US manned spaceflight infographic

By Phil Plait | March 12, 2012 1:00 pm

I’m a fan of simple infographics: illustrations that make a point clearly and cleanly. The folks at mgmt. design have made one for US manned spaceflight that does just that.

Click that to enboosternate it; I’ve put just a portion of it here. I like it because you can see a few things instantly, for example how short the Apollo program was compared to the total amount of time we’ve been space traveling.

Even more obvious are the gaps in flights. The biggest is post-Apollo and pre-Shuttle, when the Saturn V was essentially decommissioned before the Shuttle was anywhere near being ready. That might be something to keep in mind during the current gap in the US capability to put humans in space.

Also obvious are the pauses after Challenger and Columbia, when the safety of the Shuttle was reassessed. Now, of course, we’re in the second long gap.

I wonder how long it will last? And perhaps more importantly, just how it will end?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Space

Comments (51)

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  1. How I learned to stop worrying and love “the gap” | March 27, 2012
  1. renke

    an extended version with private, Russian and Chinese manned flights would be cool

  2. “And perhaps more importantly, just how it will end?”

    Well Phil, according to the Mayan calendar…

    [I kid, I kid]

  3. I agree with renke (#1), an expanded view would be cool! This is a human endeavour, not just a US one.

  4. mcb

    It would be interesting to see the graphic modified to show the distance each mission traveled away from the Earth…oh wait, except for the Apollo program that would be boring.

  5. llewelly

    If NASA had wanted to convince the rest of humanity there was no reason for people to go into space, the best possible way would have been a successful mission to a desolate world, entirely hostile to life, and nearly empty of natural resources.

    That world was the Moon, and the mission was Apollo.

    It was at once the biggest success of human space exploration, and the biggest PR disaster for the future of human space exploration. There will never be another mission like it.

    You might argue there is plenty of scientific interest. True, but for that robot missions produce far greater increases in understanding per dollar spent.

    The cost effectiveness advantage of robot missions has vastly increased over the last 20 years, and will continue to increase as electronics continue to become more efficient, less expensive, more adaptable, and more intelligent.

    Ongoing economic difficulties will strongly bias the system toward mission types with low startup costs and high cost effectiveness at low funding levels. That bias already exists, but as the present economic malaise stretches out, it will get stronger.

  6. JayZ

    What about the ISS?

  7. How will it end? With the stars exploding, burning out and being swallowed by black holes, the galaxies receding and the universe becoming an empty, lifeless void. What’s the point of spaceflight if we can never escape the infinite cosmic dark and the universal tomb? In the words of the prophet Lovecraft:

    “We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

    Here’s to peace and safety!

    So speaks the Black Pope…

  8. mcb

    “What’s the point of spaceflight if we can never escape the infinite cosmic dark and the universal tomb?”

    For starters, our own star will make the neighborhood uncomfortable long before proton decay becomes a problem. After that we need to find the remnants of civilizations that figured out how to step into a more hospitable iteration in the multiverse. All we need is time…

  9. I too would like to see this expanded with distances. Our space-faring adventures have of late been on smallish boats kept close to the shore, and now we’ve put all of those in drydock.

    I’d also like to see something like this done with unmanned interplanetary missions from all nations – even those to planets that are no longer officially “planets.” I guess we’d need a way to show attempted missions vs. successful ones – you’d see a whole lot of missions almost making it to Mars!

  10. Tara Li

    “If NASA had wanted to convince the rest of humanity there was no reason for people to go into space, the best possible way would have been a successful mission to a desolate world, entirely hostile to life, and nearly empty of natural resources.”

    Desolate – in some senses. Entirely hostile to life? Not really – just not as welcoming as Earth is. Nearly empty of natural resources? Oh, COME ON! An estimated 40% of the lunar soil is *OXYGEN*. Quite a lot of various metals, all right there on top. Lots of land area, well exposed to solar radiation for solar power. Easy access to *EXTREMELY* hard vacuum. Relatively seismologically quiet, so underground construction is nice and safe.

    Yes, we need to bring in a number of things to make it *NICER*. But I’m surprised there isn’t a land rush already!

  11. frankenstein monster

    And perhaps more importantly, just how it will end?

    Three scenarios.
    1. US will collapse and then will be recreated after a long civil war and anarchy. ( improbable that the collapse does not spread to the rest of the world )
    2. The entire western civilization will collapse, and a few centuries after the nuclear war a new civilization will reinvent space travel. ( the most probable scenario )
    3. The entire western civilization will collapse and either our species will be wiped out, or no new technological civilization will emerge because we mined out all easily accessible natural resources leaving no possibility to re-start a technological civilization. ( improbable. humans are just too resilient )

    Chance of turning the tide before your country comes down burning ? … sorry, but you are swirling already too deep down the sink to just turn around.

  12. Brett

    I wonder how long it will last? And perhaps more importantly, just how it will end?

