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Belmont Club

Where No Man Has Gone Before

May 16th, 2014 - 2:58 pm

James Van Allen, after whom the radiation belt is named, asked in 2004 whether human spaceflight is a legacy dream, a survival of some outdated science-fiction notion, now overtaken by harsh reality.

Does human spaceflight continue to serve a compelling cultural purpose and/or our national interest? Or does human spaceflight simply have a life of its own, without a realistic objective that is remotely commensurate with its costs? Or, indeed, is human spaceflight now obsolete?

Van Allen’s biggest argument against manned spaceflight was the failure of NASA’s shuttle program. Over the same period the Shuttle was failing to advance manned flight, unmanned space had produced vast benefits. “In our daily lives, we enjoy the pervasive benefits of long-lived robotic spacecraft that provide high-capacity worldwide telecommunications; reconnaissance of Earth’s solid surface and oceans, with far-reaching cultural and environmental implications; much-improved weather and climatic forecasts; improved knowledge about the terrestrial effects of the Sun’s radiations; a revolutionary new global navigational system for all manner of aircraft and many other uses both civil and military; and the science of Earth itself as a sustainable abode of life.”

He asks the obvious question: why bet on the loser, manned space flight when unmanned space has proved the winner? Van Allen wrote: “In a dispassionate comparison of the relative values of human and robotic spaceflight, the only surviving motivation for continuing human spaceflight is the ideology of adventure.”  He ended his article with a question.

Have we now reached the point where human spaceflight is also obsolete? I submit this question for thoughtful consideration. Let us not obfuscate the issue with false analogies to Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, and Lewis and Clark, or with visions of establishing a pleasant tourist resort on the planet Mars.

It must have been painful for Van Allen to write those words, almost as if he had been penning an epitaph for a dream.

Five years later, in 2009, the MIT Technology Review published a paper which argued that with new technologies, “the United States stands at the threshold of a new era of human spaceflight” whose achievement would depend on whether the Obama administration made certain key decisions correctly, namely: what goals to shoot for? Would it be the Moon, would it be Mars, would it be the Space Station?

They could hardly anticipate that Obama would actually shoot for “none of the above”; that in 2014 a resurgent Russia would actually threaten to deny the United States access to the space station and even the use of Russian rocket boosters. A “fundamentally transformed America” had gone from being able to put a man on the moon to being unable to reach low earth orbit. But Time replied in its inimitable fashion, in thundering words that bid fair to shake the Russian autocrat to his core.

Dear Vladimir,

So you’re not having enough problems digesting Crimea, that half-bankrupt hairball you swallowed because it was there and looked tasty but now it won’t go down and everyone in the world is mad at you? Now you want to pick a fight in space too?

That’s how it seems, at least, after your Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin announced a number of tit-for-tat sanctions against the U.S. today—specifically among them, targeting our countries’ once-cozy collaboration on the International Space Station. According to Rogy, you’ll quit selling us seats on your Soyuz booster—which, since the grounding of the shuttle, is American astronauts’ only way into space—and use the station on your own, despite the fact that it was largely a NASA construction project. What’s more, you’ll no longer sell us the NK-33 and RD-180 engines we currently buy from you for our Atlas V boosters, at least for any launches of military satellites. …

As for the engines: yes, it’s true that the NK-33 and D-180 are nice bits of hardware and the Atlas does rely on them. But the Atlas pre-dates you, Vlad. Remember John Glenn? He flew on one of them, as did the ICBMs we were building in those days and pointing your way—and you guys weren’t exactly selling us the hardware we needed to take you out. You don’t want the revenue that comes from globalized trade? OK, so we’ll in-source our engines again and keep the cash at home.

Putin, take that hashtag! Pow! And if you really make us mad, why we’ll dust off all those Leave it to Beaver-era textbooks and slide-rules and build us a Vanguard missile.

But far more substantial counter was Time’s invocation of private United States space industry as the real hope of manned space.  They reminded Putin that America — while it might not have a NASA manned flight program any more — had a private space industry, rockets ships were being made by capitalists, you know the people that “didn’t build that”. Time wrote, “as you surely know, at least two American companies—Orbital Sciences and Elon Musk’s SpaceX—will all but certainly have their own for-lease spacecraft flying well before then, and even NASA, which has been inexcusably slow in getting a next generation manned vehicle built, may be back in the game by 2020.”

