January 8, 2017

The worship of NASA

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Science, Space, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

James Miller is more than a bit skeptical of those who unabashedly sing the praises of NASA and more generally the “I love science sexually” crowd:

I’ve never understood the slobbering love affair many have with outer space and, more specifically, NASA. Sure, the moon landing was an incredible feat demonstrating American strength at time of conflict with a competing superpower. But I’m in agreement with Gary North: It was the “most expensive PR stunt in American history,” with little other benefit. We have yet to put a man on another moon, let alone another planet. It’s been a half century since Neil Armstrong made history, and the federal government still fails at running a simple website.

The saccharine lengths some go to to express their admiration for NASA has always made me queasy. Like all government bureaucracies, it wastes an incredible amount of money. Yet conservative lawmakers like Ted Cruz never miss an opportunity to remind us that conquering new galaxies is paramount to our national survival.

If the windbags in Washington can’t put a stop to the caliphate of killers in the Middle East, what hope is there for putting a colony on Kepler-186f?

My antipathy for space travel goes hand in hand with my overall distaste for science worshipping. The celebrification of the study of the natural world has been as infantilizing and degrading as Richard Nixon’s clownish appearance on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. “I fucking love science”? I’d much rather string celebrity science guy Neil deGrasse Tyson up by his thumbs.

H/T to Kathy Shaidle for the link. Kathy also throws shade at Star Wars and praises the heck out of Star Trek:

If Star Trek was actually set on Antarctica (and here, it is) I would watch the hell out of that (and have.)

But I also love how this fictional universe (which I would HATE to live in because they’ve abolished money, wear ugly clothes, and pretend to believe in peace and love and shit) has inspired real world, well, enterprises.

Yes, space travel is stupid. But it’s amazing that a black woman decided she could and would become an astronaut because she saw an actress do it on her TV when she was a kid.

I totally get that, and just get off on the phenomenon of people taking a sliver of fiction, and having seen this fake, plastic, non-functional prop, worked to create a functional version (and a multi-billion dollar industry.)

It’s like cargo culting, except by, well, smart people with way more resources who actually want shit to work.

Star WARS on the other hand is just life-wasting masturbatory etc EXCLUSIVELY.

Star Wars is nothing but escapism.

It has had no real world impact except that negative one. Star Wars has been a net negative on society while Star Trek has been a net positive:

July 26, 2015

Colonize the moon … now 90% off!

Filed under: Science, Space — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

In Popular Science, Sarah Fecht dangles the tantalizing prospect that we may be over-estimating the costs of colonizing the Moon by a huge margin:

Only 12 people have walked on the moon, and we haven’t been back since 1972. But a new NASA-commission study has found that we can now afford to set up a permanent base on the moon, by mining for lunar resources and partnering with private companies.

Returning humans to the moon could cost 90 percent less than expected, bringing estimated costs down from $100 billion to $10 billion. That’s something that NASA could afford on its current deep space human spaceflight budget.

“A factor of ten reduction in cost changes everything,” said Mark Hopkins, executive committee chair of the National Space Society, in a press release.

The study, released today, was conducted by the National Space Society and the Space Frontier Foundation — two non-profit organizations that advocate building human settlements beyond Earth — and it was reviewed by an independent team of former NASA executives, astronauts, and space policy experts.

To dramatically reduce costs, NASA would have to take advantage of private and international partnerships — perhaps one of which would be the European Space Agency, whose director recently announced that he wants to build a town on the moon. The new estimates also assume that Boeing and SpaceX, NASA’s commercial crew partners, will be involved and competing for contracts. SpaceX famously spent just $443 million developing its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon crew capsule, where NASA would have spent $4 billion. The authors of the new report are hoping that 89 percent discount will extend beyond low Earth orbit as well.

Similar to SpaceX’s goals of creating a reusable rocket, the plan also relies on the development of reusable spacecraft and lunar landers to reduce costs.

Plus, mining fuel from the lunar surface could make going back to the moon economically viable. Data from the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) suggest that water ice may be plentiful on the moon, especially near the poles. That’s important because water can be broken down into hydrogen propellant for rockets (and, conveniently, oxygen for humans to breathe).

