Where now, NASA?

By Phil Plait | July 3, 2011 11:21 am

This Friday, the last Space Shuttle launch is scheduled to take Atlantis into space. I’ve written a lot about the Shuttle over the years, as well as about NASA, private space companies, and where I think we as the human race should be headed.

I put a lot of these thoughts together for an article in today’s New York Post. Here’s a screen grab of the first part:

As for my other articles on this, I listed and linked to them in a recent post about debating space exploration. My opinion changes here and there over time as more data come in, but I think you’ll get a pretty good feel about what I think from those articles.

Related posts:
Debating Space
What value space exploration?
Give space a chance
Wait. How big is NASA’s budget again?
My NASA OpEd in the New York Post (from 2009)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Space

Comments (37)

  1. YetAnotherBob

    The big issue is cost. The Space Shuttle cost from $600 Million per launch to $1 Billion per launch. A single launch of an Atlas 5 or Delta 4 costs $100 Million per launch. SpaceX currently quotes $50 Million per launch.

    Of course, the Falcon 9 and the Atlas/Delta family can’t launch payloads as large, but they can launch payloads as big as many shuttle missions carried. The planned Delta Heavy and Falcon Heavy will launch over 40 Tonnes to orbit. That is as much as the shuttle could launch.

    Given a contract for crew launch, both the Boeing capsule, and the Dragon capsule will get a 7 man crew into orbit for less than $100 Million. That’s as much crew capacity, at one sixth the cost.

    With a space based engine, and a fuel depot, these systems would allow access to the Moon and near by asteroids. We can have extended stays on the Moon with already developed technologies (stays of up to 6 months). But, we don’t have the systems developed yet to allow for the flight times required to get to Mars, or the majority of asteroids.

    With space stations at the L1 and L2 Lagrange points, we could easily reach any point on the Moon. Or, allow easy transit to any point on Earth. Building that infrastructure should be our next project.

  2. Good job, Phil! Your arguments are just the ones I’ve been having with people about looking to the future and the role of private sector. You’ve given people a LOT to chew on in that piece; hope they read down to the bottom. 😉

  3. K

    And so ends an the era of space exploration as well as mankind’s future.
    Look, I”m doing my part to promote NASA: http://www.squidoo.com/nasa-kennedy-space-center
    but sheeeeeesh! Truly, if we don’t DO SOMETHING this is the end for all of us. Rehashing that NASA has no vision, no goals, and no clue is not what I want to see in the news. I want to hear about progress. How can we either kick those fellas at Spaceship 1 into high gear or hire someone at NASA who gives a darn? The end of outer space is the end of everything. What happened to Mars? Why don’t we have colonies on the moon? Where’s our pioneer spirit?

  4. puppygod

    Seriously, end of shuttle program mean end of mankind future? Exaggerate much, huh? Look, there was space exploration before shuttle and there will be space exploration after the shuttle. Sure, it was neat piece of engineering and did quite a lot, but it’s not an end-all solution and never was. Hell, even if NASA was disbanded tomorrow there are still other nations and private enterprises interested in space exploration. So calm down and ease with the drama.

  5. Getting from here to there in the radiation-sleeted vacuum of whatever is not meats’ venue.

    “the myriad of disciplines needed to make long-distance space travel practicable and feasible” “The genesis of this study is to foster a rebirth of a sense of wonder”

    Buncha crap. One wonders what DARPA really wants, and from whom.

  6. Dr. Morbius

    The shuttle should have been replaced 20 years ago. For the cost of one shuttle launch we could have launched one maybe 2 robot probes to explore the solar system. And don’t get me started on the stupid space station.

    The problem is that this country has lost the will to explore. We’ve become more concerned about our selfish wants and are unwilling or uninterested in spending money on big projects like the space program. Big projects that create the high tech jobs that this country needs and lead to new scientific discoveries and new technologies.

