Archives For space tourism

skylon

This might seem a little odd, but think about it. Single stage to orbit, or SSTO, space flight is the holy grail of aerospace design right now. If you can fly a plane into space, you can easily reduce launch costs by a factor of ten and still build a profitable business. Not only would you make it a lot more tempting for companies and universities to exploit space, but you can also offer shorter commutes between far flung, attractive destinations, and take space tourism to the next level. A big problem with SSTO however, is that it’s been tried before with few positive results because physics tend to get in the way of a smooth ascent to orbit. If you need to drag tons of oxidizer to incredibly high altitudes, you may as well just use a rocket. If you try to gulp down the incoming air, you’ll be dealing with blistering heat that will be monstrously difficult to compress and use to provide thrust. But the brainchild of engineer Alan Bond, Reaction Engines, has recently shown that it has a solution to a viable hybrid engine for the SSTO craft it wants to build.

By cooling the super-heated air coming into the intakes at the speed of sound with liquid helium, the SABRE engine can ignite a rocket motor while traveling at supersonic speed. Now mind you, this was only a test and we’re still a few years away from an engine ready to go to market, but a technical audit by the ESA found no flaws with the design. So while Reaction Engines may seem like it’s pitching something out of a science fiction movie, its technical chops seem to be in order and it’s not hiding behind invocations of or trade secrets when faced with tough questions. This is why they’ve gotten several grants from the ESA to keep working on SABRE. However, the final tally for the Skylon spaceplane fleet is estimated at $14 billion, several orders of magnitude more than government grants being offered and out of reach for the vast majority of private investors. So far, the plan seems to be to solicit another $4 million or so in funding to finish SABRE to then license the engine to other manufacturers and use the proceeds to start building Skylons. It’s certainly an interesting idea, but who exactly would want to license an SSTO engine?

How about SpaceX? Right now, to advance its strategy of licensing SABRE, the company has a derivative design called the Scimitar and bills it as already being 50% funded by the EU to bring intercontinental travel at Mach 5 to the world at large. Now, this would certainly help big airlines make more profits by flying trans-oceanic routes more often in theory, but in practice, the really, really burdensome regulations against supersonic travel thanks to the kind of NIMBYism which played a major role in preventing the supersonic travel revolution predicted by many futirists, as well as the lead time to finish, test, and prove these planes in operation, Reaction Engines may as well forget about Skylon for the next several decades. If it wants to raise money and interest for a spaceplane, it should focus on creating a spaceplane and selling the Scimitar to militaries as the child of the successful SABRE. Yes, SpaceX is working on its Dragon capsule for sending humans to the ISS, and it has rockets capable of getting there, but if it can offer rocket launches to deliver larger spacecraft into orbit, ready for a Skylon to deliver the crew, it can build a major competitive advantage. An extra 20 or 30 tons of cargo capacity can help enable a less spartan mission beyond Earth orbit, and Dragon could be an emergency habitat in deep space.

We should no longer have just one launch stack for sending humans into space, but instead, we need to mix and match our technology for optimal results. Doing heavy lifting with rockets while the orbit is given to SSTO craft and inflatable space stations for staging, assembly, research, or all of the above, is probably our best way to steadily expand upward into space. So maybe Elon Musk should consider working with Reaction Engines in the near future. The investment wouldn’t be small and returns on it won’t be quick, but they’ll not only be an investment in furthering how far SpaceX can go and what it can do for its clients, but also an investment in the infrastructure of the dawning space tourism and exploration industry. And judging from many proposals for the future of NASA and space travel in general, he’s rather likely to find deep-pocketed and willing partners to make it all work. After all, sticking to space capsules and heavy lift rockets for almost everything would be a huge technological step back to doing what we know rather than using all our past skills to build something for the future. Why should we circle back now, especially when there’s promising technology to make it happen just waiting for people with a big vision and the resources to make it come together, especially at a profit when all is said and done?

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spaceliner render

If you ever explored the pages of popular science magazines from the heady days of the Space Race, inspired by novels of the Golden Age of science fiction, you’ve no doubt seen proposed ads for space planes taking busy commuters around the world in mere hours. It sounds like the perfect solution to spending as much as a day locked inside a flying metal tube filled with stuffy recycled air. And the Noodly One forbid you have to make the trip in coach. Ugh. Unfortunately, hypersonic jets are really difficult to build and the sonic booms they would create would quickly run afoul of local noise ordinances. This is not to mention that airport runways would have to be a lot longer to help them build up speed and the air and space routes would have to be mapped in completely new and different ways. But all this we could deal with to make sure that a venture designed to shuttle people around the world in no time at all is a viable business and taking any space plane is as easy as taking a commercial jet liner today, although a lot pricier.