November 21, 2014

Paging Delos D. Harriman – come to the Kickstarter courtesy phone, please

Filed under: Britain, Space — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 07:33

This is a use of crowdfunding I didn’t expect to see:

A group of British scientists have taken to Kickstarter in order to get the first set of funds to attempt a landing on the Moon. All ex-teenage (very much ex-teenage, sadly) sci-fi addicts like myself will obviously be cheering them on (and recalling Heinlein’s The Man Who Sold The Moon no doubt) and possibly even subscribing. They’re looking for £ 600,000 or so for the planning phase and will need £ 3 billion to actually carry out the mission. That’s probably rather more, that second number, than they can raise at Kickstarter.

However, over and above the simple joy of seeing boffins doing their boffinry there’s a further joy in the manner in which such projects disintermediate around the political classes. That is, we’ve not got to wait for the politicians to think this is a good idea, we’ve not even got to try and convince any of them that it is. We can (and seemingly are) just getting on with doing it ourselves.


Here’s what they’re proposing:

    In arguably the most ambitious crowdfunded project ever attempted, a British team is planning to use public donations to fund a lunar landing.

    Within ten years, they believe they can raise enough money to design, build and launch a spacecraft capable of not only travelling to the Moon, but drilling deep into its surface.

    They also want to bury a time-capsule, containing digital details and DNA of those who have donated money to the venture as well alongside an archive of the history of Earth. Finally, the mission will assess the practicality of a permanent manned base at the lunar South Pole.

There’s no doubt at all that the Apollo and similar Russian space adventures had to be run by government. The technology of the time was such that only a government had the resources necessary to drive such a large project. But, obviously, the cost of rocket technology has come down over time.

July 21, 2014

NASA’s “random mode”

Filed under: Bureaucracy, History, Space, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 10:55

Robert Zubrin identifies two different modes of operation practiced by NASA since 1961:

Over the course of its life, NASA has employed two distinct modes of operation. The first prevailed during the period from 1961 to 1973, and may therefore be called the Apollo Mode. The second, prevailing since 1974, may usefully be called the Random Mode.

In the Apollo Mode, business is conducted as follows. First, a destination for human space flight is chosen. Then a plan is developed to achieve the objective. Following this, technologies and designs are developed to implement the plan. These designs are then built, after which the mission is flown.

The Random Mode operates entirely differently. In this mode, technologies and hardware elements are developed in accord with the wishes of various technical communities. These projects are then justified by arguments that they might prove useful at some time in the future when grand flight projects are once again initiated.

Contrasting these two approaches, we see that the Apollo Mode is destination-driven, while the Random Mode pretends to be technology-driven but is actually constituency-driven. In the Apollo Mode, technology development is done for mission-directed reasons. In the Random Mode, projects are undertaken on behalf of various internal and external technical-community pressure groups and then defended using rationales (not reasons). In the Apollo Mode, the space agency’s efforts are focused and directed. In the Random Mode, NASA’s efforts are scatterbrained and entropic.

Imagine two couples, each planning to build their own house. The first couple decides what kind of house they want, hires an architect to design it in detail, then acquires the appropriate materials to build it. That is the Apollo Mode. The second couple canvasses their neighbors each month for different spare house-parts they would like to sell, and buys them all, hoping to eventually accumulate enough stuff to build a house. When their relatives inquire as to why they are accumulating so much junk, they hire an architect to compose a house design that employs all the miscellaneous items they have purchased. The house is never built, but an adequate excuse is generated to justify each purchase, thereby avoiding embarrassment. That is the Random Mode.

NASA had an overriding mission from 1961 to 1974: the moon program. Almost all of its resources were devoted to that goal, and it was achieved. Then bureausclerosis set in, politics took over, and we left the moon (so far, for good). If the future of mankind is in space, it’s unlikely that NASA will be a significant part of that future (unless you count its role in working to hold back private enterprise from getting involved on NASA’s “turf” (can I call it “astroturf” in this context?)).