Elon Musk pointed out that it’s “embarassing that the United States has to thumb rides from the Russians”. Musk has answered the Van Allen question to his own satisfaction and believes that manned space flight has a future; that the next step for man must be Mars. And he has sketched out a plan to get there  to colonize it.  Colonize. That term, so hated by modern academics has made an unexpected comeback in the 21st century, redolent as it is of species-ism, ethno-centrism and privilege-ism.

Musk, who is also the founder of Space X, a space transport company that is already building rockets for NASA, told CBS this week that the technology to send colonists to Mars is coming along much sooner than anticipated, and that we could see potential colonization missions in the next 10 to 12 years.

“We need to develop a much larger vehicle, which would be a sort of Mars colonial transport system, and this would be, we’re talking about rockets on a bigger scale than has ever been done before,” Musk explained. “It will make the Apollo moon rocket look small.”

“That’s what’s needed to ultimately send millions of people and millions of tons of cargo to Mars, which is the minimum level to have a self-sustaining civilization on Mars,” Musk said.

Is Musk joking? Are the manned space advocates nuts? Mars? As Van Allen correctly said, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. If unamnned space worked we were willing to declare it the winner so clearly if people like Musk find a way to economically colonize Mars then the referee must raise their hand in the ring too.

Historical controversies are ultimately settled by what works. In retrospect, NASA’s collapse in the last part of the 20th century might not only have been fortunate but proper. It struck out of the game and allowed it to fall back from its Cold War glory days to a more sustainable role. It was reality in action, picking the winners and losers. Musk may not make it, but someone does then human spaceflight will not have belonged to the past. It’s an open question which one science fiction writer posed in this form:

If man survives for as long as the least successful of the dinosaurs—those creatures whom we often deride as nature’s failures—then we may be certain of this: for all but a vanishingly brief instant near the dawn of history, the word ‘ship’ will mean— ‘spaceship.’

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Top Rated Comments   
My two cents:

About half my 50+ year career has been spent working on various types of spacecraft - starting with bit parts on the Ranger Moon shots and the X-15. From my perspective our space program got on the wrong track after (and maybe with) the Apollo program.

The essential problem with our current approach to space activity is primarily political - not technical. The political interference with the market place have driven costs literally sky high.

Since about 1970 we have had the technology to put stuff in space for about $100 per payload pound (today's cost, inflation corrected). But this would require fully reusable launch vehicles of a type that NASA and the Air Force refused to consider.

As a consequence, large spacecraft are fabricated on the ground and launched through a horrendously stressing environment. Then, they must operate for many years without repair. Furthermore, without mass production, the high development cost will likely be absorbed by a single spacecraft. The result: spacecraft are enormously expensive! Examples: a military spacecraft costs about the same as an aircraft carrier. For the price of a typical civilian spacecraft you could buy four full size container cargo ships. Alternatively, the cost of building the CERN Large Hadron Collider facility, fully equipped and running, was about the same as the Hubble telescope or the James Webb telescope.

Here is where man comes into the picture: Use people to do the final assembly in orbit, in shirt sleeve facilities. Some rough estimates indicate a reduction in spacecraft costs by more than two orders of magnitude. System architecture studies show that the demand for (large) spacecraft will, as a consequence, rapidly grow by several orders of magnitude.

What we get, then, is space industrialization on a large scale, including rapid growth in the demand for low cost transportation. The process will immediately boot strap and provide the in-space industrial foundation for colonization, and much, much more.
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
James van Allen has always been against Manned Space Exploration. He has been ranting against Manned Space Exploration for many decades. It's fair to say that the Space Exploration community has long found van Allen's attitude to be an embarrassment and tries to change the subject whenever his name comes up.

There are a few basic arguments concerning Space Exploration that appear again-and-again to the point that it has become tedious to discuss them.

Some biggies are:

1) Why do we spend money on aerospace technology when there are so many more important problems on Earth?

