Lunar Water Creates New Capabilities in Space

I have a new post up at Air & Space on the real value of going to the Moon to learn how to extract, process and use the water at the poles.  Comment here if so inclined.

Posted in Lunar development, space industry, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 22 Comments

NASA = Mars = Delusional

Hollywood blazes a trail into the Solar System - Film at Eleven.

Hollywood blazes a trail into the Solar System – Film at Eleven.

The release of a hit movie about the adventures of an astronaut marooned on the Red Planet, coupled with the “discovery” of liquid water running on the surface of Mars, has been an intoxicating moment in an otherwise dry spell for the Marsophiles at our national space agency. This confluence of events, accompanied by hosanna-singing press coverage (at least partly orchestrated by the agency itself), has advocates toasting each other – our “#JourneyToMars” is proceeding apace. Hallelujah! Our national space program might be saved!

Then again, maybe not. How much of this hype is rooted in real accomplishment and how much is mere puffery? If finding “water on Mars” sounds familiar, that’s because finding “water on Mars” is announced every couple of years and each time, we get the same breathless assertions that “human missions” to the planet (sometimes even habitation) are now possible. But is any of this true?

Publishing a scientific paper does not mean that its conclusions are correct or that a problem has been solved. Even if the new interpretation is correct, it does nothing to advance the cause of a human Mars mission; it is only an incremental advance in our knowledge of the planet (previous alternative explanations for crater wall streaks did not involve the flow of liquid water).

Some news accounts assert that the availability of liquid water makes human surface missions easier to undertake, as water is a vital consumable for long-term presence of people on the martian surface. However, this liquid water is extremely saline (a brine) and needs extensive distillation and processing to make it useable, requiring much more energy than would be needed to simply melt ground ice, which is already relatively pure and whose presence on the planet has been known for the last 40 years. The existence of saline brines is geologically interesting but it has no significant implications for sustaining a human presence.

The real impact of this discovery relates to the supposed link between liquid water and the possible emergence and presence of microbial life. The Quest for Life Elsewhere obsession has consumed NASA for over 50 years. The “Follow the water” strategy for Mars was a surrogate for the “look for the bugs” quest. In an amusing twist, the increasing likelihood of microbes existing on Mars creates a problem for a NASA intent on sending astronauts there, as we could permanently contaminate the martian biosphere, rendering future scientific results questionable to the extent that they might be unanswerable. This mindset is expressed in a recent Planetary Society blog post, where potential Mars astronauts are characterized as possessing “filthy meatbag bodies” that should be kept in orbit, so as not to irreversibly change the Eden-like martian surface.

New scientific discoveries enjoy short press cycles and then rapidly exit, stage left. But not to worry, the real event – the one that NASA is hitching their star to – is the release of the movie The Martian, based on Andy Weir’s novel of the same name, in which an astronaut struggles for survival after being accidentally left behind during a future human mission to Mars. The story is entertaining and I enjoyed the book (I have not seen the movie). It reminded me of another movie with a very similar plotline, the classic Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964). Of course, there’s nothing new under the sun and nobody in Hollywood ever lost box office by re-making something previously done. What is remarkable is the agency’s clear intent (during a time of unclear goals) of hitching their Mars mission dreams to the movie’s anticipated popularity.

NASA’s manned space efforts relate not so much to current accomplishment but rather to publicizing promised future accomplishments. In the case of The Martian, the agency’s PR warp engine has slipped into hyper-drive. Leading this media charm barrage is a 19-page memo sent out to agency employees instructing them how to take advantage of the release of a new movie about Mars. Among the gems in this document are mantras to be chanted (“NASA = Mars, Mars = NASA”), sage advice (“Be a Martian”), technically true but misleading exaggerations (“NASA is at Mars”) and aspirational self-deception (“NASA is working on sending people to Mars”). But it doesn’t stop there. This top-level direction is followed by a dozen more pages of lists of PR events, movie screenings, astronaut appearances, and the invidious “talking points,” those full-metal jacketed rhetorical bullets loaded in the firearms of modern societal discourse.

Apparently, NASA believes that as this movie takes off in popularity, a public wound-up about space exploration will demand that the agency be showered with additional money. Once that happens, the Marsophiles say they will achieve their human mission to Mars fantasy sooner than the “sometime within the next 25 years” timeline currently in place. This is inline with the agency’s unsuccessful 50-year strategy of believing that in order to stay in business they must generate enthusiastic public support (apparently they are the only federal agency that has adopted this mindset). Thus, Congress and the administration have not been excluded from this PR blitz strategy, which includes a date-unspecified “White House screening” of the film. Instead of actually doing something, we can all watch the movie. It isn’t surprising that the public has become cynical about what is science and what is politics – what is real and what isn’t. “Science” has become a useful political tool and because of that, the credibility of scientific inquiry and the public’s understanding of science and how it works have suffered greatly.