July 20, 2014

Apollo 11 moon landing anniversary

Filed under: History, Space, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:42

The first men walked on the moon on this day in 1969:

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot, stands on the surface of the moon near the leg of the lunar module, Eagle, during the Apollo 11 moonwalk. Astronaut Neil Armstrong, mission commander, took this photograph with a 70mm lunar surface camera. While Armstrong and Aldrin descended in the lunar module to explore the Sea of Tranquility, astronaut Michael Collins, command module pilot, remained in lunar orbit with the Command and Service Module, Columbia. *This is the actual photograph as exposed on the moon by Armstrong. He held the camera slightly rotated so that the camera frame did not include the top of Aldrin's portable life support system ("backpack"). A communications antenna mounted on top of the backpack is also cut off in this picture. When the image was released to the public, it was rotated clockwise to restore the astronaut to vertical for a more harmonious composition, and a black area was added above his head to recreate the missing black lunar "sky". The edited version is the one most commonly reproduced and known to the public, but the original version, above, is the authentic exposure.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot, stands on the surface of the moon near the leg of the lunar module, Eagle, during the Apollo 11 moonwalk. Astronaut Neil Armstrong, mission commander, took this photograph with a 70mm lunar surface camera. While Armstrong and Aldrin descended in the lunar module to explore the Sea of Tranquility, astronaut Michael Collins, command module pilot, remained in lunar orbit with the Command and Service Module, Columbia. *This is the actual photograph as exposed on the moon by Armstrong. He held the camera slightly rotated so that the camera frame did not include the top of Aldrin’s portable life support system (“backpack”). A communications antenna mounted on top of the backpack is also cut off in this picture. When the image was released to the public, it was rotated clockwise to restore the astronaut to vertical for a more harmonious composition, and a black area was added above his head to recreate the missing black lunar “sky”. The edited version is the one most commonly reproduced and known to the public, but the original version, above, is the authentic exposure.

I didn’t realize that almost all the Apollo 11 photographs of astronauts are of Buzz Aldrin. For some reason, Neil Armstrong appears in only a few of them, and The Atlantic‘s Rebecca Rosen wonders why:

Bootprint in lunar dust created and photographed by Buzz Aldrin for the boot penetration (soil mechanics) task during the Apollo 11 moon walk.

Bootprint in lunar dust created and photographed by Buzz Aldrin for the boot penetration (soil mechanics) task during the Apollo 11 moon walk.

If there is one thing everybody knows about Neil Armstrong, it is this: “One small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” This quotation, in my mind at least, appears illustrated, conjuring the image above of an imprint left by a human boot upon the dusty lunar surface.

Except that’s not the first step, nor was it left by Armstrong. It’s a footprint made by Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon.


The explanation for this paucity is murky at best, prone to the uncharitable reading that Aldrin was getting “Armstrong back by taking no photographs of him on the Moon” in retribution for Armstrong getting the honor of first to set foot on the lunar surface.

But this is speculation at best. Aldrin, at least, has always said that the lapse was inadvertant, the result of Armstrong carrying the camera most of the time, a picture of Armstrong not appearing on the bucket list of things to do while on the moon, and Armstrong never stopping to ask for one. According to Aldrin, he was about to take a picture of Armstrong at the flag ceremony when President Nixon called, distracting them from the task.


Later, Aldrin expressed regret about the oversight. “When I got back and someone said, ‘There’s not any of Neil,’ I thought, ‘What in the hell can I do now?’ I felt so bad about that. And then to have somebody say that might have been intentional…. How do you come up with a nonconfrontational argument against that? I mean, that was just such a divisive observation, and Neil and I were never in the least divisive. We really were intimidated by the situation we found ourselves in on the Moon, hesitant and with an unclear idea of what to do next.”

Hansen’s book includes a handful of divergent opinions from different NASA administrators, theorizing as to how this, what Hansen calls “one of the minor tragedies of Apollo 11,” could have happened. Was it mere oversight or petty payback? Men sticking close to the plan or men sticking too close to the plan?