2) Why spend money of manned Space Exploration when unmanned Space Exploration is so much cheaper?

3) Why go to Mars when the Moon is so much closer?

4) etc.

The bottom line with 2) and the main reason why van Allen needs to keep his mouth shut is that Space Exploration as a purely scientific exercise loses big time in terms of bang/buck when compared to other scientific exercises, e.g. cancer research, energy research, fundamental physics, understanding genetics, etc.

The main reason why the US government invested any money in aerospace technology was because it was dual use, e.g. the same technology that put John Glenn in orbit could also fling a Mk-4 thermonuclear armed reentry vehicle at Moscow. The whole Space Exploration program was really an exercise in proving to the Soviets that the aerospace technology behind Mutual Assured Destruction actually worked. The "science" that came from the process was mainly a byproduct or happy accident. If anyone doubts this for a moment then look back at the op-eds that were being published during the Apollo program after Apollo-11. The idiots were asking repeatedly:

"Why are we still sending men to the Moon AFTER having beaten the Russians in getting there?"

The whole scientific justification for going to the Moon went completely over their heads. The science was irrelevant. Now add to this, meat heads like van Allen who innocently believe that the Space Program should be funded purely for its scientific benefits. Such naivety is so utterly precious.

By the way: Why should we be sending people into Space?

Answer: Because life on Earth is fragile.

There are a lots of things that could wipe out the human race:

1) Designer virus courtesy of terrorists
2) A natural virus from left field, e.g. a Spanish Flu on steroids
3) Asteroid collision
4) Long period comet
5) A slow burn nuclear war against the Islamic world, Russians or Chinese that loads up the atmosphere with fission products until something breaks.

A self sufficient colony on Mars immunizes the human race from a single planet catastrophe.

We were in a position to begin a colony on Mars with the technology established by the Apollo Program. Werner von Braun's Mars Plan called for having the first bases on Mars in 1984. It's simply idiotic that we have not done this already. This is cheap insurance to guarantee the long term survival of our species and civilization.
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
"Sure, ships are safe in a harbor, but that's not what ships are for."

Perhaps Van Allen had lost some of his adventurous spirit. After the Columbia trajedy, Peggy Whitson dropped by our engineering offices to give a little pep talk. No doubt, the same strategy was employed after the Challenger disaster.

She discussed the situation from the viewpoint of an experienced orbiter astronaut and provided an opportunity for questions. One young engineer mused that, considering the logistical requirements, current capabilities could get a team to Mars, but would not afford the return trip. He asked Peggy if she would take the one-way trip.

She paused, but only for a few seconds, stating, "if that's the only way we could go, I would take the trip". This reveals the attitude of the people that we pack into the rocket. They sit up there while we ignited over 5 million pounds of thrust from SRBs, in addition to three main engines.

Is it reasonable to believe that, given the capability to do so, mankind would be content to sit quietly on planet earth and view space through optical telescopes? I don't think so. Some nation will find the funds to give it a go, and that nation will reap the benefits of dedicated scientists and engineers who conquer the task.

Nations that choose not to participate will see those people go to the nation that will. Von Braun may not have been the most brilliant mind (we got Herr Albert, as well), but he was dedicated.

He was willing to spend his life in the attempt. That may make up for other shortcomings. Those type of people will follow the national will (and money) to accomplish their dream.

Giving up the human space flight program means those people will go somewhere else. Princeton didn't demand much of Albert. He didn't teach classes. He gave a lecture once in a while and continued to pursue Unified Field Theory.

Princeton just wanted his name on their Masthead, knowing that would draw others to the Institute of Advanced Science. We have Albert and you don't.

That's what we will also lose by dropping out of the HSF endeavors. The ARES program was cancelled for two reasons. It was endorsed by Bush and represented continued technological achievement that is resented by the Muslim nations.
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
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All Comments   (94)
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I remember Clinton's science advisor stating that we don't need to invest in manned space, because we can fulfill our desire to travel there by using virtual reality. There has never been a shortage of Earth-worshippers, self-absorbed collectivists, timorous salad munchers, and tired old men who declare that there is no place for humans in space and never will be. They're wrong, of course.