    I think that depends on what the Chinese end up doing in space, and whether or not it becomes a “national pride” issue. If it doesn’t, then we’ll probably just default to commercial man-rated capsules developed under contract for NASA to service the space station in its final years, possibly followed by missions to smaller follow-up space stations.

    There’s a lot of unknowns*, but the current trends aren’t friendly towards manned spaceflight. In 20 years, we probably won’t even need to send humans up into space to do experiments and repairs to satellites anymore. We’ll control highly dexterous robots in orbit to do them, with the actual controllers being located in an Earth-based facility. Probes outside of Earth’s orbit to the point where the latency of telepresence is terrible with likely have a great deal more artificial intelligence aboard, and be capable of effectively doing their missions with little input from Earth-based controllers.

    The calculus of launch costs remains brutal. Even assuming the SpaceX does spaceflight cheaper than NASA after development, going into space will still be out of the budgetary reach of all but the very rich. If we’re lucky, we’ll have a few space tourists still going up now and then.

    * Two big unknowns are the capabilities of future robotics, plus how compact we make industrial facilities. If we create the equivalent of self-replicating probes, then we could potentially have them build space colonies for us. At which point, it would just be a matter of paying for travel to go and live in them.

    @Tara Li

    Desolate – in some senses. Entirely hostile to life? Not really – just not as welcoming as Earth is. Nearly empty of natural resources? Oh, COME ON! An estimated 40% of the lunar soil is *OXYGEN*. Quite a lot of various metals, all right there on top. Lots of land area, well exposed to solar radiation for solar power. Easy access to *EXTREMELY* hard vacuum. Relatively seismologically quiet, so underground construction is nice and safe.

    Not very many people want to pay tens of billions of dollars just to go live in a cramped habitat on an airless, lifeless hyper-desert. The few who do don’t have that kind of money, and I question whether they really understand what it would mean to live in those conditions.

  13. Tara Li

    “The universe is probably littered with the one-planet graves of cultures which made the sensible economic decision that there’s no good reason to go into space–each discovered, studied, and remembered by the ones who made the irrational decision.” – XKCD #893

    @Brett – Why bother to do *ANYTHING* then? Cheetahs run faster, chimps are stronger, blah blah blah. Launch costs are brutal *NOW* – with each launch vehicle being built as essentially a hand-built item, more craftsmanship than manufacturing. If there’s no reason for *US* to go out there – why bother *STUDYING* it in the first place?

    A manned manufacturing/launch facility on the Moon *IMMEDIATELY* drops the cost of further space development incredibly. It means we’re facing just *ONE* major problem area – living in vacuum – without the confounding issue of living in freefall as well.

    Someone can *ALWAYS* find a reason not to do it. No matter what “it” is. Progress, and new solutions, comes from those who find reasons to do it – or just do it, even if there is no real reason.

  14. John EB Good

    Great diagram, of which not only am I a fan of, but as I committed some in my younger days, I can say is a stroke of genious.

    I would not mix other nations programs on this same slide, but would on others with a different background color for their respective space agency or private rocketeers. They could be later mixed rather on your computer’s side at your taste, as a diaporama, a powerpoint style presentation, or nice mixes along a moving timeline, with nice music would as Phil likes them, if I understand his tastes.

    What interests me most, indeed, and await with excitement, is what’s next; when, what plausible time frame. Different colors telling the degree of confidence in the shedule (from almost certain, probable, the kind of things that gets late, science-fiction) could even help them big guys up there!

    Would add private flights soon on it though. It can be improved, yes, it should be maintained and move along, but what an excellent start! Kudo to its author for the simple idea leading to a luminous diagram!!!

  15. There is another way of looking at this data. That is that all manned space flight, and all efforts at manned space flight ended with Apollo 17. Since then no human has left the Earth’s atmosphere, all shuttle missions, the ISS and Shylab have all been in the the atmosphere. They are called space flight only because space has been redefined to specifically to include these missions.

    When I see humans again travel beyond our exosphere I will accept that we are back in the manned space flight business.

  16. Brett

    @Tara Li

    @Brett – Why bother to do *ANYTHING* then? Cheetahs run faster, chimps are stronger, blah blah blah. Launch costs are brutal *NOW* – with each launch vehicle being built as essentially a hand-built item, more craftsmanship than manufacturing. If there’s no reason for *US* to go out there – why bother *STUDYING* it in the first place?

    There’s still quite a bit of science that should be done, as well as commercial activity in LEO and GEO. We’re going to remain active in space – it’s just unlikely that humans will personally be there to do it when our robots are increasingly capable of doing it without the risk to our lives.

    A manned manufacturing/launch facility on the Moon *IMMEDIATELY* drops the cost of further space development incredibly. It means we’re facing just *ONE* major problem area – living in vacuum – without the confounding issue of living in freefall as well.

    A manned manufacturing/launch facility will also cost tens of billions of dollars without absolute and unlikely revolutions in launch costs, and its main value would simply be in servicing space infrastructure that doesn’t exist. We don’t really need it for either scientific or commercial purposes right now, and what would be cheaper would be to invest in some heavy launchers so that we can just assemble and launch it off Earth.

