Once Again, The United States Has Not Abandoned Space Exploration
The arrival of Discovery in Washington D.C. has led to another lament about "national greatness."
On Tuesday, to much fanfare, the Shuttle Discovery paid a visit to the Washington, D.C. area attached to the back of NASA’s specially equipped 747s. As you can imagine the event pretty much brought the D.C. area to a standstill for about an hour or so as people in the city and Northern Virginia paused to glimpse a flight of the oldest surviving Space Shuttle as it made its way to the Smithsonian Institution’s Udvar-Hazey Air And Space Museum Annex at Dulles Airport where it will replace the test shuttle Enterprise. It was an amazing sight to see for those lucky enough to be in an area where it could be observed, but for Charles Krauthammer it was an opportunity to bemoan the alleged end of the American space program:
Is there a better symbol of willed American decline? The pity is not Discovery’s retirement — beautiful as it was, the shuttle proved too expensive and risky to operate — but that it died without a successor. The planned follow-on — the Constellation rocket-capsule program to take humans back into orbit and from there to the moon — was suddenly canceled in 2010. And with that, control of manned spaceflight was gratuitously ceded to Russia and China.
Well, you say, we can’t afford all that in a time of massive deficits.
There are always excuses for putting off strenuous national endeavors: deficits, joblessness, poverty, whatever. But they shall always be with us. We’ve had exactly five balanced budgets since Alan Shepard rode Freedom 7 in 1961. If we had put off space exploration until these earthbound social and economic conundrums were solved, our rocketry would be about where North Korea’s is today.
Moreover, today’s deficits are not inevitable, nor even structural. They are partly the result of the 2008 financial panic and recession. Those are over now. The rest is the result of a massive three-year expansion of federal spending.
NASA will tell you that it’s got a new program to go way beyond low-Earth orbit and, as per Obama’s instructions, land on an asteroid by the mid-2020s. Considering that Constellation did not last even five years between birth and cancellation, don’t hold your breath for the asteroid landing.
Nor for the private sector to get us back into orbit, as Obama assumes it will. True, hauling MREs up and trash back down could be done by private vehicles. But manned flight is infinitely more complex and risky, requiring massive redundancy and inevitably larger expenditures. Can private entities really handle that? And within the next lost decade or two?
Neil Armstrong, James Lovell and Gene Cernan are deeply skeptical. “Commercial transport to orbit,” they wrote in a 2010 open letter, “is likely to take substantially longer and be more expensive than we would hope.” They called Obama’s cancellation of Constellation a “devastating” decision that “destines our nation to become one of second or even third rate stature.”
“Without the skill and experience that actual spacecraft operation provides,” they warned, “the USA is far too likely to be on a long downhill slide to mediocrity.” This, from “the leading space faring nation for nearly half a century.”
Which is why museum visits to the embalmed Discovery will be sad indeed. America rarely retreats from a new frontier. Yet today we can’t even do what John Glenn did in 1962, let alone fly a circa-1980 shuttle.
We heard this argument before, of course, both when the cancellation of the Constellation program was announced in 2010 and then last summer when Atlantis lifted off on the final mission of the shuttle program. Some commentators compared to the closing of the frontier of the Old West, others said that it was condemning us to mediocrity, and one member of the Senate (who happens to be from Florida) compared manned space flight to the 19th Century belief in Manifest Destiny, which led some to wonder if he wants to eventually colonize Proxima Centauri and convert the residents thereof to Christianity.
As I noted at the time, these appeals to “national greatness” that some critics of current space policy have used are basically nonsense:
Would it be cool to spend billions of dollars that we don’t have to send men to Mars? Most assuredly it would, but what, exactly would we have accomplished. It’s been nearly 40 years since we last set foot on the moon and the manned space flight program has been stuck orbiting the planet over and over and over again. Our unamned program, meanwhile, has sent probes to Mars, the outer planets, a comet, and, most recently Mercury. Three probes that we launched in the 1970s — Pioneer 10 and Voyagers I and II — have traveled further than any other manned made object in human history and are still sending back data as the plunge into the unknown world of interstellar space. At our current rate of development, it will be centuries before human begins can accomplish anything similar to what our machines have been able to do for us.Wouldn’t it make more sense to invest money in this method of exploration while trying to find faster, cheaper methods of propulsion ?
