playing politics with the future of space travel

June 10, 2010

Few things can make people go as full mental jacket as they can when politics is involved. Since politics tend to work on rumors, half-truths, soundbytes, and knee-jerk partisan reactions to just about every topic on which one can even claim to have an opinion, those who make a living dissecting current events can end up with an irrelevant partisan low blow tacked on to the end of a perfectly normal news story. Just take this quote from a short snippet about private space companies from TruthDig and feel free to facepalm away…

The vision is President Barack Obama’s: Let private entrepreneurs take over the space race from bloated NASA. But someone needs to build the rockets and space hotels to make it work. Robert T. Bigelow, of Bigelow Aerospace and the Budget motel chain, believes he can build the space stations, and others will be able to fly paying customers, including NASA astronauts, into orbit – all for less money than NASA and other government space agencies currently pay to transport and host spacemen and spacewomen.

Truthdig is not entirely convinced this is such a good idea. In a year of oil spills, runaway Toyotas and toxic happy meals, we’re not so sure about turning over exploration of the final frontier – and transportation of our astronauts – to private profiteers.

So because a few big name corporations made mistakes like all humans do, all companies are evil and we can’t possibly allow those greedy capitalists to get their mitts on space travel? Yeah, that’s a perfectly rational and valid stance. By this logic, people shouldn’t be allowed to drive cars because accidents happen on a daily basis across the nation’s highways. Get a big group of people together and they will take shortcuts, set up an enormous and unwieldy bureaucracy, and whenever something bubbles to the top, those who actually have to answer for the mistakes will try their hardest to cover their rear ends and save their jobs. TruthDig’s standards would actually eliminate NASA from having anything to do with spaceflight if we consider Apollo 1, Challenger, Columbia, and Apollo 13, and dictate that every airline should be permanently grounded since planes crash in rare and dire circumstances, killing hundreds of people.

Truly, few things turn people as irrational as political scores and the need to adhere to the dogmatic, partisan lines of attack which divide the world into only black and white hues. Not all corporations are evil, soul-eating, seal-clubbing worshippers of money, and not all government agencies are saintly, caring do-gooders. People are different and their behaviors in large organizations can lead to some pretty terrible things no matter where they’re employed and the solutions to our nation’s problems have to account for reality, not for what blowhards on talk shows and partisan political blogs ridicule without offering any solutions of their own. And actually, I do find it a little ironic that TruthDig would indirectly try to support Republican pet projects at NASA while trying to turn the simple truism that everyone has to take responsibility for their mistakes into a political talking point.

[ story tip by WoWT reader Pierce Butler ]

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Actually, I passed this item along in hopes of informed analysis of the idea of an “inflatable space station” and a few choice snarks about orbital enterprises by “… a millionaire motelier who believes in UFOs and prayer—but not the Big Bang…”

    TruthDig’s cheap shot is a deserving target, no two ways about that. Yet their reflex whack at hustlers does raise some worthwhile questions: f’rinstance, if the Motel 6 magnate decides to save some bucks by tossing trash out the airlock, who is going to make him stop producing that (potentially) deadly jetsam?

    That said, at least we can be glad his niche isn’t – yet – being filled by, say, Halliburton, or Blackwater/Xe, or the Unification Church, or …

  • Greg Fish

    I passed this item along in hopes of informed analysis of the idea of an “inflatable space station”

    Inflatable space stations are actually a solid technology that’s been developed to at least some degree by every space agency involved in human spaceflight. Bigelow Aerospace put several prototypes into orbit quite successfully and are doing so well that they’re skipping ahead a few prototypes to a fully functioning inflatable habitat in space, which should serve as proof of concept for space hotels.

    … and a few choice snarks about orbital enterprises by “… a millionaire motelier who believes in UFOs and prayer – but not the Big Bang…”

    Bigelow is somewhat eccentric, true. And yes, I could make some snarky comments about what he chooses to fund with his extra cash. However, that really has very little to do with his impressive track record in getting his space hotel business started. My snark tends to be aimed at people who promote ignorance and pseudoscience with their money and public standing. Bigelow is using his fortune to advance spaceflight so it’s hard for me to justify a full tilt WoWT teardown.

    if the Motel 6 magnate decides to save some bucks by tossing trash out the airlock, who is going to make him stop producing that (potentially) deadly jetsam?

    Ah… And that question needs to be expanded into a full post to fully touch on all of the complexities which will be involved with running a real space hotel…

  • Just Al

    I don’t know – except for the mention of Obama, I can find nothing political in the article at all, much less the part you quoted. And frankly, I’m more on the side of TruthDig on this one. Your arguments, Greg, fall too much on the slippery slope side of things. I don’t see TruthDig saying it’s because of the accidents themselves that this is a bad idea, and to me, it’s not a matter of accidents. It’s a matter of how many were predicted ahead of time and the consequences of failing to heed those predictions. I think this is an area for valid debate, and not a facepalm issue ;-)

    There is a stunningly long laundry list of companies that put their bottom line ahead of consumer safety, and when you mention cars, you have to realize that if it wasn’t for various government regulatory agencies, they’d be a lot less safer still. The question really remains as to whether the private companies will be permitted to develop their ideas without certain criteria and restrictions, and right now, that appears to be the case – the money is being made available while the FAA and NTSB are still petitioning for regulatory powers over the whole concept.