    As for the issue of “freefall” and life, we don’t have any research at this point on how low gravity (like the Moon’s) differs from micro-gravity in terms of negative health effects on the human body. It could work out okay, or the negative issues might still be there even in the Moon’s gravity. Before we set up a manned facility, at the very least we’d need to test out some type of rotating tether capsule in orbit to see what the effects of low-gravity are on long-term space travelers.

    omeone can *ALWAYS* find a reason not to do it. No matter what “it” is. Progress, and new solutions, comes from those who find reasons to do it – or just do it, even if there is no real reason.

    But we will be progressing. It’s just unlikely that an actual human presence in space will continue to be necessary for most space missions.

  17. OtherRob

    @Tara Li, #13:

    I love that XKCD quotation!

  18. @16, Brett, if we’re not learning how to get off of this rock, we’re learning nothing at all. For in truth, the future of humanity is either to die with the planet or learn how to travel to other stars, even if it’s via generation ships.

    As for microgravity and health, the ill effects are QUITE well documented, both by US and especially via space based experimentation by the Russians. One NEEDS as close to Earth gravity as possible or return to a 1G gravity well eventually would become impossible.

    That said, there is no reason to send robotic construction units to the moon and build a sub-surface base in the bedrock, then have manned areas for intermittent use and the rest, more robots for assembly of space assemblies, as launch from Luna is trivial compared to launch from the Earth. One may well imagine also mining the moon and sending ore to orbit for smelting under microgravity and further assembly for large manned stations with rotation replacing gravity.

  19. This is just me, but Im wondering when and if Nasa and other space agencies will be disbanded in favor of some sort of “Global Space League.” That way humanity would have a space agency that always gets enough funding, (yes I mean you NASA) and would have enough of said funding for more interesting projects, like interstellar probes. (Onward to KOI-961!..anyone got a warp drive we can borrow…?)

    Oh, and with an international space agency we wont have to fear other countries launching anything sharp and explosive into orbit.

    And yes, I am writing this after watching too much star trek and because I have a LOT of free time and nowhere to spend it. But when you think about it, an international space agency makes a lot of sense. “Make it so.”

  20. Brett

    @18Wzrd1

    @16, Brett, if we’re not learning how to get off of this rock, we’re learning nothing at all. For in truth, the future of humanity is either to die with the planet or learn how to travel to other stars, even if it’s via generation ships.

    You’re talking about problems that are literally millions of years down the line, or very low probability. That’s too far away to even speculate on what humanity will be like at that point, and it gives us plenty of time.

    That said, there is no reason to send robotic construction units to the moon and build a sub-surface base in the bedrock, then have manned areas for intermittent use and the rest, more robots for assembly of space assemblies, as launch from Luna is trivial compared to launch from the Earth. One may well imagine also mining the moon and sending ore to orbit for smelting under microgravity and further assembly for large manned stations with rotation replacing gravity.

    I made the point up-thread that robotics is the wild card, and with compact enough manufacturing, they could simply build bases for us.

    All that said, I question whether you’ll really need humans on-site if or when we start mining the moon. Robotics/automation plus telepresence are likely to be advanced enough that we won’t even need to be on-site to operate all of the lunar mining equipment.

  21. Mike Saunders

    We should learn how to stop screwing up habitable planets before we move on to hostile ones.

  22. lepton

    Not terribly interested in manned mission right now.
    It would be better to concentrate limited funding to unnamed probes.

    I would very much like to see orbitors and landers on all planets/all interesting moons, a HUGE segmented free floating space telescope, etc.

  23. Ray, rude-ass yankee

    Brett@19, At some point in exploration of other planets or objects, unless the robotics are completely autonomous, they will be too far away (time lag) to efficiently control from Earth. Someone will need to be nearby (in orbit if not on site) to direct them.

    Mike Saunders@20, Perhaps learning to live on hostile planets would help us understand how *not* to screw up our own? Just my $.02

    I always wanted to be an asteroid miner. I can see the sense of letting machines go out first to pave the way, but why send them at all if we don’t follow? To me, humans going out to learn, colonize and expand our reach is what it’s all about.

  24. cleareyedandsad

    US manned spaceflight already HAS ended…buying rides with the Russians doesn’t count. No way will NASA ever again get the money to make more than a scaled down shuttle (that, as has been pointed out, doesn’t really go anywhere or do anything.)

    I can confidently predict that the bureaucracy that will inevitably appear to leech off any promising private efforts will make it prohibitively expensive to launch anything alive. The temporary reprieves are just that: temporary. Once it’s clear that people plan to fly in real numbers, suddenly you’ll see massive requirements for safety/handicapped access/environmental protections/contractor diversity/insurance/etc. I imagine the TSA will be frisking rocket pilots before long. Not gonna happen, despite the enthusiasm of the guys out there in the desert now.

    Our culture no longer has the confidence, the derring-do or even the ambition to pull off anything as dangerous and exciting as reinvigorating space travel. We can’t be pulled away from the latest Youtube video or reality show to look out the window, for Pete’s sake.

