Prime Directive (or its Vulcan equivalent) violation in the sharing of technology with a pre-warp species, though.

            • mutarasector
            • 8 years ago

            T’Mir, gotcha – I stand corrected. However, some might argue that the whole Enterprise series was one big timeline corruption in and of itself given the way Berman and Braga practically destroyed continuity as thoroughly as they did. I finally became convinced of miracles after seeing Manny Coto accomplish the turd-polishing he did on the 4th season episodes on Berman’s & Braga’s muddy bootprints.

            EDIT: I got the T’Mir and T’Pol characters mixed up because of both characters being portayed by Jolene Blalock

    • dpaus
    • 8 years ago

    I’d prefer to put all the research money into research on wormholes. But until that happens, commercial all the way, baby!

    EDIT: Ok, not if it’s being done by Rupert Murdoch. Or Jen-Hsun Huang. On the other hand, if Steve Jobs wants to go into space, I’m all for it. As long as he doesn’t come back.

      • Kaleid
      • 8 years ago

      Jobs: “iOvercharge”.

      And employees will need safety nets in form of actual safety nets.
      [url<]http://www.dailytech.com/Foxconn+Installs+AntiSuicide+Nets+at+Its+Facilities/article18877.htm[/url<]

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