The Elephant in the Room

Doing our best to ignore the obvious...

Doing our best to ignore the obvious…

Nowadays, people know the price of everything and the value of nothing – Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

A recent hearing before the Senate Space Subcommittee clearly demonstrated the disarray into which our civil space program has fallen.  The ostensible topic of the hearing was the President’s budget request for space, with the supposed goal of capturing an asteroid and returning it to Earth-Moon space to serve as a target for a human mission.  The witnesses described what they perceived as the requirements for this and other missions, variously touching on an extension of the lifetime of ISS, the new SLS launch vehicle, “commercial” space and other topics.

While they strained to connect all the dots and make the case for each of these various and sundry activities and programs, it struck me how the witnesses and Senators were feeling around (but not touching) the biggest issue of all:  Why human spaceflight?  Or more specifically – Why should human spaceflight be the lynchpin of our national civil space program?  We’ve never come to grips with this issue – it’s merely assumed to be axiomatic so the discussion of our national program then becomes reduced to arguments over destinations, space vehicles and modes of government contracting.  Every time this issue is brought up, it is fobbed off as an action item to the National Academy to convene yet another group of greybeard “experts” who in their sage wisdom will adumbrate the mystical rationale that we all so eagerly seek.

Although having personally succumbed to the temptation to provide a rationale for human spaceflight many times before, now that we sit amongst the smoldering ruins of a once-great space program, perhaps we should take time once again to re-examine this issue from a different perspective.  Just as the barbarian hordes lived in squalor after the fall of Rome because they could not repair the aqueducts built by their predecessors, we gaze at reposing Saturn Vs as strange artifacts of a former golden age, now reduced to tourist attractions – something to be checked off before taking the kids to Disney World.

Let me try to sum up the case by first tackling the need for a human spaceflight program.  Humans are needed in space to do the things that machines cannot.  At the moment – and I believe, for the foreseeable future – that includes the construction and maintenance of large, distributed systems in space.  By this, I mean satellite systems that are too big and too complex to be launched directly from Earth into the high orbits beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), places that most rockets can’t reach.   Over the last 50 years we’ve learned there are limits to the size and complexity of satellites that can fit onto a launch vehicle.  We’ve also learned that larger, more capable systems are possible when assembled in orbit by people and machines.  The ISS is only the most visible example of what I am describing.  There also is the legacy of the Shuttle program, where we proved that the repair and upgrading of equipment in space is possible, as the spectacular 20-year life of the Hubble Space Telescope has demonstrated.

The problem with applying the paradigm of human-machine space assembly to all of our current satellite assets is that we have no way to get people from low earth orbit out to these other levels of Earth-Moon (cislunar) space, where these useful assets reside.  People arrive in LEO with empty fuel tanks.  Suppose that we had a way to re-fill them in orbit?  We could then access those higher orbits where large satellite systems could be built and serviced.  It is for this reason that I have advocated using the resources of the Moon to create such a reusable space transportation system – it opens up space to routine access by people and machines.

It seems to me that there are two philosophical viewpoints in regard to human spaceflight.  The first views human missions as voyages into the unknown – daring leaps into the void to plant a flag, achieve a milestone, and to declare some kind of success in doing so.  This concept is similar to mountain climbing – we do it because it is a challenge and because it is exciting.  A corollary to this mentality is that we must press on to ever more distant space targets because, in the memorable phrase of one observer, we should not return to a destination because “we’ve been there.”  By this measure, human space missions should be designed (as Star Trek put it) “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

In contrast, there is another view of spaceflight, one that was actually touched on in the hearing but not pursued to its logical conclusion.  If space is a “new ocean” as John Kennedy once put it, then what we really desire is the ability to sail it, in many types of vehicles and for all kinds of reasons.  Certainly, visiting new places and exploring new worlds would be a part of that.  If we proceed down a logical path toward obtaining freedom of access to many different places, we would explore but we could also build, observe, repair and even dwell. 

The conflict between these two alternative visions is often put into monetary terms, with some claiming that this latter template of spaceflight is something that we all want “eventually.”  In fact, this difference of vision is more primal – whereas one faction sees spaceflight as a stunt, to be accomplished and completed, the other sees it as a field of human endeavor where ongoing activities become more expansive in reach and capability over time – maturing, if you will.

This is the nexus of the “Why?” question.  Do we go into space to touch the marker and then scurry home as soon as we can?  Or do we venture forth to touch, expand, complete and extend?  This point is not merely a philosophical one but affects the entire approach and operational template of human spaceflight.  We had the former type of program with Apollo, whose main goal of beating the Soviets to the Moon was accomplished brilliantly (then dismantled as soon as decently possible).  The Shuttle/Station era, while certainly experimental in many respects, strove for the latter type of program, by promising (and partly delivering) routine access to and permanent presence of people in space.  The tension behind these two perspectives underlies the debates about goals and destinations in space.  