Yes, making suborbital flight an easy and convenient proposition is diffciult and expensive. But that doesn’t mean that a European start-up’s plan to attach a space plane to a rocket, fire it off like a space shuttle, and have it glide back down to Earth at 15,000 miles per hour is any better than having to redesign major airports to support hypersonic planes. According to the company, using proven rocket technology would mean that the plane would begin daily service in 2050. If we actually do a little research about hypersonic flight and rocket launches, it would mean that a plan resembling anything like the venture proposed is dead on arrival and should come with an obligatory DNR order. This idea effectively combines the biggest, most expensive hindrance to cost-effective suborbital, and adds a layer of regulatory issues, as well as logistical pains which would drive potential customers to simply fly on an existing aircraft because they would get there much faster. It’s in no way commercially viable or safe for the passengers since there’s a really, really high chance that the space plane will disintegrate as it glides back down to Earth.

But let’s backtrack for a moment. Consider the issue of starting a trip with a rocket launch. Last time most of us checked, rockets cost millions and get thrown away after each use. SpaceX has been working on reusable rockets, so that may bring down costs substantially, but there would only be so many flights it could make before the repeated stresses render both it and the space plane unusable. Furthermore, it means that the proposed SpaceLiner would have to launch in a small time window at a spaceport built well out of the way as not to interfere with air traffic over a major city or transport hub, precisely the places where you should be offering the flights to make it easy to get to the space plane. If you miss a window due to a mechanical issue, you could end up wasting the entire day rather than just reschedule for the next flight since the next window for the trajectory you need may not come for the next few days. By this point, if you were willing and able to spend the hundreds of thousands of dollars for a SpaceLiner ticket, $15,000 for a typical long haul first class flight on a conventional aircraft would sound like a decent bargain.

And, of course, there’s the whole possible disintegration thing. You see, gliding at 15,000 miles an hour through the atmosphere isn’t exactly what happens when you’re going that fast. No, it’s more like plowing through miles of gas that’s exponentially increasing in density while the heat generated by air compression is trying to engulf your craft. DARPA tried the exact maneuver the SpaceLiner is expected to do with one of the most advanced hypersonic bullets ever built. It did not end well. The entry vehicle’s skin came off its body. There’s a non-zero chance that even a shielded SpaceLiner would face stresses that would either melt its skin right off, or kill whoever was on on board should the glide back down to the ground hit a rough patch somewhere. Again, the slow jet sounds like a good deal, doesn’t it? Especially an advanced supersonic design that muffles the noise of its sonic boom by its shape and the angles of its flight surfaces which would let it catch on in a way that the Concorde never could due to its engines’ piercing shriek.

And if that supersonic jet could get you halfway across the world in five hours from your nearest airport with a much, much smaller chance of a fiery, explosive death as it blazes through the air during its descent, why would you want to pay about ten times the price of a first class ticket on such jets to schlep out to the middle of nowhere to try and catch a rocket and shave off three or four hours of the final leg of your trip if you do manage to launch in your window? By the time it’ll touch down at another spaceport in the middle of nowhere, you could have been relaxing in your hotel room or home half a world away for hours. Other than the novelty and complexity of going by SpaceLiner, you would’ve gotten nothing out of the trip that a supersonic plane couldn’t have given you safer, cheaper, and more efficiently. Now if you were going to the Moon or an orbital hotel room, that would be a different story. Maybe the company behind the SpaceLiner proposal would want to take aim at the Skylon concept rather than trying to challenge Virgin Galactic and every major airline with a caveat-laden offer to its potential customers 37 years from now. Then again, it’s likely that today’s space tourism companies would dominate that market by then…

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approach to mars

Whatever you do, don’t say that Elon Musk isn’t ambitious. While most Silicon Valley bigwigs try to sell us on some new app they always promise will change the world as we know it and larding their pitch with buzzwords like "social," "cloud-ready," and "disruption," he put his resources into a craft able to resupply the ISS and is busily planning what could only be described as a city of 80,000 people on Mars. How does he think this would happen? First, make his rockets reusable so they can be cleaned up and ready for their next launch in a matter of days. Second, using space tourism to create the economies of scale necessary to cut the cost of traveling to Mars to just about $500,000 or so. But while reusable spacecraft and economies of scale will go a long way, would they really encourage a mass migration of tens of thousands of people to a hostile alien world with immense dust storms, non-negligible radiation hazards, and a distinct lack of the few basic things they’ll need to survive outside of their little environmental bubble?