Heinlein noted, in one of his books set in a time when space travel had become commonplace, that only one to two percent of people had ever left the planet of their birth. What a two percent they will be!
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
I'm very late to this thread, but Wretchard has been fast and furious with the posting lately.

I admire Musk, and am thrilled at his approach to launch vehicle development. But he's wrong about Mars.

Van Allen rubs us the wrong way, but he was right about somethings. Mars is not Jamestown. Space is a new paradigm whose challenges many enthusiasts are naive about, even very effective people like Musk.
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
US military’s mysterious X-37B space plane passes 500 days in orbit, but we still have no clue what it’s actually doing up there

For just over 500 days, the US Air Force’s mysterious X-37B OTV-3 robotic space plane has been casually orbiting the Earth. X-37B looks like the Space Shuttle, and launches into space on the back of a rocket like the Shuttle, but it’s actually fairly small at just under nine meters (30 feet) in length. What’s truly weird, though, is that I’ve now told you everything that we officially know about the X-37B — its payload, current mission, and combat capabilities are completely unknown. X-37B OTV-3, one of the world’s largest artificial satellites, has been up there for 500 days, shows no sign of coming down any time soon, and we have no idea what it’s doing or what it can do.

The X-37 started life way back in 1999 when NASA asked Boeing’s Phantom Works division to develop an orbital test vehicle (OTV).
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
Where ever we may wonder, if we cannot procreate with the local population at least we should be able to forage for resources. If we cannot forage for local resources I have serious misgivings about the sustainability of the venture.
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
While I love the Dream, I've long realized that the base issue is - is there an economic value to a colony on the moon or Mars? What is the cost/benefit?

On the side, I recall Jerry Pournelle's point that if we had the sort of space-ship-fusion technology described in SF asteroid mining stories, there would be no need to do any mining; we would be able to transmute anything we wanted.

One nice thing about the old space program was that it had the national benefits of a war at a fraction of the cost. (I don't mean the people should be sacrificed; lots of profession are dangerous.) And, frankly, we need to keep ahead of the "bad guys" in space technology or they will seize the (literal) high ground.
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
Going Where No One Has Gone Before?

Rahmbo is driving the Starship Chicago toward destruction through immigration (while emigration of workers takes place simultaneously).

"Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s pension reform scheme passed through the General Assembly this week and has been moved to Gov. Pat Quinn’s desk. This plan authorizes Chicago to raise $2.25 billion in additional property taxes over the next decade. Despite this massive tax hike, the city will raise only half its legally required pension payments. Hiking property taxes will kill jobs, drive away entrepreneurs and force people to flee the city. In fact, people and their incomes are already fleeing in droves. According to Internal Revenue Service data, from 1992 to 2010, Cook County sustained a net loss of 1.1 million people as a result of migration into and out of the county. Not only that. The average person who leaves Cook County makes $12,500 more than the average person who enters."
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
We used to Dream. Now we get the Dream Act.

So much of what we do is spinning while waiting for Congress to ram through Open Borders and Amnesty. Once that happens it is game over. Is this what it feels like in an airplane after the engines fail but it still takes over ten mortal minutes until impact?

For those in need of a laugh here is something that our tax dollars at Nato has produced, a nifty interactive map.

Just for grins click on "Partners for Peace" and watch Russia turn green. Japan Korea Australia and Mongolia are "Partners Across the Globe" but The Philippines and India are not. Kuwait Qatar Abu Dhabi and the UAE are in the "Istanbul Cooperation Initiative" and the "Mediterranean Dialogue" includes Israel, with the asterisk notation for capital "see footnote", and does not include Syria or Libya but does link to the following regarding the Palestinians.
"In March 2005 the Allies decided to open exploratory information contacts, between NATO and the Palestinian Authority, noting that NATO's Heads of Government at their 2004 Istanbul Summit did not exclude future participation, subject to the North Atlantic Council's approval, of the PA in cooperation under the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative."

Now don't we all feel better?
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
I'm not clear on your point in the last part - is it good or bad?
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
Old Doug below:

'' ... will get all-new airings in the media, ... ''

WADR, sir, I'll believe it when I see it.