H/T to Colby Cosh:

January 1, 2014

Isaac Asimov’s predictions for 2014, written in 1964

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 11:51

VA Viper dug up an Asimov essay from 1964, where he speculated on what life would be like in 2014. It’s an interesting read:

What will life be like, say, in 2014 A.D., 50 years from now? What will the World’s Fair of 2014 be like?

I don’t know, but I can guess.

One thought that occurs to me is that men will continue to withdraw from nature in order to create an environment that will suit them better. By 2014, electroluminescent panels will be in common use. Ceilings and walls will glow softly, and in a variety of colors that will change at the touch of a push button.

Windows need be no more than an archaic touch, and even when present will be polarized to block out the harsh sunlight. The degree of opacity of the glass may even be made to alter automatically in accordance with the intensity of the light falling upon it.


Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence. The I.B.M. exhibit at the present fair has no robots but it is dedicated to computers, which are shown in all their amazing complexity, notably in the task of translating Russian into English. If machines are that smart today, what may not be in the works 50 years hence? It will be such computers, much miniaturized, that will serve as the “brains” of robots. In fact, the I.B.M. building at the 2014 World’s Fair may have, as one of its prime exhibits, a robot housemaid: large, clumsy, slow-moving but capable of general picking-up, arranging, cleaning and manipulation of various appliances. It will undoubtedly amuse the fairgoers to scatter debris over the floor in order to see the robot lumberingly remove it and classify it into “throw away” and “set aside.” (Robots for gardening work will also have made their appearance.)

General Electric at the 2014 World’s Fair will be showing 3-D movies of its “Robot of the Future,” neat and streamlined, its cleaning appliances built in and performing all tasks briskly. (There will be a three-hour wait in line to see the film, for some things never change.)

The appliances of 2014 will have no electric cords, of course, for they will be powered by long- lived batteries running on radioisotopes. The isotopes will not be expensive for they will be by-products of the fission-power plants which, by 2014, will be supplying well over half the power needs of humanity. But once the isotope batteries are used up they will be disposed of only through authorized agents of the manufacturer.

An experimental fusion-power plant or two will already exist in 2014. (Even today, a small but genuine fusion explosion is demonstrated at frequent intervals in the G.E. exhibit at the 1964 fair.) Large solar-power stations will also be in operation in a number of desert and semi-desert areas — Arizona, the Negev, Kazakhstan. In the more crowded, but cloudy and smoggy areas, solar power will be less practical. An exhibit at the 2014 fair will show models of power stations in space, collecting sunlight by means of huge parabolic focusing devices and radiating the energy thus collected down to earth.


Communications will become sight-sound and you will see as well as hear the person you telephone. The screen can be used not only to see the people you call but also for studying documents and photographs and reading passages from books. Synchronous satellites, hovering in space will make it possible for you to direct-dial any spot on earth, including the weather stations in Antarctica (shown in chill splendor as part of the ’64 General Motors exhibit).

For that matter, you will be able to reach someone at the moon colonies, concerning which General Motors puts on a display of impressive vehicles (in model form) with large soft tires: intended to negotiate the uneven terrain that may exist on our natural satellite.

Any number of simultaneous conversations between earth and moon can be handled by modulated laser beams, which are easy to manipulate in space. On earth, however, laser beams will have to be led through plastic pipes, to avoid material and atmospheric interference. Engineers will still be playing with that problem in 2014.

Conversations with the moon will be a trifle uncomfortable, but the way, in that 2.5 seconds must elapse between statement and answer (it takes light that long to make the round trip). Similar conversations with Mars will experience a 3.5-minute delay even when Mars is at its closest. However, by 2014, only unmanned ships will have landed on Mars, though a manned expedition will be in the works and in the 2014 Futurama will show a model of an elaborate Martian colony.

February 1, 2013

Want a house on the moon? Let’s just 3D print that out for you…

Filed under: Space, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 11:50

I’ve always wanted a house on the moon:

Architects Fosters and Partners have revealed designs for a building on the Moon that could be constructed from material already on its surface.

An inflatable structure would be transported from Earth, then covered with a shell built by 3D printers.