Now that Shuttle is gone and ISS is completed (with access dependent on Russian assets), we should bring this debate out into the open.  It is not a debate to entrust to some committee of the National Academy of Sciences – they should certainly be involved but their perspectives are fairly narrow.  As our elected government is the expression of national political will, this debate should be held in the open arena of the political process.  What kind of space program should we have?  Assuming that money to spend on space is and will likely remain limited in the future, we must carefully consider why we send people into space and what they will do there.

I suggest that a national space program of the future is likely to be “sustainable” only if it returns value for money.  The amount spent is less important than what we are trying to achieve.  A stunt mission to a destination designed solely around the need to be compatible with existing or projected hardware is the height of stupidity and a guarantee of future program termination (even if the mission is successful).  We need to understand what we are trying to do before metal is cut for the next spacecraft.  We have a government space program to do those things that the private sector is unable or unwilling to undertake.  At the moment, that includes flight beyond LEO.  We should build a program with small, incremental steps so that it is affordable under any likely budgetary conditions.  Permanence, extensibility, and reusability are highly desirable and are to be preferred over unique, one-off systems and disposable vehicles.

This is the elephant in the room: Why should there be a national human spaceflight program?  While this beast is clearly seen by many of us, it appears to be largely invisible to some elected and appointed officials and space experts whose concerns seem to be near-term, and focused solely on how much things cost.

Our space budget will continue to shrink because there is no compelling rationale to fly stunt missions (no matter how skillfully logic is twisted).  To regain our lost footing we must begin with the understanding that becoming a space faring people is the long-term goal, not “Mars” nor the “Quest for Life Elsewhere.”  Until then we will continue wasting time and money arguing about mission dates, acceptable levels of risk, reimbursable contracts, competitive contracts, open bidding, sequester – running around in circles over the “do nothing” distraction of the day.  Until we have serious leadership, we will remain hostage to a disjointed, non-productive concept of bundling agency ideas for convenience not outcome.  Once we are committed to becoming a space faring species there will be opportunity for all.

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38 Responses to The Elephant in the Room

  1. DougSpace says:

    America’s space program has the capacity to demonstrate our greatness. Apollo certainly did it, the Shuttle also did that, and the ISS sort of did it, as did Hubble. All of these were large programs iconically centered around an easy-to-grasp craft. Going to Mars would definitely be an example of our greatness whereas returning to the Moon wouldn’t be so great because we already did that years before.

    My point here is that we Moon-to-stay and cis-lunar infrastructure people don’t value symbolic greatness in the same way that most Americans and their representatives do. So “becoming a spacefaring civilization” sounds great but doing so by repairing satellites wherever they may be is pretty lame from the greatness perspective.

    May I suggest that there needs to be a tight marriage between developing the capacity to go anywhere in cis-lunar space and beyond (i.e. low-cost propellant in LEO) and the first permanent off-Earth settlement? Lunar polar ice is the key to both.

    A lunar pole telerobotic ice-mining operation needing to be attended by astronaut repairmen could fulfill both desires. It would provide the in-space propellant needed to become space faring. But those astronauts, with a ready supply of life-support and protected by local shielding could become the first permanent manned foothold into the solar system. That would be easily recognized as evidence of greatness. The human interest stories on a lunar base would be many: Robbie the Robonaut, the first woman on the Moon, the first couple, the first kiss, the first sex?, the first dog, the first crop, the first Thanksgiving, etc.

    We need to develop capacity in space – this is true. But to get funded, we should not ignore what the people and their representatives are wanting from their space program.

    • Paul Spudis says:

      But to get funded, we should not ignore what the people and their representatives are wanting from their space program.

      Surely you are aware that there is not now nor has there ever been a groundswell of enthusiasm for human Mars missions? And that public opinion in support of the space program has hovered around 50-50 for the last 50 years? As far as “political support” goes, that is largely correlated with jobs in one’s state and electoral district.

      “The people” are often cited in calls that appeal to national greatness. “Great nations do great things…” Yes, they do, but not all in the country are great and usually, great endeavors come about by a few determined visionaries working against the tide rather than simply floating along with it.

      I reject the argument that “Mars” is some kind of “ultimate goal” that we all subscribe to. It has always been an object of cult-like veneration, largely driven by the “quest for life” mania popularized by people like Carl Sagan. It is the narrowest possible edifice upon which to build a national consensus space policy. More practically, it is so far in the future and so expensive that it simply won’t happen, at least in our lifetimes. The path to the planets (and they all have their individual attractions) lies through the development of an incremental space faring infrastructure, not via a “one-off” repeat of the Apollo experience.

      • DougSpace says:

        To be clear, I wasn’t arguing that we should prioritize going to Mars. I believe that the Moon is a cheaper, sooner, and safer destination than Mars and settling the Moon can equally show greatness. Indeed, the Moon is a fully sufficient destination for the establishment of the first permanent human settlement. By mentioning Mars, I was illustrating the views of others such as Obama indicating a greater desire to demonstrate greatness rather than building an enduring capacity.