If SpaceX wants a Martian city, it will need to cut the trip time down from 8 months and make the flight itself a lot safer and a lot more comfortable than in an Apollo-style capsule. It would have to essentially set up something much like a space station which would travel between our planets, ferrying passengers back and forth, powering it and its engines with nuclear reactors. That’s not an easy task, both from engineering and legal standpoints, though the latter could pose far more of a problem than the former considering the history of the Outer Space Treaty. And while I can certainly see adventurous billionaires and scientific agencies shelling out even $50 million for a ticket to Mars, does SpaceX really think it can maintain a population of 80,000 people who would expect creature comforts and will have to be constantly supervised to ensure that exposure to alien gravity and radiation for months on end doesn’t leave them incapable of ever setting foot on Earth again? Sounds like Musk would have his hands full.

Finally, here’s another issue to consider. What exactly would this city provide from an economic standpoint to justify its existence? There are only so many tourists and so many scientists. While it certainly does make sense to set up a Martian habitat, a population goal of 80,000 might be a little too ambitious to be workable and the habitat is unlikely to be economically self-sustaining if we consider how remote it will be and how difficult it will be to maintain. I can certainly see why Musk would want to shoot for something like this and definitely appreciate doing science for the sake of science. But after a certain limit, something like a city or a research base would have to give companies reasons to invest in it, otherwise, it will quickly either run out of funding or work and be abandoned. Take the ISS for example. After tens of billions of dollars and decades upon decades of work, it’s finally completed. Only to be understaffed and underutilized, kept alive by space agencies trying to justify the project that’ll never be what it was meant to become. I hope that Musk takes the ISS’ example to heart and avoids making the same mistake…

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startos jump

Expert skydiver Felix Baumgartner did something spectacular last Sunday. He fell from 128,000 feet to a picture perfect landing in a suit stuffed with GPS trackers, accelerometers, and all sorts of other sensors to help NASA and aerospace companies design an escape system for manned missions into sub-orbital space and backups to escape pods designed to be jettisoned in orbit should something go catastrophically wrong. There are even designs for suits meant to fall from orbit, and Baumgartner’s experiments are a stepping stone to making them happen. As the cost of launching humans and sophisticated payloads into space falls, the safer we’ll make our trips into space, the easier it will be to live and work in orbit and beyond. But you wouldn’t think that the Stratos Jump was a technological breakthrough with many possible uses if you listened to a small swarm of the same web-based curmudgeons who come out to pooh-pooh every innovation or experiment that doesn’t line up with their belief that we must eliminate poverty and cure cancer before we dare spend any money on some new piece of high tech…

This is the same nobly misguided attitude that insists we throw away our future for the outright impossible goal of turning our world into a utopia where no one is ever sick, hungry, or poor. It’s only after the cure for the last disease has been found and the last war has ended should we be allowed to build new robots, fly into space, or work on extending human life spans. The idea that such blue sky experiments can yield new jobs as companies try to capitalize on new technology and that complex problems can be solved by leveraging something learned from atom smashers or observing embryo development in space doesn’t seem to register in their minds. Neither does the fact that some problems and conflicts simply can’t be solved because there’s no incentive for those involved to solve them, or because many of the people responsible for the world’s social and political ills simply do not give a flying monkey’s scrotum about anyone else and won’t even try to pitch in. We can’t sit around and wait for everyone around the world to catch utopian fever and neglect important work that moves our civilization forward, governed by the whims of starry eyed activists in over their heads. That way lies stagnation and self-neglect.