Which leads into the argument that Kevin Drum made yesterday in his response to Krauthammer’s column, where he points out that we have not abandoned space at all and that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with thinking about priorities:
[T]he most annoying part of this column is that Krauthammer shamelessly sidles around the most important fact of all: the United States isn’t retreating from space. We’re only retreating from manned space flight. Our technology for boosting satellites and unmanned probes into space remains unmatched, and the technology that goes into those satellites and unmanned probes is phenomenal — and getting more phenomenal every year. They are marvels of advanced technology. If you want to insist that the federal government should spend gazillions of dollars making sure that there are always a few American citizens orbiting the earth, that’s fine. But that’s the argument you need to make. And when you make it, you need to keep in mind one of the oldest jokes about the shuttle program:
The purpose of the space shuttle is to take astronauts up to the space station. The purpose of the space station is to give the shuttle someplace to take the astronauts.
Ultimately, this was the problem with the Space Shuttle program. It became a program in search of a mission. To some degree, this happened because the Challenger disaster in 1986, and to some extent Columbia in 2003, meant that some of the initial plans for the shuttle program were abandoned. The civilians-in-space idea went out the window after Challenger blew up, for example, unless you count the Senators that accompanied shuttle missions in the 199os (and one of the was a former astronaut anyway). Once the Internati0onal Space Station came into existence, though, the shuttles basically just became a really expensive vehicle for bringing people and supplies to and from the station which, in retrospect, seems like an incredibly expensive waste of a vehicle that was the most advanced machine of its time when it was first constructed. For years, people lamented the fact that Americans had seemingly lost interest in the space program, but that’s easy to understand given that the shuttle had basically turned into a giant flying delivery truck.
While Atlantis was engaged in its final mission in July, an unmanned probe called Dawn had entered orbit around an asteroid named Vesta on a mission that would last several years and eventually include a stop at Ceres, a minor planet in the Asteroid Belt. As I noted at the time, this wasn’t the only active, or planned, American space mission:
Dawn isn’t the only NASA mission that will be launched in the coming years. In August, Juno will be launched on a mission to Jupiter with an expected arrival date in August 2016. Later in the year, the Mars Science Laboratory, which includes a new Mars Rover named Curiosity, will head toward the red planet with an expected arrival date in August 2012 and is expected to operate for at least one Martian year (slightly under two Earth years). In February 2012, the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array a space-based X-ray telescope, will be launched as part of the continuing mission to explore deep space and the origins of the universe. Sometime in 2017-2018, the James Webb Space Telescope, a space-based infrared telescope intended to replace the Hubble Space Telescope, will be launched and begin its mission. While this is going on, private entities like Space-X will be developing the commercial side of orbital launch vehicles, and NASA will be working on what is currently referred to as the Shuttle-Derived Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle, a next-generation heavy-lift rocket designed to get manned American spacecraft into orbit, and beyond. In the meantime three U.S. launched probes — Pioneer 10,Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 — have left the confines of the Solar System for the vast unknown beyond.
So the idea that the American space program is dead is simply nonsense. The manned program may be taking a pause, but considering that it had completely lost focus during the final years of the Shuttle program and that Constellation seemed focused on re-enacting the 1960s, perhaps that isn’t such a bad idea. I wouldn’t necessarily object to spending money on a manned program. Compared to most of what the government wastes money on it’s the far better alternative in most cases, and I’d rather see us spend money exploring the solar system than fighting another pointless war. But the federal budget is not a gravy train and I’d be really interested to know where people like Krauthammer think we’re going to get all this money we’d need to live up to this nonsensical idea of “national greatness.” Because it’s not worth bankrupting ourselves to do it.
That’s about right. If we are going to do manned missions, we need to come up with an approach that makes engineering and fiscal sense. There has to be a viable space station that can act as a springboard for a permanent lunar presence. You need reliable vehicles to get from the surface to the space station. You need to think seriously about how to exploit the solar systems resources so that it all makes economic sense in the long run. Once a permanent moon base is established, you move out into the solar system from there. Each step – space station & lunar base, has to be dialed in for the next to work properly.