Reporter Eric Berger complains that nothing in the new movie shows the presence of New Space companies, those allegedly private sector, commercial entities that are currently taking the universe by storm. Science writer Ed Regis thinks we should forget about “settling Mars” because people have unrealistic views about the hazards of such an activity. (Done Ed – nothing in NASA’s current plans leads to anything remotely resembling human settlement of another world.) The Explore Mars crowd urges everyone to “stay the course” on NASA’s humans to Mars efforts, without explaining (do they even know?) exactly why anyone should desire this course of action (a “world class” example of how politicized science has done great harm to the public’s understanding, expectations and to their education about what is possible).

NASA’s #JourneyToMars, Inspiration Mars, Mars One, and Elon Musk’s settlement fantasies all fall into the category of what I call the Mars obsession, the spaceflight idée fixe that has kept us busy with devising new architectures and composing beautiful artwork for the past 25 years, but has not advanced any actual spaceflight. Instead of focusing our efforts on an achievable, extendable goal, like building a cislunar transportation infrastructure that could carry us to the planets, we obsess on pie-in-the-sky Mars missions and Hollywood productions that whip up unrealistic expectations, yet accomplish nothing. As mission rationale, Mars advocates have nothing beyond some esoteric science questions (“Do microbes exist in seeping brines on crater walls?”) or wildly unrealistic dreams of planetary settlement (the logistical requirements of which are not even understood, let alone being addressed).

I have little doubt that unless something changes, NASA will “stay the course” they’re wedded to. Politicians, focused on other things, go along with NASA’s Mars dreams because they don’t have to pony up any additional money – they can just smile, cheer and say, “someday – soon.” Some agency employees are okay with “the mission” because they don’t have to do any real engineering – honing instead their considerable Powerpoint skills. The entertainment world likes it because they already work in the field of fiction. And space advocates? Well, they like anything that talks about future space activities – because talking is what they do best.

Going beyond LEO requires us to develop a new mindset and a new approach. We need to build an incremental spaceflight system that advances first to cislunar space, then to the Moon, and then into the Solar System beyond. It should be composed of small pieces sent into space on any available launch vehicle. It must have a flexible plan of deployment and operations, adjustable to budgetary boom and bust cycles (mostly bust for the foreseeable future). And most importantly, to create new spaceflight capabilities, we must learn how to use the vast material and energy resources of space. I advocate going to the Moon to do this because it is close and it has the resources that we need. And learning to use extraterrestrial resources is a skill that we must master if we are ever to become truly “spacefaring.”   When a program is realistic and sound, you don’t need to go begging hat in hand to the public, or face ridicule for shamelessly associating yourself with a popular science fiction space movie to suggest that you’re on the right path. When there truly is a real program, business, success and money will follow.

Enjoy The Martian but don’t take it too seriously. Remember all this hoopla next time – along with the wasted time, the wasted budget and the lack of progress.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, planetary exploration, space policy, space technology | 56 Comments

Under the Double Eagle

I have a new post up at Air & Space on an old proposed mission from the SDI days, the Double Eagle Space Experiment.  This mission was to have used active remote sensing to map the Moon’s composition with high resolution and precision.  Comment on the post, here if so inclined.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, Lunar Science, planetary exploration, space technology | 24 Comments

Commercial Crew Cuts

Budget requests (blue) and actual funding (orange) for the CCDev program. "Cuts" in the program are reflected in the steadily increasing budget. From Wikipedia.

Budget requests (blue) and actual funding (orange) for NASA’s CCDev program. The “cuts” in the program are reflected in its steadily increasing budget with time. From Wikipedia.

The space media is in an uproar over the funding levels for NASA’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program. Congress has appropriated less money than the administration requested for the last five years. Has legislative parsimony held us back in our inexorable march to the stars? To read some of the press coverage, one might think so. But to gain some perspective, we should consider the origins and purpose of this program and what it has promised for what is being spent.

NASA programs to develop an independent, commercial capability to deliver both cargo and people to low Earth orbit have their origins in the strategic planning for the International Space Station (ISS) “assembly complete” era, and in the Vision for Space Exploration. One recommendation of the 2004 Aldridge Commission was for NASA to solicit cargo delivery to orbit from the commercial sector instead of launching it on government-built and -operated vehicles. The reasoning behind this recommendation was that as travel to and from LEO had become “routine,” and as NASA was supposed to be a cutting edge entity, it was time to contract for these services, so that the agency could focus its efforts on blazing new trails and technology paths. This recommendation (one of the few actually implemented from that report) became NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) Program. The purpose of COTS was to invest seed money in the commercial development of this capability, after which delivery services for cargo to the ISS (the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program) would be purchased.