Look, I understand that there are a lot of people living in poverty. I know that there are criminals, warmongers, and terrorists running amuck in many parts of the world. I understand the need for social safety nets to help those in dire need. But there have to be limits to how far we’ll go since some problems simply can’t be solved by throwing a lot of time and money at them. Helping too much might have destroyed Africa’s textile industry, and negotiating with people who think that their deity told them to kill you is usually an exercise in moving a brick wall with your bare hands. At some point, we have to say enough and stop helping, especially when our well-intentioned aid turns into enablement of corrupt governments and those who decide that they don’t really need to contribute to society despite being perfectly capable of doing so. Baumgartner and his team are trying to help working in a frontier we already use for navigation and communication safer. If you really think it’s a waste of time and money to do that and the millions of dollars involved had to have been spent on utopian causes, let me ask you what you’ve done to help cure cancer or end world povery lately. Chances are, it wasn’t a whole hell of a lot.

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Another month, another ambitious plan for a space hotel and this time, the plans come from Playboy, which is apparently interested in setting up a resort in orbit and modeling it in the finest retro-futuristic tradition. You’ll be able to play around hundreds of miles above the Earth with Playboy bunnies in luxury and comfort, as well as join the 225 mile club and have some very unusual and exciting vacation video to bring home. At least this is the plan. Considering that the ISS isn’t exactly a resort with wide-open spaces and cost some $50 billion to build over more than a decade, one could certainly be forgiven for taking these grand ideas with a big pinch of salt and relegating this whole concept to a PR stunt. But you know what? I hope that Playboy will decide to get in touch with SpaceX and Bigelow, and go through with this plan because they can not only make money on it, they can also help advance space travel and lower the cost for getting into, and staying in orbit. It’s going to be a huge challenge but so is every ambitious new idea, and once you’ve successfully set up a shiny new space hotel, the second one will be easier, building on the lessons of the first one. So why not just try it and see?

Believe it or not, there’s no shortage of people with the money and will to go into space because they’ve pretty much exhausted their getaway options and want to have a chance to journey beyond this planet and see what so few people have gotten to see with their own eyes. And with these tourists on board you can’t exactly serve freeze dried ice cream and call it a day. Oh no. They’ll need basic creature comforts and internet access since they’re going to be wired on Earth and expect to stay wired in space. The orbital hotel would be a tiny economy and an experimental launch pad for designing bigger and more comfortable space stations. Maybe they want to try and experiment with artificial gravity as well, designing their pinwheel to spin so its occupants could use the walls as a floor and enjoy the views of Earth below as they sip their drinks from cups and glasses instead of sucking them through a straw? And best of all, there’s going to be a real motive to make sure the hotels are as comfortable as they could be for tourists coming from the planet below rather than simply leave everything as bare bones as possible and train them for months to just deal with the little discomforts of space. Big and roomy orbital hotels made of inflatable kevlar and simulating at least a fraction of Earth’s gravity will be easier for serious astronauts to inhabit as well, and allow them to be more productive and comfortable.

So if anything, we should be encouraging Playboy to build their space hotel and promoting space tourism as the new way to vacation. Since we find manned space programs on a tight budgetary leash everywhere but in China, and government help to boost the number of humans and human-friendly habitats in orbit won’t come soon, why not let ambitious private companies build them to generate PR and revenue? Why not let them use their millions to solve problems with space debris and lowering the cost of getting to space? When they hear millionaires and billionaires opening their wallets for even a chance at the experience of a lifetime, why stand on the sidelines and snicker at the ambitious CEOs with his head in the clouds when we should be thinking about incentives to push successful business’ gaze skyward? We’re living at a time when space hotels could actually be built and the sooner we acknowledge that, the sooner we start building and populating them with paying guests and reaping the benefits of massive R&D programs once only see in sci-fi movies and written about in novels about the far ftuure. It’s just getting past the first hotel that’s the really hard part here…

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Journalists have two tricks to add conflict to an otherwise boring story, two tricks that drive skeptics up a wall without fail. One is to add false balance to stories, like quips from people who may not be completely sane or educated on the issue. One example is quoting conspiracy theorists and quacks in health or political articles for the sake of having two sides to a story that only has one. The other is to create some sort of a big struggle between two parties included in the report despite the fact that the two groups might actually be the very best and most cooperative of friends, and are actually working together to tackle a common problem. And it’s this latter route that Jeffrey Kluger chose for his article on new aerospace startups for Time.com. Painting a big competition between the private market and NASA’s stogy bureaucracy, he presents companies like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences as replacements for the space agency, trying to keep the government in space as the shuttle finally fades into the twilight of retirement. However, in reality, nothing could be further from the truth…