I hope we do these things. I grew up during the space race and started watching Star Trek when it first aired in ’66. I am a lifelong sci-fi reader. That being said, the original criticisms of the Discovery program were vaild. It was too complex, too fragile, and it lacked a well defined mission. We did it just to stay in the game. A moon mission at this point in time makes no sense. Been there, done that. We need to make significant progress on the gravity well problem to have a viable manned presence in space. Japan’s “space elevator” is an interesting approach.
Go take a look at the hi-def photos of Mars and tell me that we are not smack in the middle of perhaps the most exciting age of discovery in human history.
It’s interesting that Krauthammer subtly bemoans the massive expanse of federal spending in the last three years while simultaneously bemoaning cancelling a source of massive federal spending. He also seems to be of the mindset that any manned space program should be immune from the idea of cost of development. As far as I’m aware, the Constellation program was woefully behind schedule and massively over budget–with no end in sight. Very rarely does throwing good money after bad help solve a problem (Boston’s big dig is probably the only thing that comes close to an example of blind faith that the outcome will be worth it paid off).
As to his quotes from astronauts regarding the cost and timeline of private industry manned spaceflight…well with all due respect to Mr. Armstrong et al (and they deserve a lot of respect), it strikes me that they are in no way qualified to analyze how Space X, Virgin Galactic, and any future private space company will fare in their attempts to make private manned space flight successful.
Finally, it seems to me (and this was–I think–implicit in your writings) that using unmanned space exploration to figure out just what our next should be is a much safer, more efficient, and effective way of exploring space. Remember how Captain Picard would usually scan a planet before sending down a crew? That’s because technology is usually better than a human eye, as much as that hurts our pride.
And yes, I do believe using science fiction to justify my views on real world space exploration is perfectly valid.
A space elevator or slingshot has long been a fascinating idea, but I feel it’s like fusion as an energy source…just a few years off, and will always be a few years off for decades.
That said, nanotechnology and our advances in material engineering could be closing the gap quicker than I suspect.
The manned program occasionally does some useful stuff (like fixing multi-billion dollar space telescopes), and there are cross-over technological advances from its development. Until we have remotely controlled robots that can do really good repair and zero-gravity experiments in orbit, we should have manned space flights up to Low Earth Orbit.
For scientific purposes, the best in terms of a Mars or Moon mission would be a manned mission into Mars orbit. They could control probes on the Martian surface in real-time, and we’d avoid some of the difficulties inherent in landing a large spacecraft on Mars and returning it.
@Neil Hudelson: Hell Google was working on a space elevator last I read..
Krauthammer’s lament is similar to his and his fellow traveler’s push for wars (like Iraq) while also moaning and groaning about the budget…he must think that money for war and space travel can just magically appear out of nowhere while money for anything else is stolen from taxpayers and wasted…I’m sure it is no coincidence that he whines about America’s alleged decline while this particular president sits in the White House…
Probably impossible politically. Spend the $$ to send men to Mars and not have them actually set foot on the surface for the photo op? I imagine you could get the same scientific results simply by developing better remote controllers, and you would gain a long-term benefit by doing so.
Not sure I see the advantage of real time control of robotic Mars explorers – the surface of Mars in not dynamic. Having a manned controller in orbit would be exciting, but I don’t see how it passes a cost/benefit analysis.
Hopefully yes. And I would love to see a joint US/Japan project here. Japanese excellence in applied engineering dovetails nicely with what the US brings to the table.
The time is ripe for joint ventures. We need to stop thinking in terms of “national greatness” and reframe space exploration in the context of the human thirst for knowledge and exploration, combined with the very real need to move into space to ensure the long term survival of our species. Working with the Russians in space has been productive – why do people want so badly to hang on to the 20th century?
When the idea of “national greatness” has become “nonsensical” to the chattering classes then as a country we’ve got bigger problems than the budget deficit and NASA’s budget wants and needs.