      • “The path to the planets (and they all have their individual attractions) lies through the development of an incremental space faring infrastructure, not via a “one-off” repeat of the Apollo experience.”

        Which is actually what Doug Space was arguing.

        His suggested pitch to the BTDT crowd is to show the moon can enable firsts.

        But given your predisposition, you perceived his stance as Mars first. Your reflexive attacks are all too predictable.

        It’s true most people could care less about space. But of those who do, a substantial number favor Mars. A substantial number favor NEOs.

        If the space minority could form a consensus, it might be more influential. But given zealots like you and Zubrin, this isn’t likely to happen.

        The efforts of folks like yourself and Zubrin may well prevent us from going past LEO.

        • Paul Spudis says:

          Your reflexive attacks are all too predictable.

          As is your reading comprehension. I was merely using a human Mars mission to point out the irrelevance of “public excitement” to the fate of the space program.

          But given zealots like you and Zubrin, this isn’t likely to happen. The efforts of folks like yourself and Zubrin may well prevent us from going past LEO.

          I see. Our “going nowhere” past LEO is the “fault” of those who actually do have a vision and a possible plan to implement it and not those who have systematically dismantled our space faring infrastructure and who insist on pursuing fake space goals and Powerpoint missions.

          Thanks for stopping by.

    • Robert Clark says:

      Well said.

      Bob Clark

  2. “Our space budget will continue to shrink because there is no compelling rationale to fly stunt missions”

    Even NASA’s ultimate goal, Mars, really doesn’t commit NASA to actually land humans on the Martian surface in the 2030s. But even trying to recreate the glory days of Apollo with a manned mission to the Martian surface misses some of the lessons of Apollo, IMO.

    1. Except for Apollo 8 and Apollo 11, the Apollo program really wasn’t all that popular . That’s why it was so easy for President Nixon and a Democratic Congress to decommission NASA’s heavy lift capability after the Moon landings and Skylab were over.

    2. Apollo did not lead to a Moon base or a lunar colony as some thought it would for the simple reason that the President and most in Congress didn’t want it too. Obviously, if the Soviets had managed to land on the Moon and to establish a lunar base then we too would have established a base:-)

    Of course, its really not NASA’s responsibility to entertain the public with its manned space program– but to progressively achieve goals in space that will eventually allow humans to live permanently off the Earth in order to enhance the survival of our species and in order to enhance our ability to exploit the natural resources of the solar system for the economic benefit of humanity. And I believe that most Americans would support such a ‘progressive manned space program’ if they were presented with a– clear and practical map– of how such goals could be achieved at reasonable budget levels over the next 25 years.

    The fastest and most economical way to establish a permanent human presence on the surface of Mars, IMO, is to first establish a similar permanent presence on the surface of the Moon. Much of the developed lunar architecture could then be later utilized for Mars. Even a single stage reusable lunar shuttle could be used for the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos and possibly even for the Martian surface if a— heat shield and a ballute– are added to the lunar landing vehicle (very little fuel would be used to land the vehicle on the Martian surface while most of the fuel in the tanks would later be utilized to take off from the Martian surface to Mars orbit. Also, exploiting lunar water resources for mass shielding and the manufacture of rocket fuel could substantially reduce the cost of traveling to Mars, especially if the launch point for a manned interplanetary vessel is at an Earth-Moon Lagrange point gateway.

    I really believe that such a clear and practical road map that starts with the surface of the Moon and then leads to the Martian surface could capture the imagination of NASA supporters in Congress and the public in general. I believe that most people don’t want any stunts, especially during these difficult economic times. They want progress!

    Marcel F. Williams

    • Paul Spudis says:

      Marcel,

      Thanks for reiterating and clarifying many of the points that I was making in my response to Doug — your comment appeared as I was writing!

  3. DougSpace says:

    Actually, I by-in-large agree with Marcel. I would not view a permanent base on the Moon as being a stunt at all. It would greatly expand the telerobotic workforce thereby increasing capacity and it would give us the experience of learning how to productively live and work on another planetary surface in preparation for Phobos and Mars while being a legitimate destination in its own right. But my point is that Presidents want to be popular and a clear and practical map that demonstrates our greatness can give the political cover to do the right thing.

    • Paul Spudis says:

      I would not view a permanent base on the Moon as being a stunt at all.

      Where did I ever say that it was?

      • DougSpace says:

        I wasn’t responding to you but to Marcel’s last paragraph. My point is that, even though a permanent lunar base (if done correctly) can give politicians a “greatness” rationale for HSF, it would be useful towards truly great goals which would be to make humanity a spacefaring civilization and establish the first permanent off-Earth foothold which itself is of great real value.