Rather than being forced by presidential edict to let private space companies build new spacecraft, set out in the space exploration agenda laid out by the Obama administration, NASA has been actively helping them and watching the development at SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, and even Virgin Galactic. Because the goal is to build cheaper vehicles that will significantly lower the cost and streamline the logistics of getting to space, it’s in the agency’s direct benefit to contract with private companies as much as possible. Less cost means more missions and more science being done, as well as the potential to lay the groundwork for making money in space with orbital hotels and giving scientists easier access to the final frontier. As for the space companies themselves, they don’t see NASA as an obstacle or a competitor either since the agency runs competitions to find the best and most promising ideas among them, showing every sign of becoming a customer should a new rocket design prove itself flight-worthy, or a new piece of equipment show itself superior and cheaper to the existing hardware used on the shuttle or the ISS. Why would they possibly want to start conflicts with their future number one customer? And why would they see themselves as pushing aside old bureaucrats when they and they agency share the same goal: to get machines and humans to space safely and cheaply?

Yet that said, there is political opposition to NASA’s transition from a government body to an umbrella agency for a swarm of aerospace contractors competing for the best design, and that opposition comes from those who you’d least expect to object to such privatization; the GOP. Because they rely on NASA’s largesse for a steady number of jobs in their states, plenty of Republican senators and congressmen are not happy, going into the realm of ridiculous hyperbole to make sure that those jobs stay put. Funny how the very same people who preach to their party core that the government is at the root of every problem, that we need as little of it as possible, and that it has never created a single job, oppose an effort to reduce the government’s reach in their districts. Now, all of a sudden, the very private enterprises that are supposed to be at the heart of the country’s innovation engine and the economy, become woefully unqualified and inexperienced when it comes to space travel and exploration, even though virtually every vehicle ever flown by NASA was built by defense contractors like Lockheed Martin or Boeing. And if we listen to politicians only interested in the cash flow to their districts, we’re going to end up with a space program that falls behind the times and have to rely solely on the military for steady access to space, a military that’s going to take its time letting the latest and greatest technology get converted for civilian uses to maintain its strategic advantage in orbit.

Repeat after me. There’s no big shift at NASA in which the old guard must warm up to the idea of companies building new rockets and crew vehicles. Its just business as usual with more and smaller companies being allowed to experiment and submit their ideas for testing and consideration. And because there are more and more companies interested in getting to space, our space program will only benefit from their efforts. Why do you think NASA helped launch Bigelow Airspace’s prototypes of inflatable space stations if it’s so loath to let high minded startups experiment with new vehicles they’ll want to lease or sell to the agency? But oh well, we can’t let things like facts or real conflicts get in the way of telling the story we want to tell, right Mr. Kluger?

[ illustration by Matthew Benton ]

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A few days ago, I growled at the political blog TruthDig for their cheap shot at space tourism and noted that keeping space out of reach of dreamers with big goals and space-bound ambitions just because they create companies to build new generations of spacecraft, was wildly irrational. Likewise, they decided to avoid doing even the slightest bit of research on the technical concepts involved with the inflatable space structures being planned for future space hotels before questioning whether the concept with just a lot of hot air, and going into equating whatever plans today’s space tourism startups have with BP’s spill, Toyota’s accelerators, and toxic materials found in fast food meals. In other words, the post was pretty much what you’d expect from the typical political blog. But in the discussion thread about my take on TruthDig there was a very interesting question to consider about the future of space tourism, a question that I thought needed to be a post in its own right…

With the dire oil spill sending oil slicks across the Gulf Coast while BP and its contractors blame each other’s shoddy work, trying their best to undo the massive public relations damage with tactics which we could easily attribute to one of Potemkin’s descendants being hired as a PR consultant, people are wondering about how well companies are meeting environmental standards and what other disasters could be just waiting to hit us thanks to lax regulation and shortcuts in the name of saving a few bucks. It’s very distressing question which we’re often afraid to ask until disaster strikes because we know that a truthful answer is probably not going to help us sleep at night any better. So in the spirit of asking pressing question tied to current events, I wanted to tackle the following question from Pierce Butler, who forwarded the TruthDig story to me in hopes of getting more technical details on inflatable space hotels, and the regulatory concerns they could cause…