  7. SLC

    Here’s the take of manned space flight critic Bob Park, the man who, so some in these parts claim, doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

    In today’s issue of Science, Dan Charles takes a clear-eyed look at “Science on the Shuttle.” For 30 years the space shuttle has been the only Highway to Space for US astronauts. Next week, space shuttle Atlantis, STS-135, will deliver a load of groceries to the ISS. After its return 12 days later Atlantis will remain in Florida as a museum piece. The other surviving shuttles will likewise serve as museums in the district’s of key members of Congress. Near the end of the retrospective, I find myself cast as the chief shuttle critic: Among some scientists, Dan says, antipathy to the shuttle or any human space flight runs deep. He quotes me, “It indulged humankind’s impractical space fantasies at a cost that retarded genuine progress.” And so it did, but was there any science? He cites only the repair of the Hubble space telescope, but it would have been cheaper to launch a new Hubble.

  8. Nice article, Phil, but I wish people would stop calling the Shuttle system “the most complex machine ever built.” It is certianly complex and operates in the most extreme environments, but its complexity pales compared to a Trident submarine.

    The Trident not only ups the ante with nuclear power, its life support sustains a crew of over 100 (20x the Shuttle) for six months or more (12x the Shuttle) in an envrionment every bit as hostile and deadly as Earth orbit.

    On top of that, it carries 16 suborbital spacecraft that can be directed to any point on the planet (within range, of course).

    – Jack

  9. Thameron

    When they have lunar rover races on the moon people will care about something beyond the sky. Not until.

    Don’t let that stop you if you have a plan though. I’d be more than happy to be proven wrong there.

  10. Great article. It is sad to see the shuttles retiring, but I am looking forward to what the private space companies are going to do. Space-X has been showing off some videos of their manned spacecraft and it looks pretty good. I can’t wait to see the day when they actually launch it. Once more private companies start taking off there is going to be a big increase in space ventures because they are going to do it much cheaper than the government could.

  11. Robin S.

    There is no evidence whatsoever to support the idea that Shuttle retirement means an end to Man’s or the US presence in space. That sort of claim might play well at a rally, but it fails because the facts and critical thought don’t support such a statement. Given the support the US public demonstrates for NASA and manned activities in space, it’s surprising that we haven’t had more gaps. Let’s not forget how quickly the public lost interest in Moon missions.

  12. Grand Lunar

    You make a good point in the article when you say that this isn’t the first tight spot NASA has been in.
    In other words, “this has happened before”.

    My concern is that delays will plague the new infrastructure to a point where we’re forced to start over AGAIN.
    All the while, we have SpaceX making headway, with it’s heavy lifter on the way, and existing EELVs that we can use as well, if only we had the will.

    It seems right now that NASA is being used more as a jobs creation agency than one for space exploration.

    It’s very true we need a giant leap.
    A lunar mission might give that, although we’ll have the “been there, done that” crowd complain (like they did with Constellation).
    An asteroid mission would be great, IMO.

  13. Michael Simmons

    Article might have given passing mention to the loss of Columbia.

    The shuttle was a great visionary project that didn’t workout because of the practicalities.

    Just look at the thousands of tiles on the underside of the shuttle that need to be serviced and checked to perfection after every flight. Compare that to the much smaller, one use, heat shield on the normal re-entry capsules.

    For the future of the space program think
    Land a dozen plus of these on the moon with assortment of robotic digging and construction machines.
    Build a large underground habitat then send humans.

    For long term , life time, survivability humans have to live deep under the ground or face radiation sicknesses and malformed offspring.

    Once we have that done and down pat. Repeat with Phobos and then Mars and then push outwards.

  14. lqd

    Highly mentally impaired question, but is there a second page to that NY Post article? It seems to end very abruptly.

  15. Philly Jimi

    NASA is structured for massive waste. A perfect example is the $500 million launch tower for the Ares I rocket. The contractors are happy they make millions, the congress people get to boast about creating jobs and they get reelected with donations from the established space/defense contractors. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 uses some recycled railroad track and a hanger that looks like it was purchased online. The core problem at NASA is the “cost plus” contracts encourage wasteful spending. Why only spend $20 million when we know we can get funding for a $200 million? The old school boyz aren’t going want to change business as usual when they have all been getting rich off of defense and NASA contracts.

    I believe the public and the entire human race loves and would support the idea of a bold expanded space exploration. I am 45 years old and I still remember how excited I was about the moon landings. Taking baby steps is very boring. Mars has to be the next big bold step forward. If Columbus only sailed forward a little bit at a time then running back to his safe harbor he would of never found America. You don’t go to Mars via the Moon, you go Mars by going to Mars. We’ll never ever get to Mars with wasteful Cost Plus contracts if the politicians can use to help themselves get reelected by creating NASA jobs programs in their state. NASA shouldn’t build rockets they need to define missions and get fixed price contracts from companies that will get the job done or they don’t get paid.