Well written, Doug.
This WSJ article on a consortium of billionaires making plans to mine asteroids is timely.
That’s not how the space program was described by NASA employees that I know. They said it was “a bad taxi service to a horrible hotel.”
@Tsar Nicholas: You can’t think of anything else that would be considered “national greatness” that would have more tangible results for the money?
On the other hand, it would probably be much less difficult in terms of cost and engineering to simply send men to Mars orbit, so that might influence the political calculations.
You can build better probes, but you can’t really improve much on the remote controlling. The fundamental problem is light-speed lag – it takes nearly 20 minutes to send a message to a probe, have the probe do the operation, and then to receive a signal indicating that the probe picked up your message and is doing the operation.
Manned controllers in orbit can watch and maneuver the probes without a significant lag in controls. If they see something interesting through the probe’s camera as it’s driving along, they can immediately steer it over to the interesting thing. And since unmanned landers are much, much cheaper than manned landers, you could drop a whole bunch of them all over the planet, and have your astronauts constantly monitor and maneuver all of them.
If telepresence is really good (and it looks like that will be the case, if technology continues at its current rate), they could put robotic “arms and hands” on the probes that astronauts could manipulate like they were their own arms and hands.
We have a lot of pure science to do before manned apace flight can become a reality. A trip manned trip to Mars with what we know now might as well be planned as a one way trip. One to two years in space will mean one to two years of weightlessness and constant bombardment by high energy atomic particles. If the astronauts made it back to earth alive they wouldn’t last long. There is a lot of pure experimental science to be done first and perhaps we will never find the answers because there are none. Pure science is boring until there is an exciting result and funding will be next to impossible.
I have been devouring SF for 50 years but I also have a degree in physics.
It seems to me that Step #1 needs to be developing faster methods of propulsion.
I think the money is better spent on mitigating/solving the gravity well issue and, as Doug points out, achieving a more advanced propulsion method. Going to Mars with what we know know just seems like a more complex Apollo program. We have done that already. The time drag involved in controlling Mars probes from Earth is not a serious problem. We have time. Mars is not going anywhere.
Unmanned probes are already doing fabulous work exploring the solar system. For manned exploration, we need to build a long term, sustainable platform that makes fiscal and engineering sense. Asteroids may well hold the resources we need to make the financial end of the equation work.
@Doug Mataconis: Not necessarily. You have to look at the weightless problem – weightless is not good for people. What you need is steady acceleration at 1G followed by steady deceleration at 1G to produce gravity. While no gravity is bad for humans the additional gravity produced by more acceleration speed would not be healthy either. In addition there is no healthy dose of high speed electronic particles so shielding is important and at this time we don’t know how to practically do that.
I do think that an active space program can excite and create interest in science among the youth of the US. I remember when the first pictures from the Mars lander came over the screen- total awe! And this was not a manned mission. I feel that robotics will be very highly advanced by the year 2010.
Has anyone else noticed these occurrences in the past several months:
more earthquakes, crazy weather, huge sun storms, planet alignment mystery, Venus brighter, more tornados, problems with magnetic fields. What is going on?
So things have never never been better in the US manned space program. We’re making progress at an incredible rate, realizing all sorts of dreams that no one could possibly have put into words in the last century, and future ages will be daunted forever by our boldness and determination. Got it!
So when do we start building self-supporting colonies on the moon and Mars?
2100 AD? 2400 AD? 12,345 AD?
Got any good current sci-fi writers to recommend? George Turner and Charles Scheffield were two of my favorites, but sadly they are no longer with us.
Want to know the first sign of a nation that’s lost it’s greatness? It becomes paranoid about whether it’s great enough and wastes resources on pointless efforts designed to make it appear great to other nations.
Nations that are actually great don’t need the rest of the world to tell them they are. And it’s bizarre to see the people who spend so much time handwringing about the debt demanding we waster more billions on what is perhaps the ultimate in unecessary government enterprises because they’re worried China won’t think our space penis is big enough if we don’t.
Ultimately, NASA isn’t actually a space program. It’s a federal jobs program that just happens to produce space exploration as a waste product. It’s real mission is to allow certain members of congress to buy votes by using tax dollars to create high paying engineering positions in their districts, and on that account the shuttle program has been wildly successful.
@anjin-san: I agree with Charles Scheffield, an author I can re-read over and over. Bat is one of the most intriguing characters in fiction. Scheffield’s early death was a tragedy. My new favorite is L.E. Modesitt, Jr. Not so much his fantasy novels but his hard SF.
I agree with the analysis for the most part. Sending warm bodies into the solar system doesn’t make scientific or economic sense yet. The infrastructure and technology just isn’t there and some of the more wild claims being made just aren’t borne out by the cost benefit analysis. A trip to Mars using the tools and resources available to us today would be a massively wasteful undertaking, and would return little of actual value that couldn’t eventually be learned by sending more advanced robots, more cheaply, and with infinitely less risk to the lives of humans.
That’s not to say that advancing manned spaceflight shouldn’t be one of our goals. It absolutely deserves our attention and enthusiasm, but we also have to be practical in our analyses. That is, it’s simple for someone who doesn’t come from a scientific background (which admittedly I don’t) to make X pronouncement about spaceflight based on a gut feeling that we should be capable of doing it without knowing all the challenges and the money that must be spent solving a laundry list of engineering and physics problems that remain a barrier to effective human exploration of the solar system.
If that doesn’t seem like a good explanation, consider that in the period since we last set foot on the moon we’ve also created telescopes that allow us to take a front row seat in the life and death of the stars. We’ve launched robots that have tasted the atmosphere on Titan, sent probes that are fast approaching interstellar space, and satellites that scoop up samples of cometary dust. Considering we thought powered flight in our own atmosphere was the stuff of science fiction just a little over a century ago, I would say we aren’t doing too bad.
Before we start putting people into tin cans and hurtling them into deep space to satisfy our need to look project an image of power to the rest of the world, let’s sit back and do the science we need to do in order to make sure our future endeavors in outer space are reliable, efficient, and worthwhile. The kind of work being done at NASA with robotics, scientific payloads, and advanced propulsion systems is invaluable, and given their budgetary constraints, I would rather have them continue working on this sort of technology than try squeezing a manned spaceflight in for the sake of having one.
Private corporations are already picking up the slack with systems being developed that will eventually deliver people safely to LEO, and eventually allow them to live and work there. More powerful rockets like the Falcon series should allow us to deliver the components to orbit that will allow us to effectively exploit the potential for habitability, exploration, and resource acquisition that will be necessary to expand our space borne infrastructure and spacefaring capabilities.
Well that’s my two bits anyway.
I support working on more advanced propulsion, since it makes the mission I described much more possible. My personal favorite is Solar Electric Propulsion within the orbit of Mars, but there are others.
Yes it is. If you want your probes to have significantly greater capability in terms of exploration (on par with what human explorers could do on site), then you either need real-time control or much better automation.
Both will probably occur, and I’d personally prefer a combination of both.
We could rotate the whole spacecraft, although we’d need to test rotating craft in orbit first. There have been several proposals for large centrifuge modules that could be attached to the ISS, but they’ve all been killed by budget cuts.
Being able to independently launch your own spacecraft into orbit and beyond is an excellent engineering and technological accomplishment that only a small number of nations have achieved. Being able to actually send people successfully into orbit is even more of an achievement.
I’ve read that research has indicated that one need only spend about one hour per 24 in a 1 G environment to counteract the deleterious effects of prolonged weightlessness (sorry, I don’t have the link). If that pans out, then perhaps we need not spin the entire ship, only one part of it — a “gravroom”, as it were.
What I keep hearing about is that a major catastrophe will hit earth later this year – NASA and other agencies are on to this. Just look at how bright Venus is now and the sun storm activity.
Something is going on.
Missed that the first time around but it sure made me laugh this time.
Obayashi (one of the big Japanese construction companies) has been making noises about a Space Elevator. Probably will be along the lines of Shimizu work–a gedankenexperiment to attract the top engineers/architects, but who knows? Someone in the Japanese gov’t might actually decide a Space Elevator needs to be funded.