10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
Good catch.
I merely copied and pasted, so great was my revulsion at the thought of having to endure the self-righteous Davis again...
(and folks like Hewitt that regard him as an honorable man because he claims to be religious)

You're right, it'll never happen.
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
It makes sense to plant the flag on the Moon again, but that's for mundane political reasons. It also makes sense to find some way of getting to the International Space Station, also for mundane political reasons. At best, a mission to Mars would be an expensive version of a station in Antarctica. Show me a self-sufficient station in Antarctica that grows its own bananas, and then I'll take the prospect of Martian agriculture more seriously.

It is very unlikely that Mars can be terraformed; the gravity and atmosphere necessary for terraforming are probably insufficient. Subterranean colonies may be possible with enough nuclear power, but it would be difficult to imagine how they would become independent from Earth's energy supplies. Even terraforming Venus would be more likely, although that would be difficult. The real prize is the exo-planets, and more of those are getting discovered each day.
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
I agree with Eggplant that Homo sapiens is coming close to becoming a trace fossil. The very mentality of suicide bombing, in and of itself, means that the annihilation of the human race becomes far more likely within the next 500 years. The real questions are these – how do we get off this planet and where do we go?

The best technology for interstellar travel would probably be a thermonuclear engine, although the technology is still far away from being operational. It would also be important to find the planets with the best prospects for supporting life. The real question is cost – who would both be able to afford to build a spaceship and feel the need to leave Earth?
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
As a species in the long term, Homo sapiens cannot afford to stay penned on Earth. Smaller groups of humans with limited resources usually have more immediate priorities. To send people to the stars, one not only needs a strong economy but one also needs people who are sufficiently desperate to take the huge risks of making a journey to another planet.

Spanish and Portuguese explorations were spurred by the advance of Islam in the Mediterranean. European colonies, especially in North America, were spurred by the bitter sectarian warfare of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Mormons escaped to Utah to build their own version of Zion, and the State of Israel exists largely out of a Jewish desire to evade a wave of European anti-Semitism that culminated in the Holocaust.

Space travel is most likely from those who are both rich enough to finance the expedition and desperate enough to endure the hardships of traveling to a new planet, seeding the planet, and starting a new civilization in a far-off part of the galaxy. Such people would likely be fleeing from oppression and fanaticism on Earth. Al-Qaeda WOULD attempt to follow the colonists, so the colonists would need to be well armed, well informed, and well entrenched against such invaders.
10 weeks ago
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10 weeks ago
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Explorer 1:

"Working closely together, ABMA and JPL completed the job of modifying the Jupiter-C and building Explorer 1 in 84 days.

Did anyone here (other than RWE, obviously) know that Explorer I rotated at 750 rpm?
...I knew that it was spin-stabilized, but I woulda guessed about 78 rpm, or so.
(33 and a third and 45 to come later)

Then again, I had no idea that he total weight of the satellite was 13.37 kilograms (30.80 lb), of which 8.3 kg (18.3 lb) were instrumentation. I knew Vanguard was a softball, but still...
The U.S. Earth satellite program began in 1954 as a joint U.S. Army and U.S. Navy proposal, called Project Orbiter, to put a scientific satellite into orbit during the International Geophysical Year. The proposal, using a military Redstone missile, was rejected in 1955 by the Eisenhower administration in favor of the Navy's Project Vanguard, using a booster produced for civilian space launches.[4]

Following the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, the initial Project Orbiter program was revived as the Explorer program to catch up with the Soviet Union.[5]
Explorer 1 was designed and built by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), while a Jupiter-C rocket was modified by the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) to accommodate a satellite payload; the resulting rocket known as the Juno I.

The Jupiter-C design used for the launch had already been flight-tested in nose cone reentry tests for the Jupiter IRBM, and was modified into Juno I. Working closely together, ABMA and JPL completed the job of modifying the Jupiter-C and building Explorer 1 in 84 days.

However, before work was completed, the Soviet Union launched a second satellite, Sputnik 2, on November 3, 1957. The U.S. Navy's attempt to put the first U.S. satellite into orbit failed with the launch of the Vanguard TV3 on December 6, 1957.[6]
10 weeks ago
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