  16. Mchl

    @lqd (#14): click on the picture to multipaginate

  17. Bob_In_Wales

    Here Phil, have you seen this one?


    The Economist says Space Is History!

  18. Grand Lunar

    @16 Mchl

    Many thanks! I also thought there was more than just what the link showed!

    On those lines, I have to disagree about ending the shuttle program.
    After the ISS completion, we could’ve flown it at a minimum rate, maybe two flights a year by two shuttles, for continued ISS support. After all, that’s what the shuttle was meant to do; support a space station.

    I agree with Philly Jimi here; that NASA shouldn’t rockets.
    There are plenty of good choices out there that they can use that are cheaper than an SDLV.
    My personal vote goes toward Atlas 5.

  19. FoxtrotCharlie

    I’ve recently taken to play a boardgame about space exploration about our solar system called High Frontier. The interesting thing about it is the grounding it has in real science, real patents for building real rockets. Of course practicality and funding is another matter entirely. But in this game at least, the big key is getting to LEO cheaply. In reality if want to serously explore and maintain colonies in the solar system we need targets from which we can extract water in a meaningful way. Also the future of space isn’t mining (despite all those wonderful movies and books about mining asteroids that’s acutally MORE expensive than simply mining on Earth). The future of space is Industrialization. The ability to develop and create products in space that can’t be produced on earth because of conditions like gravity and radiation.

  20. Mchl

    @17 Grand Lunar: Even flying on ‘minimal’ twice a year schedule would mean the need to maintain and pay for the upkeep of costly infrastructure that supports STS operations. If NASA’s human spaceflight was twice as big as it is now, we would probably see Shuttle flying until new generation of spaceships is available (and that would be probably a thing of the past by now). Alas, NASA is getting only that much money, and it will not get more. With the money it gets, it can not keep Shuttle flying and developing new space program at the same time. It’s sad and harsh, but that’s how reality looks.

    @18 FoxtrotCharlie: To quote Bob Novella ‘[W]hoever builds [space elevator] first…owns space…Game over’

  21. Gary Ansorge

    Ah, next generations of space access technology like:

    1) Space elevators(still waiting on carbon nanotube tethers)

    2) Ground powered launch systems.
    a) like Leik Myrabos micro wave powered launch vehicles
    b) Balloon supported mag lev launchers(from physicist Mike Combs)

    3) nuclear powered launch vehicles(like the nuclear light bulb) with 7 to 10 times the payload per lb of chemically fueled launch vehicles.

    All of these are currently undergoing research. None are under development because there’s not a lot of money available and the technology is still lacking(ie, tethers).

    Any or all of these technologies have the potential to make access to LEO available for a few hundred dollars per lb. They could make access to space cost effective for thousands of companies(and their employees).

    As far as humans(meat) surviving hard radiation in space for extended periods, magnetic shielding has been proposed and in some studies appears feasible. A rotating ring(for gravity effects) with a super conductor magnetic core could be quite build-able. It has been stated many times by space enthusiasts that we would likely build underground on the moon or asteroids and remote operated robots are obviously the logical way to construct anything in space. Humans in space suits are just passe. Humans in well protected environments operating those ‘bots will be the norm.

    We’ve already shown we can grow tomatoes in space. Next will come grains, tubers, other veggies and probably fish(they’re clean and won’t stink up the place, like chickens).

    Gary 7


    A good part of the uncertainty about how to proceed next, and just what ‘next’ will be, stems from the lack of a clear mission statement for NASA. In the space arena (NASA has other arenas), NASA would do well to have a formal mission statement that says basically ‘To move Mankind to the Stars.”

    That sort of statement would give a rock-solid long term clarity of mission, something to anchor all lesser explorations and supporting technologies upon. But what we have is a situation where our government lacks vision beyond the next election cycle; therefore their short-term political interests and NASAs are all too often in conflict.

    There’s hope, though. Recently DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) announced it’s looking for proposals about how to build a 100-year starship. So there is vision somewhere; is it comforting to know that it is coming from the Department of Defense?