The COTS effort began in 2006 and resulted in the development of two different American cargo delivery services, one by Orbital (Antares) and the other from SpaceX (Dragon); both are operational (although both are currently grounded by launch vehicle failures). On the basis of this apparent success, the current administration expanded the COTS concept into the realm of human spaceflight, called the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program. The ostensible purpose of this effort was to provide access to and from the ISS for American crew members by funding commercial companies to develop a new human spacecraft for LEO transportation. With the cancellation of Project Constellation, the need for crew transport to and from space was indeed pressing, especially as no attempt was made to delay the scheduled retirement of the Shuttle – it went forward unabated. Thus, our working orbiters were removed from service and put on display in museums around the country. We’ve been purchasing rides to ISS from Russia since 2011.

New Space adherents, believing that their ship had finally and truly come in, hailed the new emphasis on commercial spaceflight. In their formulation, “government programs” to develop new NASA spacecraft are ponderous, bureaucratic, slow and expensive, while the “private sector” of New Space would be nimble, responsive, fast and cheap. Much of the private sector’s incentive to be nimble and cheap flows from the reality that the expenditure of private capital impacts its shareholders, yet CCDev has the federal government paying development costs, a funding line that has been in NASA’s budget continuously since the program’s inception in 2010.

But when less money was allocated to CCDev than the administration’s yearly requests, its supporters grew incensed, intensifying the friction within an already divided space community. Much of their indignation stems from the concurrent full funding of the agency’s “program of record,” the new Orion spacecraft and its launch vehicle, the Space Launch System (SLS). In other words, because Congress chooses to expend more of the human spaceflight budget funding an established, federal human spaceflight program rather than transferring dollars to the new “private” commercial effort, they call Congress’ budgetary decisions corrupt and “pork.”

NASA claims that the selected CCDev proposals for spacecraft development are meeting their targeted incremental milestones. They further claim (through comments and letters to relevant Congressional authorities by the Administrator) that the “inadequate funding” of the program by Congress is responsible for the delays in system development and for extending the need for Americans to ride to the ISS on the Russian Soyuz. Is any of this true?

The Gemini program (1962-1966) created America’s first multi-person crew vehicle to orbit. The sum total of money spent on Gemini was about $1.3 billion (around $8.5 billion in FY2015 dollars) of which $800 million ($5.2 billion FY2015) went into the development and building of 12 flight spacecraft, and about 15 training vehicles, with the first manned launch occurring about 3 years after program initiation. The Gemini spacecraft carried two crewmen (although a later study considered development of a version that could carry up to 9 people). The spacecraft could maneuver to change its orbit and then rendezvous and dock with a target vehicle. Crew EVA was also supported and conducted on 5 of the 10 flown missions.

For the CCDev program (started in 2010), spacecraft designs were selected from three proposers for further development. Currently down-selected to two companies (Boeing and SpaceX), those contracts have met four development milestones in the past five years, but neither has produced a working spacecraft. To date, about $1.5 billion has been spent, with the two major contractors Boeing and SpaceX, getting $1.1 billion between them. Assuming that all certifications are met, manifests show the first unmanned demo missions of SpaceX’s Dragon is scheduled to launch in late 2016, and Boeing’s CST-100 in spring of 2017. The first crew delivery to ISS would be in 2017.

New Spacers claim this slow pace is the result of the Congressional under-funding, but offer no evidence that more money would significantly accelerate the schedule. Should we just marvel that the planners and builders in the 1960s got Gemini up and running in 3 years (at a point in which we had no experience whatsoever in space rendezvous and docking) and give this generation a pass? The “abundance” of money available to Gemini did not buy any schedule acceleration, although it did allow for the purchase of abundant surplus hardware. Like any spacecraft development, Gemini suffered several technical setbacks during its operational phase, including a wildly unreliable Agena target docking vehicle, early problems with fuel cell technology, and EVA difficulties that were not solved until the very last flight.

But a more pertinent issue is the whole concept behind CCDev. Allegedly, there is an enormous pent-up market demand for human transport to LEO and external “investment” or incentives are needed to kick-start, what will undoubtedly turn out to be, an economically self-sustaining industry. Yet several other attempts to do exactly this have failed to yield any positive results. Space entrepreneur Bob Bigelow set-up a prize in 2004 of $50 million for any entity that could demonstrate a capability for commercial human flight to LEO and return – that prize expired in 2010 without a single attempt to claim it. Why should the federal government pay commercial firms to build a vehicle that is desperately needed for private spaceflight? We’re told that NASA needs it for transport to the ISS. But we had working space vehicles – the Shuttle orbiters, whose retirement to museums was not halted after Constellation was arbitrarily cancelled.

