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The Great PJ Media Space Debate

Mr. Simberg writes:

The Apollo Era is Over

Bob, like many, you seem to want to resurrect a time that never really existed, a time during which space was important to the nation, and unlimited governmental resources could be expended on the opening of it to humanity. You hearken back to Apollo as a model, but Apollo was the product of a unique set of circumstances, unlikely to ever be repeated, and it wasn’t about space.

There was a reason that Apollo ended over forty years ago. It had accomplished its mission, which was not to go to the moon, but to demonstrate that democratic socialism was superior to totalitarian communism in terms of technological prowess, which it did when Apollo 8 flew around the moon in 1968, and the Soviets gave up and pretended they had never been racing.

Apollo was costing billions per flight in today’s dollars, and it wasn’t viewed as worth the money, so the last missions never even flew. Space per se wasn’t nationally important, at least in terms of actually accomplishing things there, and that has not changed in the intervening decades, which is why the policy remains adrift, and driven by rent seeking of the few individuals in power who care about it only because it provides jobs in their districts and states. That was demonstrated quite vividly in the recent Continuing Resolution, into which a three-billion-dollar earmark, the Senate Launch System, was added for a ginormous new rocket with no mission, other than to maintain jobs in Utah, Alabama and a few other states. Substituting Mars for the moon of Apollo will not change this political reality.

I don’t have the room, nor do I think that our readers have the interest or patience, to indulge in a detailed debate of the value of the technologies for which you seem to have so much unjustified contempt, but I’ll focus on one, because it is fundamental to making space travel affordable, and there is no way that you or anyone else is going to get to Mars (or anywhere else) if we don’t accomplish that goal. I once had a manager at Rockwell in the eighties, whose response to my request for a computer that could do word processing was, “We got to the moon without word processors.” You say that we got to the moon without propellant depots. Well, so we did. But we didn’t stay, or develop it, because it cost more money than it was perceived to be worth.

Werner Von Braun didn’t pass on propellant depots because they’re not worth building, but because he was in a race, and he couldn’t waste time on building infrastructure that might have made it cheaper in the long run. He didn’t have time, but he had money. Going to the moon sans propellant depots meant that he had to build the biggest rocket ever made, and it meant that every bit of hardware in and on that rocket had to be expended on each mission, returning nothing but that little capsule to earth, which is why each mission ended up costing billions.

Contra your response, propellant depots are not a politically driven fetish of one member of the Augustine panel (and as far as I’m aware, no one on the panel will directly benefit in any way from their development). They are an essential element of a space-faring society, and one without which space travel will remain rare (if it exists at all) and expensive. To say that we will open up space without them is like saying that we should have had no gas stations on the interstate highway system, and should instead have had everyone drive across the country in a gasoline tanker truck, or with expendable drop tanks.

The polar explorers would not have succeeded without caching their supplies. Space transportation is not different in any fundamental way than any other kind, and in-space assembly, fueling and caching will be critical to sustainable space exploration, and even more so to sustainable space development, whether on or off planets. Even if you have an unlimited budget, you cannot build a rocket big enough that I cannot come up with a mission that needs a bigger one. So let’s stop wasting money building big rockets that cost so much that we can’t afford the payloads for them, and start figuring out how to get out there with what we have.

As for how depots get built, neither I, nor anyone else as far as I know, proposes that the government build one. The goal is to simply reduce the technological risk so that building and operating them (not it) can, like launches, be assigned to the commercial sector, with the government purchasing their services, in the pursuit of actual space exploration. This is the way for NASA to get the most Buck Rogers for its (and our) bucks.

Set aside for a moment your (unsurprising, given your history) demand that we declare Mars the goal. Declaring any such goal -- whether Mars, a lunar return and base, a visit to a near-earth object -- as a government project will always come to tears in a republic of politicians with discrete terms of office and a government of short attention span. Unless it can happen within a very few years, it won’t happen just because a president says it will, because another president can always come along and decide it won’t (as we just saw happen with George Bush’s disastrous implementation of his Vision for Space Exploration).

As I wrote above, Apollo was unique and will not be repeated. If you want a government that can declare and execute five-, ten-, or twenty-year plans, I’d suggest that you move to China. In this country, the way to open frontiers is to give individuals and businesses the affordable technological tools with which to do it themselves. We are on the verge of big breakthroughs in launch costs, and if we can keep the money from being dissipated on yet another big-rocket jobs program, we can have the in-space infrastructure necessary within the next decade, allowing the Mars Society to actually devote its resources to going to Mars, instead of lobbying fickle politicians to make it happen.

* * * * * * * * *

Mr. Zubrin wraps up the debate with a response to Mr. Simberg:

Bad Fruit from a Rotten Tree

Rand Simberg chooses to defend the Obama administration’s decision to exchange a destination-driven NASA for an unsteeered special-interest driven agency by claiming that at least one of the administration’s random set of technology programs -- the orbital propellant depot -- actually is vital. Very well, let’s use this example to judge the whole.

Do we need orbital propellant depots to go to the Moon? Clearly not, as we went there in the past without them. Furthermore, the Apollo approach of employing a Saturn-V class heavy lift booster with a hydrogen-oxygen upper stage could also be used with equal effectiveness to directly throw the ~40-tonne payloads needed for human missions to Mars or near Earth asteroids as well.