  23. dude

    Another great article. I’m always impressed by how you take a lot of information and pass it off in a conversational style– the part about private rocket development and the interactions between Congress, the White House, and NASA are really complex but you made it readable.

  24. Michael the Civilized

    All we need now is a reason to go into space. Few Americans understand the value of space travel. We are particularly short on persons who grasp the spiritual nature of doing something difficult, but the material reasons for going into space are usually claimed to be more speculative than they are practical.

    We might as well admit that the USA has lost its will to thrive. The country has chosen to share the wealth while producing nothing new.

  25. Great article Phil. With the only access to the ISS being via Russian Soyuz, it does make you wonder what JFK would have thought!

  26. gia

    @Michael the Civilized
    Personally, I can think of at least one good reason to try and go into space and colonize the Moon or Mars – so that people would have a place to go in case governments decide to nuke each other out of existence.

  27. frankenstein monster

    Personally, I can think of at least one good reason to try and go into space and colonize the Moon or Mars – so that people would have a place to go in case governments decide to nuke each other out of existence.

    this is a reason for you and me. But consider
    – the people who think that our civilization is evil and has to go. Or even think that humans are vermin and deserve nothing but extinction.
    – the people who think that apocalypse will happen within our lifetimes.

    None of them has any motive to support our expansion into space. One could even say that they find any possible escape route highly undesirable.

    Then there are people so myopic, that they consider anything that does not offer instant gratification, or a fat ROI within six months to be a waste of money.

    That together is the majority of mankind, included almost all world leaders.

  28. Rob

    Where now? Stick to unmanned missions, because that’s what NASA really excels at. Any objective observation of the Space Shuttle program would see it as an enormous failure. It achieved some remarkable technical goals, but didn’t even begin to approach its promises for cost, reusability or safety.

    It’s clear to me that relying on Congress for funding will always have the same result. Relying on businesses to get people into orbit seems like the only responsible choice.

  29. NASA does some good things – but manned space is a $10B rube goldberg jobs programme, and anything better would threaten it’s political viability. Which in turn threatens the political viability of anything better.

    Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy can finally replace the baulk of this Useless Technology Preservation Society and maybe, just maybe free up some of the bloody money for basic spaceflight research again. A $1/4B per year woudl do it.

    That would be enough to build 4 DC-Xs/year, and build a DX-X2 or launch either into orbit twice a year. Keep doing that and you’ll eventually answer all the questions NASA has been hand wringing over for three bloody decades.

  30. Now the JWT is on the chopping block.
    “The House Appropriations Committee proposed Wednesday to kill the James Webb Space Telescope, the crown jewel of NASA’s astronomy plans for the next two decades.

    Tod R. Lauer, an astronomer at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson, echoed his view. “This would be an unmitigated disaster for cosmology,” he said. “After two decades of pushing the Hubble to its limits, which has revolutionized astronomy, the next step would be to pack up and give up. The Hubble is just good enough to see what we’re missing at the start of time.”

    The Webb telescope, he said, “would bring it home in full living color.”

  31. Phyllis

    I, for one, think it’s high time we got us a good, gently used Stargate! (insert silly tag here) Seriously though, we need to invest in pushing technology much, much further before we look to physically traveling in outer space again. I would love to see us set foot on Mars, or perhaps even Venus one day, hopefully within my lifetime!

  32. Dan

    In the end, Bob Park and his position is the most honest. The shuttle program is more of a sci-fi fantasy (with a generous dose of Sagan-worship) than a serious science venture.

  33. I think we first need to solve the heavy-lift issue between earth and space. What happened to the space elevator? The last I heard was that nano-fibers technology was coming close to solving the problem. Until we either solve it or are able to inhabit a planet with enough raw materials to manufacture both building equipment and spaceships we are out of luck. Next comes exploration on the scale of generations upon generations committing their future and those of their decendants to space. Can we produce enough artifical gravity to mimic earth’s? Will we create a subspecies of humans with geletan-like bodies suited for weightless travel? Maybe they would become a specialized species with an apprenticeship similar to the stone masons of the giant cathedrals, father-to-son-on and on. We need this. We are overcrowding a planet and becoming stagnant. Our minds can go where our bodies can’t begin to touch and we feel we are locked in a prison. No money, where do we get the money? I’m not sure that even if we were being challanged by a cold war government if our people would ever spend it. We need a big threat with an urgent deadline.


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