The New Space paradigm isn’t faster and cheaper – although there might be some marginal differences, it’s just as slow and costly as any other approach to space. Spaceflight is hard (as the cliché goes) and attempting to accomplish feats on the very edge of technical possibility will always be difficult and costly. The “cuts” in CCDev imposed by the Congress are cuts only in the Washington sense – the actual amount of money appropriated for the program has increased each year. But there is no evidence that these “cuts” are responsible for the slow progress of the program. Commercial vendors of human spaceflight have only one customer at the moment (NASA), and as they are content to let the feds pay for their development, they are content with the current rate of progress. A test of the sincerity of their belief in the future commercial possibilities of human to LEO transport might be reflected in their willingness to back development efforts with their own money, rather than ours.

Posted in space industry, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 20 Comments

Drones on the Moon

In a new post over at Air & Space, I consider some of the advantages and drawbacks to the possible use of robotic drones in the exploration and prospecting of the Moon.  Comment here is desired.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, Lunar Science, space technology, Space transportation | 25 Comments

To the Moon – Again

A future industrial operation on the Moon.  Possible or not? (Artwork by Pat Rawlings)

A future industrial operation on the Moon. Possible or not? (Artwork by Pat Rawlings)

A NASA-sponsored study has been released which outlines a plan to return to the Moon with people and set-up an outpost at one of the poles to mine water for propellant. This report has drawn both attention and puzzlement within the space community, as the agency continues to make clear that they have no interest in human lunar missions. This disconnect is covered because NASA will not do these activities – instead, the agency will pay commercial companies to develop and implement the plan. The propellant produced at the outpost from lunar polar water will then be sold to NASA for use in future human missions to Mars.

I find both positive and negative aspects in this report. I am gratified that another study recognizes the great leveraging power for spaceflight offered by the development of lunar resources. Most NASA lunar mission studies have invariably incorporated resource utilization only in the form of small-scale demonstrations or flight experiments. In contrast, this effort makes the production of water from the Moon’s polar deposits the principal mission objective – a definite step forward. The architecture also makes significant use of robotic machines on the Moon for most of the mining and processing activities, another positive development. Because of the Moon’s proximity, controlling robots on the lunar surface in near real time permits the early establishment of processing facilities using operators on Earth, rather than on the Moon. In these ways, I find a lot of similarity with this plan and the architecture designed in 2011 by Tony Lavoie and myself.

On the other hand, there are some strange aspects to the report that warrant attention. Early stages of the program call for human crews to be sent on equatorial surface sortie missions prior to the establishment of the polar outpost. Presumably, these missions will test and prove the equipment and vehicles needed for routine lunar surface access later. But sortie missions to equatorial or mid-latitude sites offer no real benefit to the ultimate aim of the architecture: the establishment of propellant production facilities at the pole. There is no good reason for not sending the first human missions directly to the locations where our future activities will happen. There is also no rush to do so – much can be accomplished in advance of human arrival with robotic machines under the control of operators on Earth.

The architecture calls for a series of robotic missions to reconnoiter, prospect and survey potential mining sites prior to human arrival. This approach is an absolute necessity, as much is still unknown about the nature and composition of the polar ice deposits. Apparently, there has been little to no scientific input to this report regarding the consideration of actual prospecting and mining activities, a significant shortcoming. Although the study acknowledges that the unknowns of polar ice mining constitute a “major risk” to the program, that risk can be at least partly mitigated now through the incorporation of results from current research. Known facts are misstated (e.g., water concentrations) and unattributed, a general shortcoming of this effort. It is critical to demonstrate ISRU (in situ resource utilization) with robotic precursors prior to outpost commitment, but the report does not indicate what levels of production constitute success or failure of this milestone. Insufficient detail for the robotic missions likely indicates that these aspects have not been designed or imagined, e.g., the need of power and communications for polar robotic spacecraft requires a significant supporting infrastructure that is not described.

The principal object of the lunar outpost in this plan is the production of water to be converted into cryogenic hydrogen and oxygen for use as rocket propellant. The report envisions this lunar propellant (about 200 metric tons per year at the end of outpost emplacement) as enabling human missions to Mars by reducing the total number of required SLS heavy lift vehicle launches required for such a mission from 12 to 3. But the study does not mention an even more tangible, practical benefit – that the availability of lunar produced propellant not only enables human missions to Mars, it creates routine access to the entirety of cislunar space. We could visit all of the locations of cislunar space (e.g., GEO, L-points) with people and machines to emplace, construct and maintain new satellites of potentially enormous power and capability. A fleet of space-based flight assets in cislunar space, provisioned by the products and propellant produced on the Moon, constitutes a transportation system that can serve nearly all of our space needs for the next century.