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

Now, environmental laws don’t seem to apply to outer space because pretty much everything there is floating in a vacuum where nothing actually lives, and gets bathed by radiation and periods of intense heat and nearly as intense cold. However, letting loose with a volley of junk into orbit could potentially knock out satellites we need for GPS, communications, TV, military intelligence, and weather forecasting. And as of today, there’s no law that would forbid the practice and no regulatory body which will have the power to do anything to punish a space hotel operator who does it. Packing up junk and sending it back to Earth in a vessel would be costly, so the temptation to just chuck it overboard would be there. And since satellites and space hotels won’t generally share orbits as not to collide into one another at about 17,000 km/h, the chances of actually hitting a satellite would be rather small. But as the junk’s orbit decays, or the momentum of the ejection sends into into another orbital path, it will eventually hit something important. Keeping any future space tourism company from simply shooting debris into orbit would take an international effort and a legal framework that will make sure that the applicable fines are paid, and that those fines aren’t just a slap on the wrist.

We need to keep in mind that we don’t really have a way to clean up space junk and the damage it may cause can only be mitigated rather than prevented. If space hotel operators decided to pollute the space around our head with refuse, they have to be held accountable. The worst case scenario is that their own junk will hit the very vehicles delivering paying clients to their orbital hotels, destroying the entire industry in the process while setting commercial travel back by decades. Space travel is extremely risky already and we certainly wouldn’t want to make it any more so. Rather than planning to eject junk into orbit, it should be ready to ferry it back to Earth by the SSTO craft being planned to make space hotels a viable and relatively affordable venture.

[ illustration by Kenn Brown and Chris Wren ]

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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 ]

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Imagine a place where the conditions are just as harsh and brutal as we would encounter on other planets, a place with low gravity, a solid foundation for sprawling, inflatable bases, and a perfect platform for testing new technologies to be used for space exploration. And should something go wrong, Earth is just a couple of days away so crews could execute a hasty retreat to the safety of their home planet if the situation calls for it. I’d ask where we could find this nearly ideal proving ground but then again, the title of this post sort of gives away the answer. If we stop to consider what settling on the Moon can do for our space exploration programs, the often heard attitude of “been there done that” in regards to our natural satellite seems rather short-sighted, trapped in the Cold War mentality of traveling to other worlds solely for the sake of flag planting and national prestige.

Going back to the Moon simply to plant another flag would indeed be a waste of time, money and effort since it doesn’t offer anything new either scientifically or technologically to either NASA or us. However, if we wanted to establish the first extraterrestrial outpost specifically to see if we could live and work beyond Earth’s orbit, this would make the Moon a much more attractive destination. Consider an ISS but in the form of a rapidly growing network of artificial habitats and hydroponic farms, and hopefully without the political and financial quagmires keeping the station from working at full capacity. Of course, the price tag for an endeavor like this would be quite daunting as we’ve discussed before, but the payoff over the long term would be well worth it. Just think of all the technology for building portable infrastructures in pristine, alien deserts we could test, the incredible radio astronomy we could do on the dark side of the Moon, the vacation destinations we could build to actually make money from space exploration, along with the kind of services we’d need to provide to make travel to the newly built lunar outposts easier. We could learn how to live on another world while barely leaving the comfort of Earth, with help or a safe heaven just 236,000 miles away, the cosmic equivalent of next door.

But all these tests wouldn’t be just for show or an inspirational public relations campaign. No, the devices that would create a portable, scalable energy grid could be brought back to Earth and scaled up to serve an entire region where building power lines and massive power plants would be far too cost prohibitive and risky with a conventional approach. Even wealthy countries could benefit from moving to portable, more manageable, and almost certainly more efficient energy grids. Space tourism could generate thousands of jobs and sell flights and space in lunar habitats and observatories to wealthy tourists, corporations, various government agencies, and universities. And having lunar hangars where craft roughly six times bigger than anything which could be launched from Earth may be assembled, can pave the way to safer, more comfortable, and efficient means to travel into interplanetary space. The Moon shouldn’t be an afterthought of the Cold War to be neglected based on the impact of flag planting missions. It should, and can be, our launching pad into living and working in the most hostile and alien environments we can find. The lessons we can learn would enable us to travel to Mars and far beyond in larger, better equipped, cheaper, and more sustainable vehicles partially financed by those who want to benefit from massive R&D projects and turn the technology back into real world applications.