  4. Stanley R Clark says:

    What ever happen to Manifest Destiny?

    • Leigh Kimmel says:

      It became politically incorrect.

      You talk about the American frontier or the Homestead Act, or anything like that, and somebody is going to start talking about stolen land and murdered tribes.

      Never mind that the Moon is dead as a doornail, and any native Martians would be on the evolutionary level of your gut flora, there’s this sense that going out there and settling them is somehow stealing them from Someone and despoiling them.

  5. Warren Platts says:

    Devastating article as usual, Paul, but I would go further: to mix a few metaphors, if confusion over why we go to space is the elephant in the room, the emperor that wears no clothes, the hammer that’s looking for a nail is the SLS/MPCV. I have tried to be agnostic about it, but there’s just no denying anymore that it’s slow motion train wreck that’s taking years to play out. It’s costing the HSF program roughly $3.5B/year–this is about twice the projected cost of the HLV/CEV line items in the Spudis and Lavoie spreadsheet. When you throw in the cost of ISS, it doesn’t leave a lot left over.

    First flight–an uncrewed loop around the Moon–is scheduled for 2017; next flight is not until 2021. After that, although there are no concrete plans, the optimistic schedule is to manufacture and launch one SLS per year. This is an m-dot to LEO of maybe 100 mT/year–assuming there are no blow-ups that take years to investigate. We’re looking at launch costs on the order of $35K/kg–ignoring development costs of course. Orion is supposedly 5000 pounds overweight, which amounts to a negative margin of double digit percentage points….

    Landers? HA!

    The situation is much worse than you make it out to be, Paul, IMHO! While I agree with you that building up a true space-faring capability should be the top priority, I must say that the question of whether we should be funding mountain-climbing stunts versus building transcontinental railroads is kind of academic at this point. At the rate things are going, we’ll be doing neither…. It’s as if the Nothing First!ers are running the show! The proposal to haul an asteroid to high lunar orbit is the latest sign of impotence: and it’s a total joke to suggest that they’ll actually be able to meet the 2021 scheduled rendezvous.

    For the cost of two years of Eros V/Orion, NASA could be landing multiple “human precursor” missions per year to the Moon starting 2017, courtesy of Golden Spike. While these important scouting missions are going on, there would still be enough cash left over to start developing the ISRU equipment, heavier landers, 3rd-stages, depots, etc. that we’re going to need to truly master cis-lunar space. Yes, it would require writing off billions in sunk costs, but each year we delay facing up to reality will only increase the pain down the road. In the end, NASA as an institution may not survive in recognizable form if things don’t change soon.

    IMHO YMMV

    • Paul Spudis says:

      Warren,

      the hammer that’s looking for a nail is the SLS/MPCV. I have tried to be agnostic about it, but there’s just no denying anymore that it’s slow motion train wreck that’s taking years to play out.

      I have a slightly different take on SLS — it is basically an attempt by some well-meaning members of Congress to save a semblance of spaceflight capability, rather than commit solely and totally to a “commercial” solution. I think that the calculus went as follows:

      “We needed a heavy lift vehicle to go to the Moon (a.k.a. beyond LEO) in the 1960s. SLS is a heavy lift vehicle. Therefore, despite the fact that this administration is clearly attempting to destroy the human spaceflight program, we can save or preserve a fragment of it by dictating specifications for a heavy lift vehicle and directing NASA to build it, until such time as more rational leadership prevails.”

      Granted, not a perfect solution, but something to fill the vacuum created by Shuttle retirement and Constellation cancellation.

      The situation is much worse than you make it out to be, Paul, IMHO!

      Agreed, but I look on my “mission” here (if you can call it such) to enlighten and inform.

      And to point out that the Emperor has no clothes.

      • DougSpace says:

        Dr Spudis. If the goal is to preserve America’s space program by maintaining government launchers, then if commercial entities eventually provide working equivalents, do you expect that the need for the “government option” will no longer exist or will there still be a need for the government option as a back-up?

        I think that NASA can now count on the commercial providers for cargo and will likely get redundancy there shortly. I think it likely that commercially redundant crew deliveries to LEO will come to exist within the near future. So I think that Ares I, for example, will then not be necessary.

        But what we’re really talking about is HSF BEO and that means HLV. I’m not sure why the SLS was not competed, but having redundant commercial HLVs is probably not realistic.

        • Paul Spudis says:

          Doug,

          Ares I went away in 2010, with the cancellation of Constellation. Orion is a trans-LEO vehicle, supposedly having interplanetary capability, but in fact, suitable only for cislunar missions. Orion flights are to be launched on the SLS, with Lock-Mart’s Atlas 5 as a possible back-up for LEO-only missions.

          Human missions beyond LEO need either a heavy lift vehicle or rendezvous/dock of multiple fueled components or fuel depots. So there are many options for beyond LEO missions. Which you choose depends on where you are going and what you want to do.