    If humanity ever gets off this rock, it will be the Chinese who do it. They’re willing to take the risks and put the resources into it…we’ll be lucky to pay our utility bills.

  25. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ lepton : It would be much better again, many times so if the funding invested inspace explorationand science stopped being solimited and both human and robotic space exploration was funded suffficently. That would be my first preference. ;-)

    @ 20. Mike Saunders : We can do both – in fact visiting the hostile planets may give us a renewed appreciation for our non-hostile planet and thus by aiding our understanding make us better at doing both.

    @ 19. Brett : “That’s too far away to even speculate on what humanity will be like at that point, and it gives us plenty of time. ‘

    So because a problem is a long way off we should do nothing?

    Apply that logic to Global Overheating or not littering or not smoking and see where itgets you. Yeah, I may get cancer someday but that’s a long way off so I’m going to keep smoking until I think I need to worry about it. Yeah, scientists are right when they tell us our industry is heating the planet and permanently altering the climate for the worse but its going to decades to have any really realy serious effects and I’ll be dead soon enough, stuff it, let the future generations deal with that one! Yeah, I’m throwing this litter all over the floor and not doing anything for the future, when it gets really bad then I’ll act.. Realise how slefish and stoopid that sounds now?

    We have to start somewhere. People need to start taking those first steps to make progress. The sooner we do it, the better.

    @15. VinceRN :

    There is another way of looking at this data. That is that all manned space flight, and all efforts at manned space flight ended with Apollo 17. Since then no human has left the Earth’s atmosphere, all shuttle missions, the ISS and Shylab have all been in the the atmosphere.

    Well that is one very gloomy way of looking at it I guess. Then again, those missions may have been technically in a very tenous atmosphere but it certainly isn’t breathable and ultra-thin and so hardly counts as such in my book! ;-)

  26. Brett

    @Messier Tidy Upper

    So because a problem is a long way off we should do nothing?

    Apply that logic to Global Overheating or not littering or not smoking and see where itgets you. Yeah, I may get cancer someday but that’s a long way off so I’m going to keep smoking until I think I need to worry about it. Yeah, scientists are right when they tell us our industry is heating the planet and permanently altering the climate for the worse but its going to decades to have any really realy serious effects and I’ll be dead soon enough, stuff it, let the future generations deal with that one! Yeah, I’m throwing this litter all over the floor and not doing anything for the future, when it gets really bad then I’ll act.. Realise how slefish and stoopid that sounds now?

    You can’t seriously compare an ecological and environmental disaster that will have serious, negative effects in the lifetime of anyone under the age of 50 to disasters that literally happen once every few million years (or the end of Earth’s habitability, which is about 1 billion years off). We have more than one thousand times the span of time that human civilization has existed, period, to deal with some of those problems.

    Even assuming we do get unlucky, and an asteroid or comet hits the keyhole and is aimed at Earth in the next century, that still doesn’t mean we have to use humans in space to stop it. Just consider Apophis, which has an extremely low chance of hitting the Earth in the 2030s. Robots two decades from now are going to make the robots we have now look like a joke.

    And again, let me re-emphasize that I’m not talking about abandoning space. I’m just pointing out that you don’t need humans in space for much anymore, and that’s going to become increasingly true as artificial intelligence, telepresence, and robots continue to advance.

  27. Nigel Depledge

    Harold (9) said:

    Our space-faring adventures have of late been on smallish boats kept close to the shore, . . .

    Not small-ish.

    Shuttle was a monster – that’s why it could not get very far.

  28. ceramicfundamentalist

    “And again, let me re-emphasize that I’m not talking about abandoning space. I’m just pointing out that you don’t need humans in space for much anymore, and that’s going to become increasingly true as artificial intelligence, telepresence, and robots continue to advance.”

    we actually don’t need humans on earth very much anymore either – they just seem to want to bicker amongst themselves a lot and muck up the place for all the other inhabitants. however, quite a few of them want to be on the earth, so who is to stop them?

  29. Charlyg

    @13Tara hit the nail on the head. “Progress, and new solutions, come from those who find reasons to do it…” It is this same Progress that leads to the new solutions, new inventions, new ways of doing things – even if the overall attempt fails. That is science and that is why we need funding for space research and manned flight. It is in trying to overcome the obstacles of a harsh environment (whether it be for humans or machines) that leads to new ideas and new processes. Those dollars have a direct impact on our lives in improved robotics, improved health care, and the advancement of science. NASA not only doesn’t understand how to inform the general public of the good that comes out of space research, either directly or indirectly, but NASA is prohibited from advertising.

  30. Peter B

    Vince RN @ #15 said: “There is another way of looking at this data. That is that all manned space flight, and all efforts at manned space flight ended with Apollo 17. Since then no human has left the Earth’s atmosphere, all shuttle missions, the ISS and Shylab have all been in the the atmosphere. They are called space flight only because space has been redefined to specifically to include these missions.”