But, if not necessary, would it at least be preferable to fly such missions using multitudes of small lifter payloads to assemble and refuel interplanetary spaceships on orbit? Certainly not. The per-pound cost of space launch decreases as launch vehicle capacity increases, so by shunning heavy lift for orbital refueling, the depot approach will increase the cost of interplanetary ventures. Worse yet, it will greatly increase the mission risk, since the more launches that are needed to mount a mission, the greater the chance that one will fail. In addition, the costs and risks associated with the construction and operation of the orbital depot itself must also be included.

Furthermore, an orbital depot will need to be in a stable circular long-duration orbit, at least as high as the 220 nautical mile altitude Space Station, and launch vehicle delivery capabilities to such orbits are considerably less than that required if all the booster has to do is lift the interplanetary payload to the 80 mile perigee temporary orbits that can be employed by direct-throw missions. Moreover, an orbital depot needs to be in an orbit at a particular inclination to the Earth’s equator. If a high inclination orbit, like that of the Space Station, is used, this will further reduce the payload that can be delivered to it by any booster. If a low inclination orbit is used instead, access to the depot will be restricted.

In addition, propellant delivered to an orbital depot will have to be stored in heavy thickly-insulated tanks, which are a waste of launch capacity and so disadvantageous for use on an interplanetary mission that duplicate lightweight flight tanks will also have to be launched, thereby running up mission mass and costs still further.

However beyond all that, the rest of the Obama administration's space program portfolio assumes that interplanetary missions will be accomplished not by chemical rockets, but by gigantic nuclear electric spaceships. These will have to operate from nuclear-safe orbits at least 600 miles up, an altitude to which booster delivery is fatally reduced. So, shall we then have two orbital depots, one at 220 miles and one at 600 miles, with ferry services running in between? The scheme is quite fantastical, and not to put too fine a point on it, utterly crazy, since everything such an elaborate futuristic mission architecture proposes to achieve can be accomplished at much lower cost, risk, and schedule simply by developing a competent heavy lift booster.

Rand Simberg claims that he is unaware of any persons on the Augustine commission who might benefit from such a skewed recommendation. This is difficult to understand, since the person on the commission who championed the orbital depot thrust was Jeff Greason, the head of XCOR Aerospace. XCOR has been developing small subsonic rocketplanes, which (despite the fact that they have yet to achieve 0.2 percent of orbital energy) it claims could someday evolve into systems capable of repeatedly delivering tiny payloads to orbit which could then be stored at a depot. So the interest of Mr. Greason in pushing the orbital depot vision is quite clear, and amply illustrates the danger of having the space program’s spending priorities dictated to it by one of its would-be vendors.

Now Jeff Greason is a businessman, and he is entitled to pursue his private interests as he will. The real question is: why did the Obama administration choose to derail NASA’s destination-driven moon effort, and with it heavy lift development, in favor of such nonsense? All of the cost objections to the Constellation heavy lift program could readily have been overcome simply by reorganizing it as a fixed-price contract put up for competitive bid to industry. Indeed, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk told the Augustine commission directly that he would develop a heavy lift booster for $2.5 billion, and Lockheed Martin’s own estimates run in the $4 billion range. Either of these could have been easily paid for using a tiny fraction of the budget the administration proposes to waste going nowhere for the next ten years. Why not take such an obviously more sensible approach and get the show on the road? Perhaps the answer to this mystery can best be found in the Bible, specifically Mathew 7:18, which wisely states “a rotten tree cannot produce good fruit.”

The man responsible for composing the Obama administration’s space policy is Dr. John Holdren, the president’s science advisor. It was Dr. Holdren who appointed the Augustine Commission, and it was to Dr. Holdren that the commission reported. Dr. Holdren is also noteworthy as being a protégé of Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich, with whom he co-authored several books in which the two characterized the United States as being an “overdeveloped country” that needs to be deindustrialized. More recently, Dr. Holdren has been spearheading the Obama administration’s efforts to achieve this objective by rationing the right of businesses to make use of fire. One can hardly expect good fruit to come from such a rotten tree.

The American space program is a unique enterprise in the history of the human race. It is the ornament of our age, and one of the things for which our time will be most highly regarded. Future ages will remember us, because this is when we first set sail for other worlds. Up until now, America has been leading the way. The United States comprises 4 percent of the world’s population, yet has been responsible for about 90 percent of the successful probes and 100 percent of the human expeditions beyond Earth orbit. In doing so, we have made a terrific demonstration of the power of freedom and creativity to transcend all limits to human aspirations.

This is an extraordinary achievement, accomplished through the ingenuity, courage, and commitment of a broad technical community with NASA at its helm. To impose a scheme to lobotomize the helmsman and leave this great venture rudderless, adrift, and wandering towards wreck is not just a mistake, it is a crime – a crime against America, against science, and the pioneer spirit itself.  Every patriot needs to reject this plan.

The American people want and deserve a space program that really is going somewhere. It is time set that goal and commit to it. Humans to Mars.