  6. Joe says:

    Warren Platts says: April 26, 2013 at 3:37 pm

    “First flight–an uncrewed loop around the Moon–is scheduled for 2017; next flight is not until 2021. After that, although there are no concrete plans, the optimistic schedule is to manufacture and launch one SLS per year.”

    It should be noted that those schedules are dictated by the current (politically appointed) NASA leadership and are intended to make the SLS/MPCV look as bad as possible.

    “We’re looking at launch costs on the order of $35K/kg–ignoring development costs of course.”

    Even assuming that to be true, the current cost for CRS cargo delivery to the ISS by Space X (ignoring development costs of course) make for an interesting comparison. By Space X own facts sheets CRS-1 and CRS-2 have delivered an average of 1041 lbs. to the ISS. By terms of the CRS contract each Space X flight costs the government about $133 Million. That comes out to $281K/kg (about 8 times as much as your SLS figure). Even by your estimates, kind of makes the SLS look like a bargain doesn’t it?

    • Jeff Barnes says:

      Somewhat of an apples to oranges comparison of $/kg. If you limit the cargo/payload amount for the SLS/Orion to only what would would fit in the Orion like what you are using for the F9/Dragon, you end with a max payload of 3000kg for the SLS/Orion used in this maner or a $500,000/kg amount. Your $$ comparisons and conclusions are in error. The $35,000/kg value is for the SLS alone for its max to LEO payload capability so that should be compared to the F9v1.1 max to LEO capability of $4,000/kg.

      • Joe says:

        Space X website still list the cost of a Falcon 9 launch as $54 Million (with the clear implication that this represents the total mission cost) instead they are charging $133 Million.

        Space X website still list the up mass to the ISS of the Dragon Cargo Vehicle as 13,224 pounds when on the first two CRS missions they have delivered less than 8% of that figure.

        That means Space X is still inviting people to believe that they are providing services for about 1/30 of their actual performance.

        If you choose to continue making excuses for that (and believe their promises for the future), it is your privilege, but I do not intend to keep responding to each lame alibi.

  7. “First flight–an uncrewed loop around the Moon–is scheduled for 2017; next flight is not until 2021. After that, although there are no concrete plans, the optimistic schedule is to manufacture and launch one SLS per year.”

    The Constellation program was being funded at $3.4 billion a year when President Obama came to office in 2009. NASA’s projection for the cost of the Constellation program in 2014 was going to be over $5.4 billion a year for the Orion/Ares I– with no significant funding for the heavy lift core vehicle or extraterrestrial landing vehicles.

    The President’s MPCV/SLS funding request for 2014 is a little over $2.7 billion (the SM is being funded by the Europeans). So the SLS/MPCV cost only half as much as the very expensive Constellation program.

    NASA really has no plans for the SLS/MPCV program because the President really doesn’t want NASA to have a manned beyond LEO program. The President seems to want NASA to only dream about the future while using the $3 billion a year tax payer funded ISS LEO program as a perpetual– make- work program– for private industry. Extending the life of the ISS program while gradually increasing its funding appears to be a way for the administration to argue that there is really no money to fund a beyond LEO architecture!

    The SLS/MPCV is really a Congressional program since the administration never wanted it. And Congress has been trying every way possible to pressure the administration into utilizing the SLS/MPCV program for a significant cis-lunar space program.

    Marcel F. Williams

  8. billgamesh says:

    “While they strained to connect all the dots-“
    There are not that many dots to connect; HLV to ice at lunar pole to radiation shielding and rocket fuel to manned cislunar space platforms.
    “-adumbrate the mystical rationale that we all so eagerly seek-”
    The only mysticism in all of this is trying to get something for nothing. There is no cheap. Nobody will dare talk about the DOD vampire sucking up all the funding for cold war toys; whenever I do I get shown the door.
    “-we sit amongst the smoldering ruins of a once-great space program, perhaps we should take time once again to re-examine this issue from a different perspective.”
    The shuttle was never great IMO; a cargo version might have made it so but most of the available funding went into first correcting what lack of funding caused and then that collection of tin cans going in endless circles at very high altitude. The only new perspective I can see is planetary defense. The only other “different perspective” I hear about is private space and that is nothing but a way to scam tax dollars to subsidize space tourists.
    “-larger, more capable systems are possible when assembled in orbit by people and machines.”
    If that means geostationary space stations that brings us back to connecting those dots for hundreds of tons of Moon water for shielding. Radiation is square one when it comes to humans in space unless Low Earth Orbit tourism is all we ever do. While IMO a spaceship is always the best space station, manned telecom platforms replacing all that space junk may be the exception.
    “-we have no way to get people from low earth orbit out to these other levels cislunar space-“
    Low Earth Orbit is a dead end. Who cares?
    “People arrive in LEO with empty fuel tanks. Suppose that we had a way to re-fill them in orbit? We could then access those higher orbits where large satellite systems could be built and serviced.”
    Refill them with what? That cryogenic depot stuff is a new space flim flam. Going from the Earth to the Moon it is all about HLV’s with hydrogen upper stages. Going from the Moon to Earth is about launching from a Moon base using hydrogen. Hydrogen does not store or transfer well in space; what kind of storable propellants can we manufacture on the Moon for inserting those telecommunication space stations into Earth Geostationary orbit after their journey from the Moon?
    “What kind of space program should we have? Assuming that money to spend on space is and will likely remain limited in the future, we must carefully consider why we send people into space and what they will do there.”
    I do not accept that. We have the money and we have a new mission along with making money off telecommunications; asteroid interdiction. It comes down to easy money and hard money. Weapons and classified programs are easy money- they don’t really have to work. Spaceships are hard money- they have to work. The trick is to force the issue like the Apollo 1 fire did.
    “We should build a program with small, incremental steps so that it is affordable under any likely budgetary conditions.”
    I disagree with the good Doctor on this one also. We could build a larger version of the SLS using a pair of 325 inch SRB’s putting out a mindboggling 30 million+ pounds of thrust. The launch platform would be a minor pyramid pumping a small river for sound suppression but we could have done it a half century ago and we can do it now. Again- the DOD budget is proof we can do this. Missile subs, carrier battle groups, 1 trillion dollar fighter plane programs, super destroyers, and on and on and on. That hundred megaton explosion over Russia not long ago was more real than any good-for-business-made-up-threat of World War III. Blowing up tribesmen with million dollar missiles on the other side of the world is not how we should be spending tax dollars, even if it is keeping those shareholder checks going out.
    “To regain our lost footing we must begin with the understanding that becoming a space faring people is the long-term goal”
    That is all about understanding that nuclear energy is the key to space travel BELO (Beyond Earth and Lunar Orbit). As I stated in another comment cislunar space is the only appropriate place to use chemical propulsion and inside the magnetosphere is the only inappropriate place to use nuclear propulsion. This means the Moon where we will assemble, test, and launch nuclear missions to interdict impact threats- and explore and colonize the solar system. That is space faring.
    “Until we have serious leadership, we will remain hostage to a disjointed, non-productive concept-“
    It is not just the politicians and the military industrial complex that is destroying the future of humankind; with the intelligentsia stabbing each other in the back we will never go anywhere. I blame the scientists and engineers who have their own agendas for this also. United we stand and divided we go extinct. Impact threats and engineered pathogens are real threats being ignored because space is hard. What happened to going because it is hard?

  9. Paul Spudis says:

    Which is likely to be more appealing to a politician struggling to justify a large expenditure: a Moon colony or the creation of a re-fueling station to supply the spacecraft building a new strategic surveillance satellite cluster? Which sounds to the public to be more “practical” and provide more societal benefit: an experiment in utopian societal engineering somewhere in space or the building of an ISS-sized communications complex in GEO, broadcasting 5000 channels of high-definition television to their smartphones and iPads?

    http://www.spudislunarresources.com/blog/space-to-settle-or-to-sail/

  10. Joe says:

    Paul Spudis says: April 27, 2013 at 5:13 am

    And of course if we develop those capabilities they would also give us a lot of the capability to build lunar surface and orbital habitats as well.

  11. Paul: I after reading your view point I know I selected the best Planetary Scientist to sit on this panel for the AIAA Technocal Symposium. perhaps NASA won’t care for to near the truth from the science community but it needs to be stated! thanks for being bold!

  12. billgamesh says:

    “Human missions beyond LEO need either a heavy lift vehicle or rendezvous/dock of multiple fueled components or fuel depots. So there are many options for beyond LEO missions.”

    I am not sure I agree with second part of this statement. Not completely anyway.

    I coined the acronym BELO last year to make the distinction between traveling to the Moon and going beyond cislunar space (Beyond Earth and Lunar Orbit). IMO chemical propulsion is completely appropriate for cislunar space and completely inappropriate for taking humans anywhere else. Nuclear propulsion is inappropriate for use anywhere inside the Earth’s magnetosphere but the only appropriate choice for human spaceflight in deep space.

    The reason only nuclear propulsion can take humans BELO is what I call “the 800 pound cosmic ray gorilla.” It will take hundreds of tons of radiation shielding to protect space travelers on long duration missions and only nuclear energy can push this mass around the solar system. Without lifting the shielding out of Earth’s gravity well the Moon is the only place to aquire this shielding (in the form of water derived from lunar ice) and also the only place to assemble, test, and launch a nuclear propelled spaceship.

    As for simply getting above LEO up into geostationary orbit, any rendezvous of multiple fueled components or fuel depots will require storable propellants which makes for much larger components or depots due to the lower ISP. Like reusable launch vehicles, IMO cryogenic propellent storage and transfer in space is, IMO, a myth.