The cost analysis of this architecture has drawn much attention. Indeed, more print space is expended on the allegedly low total cost of the project (23 pages) than on the technical aspects of establishing a lunar presence (20 pages). The remainder of the 100-page report deals with risk management and organizational structures. The report claims that by using their approach, the establishment of the polar outpost would cost $40 billion, plus or minus 30%. At first glance, this estimate seems exceedingly low, but it is comparable within about a factor of two to the cost analysis numbers run for the Spudis-Lavoie predominantly robotic architecture (our cost total is $88 billion, of which 30% is reserve). Where do their low cost estimates come from? Primarily from the assumption, widely held in the New Space community, that a COTS-like model of implementation will produce cost savings of factors of eight to ten.

In their model, NASA simply provides the money and industry designs, develops and performs the missions and program. This architecture critically relies on SpaceX’s “Falcon Heavy” for the delivery of propellant to LEO – a vehicle that has yet to materialize, even in structural mock-up form. The Falcon Heavy design consists of three Falcon 9 vehicles, constituting a total of 27 engines, strapped together and using cross-feeds for fuel. In concept, it is similar to the old Soviet N-1 rocket, which used 30 engines; that vehicle was launched four times and never successfully. Even if Falcon Heavy works as advertised, we have no idea what its ultimate cost per flight might be. Its 53 metric ton to LEO payload capacity has no obvious commercial customer; satellite manufacturers design their spacecraft to fit on Atlas or Delta expendables (with a mass limit of about 30 metric tons), so the excess lift capacity either goes to waste or must be sold to co-riders. I frankly find the quoted cost of $90 million per flight of Falcon Heavy unbelievable, especially as the vehicle has not yet flown.

But the new plan willingly accepts this advertised sticker price, largely on the ideological belief in the New Space trope that it can do more in space with less money. The NASA program to deliver cargo to the ISS using commercial launch providers is cited as an example of the benefits of the new business model. In fact, we arguably spend more money now for payload delivered to ISS on the Dragon (about $9,500 per kg) than when Shuttle was operational (cost usually quoted as between $5,000-$10,000 per kg). All equipment, assets and operations remain the property and responsibility of the lunar “development authority,” an entity established by the plan consisting of a consortium of private companies and international agencies to accomplish the mission. So American (and possibly other nations’) taxpayers pay for a lunar outpost, but they don’t own any of it. And when it eventually does come time for a human Mars mission, NASA will pay for the lunar-produced propellant, even though they would have already paid to develop the system that acquires and delivers it.

Which brings me to a final (possibly critical) aspect of this plan. One reason I favor the federal government leading a return to the Moon is that it establishes our national, collective rights to use the Moon and cislunar space for a wide variety of purposes, including all of our economic, scientific and security needs. In possible future disputes with the space efforts of other nation states (such as China), it is not clear that this “development authority” will possess the stature or the assets to prevail. Nations can and do go head-to-head, but when nations go against corporations (for- or not-for profit), corporations seldom come out on top.

The development of the Moon and cislunar space is critical to national strategic needs – it is not some carnival sideshow that we should relegate to a second-tier space program. While I applaud this effort as a contribution to the technical literature of lunar return, I have serious doubts that the plan as presented will work. New Space has a long history of talking big and promising bigger, but their follow-through and delivery has been more run of the mill. Undertaking a major, innovative space program is beyond their capabilities now and may remain so for the foreseeable future.

Still, setting aside concerns over this plan’s feasibility, the glaring issue of our weakened national space posture remains. The traditional role of government is to represent us collectively and to protect our national interests. A lunar development authority would possess neither those ethics nor the means to do anything about them. We are not the only ones interested in the Moon and cislunar space, and it is still a dangerous world. The federal government, of which NASA is a part, should take steps to assure national rights of access and activity in cislunar space and the Moon. It should be noted that in the section of the report listing the “pros” and “cons” of a development authority, these critical national priorities are not even considered.

Posted in Lunar development, space industry, space policy, space technology | 88 Comments

Swirling Controversy

I have a new post at Air & Space on the mystery and problem of swirls on the lunar surface.  Readers are invited to comment on this topic here, if so inclined.