    What are you talking about?

    When was “space” so “redefined”? And what evidence is there that it was redefined purely so that orbital flights could count as being space missions?

    In what way is it useful to say that spacecraft in Low Earth Orbit are not in space?

  31. Another Eric

    The black print on a dark blue background was hard to read…

  32. bouch

    Vince RN @15
    “There is another way of looking at this data. That is that all manned space flight, and all efforts at manned space flight ended with Apollo 17. Since then no human has left the Earth’s atmosphere, all shuttle missions, the ISS and Shylab have all been in the the atmosphere. They are called space flight only because space has been redefined to specifically to include these missions.”

    By that definition, Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn never flew in space… Seems like a bad definition to me.

  33. Robin

    @Vince RN (#15): That’s BS. Space is and has pretty always been accepted as starting at 100km above Earth. The exception to using the Karman line as such happened when the DoD set the “space” altitude at 80 miles, allowing X-15 pilots to get astronaut wings. All orbits have been done at much higher altitudes. Feel free to quibble about the air pressure of 3 x 10^-7 atm at 100km elevation not being a perfect vacuum.

  34. I guess most disagree with me, but I maintain that there is a difference between leaving the Earth’s atmosphere and NOT leaving the Earth’s atmosphere. We have not left the Earth’s atmoshphere in over 30 years and I consider that a bad thing. There is a world of difference between what the Apollo program did and what happens now, whatever you call space.

  35. Jared

    Robots and probes are great. Provided the only things you want to do are take pictures, scratch a few inches into dirt or ice, and maybe perform some middle-school science-fair level analyses on site. If that’s all you want to get out of the rest of the entire universe, fantastic, but at least be honest about it and stop claiming that “there’s nothing humans can do in space that robots can’t”.

    Yes, manned exploration is a bazillion times more expensive, difficult, and dangerous to do. That’s because you get what you pay for. A single grad student on the surface of Mars armed with nothing but a shovel and a chemistry set could do more research in a week than all the unmanned probes have accomplished in decades.

    That said, PR stunts like Apollo won’t get us anywhere either. We came, we saw, we went back home, never to return? We need to have an actual thriving industry and infrastructure in space, and that’s never going to happen as long as it costs its weight in gold to launch mass to LEO. _That’s_ what NASA should have been working on all these decades. Everything else should take a distant back seat to the task of easing access to space. Because without it, everything else is that much harder and more expensive to do, will be that much more limited in scope, and providing that much less of a return on investment.

    The money they dumped into the ISS should have spent making launches so cheap that it would have been possible to build a station 10 times better at 1/10th the price. Routine, inexpensive launches means bulkier components with multiple redundancies are practical and maintenance and repair by a person is a real option, rather than depending on everything conforming to “failure is not an option”.

    It’s like trying to explore the oceans with canoes and rafts and putting sailboat R&D on the back burner.

  36. Calli Arcale

    “PR stunts like Apollo”

    That’s an interesting thing to say, Jared. Apollo is often seen as merely a PR stunt because it ended after such a short time. But this is to take what Nixon did to it and make it the intent from the beginning.

    NASA never intended Apollo as a PR stunt. They were absolutely serious about getting maximum scientific return, and they saw it as a natural precursor to grander things. They were fully intending to have a moonbase by the end of the century. Then the carpet was yanked out from under them. Oh, it didn’t happen all at once; first they were told Apollo would end with Apollo 20. Then the last three were cancelled anyway, even though most of the hardware was already complete. They cobbled together some work out of what was left — Skylab and ASTP. But the government didn’t care about the Moon anymore. NASA had been in it not just to win it but to colonize the Moon. It probably came as a great shock to learn that to the White House and Congress, it really was mostly just a PR stunt.

    And ISS, while expensive, is far more valuable than people think. I seriously doubt you could build a station 10 times better at 1/10 the price. That’s easy to say, but hard to do.

    If you want to understand why spaceflight is so expensive, read some of the stuff written by Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX. He’s hit the nail on the head. It’s not that those who went before were wasteful idiots. Quite the contrary. It’s because of where the focus has been. The focus has been on performance. Being surprised that a Delta IV is expensive is like getting sticker shock when you go price a Bugatti Veyron. It’s not built for price, nor even for practicality. It’s built for performance. This is not surprising when you consider that until relatively recently, the main driver of rocket development has been the world’s militaries — they’re all born from ICBMs and the Cold War. Reliably delivering megatons of death and destruction before your enemy nukes you requires putting performance ahead of *everything else*. And then this philosophy continued under the EELV program, where the focus wasn’t on missiles but on reliably delivering very high value classified payloads. Again, price was on the back seat.

    SpaceX aims to show that this isn’t the only way to develop rockets. They’re taking a huge risk, but so far they’re doing a damn good job, and they’ve made a believer out of me. They’re building with an eye less towards performance and more towards efficient manufacturing, having recognized that that’s where the *real* savings will come.

  37. vince charles

    13. Tara Li Said:
    March 12th, 2012 at 4:35 pm

    “Progress, and new solutions, comes from those who find reasons to do it – or just do it, even if there is no real reason.”

    You aren’t taking your own advice, then.

    Technological progress proceeds linearly in the short term, but nonlinearly in the medium to long term. In the short term, we do what we did before, just better this time. But on longer timescales, technology makes lateral jumps to solutions from different fields.

    The relevant example is postwar scenarios of ships routinely hurtling through the Solar System, but plotting their courses with slide rules. Everyone predicted cars and planes and such would get faster and faster, but who predicted computer chips at all, let alone ubiquitous, disposable ones? Similarly, the US, USSR, and Europe all bet that jetliners would proceed to supersonic jet liners. At the same time Boeing expected that their 747 would become obsolete in a few years, relegated to freight hauling by all those classy SSTs. Who won the bet?

    From this vantage point, you’re assuming that future space exploration will look like past missions, just more so. The Air Force, however, learned not to assume: reconnaissance is done handily by unmanned satellites, and grandiose plans for military astronauts in Blue Gemini/MOL, Dyna-Soar, and the Shuttle went the way of the SST… and the vacuum tube. It is no accident that a manned capsule resembles a vacuum tube or CRT… are you reading this on a CRT monitor, or some sort of flatscreen display?

    What’s the future solution? It’s not only likely to be something we haven’t thought of yet. It’s likely to be answering a question we’re not asking yet. von Braun anticipated that satellites would be useful as radio relays, which is true. But he was convinced that communications satellites would be de facto space stations, because who would replace all the burnt-out vacuum tubes and worn relays? Even after _that_, the comsat had many of its market segments taken by the fiber-optic cable, on land or submarine. Who in 1930s Germany anticipated glass cables, thousands of miles long?
    .

    “A manned manufacturing/launch facility on the Moon *IMMEDIATELY* drops the cost of further space development incredibly.”

    Are you the one that keeps bringing up lunar bases as stopping points? Do you realize just how large our Moon is, as moons go? Do you realize the delta-V requirements of entering and leaving such a gravity well, particularly when parachutes and wings are useless? Have you calculated the cascading mission masses resulting from this delta-V, as von Braun and co. did forty years ago? And have you calculated the energy requirements (among other logistics) of handling and splitting solid ores… down to the atomic level… in quantity? Oxygen, as one of the most electronegative elements, really, really wants to stay in that ore, and there’s no business plan that can change elemental attraction.

  38. vince charles

    37. Calli Arcale Said:
    March 13th, 2012 at 2:20 pm

    “And ISS, while expensive, is far more valuable than people think. I seriously doubt you could build a station 10 times better at 1/10 the price. That’s easy to say, but hard to do.”

    You need to swallow some of your own medicine as well, because you continue on to say:

    “If you want to understand why spaceflight is so expensive, read some of the stuff written by Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX. He’s hit the nail on the head… SpaceX aims to show that this isn’t the only way to develop rockets. They’re taking a huge risk, but so far they’re doing a damn good job, and they’ve made a believer out of me. They’re building with an eye less towards performance and more towards efficient manufacturing, having recognized that that’s where the *real* savings will come.”

    Funny how Falcon prices have kept on rising, from his 2005 marketing, to ones closer to EELV levels. Back in 2005, I seriously wished he could build a rocket 10 times better at 1/10 the price, but doubted it would actually happen with a vehicle that still looked like a small EELV. That’s easy to say, but hard to do. Now, OTRAG on the other hand… More than one way to develop rockets, indeed.

  39. John

    I just wish I could have seen (and heard and felt) a Saturn V launch. I believe it was the only manned rocket which never had a catastrophic failure. (With Apollo 13, it was the service module which caused the “problem” and the IU kept Apollo 12 headed in the right direction after a lightning strike basically shorted out everything in the command module (which was soon rectified).

    I understand the cost efficiency of sending robotic craft, but it isn’t quite the same as sending human beings. That was what captured everyone’s attention to the lunar flights.

    It was the kind of thing which inspires young people to want to become astronauts and engineers.

    We haven’t even sent a manned mission beyond low earth orbit since.

  40. Nigel Depledge

    Vince RN (35) said:

    I guess most disagree with me, but I maintain that there is a difference between leaving the Earth’s atmosphere and NOT leaving the Earth’s atmosphere. We have not left the Earth’s atmoshphere in over 30 years and I consider that a bad thing. There is a world of difference between what the Apollo program did and what happens now, whatever you call space.

    I guess the difficulty is that you seem to have defined space as “outside Earth’s atmosphere” when the atmosphere itself has no clear delimitation – it just gets less and less dense the higher you go until the solar wind has more particles. But Earth’s atmosphere is a dynamic thing, swelling and shrinking in response to changes in its environment, so to use it as the measure of whether or not you are in space means that the “edge of space” moves every day, which makes things more complicated and difficult than they need to be.