    The only practical way to place manned telecom platforms in geostationary orbit is to launch HLV’s with hydrogen upper stages to the Moon to set up a base from which to launch vehicles using hydrogen stages to send water shielded stations (and hypergolic propellents for the geo insertion burn) back to Earth.

    I do not think there are “many options.” But I am not close minded about it Dr. Spudis. I can change my views if anyone will explain what I am not seeing.

  13. Ron says:

    “Humans are needed in space to do the things that machines cannot.” Maybe. But we haven’t sent a robotic lander to the Moon in four decades. There’s soooo much that could be done with existing launchers and robotic assets in cislunar space to further our spacefaring capabilities. We should just get cookin’ using existing launchers and robotic landers and feel our way to that boundary of the things that humans can do that robots cannot. We’ve never tried, so we have no clear idea of what that boundary really is.

    (BTW…. please do not reply with any reference to experience with Martian landers/rovers — round-trip light time to Mars are variable and orders of magnitude longer than they are to the Moon. Operating robotic equipment on the Martian surface is vastly more difficult than operating robotic equipment on the Moon.)

    • Paul Spudis says:

      Ron,

      I’m happy to not refer to the Mars rovers, since planetary surface exploration was not my point here. I was making reference to the assembly of large, complex systems in space, such as ISS. There are no current robotic systems that can build such satellites and even with great breakthroughs in teleoperations, I still believe that human intervention in the robotic loop will sometimes be necessary.

      In our example architecture, we use robotic teleoperations on the Moon extensively, but even pushing it farther than it should probably go, I believe that eventually, we need people on the Moon (and in cislunar space) to make the entire end-to-end system work. I should also note that the difficulties are not exclusively the latency effects associated with distance — there is also the question of making balky or broken equipment work again after it goes out of service.

      • Ron says:

        “In our example architecture, we use robotic teleoperations on the Moon extensively, but even pushing it farther than it should probably go,” Let’s focus on these first things first and see how far we can push it. Do the first 15 missions (were the first 15 teleoperated?) and get to the point where we can say, “Hey, we’ve done our teleoperated homework and now we’re really being limited by lack of humans onsite on the Moon”. Boy, that would be a great position from which to argue an actual need for human spaceflight.

        Now, however, it’s all speculation. Your posts have amply shown that the national human spaceflight program is a huge political cluster-****. It’s irretrievable. So dump it for now. Forget about human spaceflight for the moment. Focus on the first 15 flights of the Spudis-Lavoie plan. Let’s get that done.

        • Paul Spudis says:

          Yes, the program is all screwed up. It most certainly will remain screwed up unless rational people point out its deficiencies and suggest alternative paths.

          I do not believe that it is irretrievable. If I did, I would not write posts supporting it.

          • billgamesh says:

            “-the national human spaceflight program is a huge political cluster-****. It’s irretrievable. So dump it for now. Forget about human spaceflight for the moment.”

            “There’s soooo much that could be done with existing launchers-”

            “-if commercial entities eventually provide working equivalents, do you expect that the need for the “government option” will no longer exist-”

            “-having redundant commercial HLVs is probably not realistic.”

            “-NASA could be landing multiple “human precursor” missions per year to the Moon starting 2017, courtesy of Golden Spike.”

            The rationale behind these comments is to promote an irrational faith in private space companies IMO. After years of reading the same infomercial it is fairly easy to detect.

            The SLS as enemy of private interprise is the underlying theme and is divorced from the pursuit of any alternative path.

            Any path to retrieve our future in space begins with an HLV IMO Dr. Spudis.

  14. DougSpace says:

    My take is that initially we can establish the beginnings of lunar ice mining operation telerobotically. As things break down (which they inevitably will) dexterous telerobots can replace worn or broken parts with spares. Until the landers are safe to send humans, we keep throwing spare parts and dexterous telerobots at the problem to keep the operations going. None of those worn parts are value lost. They can be fixed when humans arrive and put back into service.

    So, the initial value of humans on the lunar surface in such a setting would be to maintain the telerobotic workforce. They can do this by having the disabled equipment brought into their shielded habitat so that the humans are not exposed to the GCRs. Then later, the humans can begin to produce the bulky metal parts of an expanding telerobotic workforce so that only the small precision or high-tech parts need to be delivered from Earth.

    But humans on the Moon will have economic value beyond being repairmen. They could secure life-support production, learn how to grow food, learn how to repair habitats, conduct biologic experiments, and the other things needed to become a spacefaring civilization. For these reasons, ice found at the lunar poles is of tremendous value.

    • billgamesh says:

      “My take is that initially we can establish the beginnings of lunar ice mining operation telerobotically.”

      My take is the exact opposite. We can initially establish with humans and then automate as much as possible to minimize radiation exposure.
      There is no cheap; try cutting costs by using smaller rockets and robots without people on site and minor problems turn into showstoppers because there is no one to stick a screwdriver in a hole. Witness the ISS crew struggling for days to loosen up a frozen nut on EVA’s for a supposedly simple maintenance task. It happens and will continue to happen. I have seen others and have personally struggled for HOURS to retrieve a single piece of hardware that fell into some crevice in a helicopter engine or other compartment. The only other way to get it is to pull the engine or gearbox or some other major assembly. You cannot design this away; it is the nature of the beast. Depth perception, the nerves in fingertips, fishing with magnets and dental mirrors, body contortion and using tools in combinations and for purposes they were not designed for; maintenance requires all of this and years of experience and novel solutions that come from years of experience. And it is required ever day on the job. Mechanics and technicians may seem dumb compared to rocket scientists and phd’s but one cannot do what the other does.
      Robots will not be good enough.
      That is reality.

      • Joe says:

        Excellent Post.

        I am an engineer who spent eight years working EVA operations for ISS assembly/maintenance and have tried several times to make the same points, but without much success. But I have to admit I never said it half as well.

        Proposals to end human space flight for some unspecified period of time while trying to determine if robots can do everything are an action plan to cause a “train wreck”. It will certainly end American Human Space Flight for a generation or more (perhaps the intent of the proposal) because you cannot just turn something like that back on like flipping a light switch. But it will do more than that when a “frozen nut” occurs or a “single piece of hardware” falls into some crevice etc. it (in absence of human intervention) will bring an entire operation to a halt. That high profile failure will end any attempt at extraterrestrial resource utilization for a generation or more as well.

        • billgamesh says:

          “-It will certainly end American Human Space Flight for a generation or more (perhaps the intent of the proposal)-”

          The private space advocates are pretty consistent on their ultimate fantasy; a Martian libertarian utopia for atlas shruggers. The “entrepreneurs” scamming our tax dollars manipulate this gullible cannon fodder into backdoor promotion of their only real objective; LEO space tourism for the ultra-rich. Sarah Brightman being the most recent space clown wannabe to sign up.

          A hobby rocket docking with a blow-up tent is all they need to cash in. But even this cheap and nasty minimum requires far more money than they can charge for there to be any profit left over. The solution is to get rid of any other space concern sucking up “their” money. Not only get rid of the competition but use the organization they are trying to destroy to fund their business plan and for nearly free research and development-all the while demonizing that same enabling resource as wasteful and unnecessary. What a deal!

          And they are getting away with it.
          No one is saying a word about it except for the very few people like you and Dr. Spudis. And while certain boy wonders get tv coverage and magazine interviews, the truth get’s buried deeper and deeper under the hype.
          Unlike me, the good Doctor has to be polite and careful about what he says. You should know that I submit alot to this site and Dr. Spudis will not put most of my comments up because they are far too blunt and corrosive to pass any civility test. It is good therapy for me though.
          I am mad as hell about what is happening to my space program. When a trained engineer like you pays me a compliment it removes whatever doubts I had and I just get more upset.

        • DougSpace says:

          Joe, let me be clear here. Sending robots to the Moon before sending humans in no way means ending human space flight. Indeed, the Spudis-Lavoie plan envisions sending robots before sending humans. But also, we’re not talking here about an either or situation where America’s space program can only be one thing (humans or robots). While the initial robots are being sent to the Moon, there could well be continued human space flights to the ISS and Orion missions to EML2 or wherever.

          Secondly, if you two guys were to reread my post, you will see that I am saying nothing about the entire mission being dependent upon the initial telerobots working flawlessly forever. I clearly specified that humans would follow shortly to fix any hardware that has irretrievably stopped functioning. All I am saying is that it is quite sensible to send telerobotic equipment on the same landers that the human maintainers will follow on later and to see how far one can get harvesting water on the Moon before the humans arrive.

          With this approach, you are not trying to do telerobotic repair something as complex as a helicopter engine:
          http://i01.i.aliimg.com/photo/v0/111239995/engine_TV2_117A_for_helicopter_MI_8.jpg

          rather, for example you would replace a malfunctioning robotic arm with a complete spare part:

          http://www.textualcreations.ca/Robotic%20Arm%20&%20Hand%20Tutorial%20%5BISO%201%5D.jpg

          • Joe says:

            Hi Doug,

            If you thought I was referring to your post, I was not. I was referring to a post by Ron where he said to Paul Spudis:

            Ron says: April 30, 2013 at 9:36 pm

            “Your posts have amply shown that the national human spaceflight program is a huge political cluster-****. It’s irretrievable. So dump it for now. Forget about human spaceflight for the moment. “

            What he meant is pretty clear. I do not doubt your good intentions. Ron is another matter entirely.

          • billgamesh says:

            A turboshaft engine and a robot arm are not really that different. It is all moving parts.

            How about that coolant system on the space station?

            You cannot explain away turning wrenches.

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