Posted in Lunar exploration, Lunar Science | 1 Comment

Americans are good at Marketing – We used to be good at Space

Falcon 9 explodes during staging, 5 July 2015.  (NASA TV)

Falcon 9 explodes during staging, 5 July 2015. (Click on image to animate; NASA TV)

The recent launch failure of a Falcon 9 rocket on its way to deliver supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) has drawn a lot of media attention. Most of this coverage has been very sympathetic to SpaceX (the company that built and operates the Falcon 9-Dragon system), with heavy reliance on the platitude “space is hard.” Following this doleful lament are assurances that this problem will be fixed and that our inexorable march to the stars will continue. As the commercial cargo and crew programs are heralded as a central core of the new, better, re-invented NASA, now is a good time to examine where stand. Exactly how much of the current space program consists of real accomplishment, as opposed to marketing?

Objectively speaking, the SpaceX accident was not particularly unexpected. Launch failures happen in the invariably risky field of spaceflight. Even in regard to the ISS re-supply program (of which this flight was a part), there have been two other recent failures, one by Orbital when its Antares rocket blew up on launch and a Russian Progress re-supply spacecraft failed when its antenna did not deploy properly. So accidents happen. The question is why? Is it a result of random bad luck – some part that failed at a critical time and won’t happen again? Or does it indicate some systemic problem that needs to be fixed before another mission can be attempted with any degree of confidence? At this point, we don’t know the answers and it would be unwise to speculate which cause is most likely.

My concern here is with a different issue – space marketing, the billing and selling of relatively minor events as major “accomplishments.” The distortion of program realities has left the public with a false impression about where we stand in space capability. Five years ago, this administration conducted a major re-vectoring of our national civil space program – arbitrarily terminating the strategic direction provided by the Vision for Space Exploration (an established program that had drawn overwhelming bipartisan support). In its stead, a Potemkin Village program was devised – a slight-of-hand maneuver that proclaimed a human mission to an asteroid and then to Mars as the nation’s new long-range goals in space. An effort to supply the ISS supply by “commercial” launch services was heralded as a “new direction” for the American space program, when in fact, it was already part of the existing program.

The initial success of SpaceX’s spacecraft for ISS re-supply missions (hyped as “privately developed”) ignited a barrage of marketing about the superiority of this new mode of operation over the traditional model of government-developed spacecraft. Supposedly, this new modus led to better capability for less money. (Who would argue against that?) In fact, with the retirement of the Shuttle, we now have less capability than we did, yet we are still spending about the same amount of money per year on NASA as we did when the “money-draining” Shuttle was operational. The Shuttle could deliver over 24 tons of supplies and equipment (and people) to the ISS on each flight; up-mass for the SpaceX spacecraft Dragon is about 3 tons. Shuttle had a cargo bay and cradle so that complex spacecraft could be worked on, refurbished and repaired. Neither the SpaceX Dragon nor the new Boeing CT-100 spacecraft (both intended to ultimately transport people to and from low Earth orbit) possess that capability.

The Shuttle program was terminated for two principal reasons. First, having lost two crews over the course of its 30-year history (where lessons were learned), there was the perception that it was inherently “unsafe” as a mode of space transportation. It is not clear just how safe the new “commercial” replacements for Shuttle will be because they have yet to fly, but the Falcon failure reminds us that accidents can always happen. Comparatively speaking, during its 30 years of operation, the Shuttle had a pretty good safety record – 133 successful flights out of 135 attempts (98.5%). Second, it was thought that since Shuttle operations (being very labor intensive) consumed such a large fraction of the NASA budget, that by retiring it, the savings would permit the agency to transition to new operations beyond LEO. Well, the Shuttles are now in museums. Where are the new missions? Even the SLS launch vehicle and Orion spacecraft – the new government-developed space hardware intended to take humans into deep space – have yet to become operational and when they do, they will fly only once or twice per year, at most. (“Where”  is still up in the air.)

In short, we no longer have a civil space program. We have the simulacrum of a program. Marketing has replaced accomplishment. We don’t have to be going anywhere – we simply have to say that we’re studying it. This is not a new phenomenon; NASA has been claiming to be on their way to Mars since Apollo 11 flew in 1969 (even though that plan was specifically rejected by then-President Nixon who knew that it was politically untenable). For NASA, the Mars bird in the bush was always more important than the Shuttle-Station bird in the hand.

There’s nothing wrong with dreaming large and planning for some distant “horizon goal.” The problem comes when people start believing that the hype is the reality. One of the biggest offenders in this regard appears to be the New Space community themselves. Far too many people with real space experience (who should know better) accept that, while accidents on the road to “commercial space” are likely to occur from time to time, we will somehow recover from these setbacks much more quickly and easily than was experienced during an exclusively government-directed space effort. Additionally, there has been in recent years, a large measure of unreality in the expectations of New Space. The mass sale of private rides into space, the recent competition to select people willing to establish an off-world Mars colony, and the “terraforming” of Mars into a second Earth, are a few examples of ideas advanced and seriously discussed in many circles.