    The accepted definition of space has been > 100 km altitude for some time, and before that it was lower. IIUC, at one point, an altitude of 50,000 ft was defined as the edge of space because it was so hard to exceed at the time.

    Having said that, the nine Apollo missions to the moon are the only times humans have travelled into “deep” space – outside LEO – and even then they were still kind-of orbiting the Earth.

  41. Brett

    @Jared

    Yes, manned exploration is a bazillion times more expensive, difficult, and dangerous to do. That’s because you get what you pay for. A single grad student on the surface of Mars armed with nothing but a shovel and a chemistry set could do more research in a week than all the unmanned probes have accomplished in decades.

    Again, what we’re seeing in terms of technological advancement for robotics and artificial intelligence suggests that this may not be the case in the next couple of decades. Since it would take at least a decade to get a manned Mars mission underway (assuming the most optimistic estimates from people like Robert Zubrin are correct), it’s fair to question the need for an expensive manned mission in terms of scientific exploration.

    @vince charles

    Funny how Falcon prices have kept on rising, from his 2005 marketing, to ones closer to EELV levels. Back in 2005, I seriously wished he could build a rocket 10 times better at 1/10 the price, but doubted it would actually happen with a vehicle that still looked like a small EELV.

    Barring some break-through in materials science or scramjet technology, I don’t think Musk is going to seriously lower the costs of launching stuff into space. It’s not like conventional rocketry is a field in its infancy anymore – in many ways it’s a mature technology.

    @John

    I understand the cost efficiency of sending robotic craft, but it isn’t quite the same as sending human beings. That was what captured everyone’s attention to the lunar flights.

    It was the kind of thing which inspires young people to want to become astronauts and engineers.

    That’s true, but there are a lot of things that can inspire young people to become scientists and engineers, and most of them don’t cost tens of billions of dollars to do so.

  42. vince charles

    ??? I just reread your post, and it didn’t really hit me at first. But then I realized:

    37. Calli Arcale Said:
    March 13th, 2012 at 2:20 pm

    “If you want to understand why spaceflight is so expensive, read some of the stuff written by Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX. He’s hit the nail on the head. It’s not that those who went before were wasteful idiots. Quite the contrary. It’s because of where the focus has been. The focus has been on performance. Being surprised that a Delta IV is expensive is like getting sticker shock when you go price a Bugatti Veyron. It’s not built for price, nor even for practicality. It’s built for performance. This is not surprising when you consider that until relatively recently, the main driver of rocket development has been the world’s militaries — they’re all born from ICBMs and the Cold War. Reliably delivering megatons of death and destruction before your enemy nukes you requires putting performance ahead of *everything else*. And then this philosophy continued under the EELV program, where the focus wasn’t on missiles but on reliably delivering very high value classified payloads. Again, price was on the back seat.”

    Did he really say that??? This statement is false on its face: both the Atlas V and Delta IV EELV competitors have launched comsats under commercial bidding. The Delta IV, in particular, was derived from the Delta III, which was expressly designed for commercial launch using private funding (from McDonnell Douglas, then Boeing, plus Hughes Satellite). In fact, even the rejected Alliant EELV concept won commercial comsat bookings before it ever flew.

    It is not only in Lockheed Martin and Boeing’s interest to win commercial orders for launch services: it is also in the DoD’s best interest. The more total customers buy a rocket, the lower the price for everybody, due to amortization of program costs. And comsat operators don’t like to have their birds blown up any more than anyone else. Thus, the claim that EELVs are somehow uncompetitive due to programmatic and institutional policies is wrong, and people who book launches know it. (Granted, the Delta IV is uncompetitive for technological reasons, but that was from Boeing’s decision making, not the DoD’s imperative.)

    SpaceX is a for-profit organization, and it is in their interest to downplay the competition. In particular, this is yet another instance of lying about their competition.

  43. vince charles

    42. Brett Said:
    March 14th, 2012 at 4:41 pm

    “Barring some break-through in materials science or scramjet technology, I don’t think Musk is going to seriously lower the costs of launching stuff into space. It’s not like conventional rocketry is a field in its infancy anymore – in many ways it’s a mature technology.”

    Too true. SpaceX has spent the past few years learning that they do not have the luxury of competing against morons. This stuff really is rocket science, and everyone else in the industry knows a thing or two. Even though there’s less competition in launchers than we’d like, there’s competition nonetheless, and the morons have been weeded out already.

    To quote Akin’s Laws of Spacecraft Design: “19. The odds are greatly against you being immensely smarter than everyone else in the field.”

  44. vince charles

    41. Nigel Depledge Said:
    March 14th, 2012 at 7:06 am

    “Having said that, the nine Apollo missions to the moon are the only times humans have travelled into “deep” space – outside LEO – and even then they were still kind-of orbiting the Earth.”

    No, arguably. At least one Gemini used its Agena module to boost it into the Van Allen Belts. They got over a thousand miles, enough to see the Earth as a ball instead of a disc.

  45. Nigel Depledge

    @ Vince Charles (45) -

    OK, I stand corrected. Can you recall which Gemini mission it was? I must confess that my knowledge of Gemini is minimal.

    I’m not sure, though, how they would see the Earth as a ball instead of a disc – after all, a disc is merely the two-dimensional projection of a sphere that can be seen from a distance. Did you perhaps mean that they saw the whole of the Earth’s disc, rather than merely a portion of it?

  46. Messier Tidy Upper

    @26. Brett :

    You can’t seriously compare an ecological and environmental disaster that will have serious, negative effects in the lifetime of anyone under the age of 50 to disasters that literally happen once every few million years

    Oh can’t I now? Why not? The principle is the same even if the timescale is somewhat different. ;-)

    We have more than one thousand times the span of time that human civilization has existed, period, to deal with some of those problems.

    We hope. Maybe we do, maybe we don’t. Either way, the sooner we get on with it, the better off and safer we’ll be.

    Even assuming we do get unlucky, and an asteroid or comet hits the keyhole and is aimed at Earth in the next century, that still doesn’t mean we have to use humans in space to stop it.

    I think you are missing the point here. :-(

    Imagine a basket full of eggs – a brick hits it or it falls from a great height or a hippotamus sits on it and all the eggs get broken. None are left.

    Now imagine the same number of eggs in two or three baskets instead. One basket is crushed by a falling hippopotamus. Two more baskets are still left to hatch and grow up into fine happy chickens! Or eagles. ;-) 8)

    Its not just asteroid impacts, not just any one possible disaster – the further we are spread, the more worlds we are spread across the greater our chances of survival. I’d like to see multiple space colonies – O’Neil Colonies, asteroids, the Moon, a terraformed Mars, a Titan colony and other worlds both natural and artificial. Creating these will take time and effort and yet in the long run be Humanity’s best guarantee of survival. I think Humanity and its works its potential for great things and kindnesses and wonders is worth preserving. I’m surprised and disappointed more people don’t see that as, well, pretty much axiomatic here.

    Just consider Apophis, which has an extremely low chance of hitting the Earth in the 2030s. Robots two decades from now are going to make the robots we have now look like a joke.

    Maybe? Provided we get off our backsides and start building them. They’re not going to pop into existence just because we want them to. Nor is a human space colony or five or anything much really. Everything starts where it starts and grows based on people putting in the work, the money and in many cases, sadly, the lives. We need to choose to do it (whether that’s building robots, building a space colony or preserving the environment on Earth or all three plus more) and do it as well as we can starting now – not saying “oh well one day” and then doing nothing. As is happening with space exploration thanks to Obama among others. :-(

    And again, let me re-emphasize that I’m not talking about abandoning space.

    Well, I’m glad you are emphasising that now because that was certainly an impression I was getting from you there.

    I’m just pointing out that you don’t need humans in space for much anymore, and that’s going to become increasingly true as artificial intelligence, telepresence, and robots continue to advance.

    But putting humans in space – to me anyhow – has to be the goal in its own right NOT just the means of accomplishing other ends.

    PS. What’s the deal with my apostrophes turning into computerese numeral-y thingies here?

  47. @46. Nigel Depledge – March 15th, 2012 at 5:30 am :

    @ Vince Charles (45) – OK, I stand corrected. Can you recall which Gemini mission it was? I must confess that my knowledge of Gemini is minimal.

    Everyone seems to forget the Gemini missions don’t they? ;-)

    I didn’t remember that either. My breif bit of google searching suggests this was the Gemini 10 (X) mission flown by John W. Young & Michael Collins – yes that Mike Collins! ;-)

    Although I could be wrong. From the fount of all knowledge (RIP Encyclopedia Britannica) :

    Gemini established that radiation at high altitude was not a problem. After docking with their Agena booster in low orbit, Young and Collins used it to climb another 763.8 kilometers to meet with the dead, drifting Agena left over from the aborted Gemini VIII flight – thus executing the program’s first double rendezvous. With no electricity on board the second Agena the rendezvous was accomplished with eyes only – no radar. After the rendezvous, Collins space-walked over to the dormant Agena at the end of a 15.24 meter tether, making Collins the first person to meet another spacecraft in orbit.

    Source : ‘Gemini 10′ Wikipage – which is linked to my name for this comment.

    Hope that is correct and the one Vince Charles was meaning. Hope this helps. :-)

  48. Rob

    Why aren’t the X-15 or SpaceShipOne flights shown? NASA hasn’t had a complete monopoly on “US Space Travel”.

    Also, neither Challenger nor Columbia “exploded”.

  49. Nigel Depledge

    @ Rob (49) -
    Well, I knd-of agree about Columbia, but under any pretty much any sensible definition, Challenger did explode. The Orbiter did not explode, although it was destroyed in the explosion, but Shuttle comprises four components, of which the Orbiter is but one. One of Challenger’s SRB’s vented hot exhaust gas directly at the External Tank (ET), which (IIUC) is what exploded.

    On what grounds do you object to the use of the word “exploded” for the Challenger disaster?

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