The printers, operated by robots, would use soil from the Moon, known as regolith, to build the layered cover.

The proposed site for the building is the southern pole of the Moon.

It is designed to house four people and could be extended, the firm said.

In 2010 a team of researchers from Washington State University found that artificial regolith containing silicon, aluminium, calcium, iron and magnesium oxide could be used by 3D printers to create solid objects.

January 23, 2013

How easy would it be to fake the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing?

Filed under: History, Media, Space — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 11:13

H/T to Kathy Shaidle, who writes:

Remember: Conspiracy theories are history for stupid people. They provide idiots with the thrilling sensation that they’re smarter than everyone else, and are a seductive distraction from real problems.

As the (liberal) filmmaker says:

“They lead you to sell your soul for the comfort of being a rebel.”

That’s what Satan did.

December 14, 2012

40 years ago today, man last walked on the moon

Filed under: History, Space, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:51

At sp!ked, Patrick West notes an under-observed anniversary:

It is a fine testament to NASA’s Apollo programme that of all the world-shaking events in living memory, men landing on the moon is the only one that doesn’t involve death. As Andrew Smith, author of Moon Dust (2006), notes, everyone remembers where they were when John F Kennedy was assassinated, Princess Diana died, or on 9/11. Most people, if they were alive at the time, also vividly recall when a man first walked on the moon on 20 July 1969.

Few, however, will remember what they were doing when the last man walked on the moon. That was 40 years ago today.

As he fired up the engines of Apollo 17‘s Lunar Module, Gene Cernan, the last man on the moon, delivered a final message to the world: ‘America’s challenge has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And as we leave the moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return with peace and hope for all mankind.’ On this date, many of us lament that we haven’t gone back to the moon. Others won’t, citing the vast expense of this Cold War sideshow, equivalent to roughly $130 billion in today’s money.

We certainly aren’t likely to return to the moon in such cynical and pessimistic times, of Mayan prophecies, omens of economic stagnation and environmental catastrophe, Frankie Boyle misanthropy and books called Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Shit?. In other words, everything the Apollo programme didn’t represent. America’s race to the moon may have been partly a means of getting one over the Soviets, but it also embodied the spirit of adventure and progress, as encapsulated by Neil Armstrong’s first words from the moon.

August 31, 2012

Colby Cosh on Neil Armstrong’s finest moment

Filed under: History, Space, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:30

No, it’s not what you think at all:

On March 16, 1966, Armstrong and future Apollo 15 moonwalker David R. Scott became the first human beings to dock an orbiting spacecraft with an independently launched satellite, the Agena. (As proofs-of-concept go, this one has been more important to spaceflight than the moon landings.) The procedure proved surprisingly unchallenging; when the Gemini capsule nosed into place, Armstrong blurted out, “It’s really a smoothie!” The Gemini-Agena combo — mankind’s first “space station” — moved out of radio contact with mission control 28 minutes later. When it came back in range after another 15, Armstrong’s first words were, “We have serious problems here.” A wiring problem had left one of the attitude thrusters on Gemini stuck in the “on” position — firing continuously and causing an increasing left roll. Unsure what was causing the problem, Armstrong made the snap decision to separate from the Agena. But the problem was on their side, and without the Agena’s inertia, the Gemini craft began to spin even faster.

Press accounts said the pair were spinning at about one revolution per second. Senior mission controller Chris Kraft has since noted that their peak rotation was actually 550 degrees a second. Only a trained test pilot could make good decisions while whirling around in freefall 90 times a minute — and Armstrong justified the use of test pilots in space for all time by using Gemini’s re-entry thrusters to dampen the roll and save himself and Scott. By rule, the use of those thrusters meant the mission had to be aborted early. Armstrong and Scott suffered tense hours as they waited to see if they would splash down short of their Pacific landing zone, on the soil of Communist China.

Armstrong was rueful about the abort, which cost Scott the chance to make a spacewalk and cut short the experiment with Agena. But NASA was impressed. One of the agency’s main concerns before the moon missions was that astronauts trying to set down the lunar module would refuse to abort the landing, even if they ran too short on fuel to leave the moon. Armstrong, alone among astronauts of the time, had established a record of outstanding sanity in the face of an emergency. He would probably like to be remembered for that — for making the right choice, a pilot’s choice — at least as much as for the trail he left in the dust of the moon.