    From my point of view, I suspect that regulations will be forthcoming and this will proceed in a safer way, eventually – I’m hoping that it comes sooner rather than being motivated by a major accident, but in our needlessly polarized governing system right now, it’ll only happen when it’s perceived as opposing the other side. Granted, this might be the only way to get Republicans to create business-limiting laws ;-)

    The more valid points are whether private industry can really produce spaceflight cheaper and faster than a government program, and whether their development will result in the innovations we’re hoping for. The first seems to be a damn silly thing to think – government contract overruns versus private profit-motive, hmmmm. With as big an investment that would have to be made, I’m thinking any company that buys into this is expecting to recoup large and fast.

    The industry initiatives and innovations that we’re seeing come from competition and demand. But these are different areas altogether. Space flight tourism will never be cheap, and thus available only to a small demographic, unlike the industry that virtually everyone thinks of when saying private companies can produce – things like computers, cellphones, entertainment, et cetera. Those things are affordable to the average consumer and provide some repeated usage, if not outright necessity. But compare the number of computer/cellphone users to those who have taken major extra-continental vacation packages.

    The Concorde was innovative. Expensive, but it delivered on its promise. But not enough people actually needed to be overseas so fast that they would book the extra fare (as much as twelve times a normal fare,) and when other innovations came along, like real-time teleconferencing and money transfers, it died. Tourism would never have supported it in the first place.

    Space is, actually, boring! Yes, fantastic views of Earth! And – well, that’s about it. Zero gravity, fun! For those who don’t get space sickness. Annnnddd – I’m drawing a blank. Space hotels will be small and short on luxury – the idea of crapping into bags strapped with adhesive onto one’s ass will slow things down a bit, as will all of the other fun factors of microgravity. The novelty won’t be around any longer than the first hundred or so people to fly – then it’s no longer, “Look what I did!” but, “Yeah, me too.” Hey, I’d go just for the experience, regardless of how many people have been. For a ticket price of ten grand or less, but that ain’t happening. How many people, seriously, would foot the bill for a space hotel, and would keep footing it as a tourist industry? And if they’re not there, then where does the innovation and drive to corner a market come from? As space tourism dies less than ten years after starting, what then of private-industry fueled space access? Do we start over again and try to forget this huge gap in our progress?

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Inflatable space stations are actually a solid technology …

    Presumably they’ll require much higher air pressure than that of, say, the ISS. I predict some great cartoons featuring the hilarity to ensue when one gets holed by a micrometeorite.

    And all sorts of questions arise concerning radiation, thermal insulation, and numerous other factors for which the station’s inhabitants would strongly prefer a high delta between external and internal measurements.

  • Greg Fish

    Pierce, the inflatable space stations in question aren’t just like a balloon filled with a blast of air. They’re woven from numerous layers of kevlar and metallic fabrics, and have a metal backbone. These aren’t toys, but very strong and durable craft that can do a lot of things that today’s solid metal spacecraft just can’t.

    Radiation easily goes through just about anything if it’s powerful enough. Your basic alpha particle can be stopped by a piece of paper. Beta particles require a thin sheet of metal, something that could also be done by metallic weave in inflatable stations, and gamma rays will go through concrete with barely a problem, so unless you were to launch a Cold War era fallout shelter in a mountain, you have to rely on the Earth’s magnetic field to protect you no matter your craft.

    Thermal insulation in a spacecraft made of hundreds of layers of metallic weave and special polymers should actually be superior to that of a purely metal craft. Plus with hundreds of layers, it would actually withstand meteorite impacts much better than a rigid metal plate because it can flex and distribute the force.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    So an “inflatable” satellite is more of a zeppelin than a blimp – a skin wrapped around a skeleton instead of a 100% balloon? That does seem like it would, at the least, solve a lot of assembly problems.

    Any idea when we’ll see such a unit in orbit? (And if it will say “NASA”, “ESA” or “Motel 6″ on the label?)

  • Greg Fish

    Any idea when we’ll see such a unit in orbit?

    The first prototypes already out there and orbiting above our heads right now. They’re modifications to initial plans made by NASA and Goodyear in the 1960s, updated for the latest technical advances and launched with the space agency’s help. In the next few years, Bigelow plans to launch a prototype with life support systems which could actually be used by humans and given their track record, there’s a very good chance that they’ll succeed and be able to sell their technology back to space agencies.

    Space hotels are a fun idea and they’ll probably be in orbit one of these days, but for the first generation of inflatable space stations, the target market is NASA as well as the ESA, which desperately need to know how to assemble the next ISS without the staggering $50 billion price tag that comes with it today.