The unraveling of our civil space program has gone nearly undetected by the media (who reliably promote any absurd sales pitch tossed their way) and by the public in general (who basically don’t know what they don’t know, as it’s all made to sound promising). But facts are facts, and facilities and people critical to the success of the space program in the past have vanished and will not be returning. An entirely new generation will be responsible for what comes next (as it should be) yet they have been indoctrinated with a series of absurdly unrealistic beliefs and expectations about spaceflight and spacefaring. The difference between what is possible (how a program can be logically constructed and flown) and what is pure fantasy (dreams) has been blurred to the point where distinguishing between the two is almost impossible. This new generation desperately needs leaders who are willing and able to realistically approach the problems and devise a path forward; they’ve already bought into the marketing. While we need salesmen for space, the product they sell must be based on competent engineering and science, a program grounded in reality.

Is space “hard”? Of course it is. Any activity in which you are expected to hurl several tons of complex and delicate machinery hundreds of kilometers into the sky along a precise path and at speeds exceeding 8 kilometers per second could not be anything but “hard.” The myth of New Space is not that spaceflight is “easy” but that it can somehow be achieved more quickly and inexpensively using shortcuts unique to entrepreneurial companies but unknown in government circles. The most outlandish claims of imminent accomplishment come from those least qualified to judge the feasibility of those achievements. A recent piece on the SpaceX launch failure stated: “We’re not amateurs anymore. We’re not cheerleaders, either.” Actually, in the New Space field, many are both.

Americans are good at marketing. We used to be good at space too.

Posted in space industry, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 56 Comments

Dusty Space Around the Moon

A new post up at Air & Space on LADEE results for the lunar dust exosphere.  Space is not empty!  Comment here, if desired.

Posted in Lunar exploration, Lunar Science | 6 Comments

More Than Life Itself: Some Heretical Thoughts

The Mars rock with the bugs -- a scanning electron microscope image of alleged fossil bacteria in a martian meteorite.  These features are extremely small (note scale, in nanometers, i.e., billionth of a meter).

A Mars rock with bugs?  Scanning electron microscope image of alleged fossil bacteria in a martian meteorite. These features are extremely small (note the scale, in nanometers, i.e., a billionth of a meter).  NASA image.

In a letter to Space News, current CEO of The Planetary Society, Bill Nye, expounds on his belief that the search for life on Mars is the both the principal rationale and objective of human spaceflight. Many members of the Planetary Society subscribe to this belief, as do many others in the space advocacy field. Certainly, upon reading through various decadal studies of the planetary science community, it quickly becomes apparent that searching for extraterrestrial life is the major goal of space exploration and other topics are noted as to the degree with they contribute to the search for life. Where does this deeply ingrained idea come from?

Setting aside for a moment the decades of science fiction dealing with invaders from Mars and a variety of BEMs (Bug-Eyed Monsters) from space, this quest for life (as a driving imperative for the space program) took much of its impetus from Carl Sagan (1934-1996). Sagan, who popularized space science in his TV series Cosmos, is renowned for speaking and writing about the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Sagan became famous by pontificating on the “billions” of planetary systems that must exist in our galaxy, explaining (on the basis of our scientific understanding of how life arises) that many millions of them must be teeming with life. The science fiction concept of extraterrestrials was thus elevated and dignified by a seemingly irrefutable scientific argument, and this combination steam-rolled NASA into making the Quest for Life Elsewhere (QFLE) a cornerstone of its rationale for existence and its space exploration strategy. NASA’s quest to inspire (and let loose the floodgates of funding) saw gold in Sagan’s appeal to the public.

From our earliest recognition that Mars was a planet similar in size and composition to the Earth, it has harbored humanity’s hopes for the discovery of extraterrestrial life. Dreams of “life” were dashed when the initial flyby mission showed a cold, cratered surface, more like the Moon than like the Earth – a desolate Mars with an extremely thin, carbon dioxide atmosphere. In 1971, the Mariner 9 orbiter rekindled hopes of “life” when it showed channels as natural features on the surface. These landforms are difficult to explain by any process other than flowing water, and water is a prerequisite for life. Two Viking landers were launched to Mars in 1975, configured with the express objective of searching for evidence of (microbial) life in the martian soil. Nothing was found, except for some strange and unexpected soil chemistry. No organic matter was found in the soil at the parts per billion level, suggesting that not only was there no life there, but that some chemical process on the surface was destroying carbon compounds that did exist (we knew that they were being deposited on the planet by meteorite impact).