August 27, 2012

Restarting the age of space

Filed under: Media, Space, Technology — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:24

sp!ked reposted an older article by James Woudhuysen on the long-term importance of space exploration and the stay-at-home attitudes that oppose further development of the “final frontier”:

One thing unites the critics of lunar exploration. Forty years after man first landed on the moon — on 20 July 1969 — they share a disdain for the grandeur of extra-terrestrial endeavour; for the scale of human ambition involved; for the very idea that human beings should climb into space, as up a mountain, ‘because it is there’.

I have no special preference for size, thrust during lift-off, or the traverse across vast distances. The development of the integrated circuit in the late 1950s, so important to the Apollo programme, was a tribute to miniaturisation rather than to high energy or physical scale. No, my admiration for both Saturn boosters and tiny electronics grows from a respect for open-ended curiosity, for human achievement, and for taking risks. With space travel, a lot of bravery was also at stake. And with both space and the development of semiconductors, there is much teamwork to celebrate — teamwork that, in the case of Apollo, involved not just three astronauts, but the efforts of hundreds of thousands of people.

[. . .]


August 26, 2012

Neil Armstrong, RIP

Filed under: History, Space, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 07:37

From Buzz Aldrin, an official statement on the death of Neil Armstrong:

I am deeply saddened by the passing of my good friend, and space exploration companion, Neil Armstrong today. As Neil, Mike Collins and I trained together for our historic Apollo 11 Mission, we understood the many technical challenges we faced, as well as the importance and profound implications of this historic journey. We will now always be connected as the crew of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, yet for the many millions who witnessed that remarkable achievement for humankind, we were not alone.

Whenever I look at the moon I am reminded of that precious moment, over four decades ago, when Neil and I stood on the desolate, barren, yet beautiful, Sea of Tranquility, looking back at our brilliant blue planet Earth suspended in the darkness of space, I realized that even though we were farther away from earth than two humans had ever been, we were not alone. Virtually the entire world took that memorable journey with us. I know I am joined by many millions of others from around the world in mourning the passing of a true American hero and the best pilot I ever knew. My friend Neil took the small step but giant leap that changed the world and will forever be remembered as a historic moment in human history.

March 19, 2012

The PR problem of NASA

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Media, Politics, Space, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:49

L. Neil Smith explains why and how NASA has managed to become so uninspiring (hint: it was deliberate).

The truth is, there are three kinds of people in the world, those to whom traveling to, landing on, settling, and terraforming the planet Mars requires no explanation, those for whom no explanation of any kind will ever suffice, and those who remain to be convinced.

Our job in that respect really amounts to putting the romance back into space exploration that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration carefully throttled out of it over the past half century. I think their secret motto was, “If you’re having any fun, you’re not doing it right.”

All that time, NASA and its supporters seemed to be asking desperately, why is the American public losing interest in what we’re doing? But the answer was in the mirror before them. In a desperate bid for false respectability, in a misplaced desire not to evoke visions of Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers or Captain Video, they ended up not evoking any visions at all, and thereby destroyed any reason for the average individual, the average man, woman, or child, to support their program.

I have also come to think — very reluctantly, believe me — that there has been a secret agenda, probably in echelons much higher than NASA itself, to prevent that average individual from ever getting into space, which may be why they opposed the whole “space tourism” idea so hysterically.

January 30, 2012

The anti-Moonbase chorus

Filed under: Space, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:46

Natalie Rothschild on the (non-political) opposition to the very notion of a manned space program:

Suspicion towards space exploration is not new, of course. Since the 1970s, it has variously been decried as a danger to peace and security, as a chauvinist enterprise, as a wasteful pursuit and as a threat to the environment. Yet pessimism and indifference to space discoveries are at an all-time high today. This became clear in the reaction — or lack of reaction, rather — to NASA’s announcement in December 2009 that water had been discovered on the moon. As Sean Collins pointed out on spiked at the time, this was ‘a giant leap towards fulfilling one of our collective fantasies, something only dreamed about in science fiction: humans living somewhere other than Earth’. It also made the moon a more likely base for manned missions to other parts of the solar system and NASA suggested the lunar water could hold a key to the history and evolution of the solar system. Yet, as Collins pointed out then, neither online pundits nor the mainstream media nor the authorities made a big deal out of the ground breaking discovery.