This is why the strategy outlined by Obama isn’t going to get us very far. It ignores just how much is left to be done on our nearest cosmic neighbor and how it can equip us to take the kind of bold steps envisioned back at the dawn of the Space Age. Hopping around asteroids and coming up with a Martian mission from scratch to be done sometime in the intermediate future isn’t going to help us have a sustainable, manned exploration program. We’ll plant a flag and go home at best, turning the kinds of momentous occasions which should be used for profound lunges forward in technology and science into PR stunts. How does this approach help our species? How does it help us sustain our gains? A viable space exploration strategy should not be based on big moments and firsts, but on developing consistent, reliable technology that builds on the gains of previous missions in a condensed timeline given to reach a specific destination. This is exactly how NASA was able to reach the Moon right on schedule while the PR-obsessed Soviet Union couldn’t make it past Earth orbit…

[ illustration by Andree Wallin ]

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In the cautious optimism about NASA’s new budget and direction there’s an anticipation of a second and far less political space race, one between space tourism startups and aerospace companies who have their eyes set on space exploration. The hope is that by seeding government contracts for new spacecraft, NASA’s going to get a safe, reliable, and far more cost-effective replacement to the space shuttle by 2014 and maybe, a heavy lifter for manned interplanetary travel some time in the unspecified future. While this is plausible with enough money and enthusiasm on the part of the bureaucrats, and an intensive enough program, there are a few very important things to take into account before we start counting down to the next launch system and an expansive push into orbit driven by commerce, science, and military research and development projects.

Today’s space-oriented startups are ran by people who are focused on making meaningful strides into space and they’re willing to take the necessary risks to turn space exploration into a full blown industry. But the role of private contractors in spacecraft development is far from new. They’ve been working on building all the launch systems requested by NASA since the dawn of the space program. However, the point was to deliver on a set of requirements rather than actually innovate. There was no incentive to sell the agency on truly risky and unique craft because the underfunded bureaucrats would quickly pull the plug on the project as soon as something went wrong. The few times defense contractors really tried something new, like the DC-X and the X-33 SSTO concepts, NASA shut down the work as soon as the first serious engineering challenges showed themselves during tests. So one might as what’s the point of thinking outside the box if it’s going to remain a hangar queen at best or a neat sketch on a drawing board at worst?

Trying to create competition between high brow concepts rather than just who can fulfill a laundry list of highly specific requirements faster and cheaper is a major game changer, and it’s exactly what the agency needs to be able to return to space before 2015 as per the original goal of Constellation. But the budget allotted for the seeding of the space exploration industry is far from impressive, just $6 billion over five years. With every test launch requiring tens of millions in equipment and work, as well as millions upon millions in the intervening construction and proofs of concept, there’s only so much seeding that NASA can do. There needs to be more cash available to spur aerospace startups to expand and fund more R&D work. There also has to be a plan to turn whatever concepts will win the competitions and make up the new generation of launch systems into fully fledged, sustainable lines of business. Otherwise, there simply won’t be enough of a return on investment to supply NASA with fresh ideas. Today’s space startups are also very vulnerable. They exist on the promise of a future industry and they need a plan to stay in business for a while. Otherwise, they’ll just be the pet projects of ambitious billionaires and research grants on a deadline.

The space agency’s new direction has to be about more than just exploring new technologies and supporting future flag planting missions. Rather than just treat space tourism companies as vendors, it needs to realize that these contracts to provide new launch systems, inflatable space stations and future heavy lifters need to be a gateway for more and more ambitious future projects drawing in more and more industries and making commercial ventures in space more and more feasible and lucrative. For now, NASA will hold a lot of power in its hands and those $6 billion could help put SpaceX, Bigelow Airspace and XCOR firmly on their feet, starting the steady trickle of cash flow which could launch new projects and attract global clientele form the scientific, engineering and military realms. Instead of just seeding some projects, the agency could help shape a brand new industry and for that it needs to be ambitious and lobby for bigger funds using the politicians’ language of jobs and economic stimulus. After all, a working space infrastructure could create a lot of jobs for designers, engineers, scientists and even defense experts.

Right now, there’s a chance to do something great in space, but without a long term plan and a steady stream of funding for it, it could be easily squandered and in ten to twenty years, we could be facing another massive gap in our ability to get into space thanks to the lack of will, vision, or foresight from our politicians and their typically self-serving, short-term agendas…

[ illustration by Alexander Preuss ]

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