Thus, for the twenty years following Viking, Mars was considered dead, although many speculative efforts tried to envision how life might have arisen there in the past and then went extinct, as the climate changed from an early wet, warm and thick atmosphere to the current cold, dry, and thin conditions. Another round of robotic missions to Mars in the 1990s rekindled interest in possible life – or at least fossils – that could exist there. Since then, we have sent some type of robotic probe to Mars at nearly every launch opportunity (which occur every 26 months). Each mission has discovered that: a) Mars once had liquid water near the surface; and b) could have developed life. Each announcement of these astounding results is accompanied by much press hoopla as the again “new” findings are heralded and papers are published.

Concurrent with these findings was the astonishing result that perhaps life had already been found. Scientific study of the meteorite ALH 84001 showed extremely small rod-like forms that look similar to terrestrial bacteria. This space rock is one of a group thought to have come to Earth from Mars, blasted off the planet by an ancient impact. If all of these inferences were correct, then we may have already discovered fossil life from Mars! However, these interpretations are not universally accepted – indeed, they are not accepted by most of the scientific community today. Thus, the QFLE continues.

Just why is the idea of martian microbes so compelling? Although motivations vary, many in the space community have embraced the QFLE in relation to Mars because it has been good for business. The discovery of the possible fossils in a martian rock in 1996 inspired and spawned an entire Mars exploration program, one responsible for the launch of 11 American and 7 international spacecraft (and still counting) to the red planet over the last 20 years. Each mission repeats the new discovery that Mars “probably” was conducive to life early in its history. We can’t stop now – this elusive goal is just around the next bend!

Two issues present themselves in regard to the QFLE, especially as applied to Mars exploration. First, is the QFLE a valid rationale for a space exploration program? Second, if extraterrestrial life were found there, so what and what then?

Clearly, as they have embraced it as their rationale for space exploration, NASA is endorsing the QFLE. I have two issues with this adoption, one practical and one philosophical. On the practical side, if you define your objective around the search for life and you don’t find it, by definition, your mission is a failure. One cannot prove a negative, so not finding life or evidence of former life does not prove that it never existed. The only response QFLE advocates have to such a negative result is that “we just haven’t looked in the right place” and thus, additional missions or experiments are needed. This gambit works for a while (at least, it has worked up until now), but eventually, the public will get wise and decide that enough is enough. Thus, using the QFLE as a rationale for spaceflight contains within it the seeds of its own demise, as finding life or evidence for its past existence is an unlikely occurrence (it has yet to happen in 50 years of planetary exploration).

On the philosophical side of the issue, I contend that the QFLE, while a legitimate scientific inquiry, should not be the all-consuming justification for our space endeavors. It is certainly no more important than all of the other questions about the origin, history and evolution of the planets that we have developed over the years. By focusing on the QFLE and making all other topics subservient to its needs, we preclude opportunities for discoveries and breakthroughs in fields unrelated to biology. But more insidiously, by questing for life, we are attempting not to make a new discovery, but to confirm an existing dogma. Virtually all scientists subscribe to the materialist paradigm for the origin and development of life, viz., that given the right chemistry and environment, life will arise and over geological time, it will evolve into many different, ever more complex organisms. And if, or when, extraterrestrial life is found, what will have been proven? That our materialist model is correct? What scientist doubts that now?

By necessity, most planetary scientists follow the money and because special pots of funding have been set aside for the study of extraterrestrial life, many orient their research in that direction (one must eat, after all). But that funded scientific “interest” is not a product of the free marketplace of ideas deciding which topics are most important, but rather the directed result of a bureaucratic decision.

According to Nye,

“Everyone…..would agree that if we were to discover evidence of ancient life on Mars, let alone if we were to discover something still alive there, it would change the course of human history.”

Well, I don’t agree. I believe that the really important breakthroughs and insights of science tend to come from totally unexpected connections and conceptual breakthroughs, not from some finding that everyone has been expecting for the last 100 years. By making the QFLE the central objective that propels our national space program, we’re ignoring other objectives of equal (if not greater) importance and significance. Moreover, we’ve set the program up for an abrupt termination when the long-sought evidence for life fails to turn up. But even if life or evidence of former life is found, all we have done is to validate our existing prejudices. I sense that this realization is gradually creeping into the consciousness of others in the space community, as some advocates of human Mars exploration are emphasizing habitation and settlement, rather than the search for martian life.

The universe is big and displays many interesting phenomena for us to study. To make the QFLE the main focus of our scientific exploration efforts is to ignore or give short shrift to other equally engaging problems. It also has the potential to cause a loss of political support for the program – the public “excitement” that it seeks.

NASA and Congress are always asking: What will inspire the people? We don’t need another Sagan – what we need is a permanent path to everywhere in space. The quest for everything can begin once our leaders move beyond believing that we need gurus and gimmicks to inspire and sustain a great space program.

Posted in Lunar exploration, Philosophy of science, planetary exploration, space policy | 28 Comments