If we were really interested in the future, that’s what the US would do. Full-scale program into mass-production of carbon nanotubes (as well as bulk diamond) to use as material for space elevators and other things. (doped diamonds make great computer chips due to the heat transfer). Even if the actual cost of a Space Elevator is twice what was originally estimated ($9B), it’s a damn sight better than pouring money into military silliness all over the Mideast. We could fund it easily if we just cut back on some of the crazier military boondoggles.
But we won’t. I wonder when the US will start to realize that we’ve lost our technological abilities by pandering to the religious nuts. We wouldn’t allow someone to enter medical school who refused to believe in the germ theory of disease and the circulation of blood–I fail to see why we should allow anyone to enter college who doesn’t believe in evolution.
Being able to launch spacecraft into orbit and beyond is an achievment because there are actual benefits to be gained from doing so. That’s also why governments aren’t the ones doing them: most launches are now done by commercial luanch providers because people need their services and are willing to pay for them.
Manned space travel, despite all the romantic fantasies we’ve picked from science fiction novels, movies, and tv shows, currently serves no practical purpose. Doing things just to show that you can do them is rarely a good idea.
Indeed, an argument can be made that the entire NASA manned space program actually served to retard our access to space rather than advance it. The X-plane program was a more practical way of getting people into space on a regular basis, but back in the 60s we got tired of waiting for progress along those lines and took the shortcut of the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs, we depended on huge government subsidies to fund efforts that were obviously not sustainable financially.
After 50 years, we’ve FINALLY stopped running down that dead end, and companies like Scaled Composites are getting back onto track with the space plane concept. Except Republicans, in the name of protecting federal welfare to their voting basis, seem determined to stop this needed correction from happening.
Space planes always look tantalizing, but we’ve never managed to really get past the fundamental engineering and physics issues with them. That would require break-throughs in materials science and scramjet engines that don’t exist yet.
More generally, renewable spaceships are never as good as they seem on paper. By the time you’re done refurbishing the craft upon its return from space, you haven’t saved much money. It’s better just to have a two-stage launcher, with an expendable top stage and possibly renewable first stage. Or even just make the whole thing expendable, like Soyuz (which is also fairly cheap in terms of getting people into space).
Without the manned space program, NASA would just turn back into the pure-research organization it was before manned spaceflight – with less funding for anything (manned or unmanned). Bureaucratic beast that it is, NASA does help to lobby and protect all kinds of space exploration programs that would have few defenders otherwise.
The X-Plane program, meanwhile, was not going to lead to manned spaceflight. Sure, a few of the X-15 flights briefly climbed into what we call “space” (100 kilometers up), but that’s not the same thing as actually putting something into Low Earth Orbit. Meanwhile, military support for manned spacecraft was evaporating throughout the 1960s and 1970s, because unmanned craft could do the missions they needed. The program might have survived if the US had stuck to using higher-and-faster supersonic bombers as a primary means of delivering nuclear weapons, but the ICBM programs killed even that.
If Mercury had been cancelled after Alan Sheppard’s first sub-orbtial flight, the same thing could have been said about rockets. This is my point: the planes were better in terms of sustainability because they could be turned around very quickly and without huge costs. But the act of extending their envelope was going slower, so they were abandoned in favor of the quick fix of disposable rockets. If we had stuck with the planes, we probably wouldn’t have gotten to the moon, but after 60 years, we’d probably have cheaper more reliable access to low earth orbit.
And in the big scheme of things, that would be a far more impressive achievment in terms of practical effect, even if it’s less sexy in terms of “national greatness”.
Given that the U.S is becoming a one party state and that minorities, government workers, the elderly, and single women will be the biggest power blocks in that one party, thus, the froces that want to eliminate space programs (and basically any long term technology program) will increase.
As the demographics of the U.S. change, the forces that want the government to spend more on social programs and entitlements will become powerful enough to squeeze out virtually all other spending.
@Brett: Actually, I think the Japanese figured out how to get to Mach 20 some time ago.
@grumpy realist: The blackbird’s limiting factor with speed was the heat buildup..