Seen in this context it was no surprise that Gingrich’s boasts were ridiculed. His plans for a space colony might have sounded like a good idea when he touted it to Florida’s struggling Space Coast. After all, when the Obama administration cancelled George W Bush’s plans to return American astronauts to the moon by 2020, it prompted protests from the communities that depend on NASA for their livelihood as well as from Apollo veterans. But it was no surprise that he was met with put-downs from most other quarters and that his ideas were entirely dismissed.

By and large, human achievements tend to be downplayed today. Exploring the unknown is seen as, at best, impractical and, at worst, reckless. When it comes to manned space exploration, the prevailing attitude is ‘been there, done that’. That’s why there’s been an unwillingness to separate Gingrich’s more wacky ideas — launching a new space race and establishing a permanent American outpost on the moon within eight years — from his sensible reminder that if we are to have any chance of making new discoveries and advances in the near or distant future, then we need to be willing at least to imagine that it’s possible and desirable to overcome the limits we face today.

October 14, 2009

Neuter NASA to save manned space exploration?

Filed under: Economics, Space, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 12:14

Gregg Easterbrook, to be polite, isn’t a fan of NASA’s big-budget plans:

Soon, Barack Obama must make a decision on whether to continue funding NASA’s daffy plan to build a Motel 6 on the moon. The president will be put on the spot when the final report of a space commission [. . .] is delivered. Rumor is that in keeping with the tradition of Washington commissions, the report will contain extremely vague language about sweeping reform; then cite every item on every wish list of every interest group with a finger in this pie; then recommend nothing specific, so as to offend no interest group; then close with a call for higher subsidies. NASA is not one of the core missions of government, and spends only one-half of 1 percent of the federal budget, so space waste is relatively minor in the scheme of things. But if public policy can’t get this right, what can it get right?

Right now NASA’s budget is $18 billion annually, and the quarter or so spent on science — planetary probes, telescopes that scan the far universe — is going very well. The rest of NASA is a mess. The agency has just thrown $100 billion of your money down the drain on the space station, which has no scientific achievement and no known purpose other than keeping checks in the mail to favored contractors and congressional districts. The station is such a white elephant the current plan is to “deorbit” the thing in 2016. “Deorbit” is polite for “make it burn up in the atmosphere.” So after spending $100 billion to build a space station, we’ll destroy it. Your tax dollars at play!

Since 2004, NASA has said its next goal is a manned outpost on the moon, as a stepping-stone to manned travel to Mars. There’s nothing a person could do on the airless, lifeless lunar surface that a tele-robot operated from a Houston office building could not do at a fraction of the price and risk. And the moon has nothing to do with Mars. Any Mars-bound mission will leave directly from low-Earth orbit to the Red Planet: stopping at the moon, then blasting off again, would consume the mission’s fuel to accomplish nothing. Though NASA has been studying moon-base and Mars-mission proposals for five years, the agency refuses to give a cost estimate — a sure sign the plans cannot pass a giggle test. Considering the space station price was $100 billion for a limited facility that was not accelerated to the speed necessary to reach the moon — speed means fuel which means higher price — even a Spartan moon base easily could cost several hundred billion dollars. For what? Why, for “economic expansion”! Today, no one is interested in economic expansion at Earth’s poles, which are far more amenable to life than the moon, have copious resources, and can be reached at one-ten thousandth the cost of reaching the moon.

There’s a lot more, buried in the middle of his weekly “Tuesday Morning Quarterback” column at ESPN.com. The numbers for manned exploration of Mars aren’t encouraging, either.

Older Posts »

Powered by WordPress

%d bloggers like this: