Whence NASA?

By Phil Plait | May 8, 2008 12:28 pm

Speaking of NASA, while looking to see if there was any news about Weiler being the new science chief on the NASA site (no, there isn’t as I write this), I saw this at the top of their page:

Not to put too fine a point on this, but are you kidding me? They’re comparing where NASA is now to the where we were projected to be in the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey"?

NASA folks, let’s be honest here: this does not cast NASA in a good light. Even the image itself is damning: in the movie, that space station was a rotating dock carrying dozens if not hundreds of personnel, and was used as a way station to the Moon, where there was a thriving and expanding lunar base. And that was all supposed to take place seven years ago.

NASA has a space station which is doing precious little if no science at all. It takes three people working full time to keep it operating. Yes, in many ways it’s a magnificent achievement, don’t get me wrong. But don’t show me a Volvo and tell me it’s a Lamborghini*, especially when you charge me $150 billion for it.

In my opinion, the article linked from the picture does the exact opposite of what it aims to do. If you’re going to compare the predictions of a 40 year old movie — which showed an incredibly ambitious yet believable future — to today’s achievements in space, you need to do better than talk about glass cockpits and flat-screen monitors on the space station. They even say that exercise is routine on the station, and compare that to movie astronaut Frank Poole seen jogging around the rotating wheel of the interplanetary space ship Discovery. C’mon.

To me, this drives home the reality of where we are in the manned exploration of space. We have an aging Shuttle fleet which has 11 flights left before retirement, and no working rocket to replace it. We’ll have to rely on Russian spacecraft for years to ferry astronauts and equipment to space and back. The space station has taught us quite a bit about working and living in space, but we would have learned just as much — if not more — if we had built a space station that actually did something. And it’s unclear to me that we’ll be sending humans back to the Moon because of the political reality of funding long-term goals when we get new politicians elected on shorter cycles.

Which brings up a point I want to make clear. I’m a supporter of manned space flight, and you won’t find a bigger advocate for what NASA’s robots and space probes have done. And I also understand that NASA is beholden to a variety of forces, putting it at the mercy of whims and breezes from all directions. This is a very complex and delicate situation, with 535 Congresscritters all trying to get their say (with many, perhaps most, having no clue on the importance of space exploration), the White House’s desires on top of that, and a public very unclear on why NASA exists at all (and laboring under gross misunderstandings even then). The Administration at NASA has done an amazing job in most cases getting anything done at all under those circumstances.

But trying to compare where we are now to where visionary movies like "2001" were hoping we would be simply hammers home the cold hard fact that we’ve spent the past 45 years since Apollo circling the Earth. There are no Moon bases, no regular Shuttle flights to orbit, no rotating space habitats.

It’s politics, I know that. But politics is about choices, and we’ve chosen poorly. We need politicians who will choose wisely, who can see past their own term, past their own partisan desires, past the limits of gravity and atmosphere and current technology, and willing to do what we need to do, what we must do: go into space, do it the right way, the sustainable way, and explore it.

Our future is out there, just as our past predicted. We’ve stepped away from the right path, but that path is still there. We simply have to choose to step back on it.

Note added May 10, 2008: My friend and fellow astronomer and astronomy writer Chris Lintott has weighed in on this issue as well.



*For the record, I drive a Volvo and I love it.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Politics, Space

Comments (105)

  1. Couldn’t agree more Phil. We need to get off this planet at some point if the species is going to survive. Personally though, I’m with Bob Parks and I think we should take a hiatus from manned space flight and do a whole lot more cheap explorations where we have multiple pieces of equipment spread out over a wide are.

    The rovers have been such a success I’d like to see a few dozen of their updated cousins crossing the entire planet, and 2 or 3 updated Hubbles before a working space station. But eventually, the space station needs to be built. (Space elevator would be nice too!)

  2. beagledad

    Sadly, we probably won’t get serious political support for space exploration until a space-related crisis erupts. For example, once the Shuttle is out of service, deteriorating relations with Russia could shut the U.S. out of manned space flight altogether, resulting in another Sputnik-style panic. By then, though, the U.S. likely won’t be in the same strong economic position we were in during the early 1960s, so it’s a toss-up whether a crisis of that sort would result in renewed vigor or in one more slip toward third-world status.

  3. Brango

    I have been saying for years that we need to just get the flock out there and explore! Thank you Phil for so succintly summing up what needs to be said on this subject. The one thing I admire Griffin for is the way he expressed the level of difficulty involved in putting people into space – it is quite simply the most difficult endeavour ever undertaken by our species.

    It is sadly frustrating that it has taken us this long to even get a permanent presence in space. Aside from 2001, there was a wealth of sci-fi at around the Moon era that was exceedingly optimistic about where we’d be – a huge fully manned moonbase by 1999 for example. However, those with such visionary foresight are rarely given the chance to call the shots.

    I still laugh when I hear people criticizing space programs with airhead phrases like “Why are we wasting all that money out in space when it could be used down here?” It demonstrates a fundimental disconnect that is way too endemic for a 21st century civilisation. My question would be more like “Why are we wasting all that money worshiping invisible friends and making religious leaders rich?”

    Ahhh, it’s good to get a rant out sometimes, thanks Phil!

  4. Michelle

    You got the cool…. And you got the lame.

    Let’s face it… The design of the Space Station is so ugly.

  5. jianying

    thus fermi paradox solved. We don’t see aliens because the lack of political will on the part of alien governments to settle the galaxy.

  6. American Voyager

    Great post Phil! I couldn’t agree more! It’s sad becase as a liittle boy during the Apollo era I think most of us thought we would get the chance to go into space “someday”. Then with movies like 2001 pointing the way, it seemed so realistic. Sadly, we retreated. Politics forced a lot of it. A misguided love affair in the early 70s with a “reusable spacecraft” was the main issue. With Apollo we were going places. Yeah, it was mainly political, but it proved it was possible – if we had the willpower to do it. Sadly reality got in the way. The war in Vietnam, a mess at home, and much relating to space becoming suspect. All those things grounded us. I’ve never been a big fan of the Shuttle. I remember it being trupted as the space system of the future. It never seemed that exciting to me. Low Earth orbit and satellite repairs??? After having been to the Moon????? Pulllllease!!!!!!! Then the impossible advertising. 50 flights a year in the 80s. One a day by the 90s!!!! Uh-ha!! Challenger opened a lot of people’s eyes. We learned the hard way that reusable isn’t always cheaper! I’m glad we are finally back on track with Orion, but look at the time lost. Over 40 years!! And even when Orion flies, will it ever go to the Moon or beyond????? I’m not holding my breath. No political willpower. We’d rather spend the cost of a manned Mars mission to hold Iraq together like the boy sticking his finger in the dyke. As long as we’re there, the country won’t explode. It’s time we get off our butts and regain the vision we had 40 years ago. Move forward and maybe we can have that vision on the left side of your picture. Aurther C. Clarke’s third book in that series was 2061. Probably about when it will happen at the rate we are going. Just in time for my 99th birthday. Sure hope they’ll allow centurians on that station! Don’t get me wrong. I have been a big fan of our unmanned program since Voyager. We’ve gone to and seen some incredible things. I hope that Mars swarms with rovers in the next few years. I’d love to see a bunch on the Moon too. But with all of that, nothing quite beats the excitement of genuine human exploration of distant worlds. Unfortunately Beagledad is right. It will probably take some sort of space crisis before we will get our acts together.

  7. Loaf Of Bread

    Just to flesh out a point Phil. You mention having to rely on Russia to get people and equipment to the ISS. When it comes to equipment, the current Jules Verne mission demonstates Europe can also deliver equipment and supplies (if not people) to the ISS.

    Otherwise, I have to agree. Where visionaries from half a century ago saw us in 2001 is miles ahead of what we have actually achieved. And if the US wants to remain a contender in manned space flight, the US is going to have to make some serious commitments. It wasn’t that long ago the number of countries capable of manned space flight took a 50% jump when China launched its first manned mission.

    In the unmanned department, things are heating up there too. From the stuff I’ve seen from Japan’s “Kugya” (SELENE) mission, the ante just got upped quite nicely.

  8. Chris

    My God, it’s full of spin!

  9. ioresult

    7 years ago? Try 9 years ago! The Clavius base was fully built in 1999!

  10. ioresult

    Oh! wow! wow! According to Wikipedia which refers to the novel (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clavius_Base) the base was fully functionnal by 1994!

  11. We’re wasting our time on the space station. They can ramble on as much as they want about learning about life in space, etc. GETTING STUFF INTO SPACE in the first place is insanely expensive and dangerous. I really wish they’d pour a lot more time into learning how to get a large amount of material into space safely and cheaply.

    THIS is what’s holding us back from the big wheel space station. We have no reasonable way of getting all the stuff needed into orbit to assemble it, and all the supplies needed to support the crew that would be needed. If we could get more stuff up there, we could try out more things.

    (There’s a flip side to that too, of course – more stuff means more space trash – but that’s the way it is)

  12. Michael Lonergan

    Umm, Phil, I hate to disagree with you, but I would hardly call the ISS a Volvo. It’s more like that big station wagon your dad drove from the 1970′s. You know the one? Wood paneling on the side… Yeah, that’s the one.

  13. mikeb

    Not as bad as NASA’s “Four Rooms: Earth View” Skylab short film.

  14. Lots of bad choices, not just politicians. I’d like a politician who’s stand is that (s)he’ll get great advice from the best people in their fields and listen to them. It’s more than a little counter intuitive, but that’s real leadership. Maybe i should run for office on that platform. I can just see it: “I have no ideas of my own! I pledge to only stand on the shoulders of Giants!”

    In the early days of Fred, LLNL proposed an inflatable space station that was to be bigger than Fred, and launchable in 5 shuttle flights. Very cheap. Instead, we have more tin cans. We already knew something about tin cans. What have we learned? Do we have spin for artificial gravity for long missions, as to Mars? Do we know more about radiation shielding, as for missions to Mars? Do we know more about propulsion for long missions, as for Mars? Have we grown crops in space, as we might for long missions? Are we expecting to get lucky again, as we did in Apollo, that our astronauts won’t get fried by a CME on the way to the Moon? We haven’t accomplished or even started any of these things. From our progress, we’re not just stupid, we’re lazy. And i helped, with my tax dollars.

    So NASA should be about doing cutting edge, risky, ground breaking stuff, because private enterprise can’t afford to fail miserably. That’s why Virgin Galactic has put up an inflatable space station first. Opps. Wait a minute…

    I want my $150 billion back. My share is likely more than $458 – as i pay higher than average taxes (which is because i’m lucky enough that i make higher than the average salary).

    I was struck by how %&^%&$ expensive the HST has been. For $2 billion, we could have several awesome space telescopes. But at least HST takes cool pictures. HST even measured the side-to-side wobble of a star under the influence of an orbiting extra-solar planet. Stunning. (Of course it took a staff on the ground, and at least a real astronomer to think of the experiment, and write it up. HST couldn’t have done it without them.)

  15. Whence and not whither?

  16. At least SkyLab produced some good solar science. Sure, we can automate that sort of thing now, but then, it was cutting edge.

  17. Celtic_Evolution

    I’ve said this before, and I still believe that, at least in the case of the US, space exploration may not reach near its full potential until it is driven by the private sector and there is some profit to be made from it… for instance, if it is found that manufacturing in a near zero-g environment has an ROI that will outweigh the costs of building the facility within 5 – 10 years, it’ll happen… or if precious minerals can be found on the moon or even Mars, and a way to mine them efficiently can be conceived… that sort of thing.

    As long as the government continues to be the driving force behind NASA, it will, I’m afraid, continue to be held back… subject to the whims of the political landscape… and that is just not a good thing in this political era… not for NASA anyhow.

    But hey… I’ve been wrong before… once or twice. :)

  18. Propaganda panda

    I agree with just about everyone here. We need to drop the shuttle and do something with the station, besides looking at it.

    The Issue is that NASA has done a smart thing to keep itself afloat. They took on a bunch of small projects. Now think about it. You take a large project, one big huge one, and put a huge part of your funding into it. Say going to mars, now that project fails. you just lost all that cash and that goes to everyone’s head. NASA got smart in terms of self preservation and took all these little projects and now even if 10 of them fail, they still have plenty of funding, and it doesnt look bad.

    Personally, I say forget the moon for now, we’ve got plenty of info, get that Mars project up and running. Send to habitats and start the process.

    Safety is a big issue too, and its holding alot of stuff back. they haven’t tried artificial gravity (spinning, for the mars mission) cus they aren’t sure what might happen, so they want to take years to try it in labs. I’m sure if you asked for a few volunteers to go test it out, you’d have them.

    I consider myself a kid, I’m 24. and I keep telling myself “I WILL go into space, I WILL go there before I die”
    But man, at this rate, I don’t know if it will happen unless I go apply to NASA as an astronaut when I get my Masters…

    Politics suck!

  19. JohnW

    I agree, Celtic. It seems like NASA has just been listless for the past 20 years or so, going through the motions, making stupid mistakes and taking no risks. It’s amazing to me that a government agency ever got us to the Moon in the first place!

    But they did such a great job back then, I don’t understand it. Unless that’s just nostalgia speaking.

  20. Celtic_Evolution

    Other thoughts I’m having on this subject while I continue to get no work done…

    I’ve heard it argued in the past that we’ve always been a culture of explorers, and so the concept of exploring space just for the sake of exploration should come naturally. In reality, though… exploration in the last 1000 years has rarely been “state sponsored” except in the name of conquest. Most explorers did so at their own behest, either self-funded or funded privately by wealthy backers. Even Queen Isabella’s backing of Columbus was done so with financial gain in mind. I’m not sure exploration for exploration’s sake will, or even can happen in today’s world. Most people don’t truly get the importance of the benefits that space exploration would provide, outside of the simple goal of “seeing what’s there”. And that really is unfortunate.

  21. Peter F

    In the world of 2001, the alternate universe version of America was pushed to build their preposterous moonbases and space stations by a Cold War with the Soviet Union that had stretched into a new century (not to mention the gentle prodding over millennia by vast, alien extelligences that manifest themselves as giant black rectangles). Absent that geopolitical (and extraterrestrial/supernatural) influence, the comparison of fantasy to mundane reality seems bizarre.

    No Kansan girl ever got a pair of magic red shoes with interdimensional transport capability from the Good Witch of Oz, either, though they can buy some nice, mundane red shoes at a retail strip mall in Wichita.

  22. Kirk

    Phil — what did you expect for only $150B USD? Makes you wonder how NASA did it in the 60′s and 70′s — could we be facing a leadership void (or is a lack of followership)?

  23. Doc

    The thing that really bugs me about that picture is that, using the technology available in the 90s, we *could* have built the 2001 space station. Heck, if we’d had the political will, we would have asteroid mining, moon bases, space stations, and manned research stations on assorted planets and moons.

    When I was a kid I dreamed about being the first man on mars. Now I find myself wishing (but not expecting) any human will land on mars before I die.

  24. Tim G

    NASA has certainly accomplished quite a bit since 1968. I’m not sure if the advancements presented in the movie were what Clarke really expected to come to fruition by the year 2001.

    I’m not a fan of the ISS as its ballooning cost during development did not seem to justify its meager scientific and inspirational value. However, I do have hopes for future manned missions with costs kept under control.

    Phil, have you met Robert Zubrinhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Zubrin?
    He’s an engineer, author and space travel advocate. I found out he resides in the Denver area. A couple of his books on manned missions, Mars Direct and Entering Space, are worth reading.

    I’m also pleased that <VASIMR has secured funding.

    P.S.

    Is this from inside the Volvo? I had been wondering what type of car that was.

  25. As government programs go, NASA has been one of the least disappointing in the countries’ history. Since the early extravagent early days the headline acts have fallen off, but there are still some fine sideshows for those who care to follow them.

    However I believe that the way ahead to the vibrant spacefaring future many of us would prefer is to embrace the vision of Burt Routan. His presentation reviewing the history of aviation from an economic and risk/reward point of view strongly suggests that the new focus needs to be on commercial applications of spaceflight (which probably starts with space tourism.)

    Accordingly NASA needs to continue to change in the direction of becoming a market maker keeping science in the mix as the space industry develops. Providing prizes for technology demonstrations is a good start, but over time NASA should become primarily a clearinghouse where scientists can get their projects vetted and then funded with commercial operators providing spacecraft design, construction and the actual delivery into orbit and beyond.

  26. I feel that it will be private enterprise that gets us back into space in a big way.

    If you remember, from the film, the shuttle was “Pan Am”. There were lots of corporate logos on the space station, and if I remember correctly, the hotel was a “HoJo” but I could be wrong and am too lazy to re-watch the movie.

    The fact that there is a lot of disposable income is why Sir Richard Branson is offering trips into space within the next couple of years. If there is a profit to be made in space travel, it will happen regardless of NASA.

  27. Realist

    NASA is not the direction in which to look if we’re ever hoping to colonize, expand through and live in space. If anything, privately funded corporations are, such as Virgin Galactic and other companies like it. It is my sincere hope that space tourism will slowly and gradually open up the general public’s eye for the wonders of space, and of the settlement of Earth’s orbit, the moon and, in time, perhaps Mars as well.

    NASA is utterly unimportant and has been ever since – at the very least – the 1960′s, when the first moon landing took place. NASA will never suceed in colonizing the moon. NASA will never succeed in establishing the “orbital cities” of “2001:s” vision. NASA will never land on Mars, in spite of all the inane propaganda on the subject they’ve enjoyed spouting on TV since the 1970s. NASA will never succeed in doing anything worthwhile, or of any consequence to the man on the street what so ever, except maybe staying right here on Earth and gazing at the stars, telling the general public to appreciate “the beauty of the universe”. That’s it. What a horribly sad prospect.

    The “general public” could care less for looking at the stars. The general public wants to colonize the moon, to travel into orbit and visit space stations, to settle other star systems. Have you ever watched or read any science fiction? That is what the general public wants out of space travel. Science fiction is our civilizations way of dreaming about itself and of its (supposed) future in space. NASA will never, under any conceivable circumstances, EVER, manage to accomplish any of these fantastic things. Not now, not in 100 years, not in 1000.

    Stop setting your hopes to an outdated and obsolete government agency, which openly claims it will be re-using the same technology from 40 years ago to (supposedly) land on the moon again. Look to the visionaries of people like Richard Branson and his peers, instead. Understand that being a free entrepreneur and setting your sights on the stars is one of the most glorious things a human being can accomplish. Why wait for your government to stop yammering about income tax this and military conflicts that, and instead open their eyes to the fact that there is an entire universe above them? Take matters into your own hands instead. Invest in the future of man by investing in space tourism, into the development of new technologies and drive systems and into mankind’s future among the stars. Or, if you should be lucky enough to have the money, start a space-oriented corporation yourself.

    Why wait for something that will never happen? Why succumb to the delusion that what happened during the 50s and 60s will happen again, with a single unified achievement by a centralized government leading to a great push into space? The reds are gone. Communism is defeated. The push is none-existent. NASA will never accomplish anything of the kind ever again. There is an entire world to set in order and your government, regardless of what country you hail from, could care less about space travel.

    But there are people who care about it. People like yourself. The future doesn’t lie with centralized governments making some meticilously-planned beurocratic push into space. The future lies within people like yourself, with a spirit long thought lost: The Spirit of Exploration. People with visions. The future lies in daring to invest money and in daring to dream. If mankind will ever reach for the stars, that push will be spearheaded by people like yourself; by the general public. Not by governments and not by NASA. NASA will never be able to accomplish anything of this magnitude.

    You want to colonize space? Colonize space. Stop looking to others and start looking towards yourself. What can you do to ensure mankind can reach the stars? How can you invest your money? What skills and ideas can you contribute with? How can you cooperate with others to achieve this goal?

    It’s funny. Socialism is supposed to be dead and yet so many people still set all their hopes to some centralized planning agency or other, which they hope will make their dreams come true. This never ceases to amaze me. Whatever happened to making your dreams come true yourself? “Being an entrepreneur”, I think it was called, unless it was “daring to dream”.

    The future you want is there for the taking. It’s yours, not the property of any government agency or centralized planning agency. Start working for it to happen. Why set your hope to those who simply do not have any vision?

  28. justcorbly

    You missed one big difference. If memory serves, in the movie, the shuttle used to get to the station was operated by PanAm, as well as the subsequent flight to the moon to visit the site of the first monolith. Not sure that the station itself was privately operated, but I suspect it was.

    So, Clarke and Kubrick, as well as legions of other science fiction authors. postulated a greater role for the private sector in space than we’ve seen so far.

    I’m not one to blame NASA for that, but it seems a matter of definition that a private market economy will do those things that are profitable and will not do those things that do not return a profit.

    Human space activity in LEO and perhaps on the Moon may eventually be profitable, but I really doubt that actual space exploration — going “where no one has gone before” — will ever make money.

  29. Bradley547

    Great post Phil, but to be fair you can’t really compare the tech in 2001 to what we have now.
    Remember, in the movie they had a reusable Nuclear Powered shuttle to loft all that hardware to LEO and the Moon.
    Once we decided that dumping nuclear waste directly into the atmosphere was a bad idea, we kind of limited ourselves to what we could throw up there with chemical rockets.

    Other than that I think you were spot on.

  30. Michael Lonergan

    Propaganda Panda:
    Not sure if “Drop the Shuttle” is the best choice of words… :)

  31. justcorbly

    Kevin is correct, we sure do need a better propulsion system. Getting from here to there is too expensive and too risky. (The problem has two parts and demands two different approachs: 1. Getting from the surface to LEO; and, 2. getting from LEO to the destination and back again.

    While I’m at it, don’t blame NASA too much for its humdrum lackluster unexciting approach to space. It does what it’s told with the money that it’s given. The guy in the White House calls the tune.

  32. S J C

    This is the kind of thing MCS is about:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ozkl1OvNvEc

  33. Grand Lunar

    Couldn’t have said it better, Phil.

    A lot of bad choices were made for post-Apollo.
    In a book called “Apollo: The Epic Journey to the Moon”, it tells of the various plans that were held for post-Apollo era. Expanded exploration, a moon base, and missions to Mars. And the technology was at hand, or at least close to developement.

    Instead, we threw it all away just to go to low Earth orbit over and over in a reusable, expensive spacecraft.

    We have a chance to redeem ourselves with the Orion. I have high hopes for this new ship. I just hope this new dream doesn’t get shattered as well.

    It is in this situation with our future in space at stake that voices need to be heard.

  34. David D.G.

    NASA is utterly unimportant and has been ever since – at the very least – the 1960’s, when the first moon landing took place. NASA will never suceed in colonizing the moon. NASA will never succeed in establishing the “orbital cities” of “2001:s” vision. NASA will never land on Mars, in spite of all the inane propaganda on the subject they’ve enjoyed spouting on TV since the 1970s. NASA will never succeed in doing anything worthwhile, or of any consequence to the man on the street what so ever, except maybe staying right here on Earth and gazing at the stars, telling the general public to appreciate “the beauty of the universe”. That’s it. What a horribly sad prospect.

    “Realist” (if that is your real name), while I do in fact support the idea of privatized space industries and wish them every success, I find this paragraph castigating and denigrating NASA to be unnecessarily harsh, if not downright mean and insulting. It’s preposterous to say that NASA has been “utterly unimportant” ever since the first moon landing! I gather that you have a preference for manned over unmanned space exploration, but do you have even the slightest idea how much we have learned from the many probes and orbital telescopes NASA has designed, launched, and guided (and are still guiding) over the decades? Do not *ever* dismiss that as “utterly unimportant”!

    I know you’re disappointed that manned exploration has gone backward; so am I, desperately so! It’s infuriating! But don’t you think the people at NASA might be more than a little chafed about that as well? Consider all those social, economic, and political factors Phil mentioned that they have to contend with; it must be like trying to drive a long distance on thin ice that keeps breaking and forcing you to choose new routes, while hoping you don’t wipe out or fall right through. Talk about high stress! NASA is not the enemy here; the political and other forces that hamstring them are to blame.

    By all means, I would love for private industry to make NASA obsolete. But until it does, be a “realist” and recognize that NASA is what we’ve got RIGHT NOW; Branson et al. have a very long way to go before they’re anywhere near able to compete with NASA, let alone surpass it. So, especially since our tax dollars fund its missions, we might as well put at least some of our energies into trying to see that NASA gives us as much of what we want as it can.

    ~David D.G.

  35. John Fruhwirth

    Phil,

    I’ve been following you blog for quite a while now and have agreed with your position on virtually every topic.

    However, on this one I must most emphatically disagree. I’m with Carl Sagan on this. In short I think that the days of manned space flight should be over. And so, I felt compelled to respond as follows:

    1) There is no longer any justification for putting “spam” in the can. Way back in the 60s there was a reason. That being that we needed people to do the “heavy intellectual lifting” to get the exploration and science done. But those days are gone. We have the technology to replace the spam with our evermore ingenious devices and computing capability. Remember that in those days their computing power was minimal. Heck, my wrist watch has more compute power than the Apollo command module had!

    2) The point of space exploration is to get the information/knowledge we want so as to learn about our solar system, our place in it and in the cosmos at large. The point is not to have some bag of guts out there saying “wow look how beautiful”. They only get in the way of the science. So forget the ego trip, the head trip and the orgasm! It’s the science, stupid. Stephen, above, says that “…NASA should be about doing cutting edge, risky, ground breaking stuff,” What for? The ego trip? The right stuff? Why take risks? For what? Why not test the hell out of stuff before sending it up and minimize the risk? After all, the point, as I see it, is to get the maximum amount of information/knowledge with the minimum amount of risk/cost.

    3) With today’s computing power and robotics capability, there is no more need for the spam in the can. Our machines are extensions of ourselves and our senses and in many ways do a much better job than ours can when it comes to sensing the alien environments we send them to explore.

    4) Most of the expense of manned space flight goes to insuring the safety, care and feeding of the “spam” in the can (ie. the astronauts). Just think of how much cheaper it would be if we did not have to build triple and quadruple redundancy into the environmental systems. No need for a long list of items such as: breathing, food, drink, standard temperature and pressure, waste disposal, recycling, space suites, radiation shielding, medicine, psychological well being, rest/sleep periods, resupply, crew changes, etc., etc., etc. I’m sure you can think of many more. All of which can be avoided by autonomous robotics and smart machines. Give me my Captain Kirk command chair and the Enterprise’s “Bridge” back at mission control and let me go home at night, have the weekend off, go on vacation, etc., etc. I’ll even do shift work but here on “the good earth” (to quote Lovell, I think). Remember the Sci-Fi move called “Silent Running” with Bruce Dern? Remember his cute little robots, Huie, Louis and Duie? Let them go “where no man has gone before” and have them report back in with their findings. I’ll stay home, thank you very much!

    5) We humans are built for the earth’s environment (and not very well for that either considering our unintelligently designed bodies). So trying to take that environment with us into space results in prohibitive costs. Much of the commentary above reflects this. The alternative, that of modifying ourselves to survive in the hostile conditions found in space, is extremely difficult and not even desirable. I for one love this spaceship (meaning the earth) and I deplore any suggestion that we should get ready to abandon ship and head off into the “wild black yonder” (to mangle a flying metaphor). Instead, we should be doing our damnedest to maintain this spaceship in proper working order. So to Jeff, @ post #1 who says …”We need to get off this planet at some point if the species is going to survive.”, I could not disagree more. Jeff, we can’t even survive well at the south pole, man! And it is at least 400 times easier to survive there than in space! What makes you think that some other planet is going to be easier? Have you any idea how inhospitable Mars is? If we were to get off of this “rock” we would have to bring it with us to survive. Even our attempts to reproduce a closed, self contained environment have failed miserably (I remind you of those geodesic domes that were supposed to be models of self sufficient biospheres . Wake up and smell the roses, man! However, I must say that your second paragraph makes a lot more sense! So let me chime in, …go rovers, go … go rovers, go…! And may many of your clones follow you to the lovely little red planet!

    6) Look at all the benefits we have already accrued with our unmanned spacecraft. Both earth orbiting ones and interplanetary probes. These have paid real benefits. As discussed above, the manned missions have produced a poor if not negative return on our investments.

    7) For those of you who may claim that there are certain things that only a human can do in space, I say that if we were to invest just a tenth of the amount we spend on manned missions on developing future robotics capabilities we would be much further ahead. Already we have dexter on the ISS doing work outside that spares astronauts the dangers and tedium of outside operations. I invite you to consider the implications of version 99.9 of dexter to their logical conclusion. For me this means autonomous and/or remotely controlled robots to get the work done, to do the required repairs, etc.
    And please don’t tell me that we can’t build robots that can’t do what a human can do to repair stuff. That is just narrow minded thinking. For, as you may know, we have designed many of the components up there so that only humans can now repair them. Just think what would happen if we designed our spacecraft from scratch to be repaired by robots.

    8) Now lets suppose that we do have failures that our robots cannot repair. So what? We analyze the data, make the necessary corrections and move on. Noone needs to die. We just send up the next version of the spacecraft, which we could afford because we have not pissed away so much on the human factors costs on the manned missions, and carry on. We could have massive assembly lines cranking out spacecraft on a regular schedule (think of the job creation and job security this implies) rather than holding to the fiction that reusable space craft will reduce the costs. It has already by pointed out that the shuttle program has put the lie to that claim. On top of that, the heartache and tragedy of the loss of human life would be completely eliminated. Is it worth risking life and limb to go up there? I think not! I invite you all to think deeply about the implications of removing the “spam” from the can. Just look at the vast improvement in our lives brought to us by communications satellites, weather satellites, Earth observation satellites, etc. etc.. Not to mention the Hubble and the soon to be launched James Webb telescope. All of them unmanned! Need I say more? And please, please spare me any arguments with respect to the repair of the Hubble’s optics. As I remember, the repair mission cost more than the instrument itself! Shoddy procedures caused the spherical aberrations that plagued it. These could easily have been detected if proper procedures had been followed. AND, remember that the Hubble’s launch was delayed because of the shuttle disaster. Just think how much cheaper it would have been to launch the thing on an expendable booster rather than on the shuttle.

    9) I could go on and on, but I think you catch my drift. In short, I feel that it is time to stop playing at being “Space Cadets”. The time for that is OVER. Much as it pains me to say that because, I too wanted to have the dreams and visions that were so enticing and beautiful back in the early days.

    Lastly, as Clint Eastwood so aptly said in “Dirty Harry”, … “A man’s got to know his limitations”. So too should we realize that we are earthlings and forget about our childish dreams of manned space flight. It’s time to grow up! It’s time to use our considerable mental talents to send our tools into space to gain the knowledge we desire. And to use this knowledge for our good and for that of the “good earth” which is the best spaceship we will ever have!

    ’nuff said!

    …John

  36. Walter Brameld IV

    “…we’ve spent the past 45 years since Apollo circling the Earth.”

    You mean 35 years.

  37. Your Name's Not Bruce?

    Nasa has to build the Australopithecine Single Stage to Orbit Launch System demonstrated in the film. Then Clarke-Kubrickian coolness will ensue.

  38. Chip

    Robots – of course – but I would never advocate standing in the way of a bunch of well-funded crazies who want to actually stand on another world. Robots will always be needed but some of us are artists and all of us are monkeys – so we have to go see and explore what we can – in person.

    There’s a wonderful line in the old George Pal movie “Destination Moon” (1950) – “Quick, we have to take off now before somebody passes a law against it.”

  39. Hugo

    On the subject of manned (shouldn’t it be, ‘humanned’ spaceflight now? What’s the terminology here?):

    I’m all for human spaceflight as well. And you can understand why NASA would be also. NASA’s crowning achievement (though you’re welcome to disagree) was putting a man on the moon (I hope we get a woman on the moon next time, too).

    The Russians (and the U.S.???) put probes on Venus and just about everyone has hoisted the robotic flag on Mars. But this rarely gets the public excited. Even though space flight is not in any way routine, it’s become routine for most of the public.

    I mean, the only reason Beagle II got so much coverage was because of it’s failure. Same, unfortunately, goes for Challenger and Columbia.

    I’d like to see a man (or woman) walk on Mars before I die. And I think I’d like to see my kids and grandkids see it was well. But I don’t think it’ll be before 2030. Still, fingers crossed. Humanity, don’t waste this chance.

  40. John Fruhwirth

    Hugo, Lets not get all hung up on the terminology. I think you got the drift of my argument. Call it whatever, person-ed if you wish.
    Why are you for human space flight?

    Is the point to get the public to get excited or to do the science? Look what Sagan managed to do with his Cosmos series to get people excited about the universe. I dare say that he got billions and billions of us excited (ha, ha)! And not one penny had to be spent on leaving footprints on the moon.

    You say “I’d like to see a man (or woman) walk on Mars before I die.” Again, I ask why? What would that do for you? On whose nickel would this be accomplished? Not mine, I hope! I’m reserving my nickel for the next great scientific instrument to be launched.

    What is the point of this “chance” you speak of?

    …John

  41. Keith Harwood

    Jacob Bronowski got it right. “America has lost its nerve.”

    Yes, mankind will get to the planets, but it won’t be Americans, they’ve shot their bolt. My guess is India or China will be the next big space power.

  42. John Fruhwirth

    So Keith, on what basis do you make your claim that “Yes, mankind will get to the planets,”?

    Where is your data/observation/evidence? Bald faced assertions are insufficient around here. Please justify yourself!

    …John

  43. Tom

    If only they’d shown them to scale!

    In 2001, someone tried to compare the view of the space station out the front windows of the shuttle to a similar view out the front windows of the space clipper in the movie 2001. I called BS as well.

    The disconnect between the dreams and the reality is what really hurts. Trying to make them more alike is where the work lies.

    And John, humans have a place in space. Our robots can return vast quantities of data, and maybe even a sample or two, but the choice to provide a backup for our species must involve humans away from our planet, or as an option to potentially draconian population controls due to a lack of resources may involve humans away from our planet. We haven’t found the right way to do it yet, but that doesn’t mean that the right way isn’t out there.

  44. Peter F says: “In the world of 2001, the alternate universe version of America was pushed to build their preposterous moonbases and space stations by a Cold War with the Soviet Union that had stretched into a new century. Absent that geopolitical influence, the comparison of fantasy to mundane reality seems bizarre.”

    I’m glad that someone finally said that. All of these references to how “inspirational” the movie 2001 was (including the NASA site in the link) must not have watched the same film I saw. Kubrick was not celebrating technology, he was condemning it. Yes, all of the machinery was new and shiny and worked perfectly (until we got to HAL, that is), but look at the people. They were completely dehumanized robots.

    Whole books have been written on the impact and meaning of 2001 (and it is the largest single chapter of “Spaceship Handbook”), and none of them that I’ve read consider this an upbeat movie.

    - Jack

  45. Chip says: “There’s a wonderful line in the old George Pal movie “Destination Moon” (1950) – ‘Quick, we have to take off now before somebody passes a law against it.’”

    That is the only scene in the movie that survived from the book (Rocket Ship Galileo).

    - Jack

  46. justcorbly says: “NASA does what it’s told with the money that it’s given. The guy in the White House calls the tune.”

    Bzzzzt, wrong!

    The guys (and gals) in Congress call the tune. The guy in the White House can only approve or reject what they send him, and if he rejects it, the guys and gals can override him, if they have the will.

    - Jack

  47. John Fruhwirth says: “Where is your data/observation/evidence? Bald faced assertions are insufficient around here.”

    Unless, of course, it’s a political rant…

    - Jack

  48. Troy

    I’d rather have a robust unmanned NASA than the feeble and useless manned NASA that we are getting. The Shuttle seems to be a case study in what NOT to do. Phasing out the Shuttle needs to be job one. Sort of euthanizing NASA’s white elephant. I do advocate the new hardware which will be capable of Moon flight. A slow and steady progression back to the moon will be a good thing and visionaries with more capability than the current leadership will see that a Near Earth Asteroid will make an interesting mission.

  49. Steve P.

    “…we’ve chosen poorly. We need politicians who will choose wisely,”

    Is that an Indiana Jones allusion I see there?

  50. John Fruhwirth

    Tom, so you say “humans have a place in space.” I beg to disagree. What place and where? Project as far into the future as you would like and map out a plausible scenario for how we could save the human race from the disaster it faces if it does not solve the over population problem here on earth.

    And Jack H., Let me assure you tha there is not one political bone in my body.
    My rants have to do with our search for knowledge and the best way of obtaining it.

    Troy: “slow and steady progression back to the moon will be a good thing”. What wood be so good about it? We have already had men bouncing about on the moon? What could possibly be gained by doing that again that could not be done better and more economically by means of robotics?

    …John

  51. Mark Martin

    Here is a voice of reason: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xq1hbqummvA

    Mostly what astronauts do for science is to make operating the instruments orders of magnitude more expensive than if they’d just stay home. Robots have been doing for nearly half a century what no astronaut will be able to do for yet more years to come. In some cases they do what no astronaut will ever be able to do.

    Until space transportation becomes a whole lot cheaper than it is, the following will be the truth of the matter:

    [1]- Employment of robots = honest focus on real scientific objectives
    [2]- Insistence upon having astronauts in situ = “body worship”

  52. John Fruhwirth

    Well said Mark Martin!!!

  53. Naked Bunny with a Whip

    Where is your data/observation/evidence? Bald faced assertions are insufficient around here. Please justify yourself!

    No offense, since I tend to agree with your positions, but I didn’t see you offering any data/observations/evidence for your assertions either. Just sayin’.

  54. Sully

    You want humans on Mars. Shut down NASA and lay off all of its people. Then pick a 40 or 50 year old project manager like the one who ran the successful Mars rover mission and make him Czar of a new agency called MASA (or some such). Make him lay out a plan with clear performance goals and budgets and then give him the authority to hire the best of the former NASA people along with as many new science and engineering graduates as he needs. He may not deliver on time and on budget but at least he will have a chance of delivering.

    NASA, like all bureaucratic agencies, has become a jobs protection program rather than a performance program. My God – even the military is an order of magnitude more efficient in adopting new technology. The shuttle program is all the proof you need that any money put into NASA is sure to be wasted. Fifty year old platinum plated technology, total risk aversion, redundancy on top of redundancy, talking of decades to accomplish a mission when there is the clear example of getting to the Moon in less than 10 years.

    That said I tend to think that the real issue is cost to orbit. Rather than a mission to Mars we should first task a new agency with achieving more reasonable cost to orbit. If the only way to do that is to build a space elevator then perhaps we will have to wait for that before we can go to Mars as more than a one or a few times stunt.

  55. John Fruhwirth says: “Jack H., Let me assure you tha there is not one political bone in my body. My rants have to do with our search for knowledge and the best way of obtaining it.”

    Actually, my comment wasn’t aimed at you specifically, but rather the general direction this blog takes when the subject becomes politics.

    - Jack

  56. Sully says: “I tend to think that the real issue is cost to orbit. Rather than a mission to Mars we should first task a new agency with achieving more reasonable cost to orbit.”

    Read Harry Stine’s book “Halfway to Anywhere.”

    - Jack

  57. StevoR

    People here have talked about big companies funding space exploration instead of NASA – often insulting NASA and public-run space agencies in the most ungrateful and unfair way.

    Problem is the way we humans – & particularly big profit-seeking companies think regarding the short-term versus the long term. Big companies put raking in stacks of profit first above absolutely everything else – above human rights, above the environment, above the future esp. the longer term future.

    That’s why they can’t be trusted to develop space exploration or work for the longer term benefit – even if that ‘longer term’ is just decades off rather than fifty or a hundred years.

    That axiom is why “corporate ethics” is an oxymoron, why business needs to be regulated and cannot be trusted to run public services or act for the good of society.

    Space travel & space-based scientific research beyond the bounds of narrow commercial instances requires government involvement. (& remember folks, governments = us the people! Or should.) It takes time, it involves intangible and serendipitous benefits as well as the more obvious $-making ones and it takes an awfully big amount of moolah. Plus it provides long and medium term benefits to everyone – not just the few consumers or stock-holders of any one large corporation.

    That means, by necessity, governments need to be involved and indeed, whole societies do. That’s why NASA is a public, government organisation not an R &D branch of say, MacDonnell-Douglas. Private industry, the multinational corporations are by their nature intrinsically unsuited to running broad-based, public-national-&-International good, long-term space programs.

    Tragically, the United States has been ideologically blinded to this truism for a long while now; won over by rhetoric about untrammelled capitalism that in the long run hurts & is hurting everyone making our planetary & most personal futures far worse than they need be.

    This ominous development in the neo-conservatives war against anything they don’t want to hear – or allow the public to hear – is part of that larger picture. Its yet another reason why everyone needs to oppose that mob of Republican, “Christian” fundamentalists and ideologues for the most unchecked, unbalanced form of Capitalism for all our sakes.

    Is there a place for private enterprise in space too? Of course there is, probably more so later on when costs go down and technology improves for greater accessibility. But do we also – or even more – need NASA and organisations like it – nationally or even internationally run government based space programs looking out for everyone’s interests and everyone’s future rather than immediate piles of money? Absolutely yes!

    Remember too the records – NASA has put 12 men (& sadly so far only men) on the lunar surface. It & other public space agencies have put 100′s (?) of others incl. the occassional space tourist into orbit – &being doing so since the 1960′s. OTOH, Private enterprise (a.k.a. the mega-obscenely rich) have so far recently manged a few sub-orbital flights …
    On their records, I think NASA wins folks! ;-)

    Now what NASA really needs IMHO is :

    I) Proper funding – say at least half theamount wasted killing people for no goodreason in Iraq.

    II) Proper visionary leadership thatcan explain & inspire the public to back their progress.

    III) Proper focus – a directed program with a specific deadline eg. Moon by 1970.

    I suggest the USA stops counter-productively invading & threatening other nations & redirects its money & efforts towards what was its finest hour & greatest ever achievment – NASA’s Apollo moon-landings.

  58. StevoR

    Of course among the very first things that needs to happen is the removal from power of the current pack of fools mis-ruling your nation – &preferably their trails for war-crimes (invading & occupying Iraq), crimes against humanity (ditto plus Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo thesecret CIA jails,rendition ad nauseam ..) & treason. (tearing up your countries fgomer liberuties, lying to create the Iraq war & spying needlesslyonyour own citizens among other things.)

    Said the very unrealistic & inaptly self-named “Realist” :

    It’s funny. Socialism is supposed to be dead and yet so many people still set all their hopes to some centralized planning agency or other, which they hope will make their dreams come true. This never ceases to amaze me. Whatever happened to making your dreams come true yourself? “Being an entrepreneur”, I think it was called, unless it was “daring to dream”.

    Firstly, socialism never died – you may be thinking of Marxism, Leninism & Stalinism which did – but which are quite different things! Please educate yourself there mate as you are blatantly revealing your ignorance.

    Secondly, ‘daring to dream’ in many cases involves achieving your dreams through involving the government! This is true whether those dreams are for a more equal, better society (eg. the Dream of Martin Luther King – perhaps the greatest single American hero ever!) or for getting tothe Moon and even stars.

    Thirdly & finally : acting alone – really alone – you’d be able to acheive very, very little. Withe very ,very few exceptions, it is only through working co-operatively as part of a society or group that anything great can be accomplished. This has been true since the days of the cavemen bringing down as a tribe a mammoth that one man could not hope to bring down alone. Even people like Edison had a team of colleagues that helped build and produce his inventions. Even Newton had to have a publisher – and a society to spread his ideas. Humans are social animals – that is our strength and, sometimes also our weakness.

    Left strictly alone you’d be lucky to survive at all. Imagine yourself starting utterly from scratch – just yourself unclothed in the middle of the African Rift Valley say with no other person anywhere to help you and none of their products of their social production. You’d have to survive the environment, the local fauna and flora – discovering for yourself what’s edible & not, facing predators such as lions on your own, finding the three essentials – food, water, shelter all by yourself. I’d ceraytoinly wish youluck because you’d certainly need it! To do anything much beyond live afew days you would need to find other people to help you -only together could you then start acheiving something! (Even solo world sailors have usually had some help building their boats! ;-) )

    Working combined as a society – with good government leaders helping people combine their efforts together we can land on the Moon or reach for Mars and beyond.

    I hope to see more of that & less ungrateful NASA-bashing from folks here! 8)

  59. Greyfire

    The best part of this whole post is Phil is a supporter of Obama who is the most likely to slash and burn NASA budget in favor of “Education” programs.

  60. TierOneGirl

    Don’t get me wrong, BA, I love your site, and I think you must be a great person, but this is like yelling at the Rebels in Star Wars for not destroying the Empire sooner.
    They’re both just groups of determined little guys doing the best they can.

  61. justcorbly

    Jack Hagerty:

    NASA’s mission, its goals and objectives, have always been determined in the White House. Kennedy, not Congress, was the impetus for Apollo. Nixon’s White House, not Congress, shaped post-Apollo and the Shuttle. Bush directed his Vision program.

    Sure, these programs exist because Congress provides funds, but I can think of no example of a major NASA program that was mandated by the Congress.

  62. joeyjojojr

    NASA needs to redefine the purpose for its existence. The main overriding long term goal of the agency should be to establish a permanent self-sustaining colony on Mars. This is the only goal worthy of the time, money, effort and lives it will cost. This is a goal that will ultimately mean the most for the future of our country and our species.

    Exploration in and of itself is a worthy cause, and much of it will be done in pursuit of this goal. This is not something that can be done in 20, 30 or even 50 years, but it is a goal that can unify and focus the direction of the efforts being undertaken now. I have no illusions that a goal this long term will not have many problems keeping support behind it through changes in political and public will, but I feel it is worth pursuing.

    It may not be possible, ultimately we may just be too short sighted as a species, or we may suffer some natural or man-made disaster that will limit our ability to even attempt such an undertaking. However, as long as we do have the ability, I feel we owe it to future generations to try. We may be at a critical juncture in human history, we either move forward and expand, or turn inward and collapse as we fight among ourselves over dwindling resources here on Earth.

  63. justcorbly

    One basic assertion and one basic question:

    1. The motivation for space flight is to put people in space, not to do research. Research is one thing that needs to be done in space, by machines and humans, but the only people who think research is the best motivation for space flight are researchers. The Moon and Mars, et al, are no more the province of researchers than the Americas were the province of Renaissance geeks.

    2. Can someone explain how the private sector will see a chance to make money doing the initial exploration of places like the Moon and Mars? The market will happily exploit any chance to make money in space, but exploration is not exploitation. That’s why the government bankrolled Lewis and Clark, 40 years before the first wagon trains moved west. I’m al for any kind of human space flight — by anyone — but I’m damned if I can figure out how the private sector is going to want to do initial basic exploration.

  64. Tom

    @John

    There are problems on Earth today to be sure. There were problems in Europe in the 1400s before the discovery of the ‘new’ world, and problems in the savannahs of Africa before the great migration.

    Robots deliver science. People move life with them. Our current approach to space does the first one rather well, the second not so much.

    I can live with your disagreement, but think you’re wrong. I believe I’m right, but admit I have no hard data to back it up.

    @TierOneGirl

    I think your analogy is flawed. Phil isn’t saying the Rebels should have destroyed the Empire sooner, he’s saying that the Rebels are claiming they destroyed the Empire when all the did was blow up the Death Star (though a better analogy would be destroying one of those star destroyers).

  65. justcorbly

    Joeyjojojr:

    “NASA needs to redefine the purpose for its existence.”

    That’s politically infeasible. NASA can no more redefine its purpose than the Defense Department or the Treasury Department.

    If NASA’s purpose is to be redefined, it will be a process in which the White House and Congress create and pass new legislation.

  66. MaDeR

    To manned vs unmanned debate: Apollo gave us circa 384 kg of moon rocks. Carefully selected, documented, often from places like core samples. Unmanned missions gave us about 400… grams. Yes, grams. Scrapped from surface closest to lander.

    It was in 70s. Today we do not have sufficiently advanced automation technology and we have at least decades, if not hundred years to achieve that level.

    John Fruhwirth, you can handwave it with “we were to invest just a tenth of the amount we spend on manned missions on developing future robotics capabilities we would be much further ahead” all you want, but facts are this: in some areas, humans preforms better than machines by few orders of magnitude. In some areas, machines preforms better than humans by few orders of magnitude. They should cooperate. We need both of them.

    Your rabid anti-human-in-space advocacy will not change these facts or reality. :)

  67. joeyjojojr

    justcorbly,

    You are correct. I should have said “Our government needs to redefine NASA’s purpose for its existence”.

    joeyjojojr

  68. Seneca

    Phil, your conception of NASA’s optimum direction is presented here as little more than a dream animated by literary fiction. Where’s the beef?

    I think John Fruhwirth is the only contributor to this discussion thread so far who has attempted to ground their comments in material reality.

    Setting aside the essentially political question of interpreting NASA’s actual social role as an arm of the U.S. government, I think the main functional lesson learned from the space station experiences over the last couple of decades is that humans have no clue yet how to create an artificial environment capable of maintaining the health of the human organism, even in the short term.

    The deterioration of bone and muscle–even with devotion to heavy exercise programs–have been shown to be factors threatening the viable health of all humans living outside our native biosphere for any length of time.

    Given the political, bureaucratic, and profiteering obstacles to objectively testing and verifying optimum dietary, exercise, and medication regimes for us earth-bound creatures, I seriously doubt that any workable solutions for space travellers will be forthcoming within the confines of our present social/political structure.

    Dream on.

  69. Dagger

    Making a comparison between 2001: A Space Odyssey and NASA is tantamount to making comparisons between fantasy and reality. No matter how good (or bad) the movie. Just because some movies have better “science” than others, does not change the fact that it’s still a movie. It’s meant for entertainment, nothing more. Movies do not drive reality. It’s 180 degrees the other way.

    Kubricks vision of the future was entertaining and perhaps a bit insightful, but it was still the vision of one person on what may happen or what could happen. Not what will happen or has happened.

    NASA should know better, but I can understand why they did it. NASA is similar to a gifted child who somehow never manages to extol it’s own virtues. At least not properly. If it did, I would imagine there would be considerably less NASA bashing on this forum and that’s not to say they shouldn’t be bashed, at least a little, for some of the outright blunders they’ve made.

    The long and short of it is, we can’t change the past, whether you agree with the shuttle program, or some of the other programs NASA has promoted over the last 30 years or not.

    Knowing this, energies should be focused on shaping the future, not dwelling on the past other than to ensure mistakes are learned from.

    And for those who think NASA has contributed nothing to humanity over the last 30 years, need to look no further than their own kitchens or bathrooms or vehicles to see how incorrect that assessment is. The world would be a much poorer place without NASA and the science it has given us. Seeing how much better it could be if it was run correctly and not subject to political agendas, that’s the rub and it’s why people, like those of us who visit this site, need to be ever vigilant.

    Shape the future, respect the past. Easier said than done, but no one ever said reality was easy.

  70. justcorbly

    Dagger:

    Agreed. And not to beat again on the private sector thing, but the biggest difference between space exploration as written in science fiction and as it has actually happened so far is this: Science fiction has assumed market forces would drive space travel to a far greater extent than has happened or seems likely.

    Human activity in space, especially beyond LEO is hampered by two things: 1. Lack of an efficient and effective way to move about in space. Our chemical rockets are a close analogy to catapulting a rowboat off a medieval shore and seeing how far it goes. We’re still skipping along the Portuguese coast. We’ve haven’t even been to the Canaries yet. 2. So far, there’s nothing off the planet that promises the kind of financial reward that can motivate greedy people to take enormous risks. Early European exploiters of the Americas thought they’d be rich, and enough of them stole Inca and Aztec gold to lend that meme credibility. What’s today’s equivalent?

  71. Celtic_Evolution

    @ justcorbly

    2. Can someone explain how the private sector will see a chance to make money doing the initial exploration of places like the Moon and Mars? The market will happily exploit any chance to make money in space, but exploration is not exploitation. That’s why the government bankrolled Lewis and Clark, 40 years before the first wagon trains moved west. I’m al for any kind of human space flight — by anyone — but I’m damned if I can figure out how the private sector is going to want to do initial basic exploration.

    First, I may be completely mis-reading your point here, so tell me if I am, but please don’t tell me you believe that Thomas Jefferson’s motives for bankrolling the Lewis and Clark expidition were purely in the spirit of exploration. For that expedition, although there were publicly stated scientific goals, the real goals of this mission were to get an idea of the strngth and number of the Indian tribes west of the Mississippi along their path west, and discover the level of influence of the European hunters, prospectors and trappers… mainly Brittish and French… that had already settled parts of the west. Lewis and Clark were, after all, officers in the US Army, and Jefferson needed an expedition to map out and expand the Western Territories, and I assure you, it was as much in the spirit of “exploitation” as it was “exploration”.

    And second, as to the private sector’s involvement in space exploration… well, it likely would not start out that way. It would be a gradual, profit based, ROI-centric endeavor. As I stated before, it will likely be perhaps a high orbit manufacturing facility that shows promise for manufacturing cheaper and more efficiently in a low gravity environment (and that may not ever actually be the case… it may not really be practical, but I’m just giving an example here)… and then perhaps it becomes more practical to have such a facility on the surface of the moon. Once established, the moon becomes a far better place for manufacturing and launching vehicles to, say, Mars…

    Again… I could be way way off on this, but I believe that as long as NASA’s direction is being set by the governmanet, it will continue to stagnate and be held back, as the BA very aptly pointed out, “because of the political reality of funding long-term goals when we get new politicians elected on shorter cycles.”

    Private enterprise has far more ability to set long term goals and not be subject to the whims of an ever-changing political landscape where NASA (or more appropriately, it’s budget) becomes a routine and easy sacrificial lamb. That’s not to say that it will… but it has a better chance to succeed if the endeavor were actually taken and taken seriously by private enterprise.

  72. Celtic_Evolution

    And just to be clear… I think NASA, on the whole, has done a pretty tremendous job over the years, considering the contstraints it has had to work within and political whims it has been subject to… and despite its many problems, I’m a huge NASA supporter… I just don’t realistically think NASA can succeed in bringing us into where we need to be as far as space exploration is concerned while still under the “management” of the govenrment, and acting as a government agency.

  73. Celtic_Evolution

    … I mis-spelled “government” in those last two posts at least twice… read into that what you will… :)

  74. justcorbly

    Celtic:

    I was just trying to illustrate the point that the private market sector is rather unlikely to engage in any activities that don’t return a profit. More to the point, a market economy can’t sustain unprofitable activities.

    I think exploitation of space will eventually return a profit (although I’d hesitate to guess on specifics), but I think exploitation must necessarily follow exploration. I don’t think exploration is likely to return a profit, and, hence, won’t be done by the private sector.

    To be specific, I don’t believe private funding would have financed any human space activity to date — Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Shuttle, Vostok, Soyuz, Mir, ISS, etc.

  75. justcorbly

    Celtic:

    Forgot this: Whatever the eventual benefits of Lewis and Clark to the private sector, and they were obviously legion, the private sector did not and would not have paid for the expedition. They’d have wanted on return on the expedition itself.

  76. Celtic_Evolution

    @ justcorbly

    I was just trying to illustrate the point that the private market sector is rather unlikely to engage in any activities that don’t return a profit. More to the point, a market economy can’t sustain unprofitable activities.

    On this I agree mostly… my point is to illustrate that, were the private sector to find a profitable use for space-bound endeavours, it would have a far better chance of succeeding with long-term space exploration related goals than NASA will while at the mercy of government sponsorship.

    Forgot this: Whatever the eventual benefits of Lewis and Clark to the private sector, and they were obviously legion, the private sector did not and would not have paid for the expedition. They’d have wanted on return on the expedition itself.

    Not sure I agree with this. Take arctic explorations of the 19th century as an example. Of the nearly 100 documented expeditions to the arctic, over a third were privately funded. And in fact these privately funded expeditions were more successful… they made more major discoveries, lost fewer ships and men, and made more technological advancements than any of the publicly funded expeditions. It was a privatley funded Amundsen that first traversed the Northwest Passage, and othe major arctic discoveries were made by privately funded expeditions. The returns on these privately funded missions go beyond simple economic gain. There’s also prestige and fame, and I think this is a strong example of how the private sector can have a large impact on exploration, without necessarily a gurantee of economic return.

    I will agree that it’s far more likley that such an undertaking will be green-lighted by the private sector if there is a known return on investment that can be shown… but I’m not ocnvinced, based on history, that it’s pre-requisite.

  77. justcorbly

    Celtic:

    >>” …were the private sector to find a profitable use for space-bound endeavours, it would have a far better chance of succeeding with long-term space exploration related goals than NASA will while at the mercy of government sponsorship…”

    I’d agree, so long as the effort was profitable until the goals were met.

    On private funding: I’ll defer to you on polar exploration since I know nothing of them. However, private funding can come from donors and others who are not motivated by profit. I’ll stand by my assertion that a market economy cannot sustain unprofitable activities. Those must be funded in another way.

  78. Gary Ansorge

    Not so subtle hint:
    If you want to go to space,,,learn Chinese(or possible Hindi).

    A viable, permanent presence in space absolutely requires a profit making, economic approach and as Gerard K. O’Neille pointed out 35 years ago, the most productive and easily returned resource from space is energy but to do that requires an installed technologically productive infrastructure in space. Luna has the resources to make that happen, so the moon is where we need to go. I expect that the enterprise with both the resources and the long term orientation to make that happen is Exxon.

    They’re accustomed to planning a half century ahead in exploration and development,,,

    Hey, it’s all about energy, which is their bread and butter.

    GAry 7

  79. justcorbly says: “NASA’s mission, its goals and objectives, have always been determined in the White House. Kennedy, not Congress, was the impetus for Apollo. Nixon’s White House, not Congress, shaped post-Apollo and the Shuttle. Bush directed his Vision program.”

    I understand your point now, but you could have been a little clearer in your original post.

    Every project needs a champion, and I suppose getting the president to front for you is the highest possible profile!

    - Jack

  80. John Fruhwirth

    @ Naked Bunny: No offense taken. I do try to backup my assertions with evidence, etc. Please tell me where I have fallen short at this and I will be most happy to correct the situation

    @Jack Hagerty: Oops my mistake (re. things always getting political). But it does seem that politics ALWAYS trumps science and technology.

    @StevoR: Well said. Both of your posts were excellent!!!

    @justcorbly: “The motivation for space flight is to put people in space, not to do research.” So, what is the point of putting people into space in your view? And how is it the eminent scientist such as Carl Sagan and Stephen Weinberg are against it?

    Why do contradict yourself in the very next sentence?
    “Research is one thing that needs to be done in space, by machines and humans,…”
    You say: “The Moon and Mars, et al, are no more the province of researchers than the Americas were the province of Renaissance geeks.”
    So, just how is it that you can compare the exploration/exploitation of a new continent with planetary exploration? The two are worlds apart. Are you suggesting that we exploit the moon and Mars and bring the spoils back to earth? Is so, how would you accomplish that and turn a profit?

    @Tom: You say…”People move life with them. ” I would agree for earthly destinations but not for planetary ones. Remember that all of your examples deal with very simple movements (i.e. where the burden of bringing your environment with you is minimal). Even on earth, consider the difficulty of colonizing the south pole. It has been over 100 years since Amundson made it to the pole and yet to this day there is no permanent base at the pole. At best we have research stations down there and no exploitation of any of its resources (not that there should be either).

    @MaDeR: Thanks for you thoughts. Sorry that you feel that I am hand waving about the one tenth the cost of robotics versus manned missions. I did not hand wave this ratio into existence. I based it on general reading on the topic over the past several years. However, as I cannot, at this moment, provide you with a reference, and so I am prepared to step back from it. Can you suggest a better ratio? BUT, I do invite you to consider the economic viability of unmanned missions. Look at all of the commercial satellites in orbit producing returns for their owners.

    Yes, the reality, today, is that humans can do some tasks way better than robots. What I question is the cost/benefit of putting spam in the can. Is it really worth the effort to you to have “boots” on the ground?
    What can they accomplish that is worth the expense to you?
    Ask yourself this whenever you propose spending billions and billions of public dollars on a manned mission… And then what? Once you’ve answered that to your satisfaction, do it again. Ask … and then what? If you come up with a deeply satisfying answer then please let us all know about it. So far, when I have engaged in this exercise, I have concluded that the risk/reward ratio is just not worth it.

    @Seneca. Thanks for your support.

    @Dagger: Well said, sir!

    @justcorbly Your response to Dagger was excellent. Well done!

    @Celtic_Evolution: If the private sector thought for a moment that they could make a buck up there, they would already be there. Contrast the pastr 50 years of space flight with the 1st 50 years of air travel. Look at the enormous gulf between the two. That should tell you something.

    @Gary. Do you mean that Exxon knew that the price of gas was going to hit $4/gallon 50 years ago? Bastards!!!:)

  81. Celtic_Evolution

    If the private sector thought for a moment that they could make a buck up there, they would already be there. Contrast the pastr 50 years of space flight with the 1st 50 years of air travel. Look at the enormous gulf between the two. That should tell you something.

    *sigh*… I’m clearly doing a poor job of making my point. I’m not arguing that the private sector wouldn’t already have done so if there were KNOWN profit to be made in space endeavours. Obviously that’s the case.

    My argument is that at some point the private sector may find a means of profitting (whether monetarily or in terms of personal glory, which tends to come with monetary benefits anymore), and if they do, I contend that such a privately funded endeavour has a far greater chance of setting and meeting long term, aggressive space travel goals as compared to a government agency such as NASA.

    That’s pretty much the crux of my point.

  82. justcorbly

    John Fruhwirth:

    >>’@justcorbly: “The motivation for space flight is to put people in space, not to do research.” So, what is the point of putting people into space in your view? And how is it the eminent scientist such as Carl Sagan and Stephen Weinberg are against it?

    ‘Why do contradict yourself in the very next sentence?
    “Research is one thing that needs to be done in space, by machines and humans,…’

    I’m separating motivation from justification or reason. The motivation for space travel is, essentially, to travel in space. Debates about cost, etc., are secondary in terms of motivation. We dream of travelling in space. Few of us, outside JPL perhaps, dream of sending machines into space, and then stopping.

    Research is obviously one of the things that can be done in space. It will be done by machines and people, just as research here on the planet is done by machines and people. I don’t think that contradicts my assertion in any way. (Although I’d argue that a squad of human researchers wandering around Mars for the last few years would have conducted far more research than Spirit and Opportunity. Geez, just one guy with a shovel…)

    From my reading of Sagan, I’d say he was strongly motivated about human space travel. As a scientist competing for funds, though, his practicality would lead him to its own conclusions.

    >>”Are you suggesting that we exploit the moon and Mars and bring the spoils back to earth? Is so, how would you accomplish that and turn a profit”

    Not necessarily, but who knows? If I knew today how to turn a profit by bringing the spoils back to Earth, I’d be out there raising funds. My point is only that members of a market economy will not fund space activities, or any other, unless they are convinced that it will return a profit.

  83. John Fruhwirth

    @justcorbly: Thanks for you comments. I do not consider it fair to compare earthly research with space based research. That is like mixing apples and oranges, metaphorically.
    Lets use our obvious and considerable talents at tool making to make it unnecessary to put life and limb at risk to do research.
    we can still claim that “we” did it. After all, our tools are simply extensions of ourselves with the obvious benefit of being expendable.

    Heck, even the military is already taking the spam out of the can, witness the many pilot less drones doing yeoman’s duty in the skies of Afghanistan and Iraq and not just for recon anymore. The direction is clear. Minimize the risk to life and limb by extending and expanding the use of smart technologies. Nowhere is that more obvious than on the “Final Frontier”, to quote the good captain of the starship Enterprise. I repeat, let our machines boldly go where no man has gone before. It’s so much more efficient in so many, many ways.

    Here is a other challenge for you… Please provide a reason/benefit attainable only be a manned mission that would justify the sacrifice of a human life. Are you prepared to lay down your life for such a benefit?

    …John

  84. Tobias Linde

    The most amazing feature of the film (and the novel) 2001 is the computer HAL. I am afraid that humanity will have travelled far beyond Jupiter before we have ever had the chance to meet another intelligent species.

  85. Tom

    @John-

    The move from the tropics into the teeth of an ice age by early humans in the great migration probably drove a technological leap (even if the technology of clothing, shelter and fire were stolen from the neanderthals, it’s even more amazing that the neanderthals came up with it!) similar to that of our move into space.

    You are unlikely to change my mind, as I am unlikely to change yours. I’m finding the discussion interesting, though.

    In your response to Celtic Evolution about the development of air transport, you need to adjust the analogy to where, in the early 1900s, only the government contracted to build airplanes. They only built in groups of 5, and used them for very specific purposes. There was no incentive program like the air mail system (air services were paid to fly routes whether there was mail aboard or not) to drive commercial development of planes and technology. Here’s a little background if you’re interested:

    http://www.airmailpioneers.org/history/Sagahistory.htm

  86. John Fruhwirth

    @Tom, Thanks for your reply wrt to air travel. Your text and hyper link seem to have a limited perspective (.i.e. US based only). Please don’t forget the Europeans and the Brazilians. Perhaps this link would have been more appropriate.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aviation_history

    However, I do notice that neither you nor anyone else has addressed my main point, that being that in contrast to the 1st 50 years of space flight, the first 50 years of air travel has developed significantly. We have gone from balloons to airships to gliders to piston driven bi-planes to supersonic jet transports, fighters, etc., etc., etc. Not to mention rotary winged craft. Hell, we even have rocket propelled aircraft.

    The many comments above about the inadequacy and lack of development of space propulsion systems speaks volumes. We are largely still limited to chemical rocketry. How sad is that? Where is my hyper drive? nowhere, my ion drive? (only one so far and this one soooo slow), my solar sail? (stuck on the drawing board). Even the much vaunted Orion vehicle with its expendable boosters is a giant step backward to the Apollo era. This is progress?

    I also note that while thousands of people had flown in commercial aircraft in flight’s 1st 50 years the space program has managed to lift a mere 450 (or so) people into space in the same time frame. How sad is that? And of course, in flight’s 2nd 50 years, that number exploded into the millions. Can you, or anyone else reading this thread see a similar development in manned space flight in the next 50 years? I think not.

    …John

  87. justcorbly

    John, the motivation for human space travel is the same as the motivation for any other kind of human travel: Simply, to be somewhere else. The desire, the motivation, to do that has nothing to do with reason or benefits or anything frankly analytical. Simply Wanting To is good enough.

    Once we have the tools to support reliable human space travel, and the tools to suport long-term habitation in space and on other planets, someone will eventually come up with the financing to make that happen. Space is not a laboratory limited only to research by machines.

    Arguing that space travel should be limited to machines strikes me like arguing that Europeans should have stayed home for a few centuries until they could send robot ships westward across the Atlantic to land tiny little machines to assess the soil composition of some Caribbean beach.

    It’s just not the point.

  88. justcorbly

    And, John, decisons about potential sacrifice of life should be made by those who put their lives at risk, and those who direct them to do so, not by us folks in the peanut gallery.

    That said, I can think of no research, in space or on this planet, that merits compelling someone to put his or her life at risk. But, I can imagine any number of activites in space that demand a human presence. E.g., an LEO hotel, an LEO clinic, lunar mining, a dark side observatory, etc. I wouldn’t risk my life for any of them, but I’m sure a lot of other people would, especially for the right money.

    Frankly, once we have a propulsion system that drops travel time to the moon to several hours from LEO, and to Mars to a few weeks, and a safe and standardized way to get from the surface to LEO, then I expect space travel to become as safe as flying the Pacific in a 25-year-old aircraft the FAA says it has inspected.

  89. John Fruhwirth

    @Justcorbly. You are correct concerning our motivations. Sir Edmund Hillary and Everest come to mind. I understand that.

    My point is to question the point of the motivation. Now that is fine as far as it goes. However, when I consider the enormous costs involved in satisfying this itch, I take pause.

    “once we have the tools …” you say. Well, my point is that we don’t and won’t until some new and radical understanding of the physics involved happens. Until then it is all just wishful thinking. And, as you may know, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
    How can you jump over “if” portion of this problem? It is presumptuous to assume that it is only a matter of time until we have said tools. The “if” portion is still an open question.

    Yes LEO hotels and clinics demand a human presence. But this is by definition self referential. As for mining the moon, I see no reason why this activity would “demand” a human presence. ANd why the heck would you want to put an observatory on the “dark” side of the moon? Leaving aside the fact that there is no such thing. The correct term to use here is the “far” side of the moon! It is only dark to you because we can’t see it from here. It does in fact get lit by the sun! Once a month, in fact.
    And just because some people would be prepared to risk their lives does not make it an ethical course of action when a risk free (wrt life) alternative exists. It is simply not ethical.

    You say: “Frankly, once we have a propulsion system that drops travel time to the moon to several hours from LEO, and to Mars to a few weeks, and a safe and standardized way to get from the surface to LEO, then I expect space travel to become as safe as flying the Pacific in a 25-year-old aircraft the FAA says it has inspected.”
    This again is putting the cart before the horse.Think about it this way, the best rocket scientists and astro-physicists have been unable to even speculate let alone expound a theory as to how to accomplish the the advances in propulsion that you seem to think is only a matter of time and money away.

    A suggest that a large dose of humbleness is warranted in this regard.

    Go ahead, show me to be narrow minded and ignorant in this regard if you can. After all you have all kinds of information at your fingertips. Check out the physics blogs, wikipedia, etc., etc., In short, show me. If, as and when you do, I will eat humble pie, my hat, my words, etc. I’m not proud, just a realist (well, to my mind anyway).

    BTW, I’m still waiting for a response to my contrast between air travel and space flight. Waiting…, waiting… tick… tock… tick… tock…

    …John
    …John

  90. justcorbly

    John, I’m not interested in this kind of debate. It’s easy to isolate and nitpick details of any argument while ignoring its overall thrust. I think people want to travel in space and that we will.

  91. StevoR

    Greyfire

    (on 09 May 2008 at 2:11 am) :
    “The best part of this whole post is Phil is a supporter of Obama who is the most likely to slash and burn NASA budget in favor of “Education” programs.”

    Wrong. McCain is by far the worst when it comes to space exploration -he’d freeze all their money at once and probably ultimately kill NASA off entirely to fund his 100+ year war in Iraq.

    When it comes to funding NASA Barack Obama is actually the best of a rather bad lot – & not just for the space program but for your nation and thus the planet as a whole – as was shown on the other BA thread on the candidates space exploration / science views compared. Apparently he’s something of a Star Trek fan so the chances seem better that he can be coaxed into reviving the space program’s progress – & with it America’s finest moments & aspects.

    John Fruhwirth : Thanks! Glad you enjoyed them! 8)

  92. Tom

    @John-

    One reason for the delay in space development was that, once it was proven that two bicycle makers could build an airplane (after many “smarter” people stated that the effort was futile and impossible…and besides, what would we do with aircraft? There’s no market.), it took relatively little capital for someone else to experiment and build their own aircraft. That kind of innovation just got started in the space field, with smaller companies trying different approaches to design (though all are still chemical).

    With very few exceptions, the first 50 years of space development was led by governments, willing to spend lots of money for a ride to space that was ‘reliable’ all the while re-using weapons designed for another purpose. There’s been no forcing function for innovation or significant cost decrease.

    As to new propulsion methods, aircraft didn’t face the physics of the rocket equation (which make ion propulsion very efficient, but impractical for most applications) and the politics of nuclear spacecraft (which stopped the NERVA program…which likely never would have flown in the atmosphere anyway). The need for frequent and speedy travel between planets (again, reliant on the creation of colonies requiring such transport) would be much more of a technology driver in that area than anything that’s happened so far.

    Don’t take anything I’m saying as meaning I think any of this is easy.

  93. John Fruhwirth

    @Tom et al,

    Lets drop this thread. It looks, increasingly, that we are talking past each other.
    I keep asking for justifications an getting only meager responses back.

    You, meaning most of the people advocating manned flight, just keep saying that you want it, despite all of the costs,hurdles and problems involved.

    So, I for one am dropping out of this discussion.

    TTFN, …John

  94. Tom

    @John-

    You’re a patient man. I hope you’re wrong.

  95. Tom

    Also, I’m sorry you thought my responses were meager. I try to stick with what I can prove through analogy or fact, without going over the top.

  96. Justification? How about this: the future of the human race depends on us being spread, as a species, as far and wide as possible. Right now, one tiny astoroid could ruin our weekends forever…

    Getting our metals and other goods from “dead” rock instead of mucking about in a fragile biosphere seems like a good idea too. (Although I can think of some nasty risks there too.)

    As for “is it worth risking a life for”….we risk our lives everyday, mostly for extremely silly reasons. (That drive to Starbucks is not without risk.) And, lets face it, we ARE going to die, each and every one of us, sooner or later. Mostly of the most mundane things. For me, I would love it to be in the service of the Human Race, helping set up a space colony, or perhaps a planetary colony.

    My early industrial training was taken with the above in mind; in the 70′s I was sure that the USA was going to actually build those bases on the moon that you could read about in the NASA book store. I was young, and hadnt yet learned that Congress punishes sucess and rewards failure.

  97. Josh Reiter

    It is pointless to argue about manned over robotic missions when the cost of putting either one of those assets into orbit is so ridiculously high. Bring the costs to orbit down to a reasonable level and leave it to the individual business or consumer to decide for themselves which methodology while apply best to their stated goal.

  98. Josh Reiter
  99. ken anthony

    I was ten when Neil and Buzz walked on the moon. The whole world watched. How old will I be…???

    I’m waiting for Elon to go public. He’s going to take us to Mars. I suspect he intends to get into the real estate business.

  100. Vlad

    Mike P: Justification? How about this: the future of the human race depends on us being spread, as a species, as far and wide as possible. Right now, one tiny astoroid could ruin our weekends forever…

    And you think colonies in space will help? If Earth is struck by a Dinosaur Killer, then in immediate aftermath of the explosion Earth will STILL be much more hospitable and easier to survive on than Mars, or asteroids, or Europa. If surviving an asteroid impact is your goal, then building underground shelters on Earth is far more cost-effective than building space colonies.

    Building a space-based asteroid defense system is a different story, and is very much cost-effective. But there is no fundamental reason for such system to be manned — and the fewer humans it could be done with, the better, as all life-support costs John Fruhwirth listed are smaller.

    Getting our metals and other goods from “dead” rock instead of mucking about in a fragile biosphere seems like a good idea too. (Although I can think of some nasty risks there too.)

    It most certainly is a good idea. But again, there is no reason to involve more humans in the process than absolutely necessary. And even if “absolutely necessary” number turns out to be non-zero, it will be much cheaper to do on “offshore oil rig” model — highly trained people spend weeks or months in dangerous environment, then go home to spend their money. Nobody makes homes or raises families at the bottom of continental shelf — the enormously more benign environment than space.

    John Fruhwirth: While I generally agree with your arguments, you seem to think that science and research are the ONLY things to do in space: “to get the information/knowledge we want so as to learn about our solar system, our place in it and in the cosmos at large”. Do you expect ANY economic benefit to come from spaceflight? If not, then how exactly do you expect that knowledge to contribute “for our good and for that of the “good earth” which is the best spaceship we will ever have!”?

  101. Mike Brill

    Quite a lot to comment on. Okay, first: People would be much better off WITH THE OPTION OF going into space, than without it. A planet Earth that people CANNOT leave is a 7926-mile-diameter PRISON, and only evil dictators (or those who wish they were) prefer such a state of affairs. NASA has never had a shortage of people willing to take the risks, and I will never stop wishing that I could have been a NASA astronaut myself.

    The Shuttle program DID NOT prove that a winged re-usable spacecraft is a bad idea. Our best bet remains continually developing newer and better winged re-usable spacecraft. The first working design of ANY type of vehicle is never the best working design of that type of vehicle.

    History lesson: Someone said to President Wilson, “We’re the 19th in the world in aviation – behind Brazil – and we invented it!”. The result was the founding of the National Advisory Council on Aeronautics (NACA), the U.S. Government agency that did the aeronautical research that made us the world’s leading air power, INCLUDING part of the work done on the X-1, the world’s first plane to fly faster than Mach 1. When the USSR launched a satellite before we did, the U.S. government response included changing NACA into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which has continued aeronautical research in addition to spacecraft research. So, there IS a place for civilian government space research and other activity. OTOH, we need to remember that NASA’s charter does not say anything about building O’Neill colonies, so NASA should not be expected to do everything. Now: the trans-continental railroad, the Panama Canal, Boulder Dam and the Interstate Highway System have ALL been of great benefit to industry, and NONE of them were built without the U.S. Government making them happen. Also: the cost IN ENERGY of putting a person, or a package, into Low Earth Orbit is the exact same cost IN ENERGY of flying that person or package from New York City to Sydney, Australia and back by commercial jet airliner. The first, last, and only reason why it can’t be done for the same price IN CURRENCY is that more aerospace transportation research and development needs to be done.

    Now, whose fault is it that we didn’t save Skylab in 1979 and that we hadn’t been adding to it ever since? Whose fault is it that we don’t have SECOND-GENERATION Space Shuttles, SOME of which could have been owned and operated by a consortium of business firms, that we could have had since 1991? Whose fault is it that we don’t have a small-but-growing, permanently-manned all-U.S. Moonbase, that we could have had since 1978? Whose fault is it that we didn’t have an all-U.S. manned expedition to Mars as long ago as 1987? Whose fault is it that we didn’t have a manned expedition to Ceres as long ago as 1996? Whose fault is it that we didn’t have a manned expedition to Ganymede as long ago as 2005? Whose fault is it that we don’t have lunar mining AND a several-miles-wide solar array in geostationary orbit AND the first O’Neill colony, RIGHT NOW? It’s PRIMARILY the fault of those jerks who have been promising, since the Apollo era, to create Heaven-on-Earth by preventing people from doing things in space; those jerks who continue to promise to create Heaven-on-Earth by keeping money away from the space agency. For a good example of this sort of thing, Google “(The Nation) + (Katha Pollitt) + (Lost In Space)”.

    Another problem, or potential problem, is John Weldon, John Ankerberg, Hank Haanegraaf and others, who are trying to manipulate Christian parents into keeping their kids from watching space TV shows. They do this by saying that DEMONS have been visibly appearing to people and claiming to be aliens, and that UFOs are NOT airplanes or meteors, but illusions that demons are projecting into the visual part of the brain. (BTW, I’m NOT against (true) Christianity; I attend church regularly.)

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »