Reason for a New Age

NASA and Manned Spaceflight

Posted by publius2point0 on 2010/06/12


One of President Obama’s acts was to cut manned spaceflight from nearly all of NASA’s plans. On the right side of the political spectrum, this is viewed as a grave injustice. Exploring space as humans is fundamental to the coolness of science, and to where we actually want to go as a species as regards outer space. It’s in our future.

On the left side of the spectrum, the argument is that admitting all that to be true, a lot of research needs to be done to make the human exploration of outer space feasible and nearly all of that research can be done with robots which weigh less than humans. In end result, you can fit more tests and equipment onto a rocket with no humans, for the same price, and get more data out of it as a result. On a cost/benefit comparison, human-free spaceflight makes more sense for the time being.

In my way of looking at it, this is much like the question of health care where both sides agree that the spending is out of control (double that of other nations), but both sides focus on one or two ideas that cut spending by 1% rather than taking a step back and figuring out what the real problem is and how to cut things by the 50% that’s actually needed. The problem with spaceflight is that the method that we are using to get off the surface of the planet is a technological dead end. It is theoretically possible, I suppose, that we will discover a method of propulsion that is safe to use on the surface of the Earth — unlike Project Orion — while still being reasonably cost effective. But so far as I’m aware, there is no known technology looming on the horizon to make that possibility seem likely.

I saw someone comment that, “Government should get out of space exploration and leave it to businesses.” But the response to that was simply pointing out that private business has never been blocked from getting into spaceflight. It’s simply so expensive to raise significant weights to that height, with nothing to be achieved on the other end but theoretical research and tourism, for a thriving business to prosper. And again, the problem is that rockets are simply a dead end technology for spaceflight — at least from the surface of the Earth.

There is, in lower Earth orbit, a significant amount of rocks that could contain high quantities of iron, nickel, copper, as well as other metals and rare earth elements. Since these are in our orbit, rather than on the surface of the Moon or Mars, they can be collected for the one-time price of getting off the surface of the Earth.

Now, we already are willing to spend billions of dollars to get into space for no financially viable reason. Any source of reliable income from spaceflight would certainly help to increase interest in it. If you pair that knowledge with the estimated cost per pound to get into orbit offered by the Launch Loop — theorized to be around $3 per kilo, versus the $3000 per kilogram that we currently pay — and I suspect that you are looking at a break even if not even profitable scenario.

For anyone actually interested in seeing human beings in outer space, the first step really needs to be in making it pay for itself to at least a great percent. With no reason to think that could ever be viable with rockets, shutting down manned spaceflight isn’t the answer. Telling NASA to give up rockets and start looking at other solutions is. They might not be able to get something working for another 50 years, but that’s 50 years working on something viable, rather than using that same time and money piddling about with something that’s so infeasible as to hold us back from what we want to do.

But at the same time, almost more important is that NASA needs to be saved from presidents.

Each of NASA’s significant projects are those that have schedules running in the region of 20 to 30 years. But in my lifetime, at least since President Bush I, each new president has cancelled and re-tasked NASA to an entirely new set of goals. Doing so meant that everything which had been achieved in the previous 8 years under the former president had to be scrapped. This is a massive waste of resources, and it also means that NASA incapable of ever being able to achieve any of its tasks.

Before anything else, legislation needs to be passed to allow long term projects like this to be largely immune from changes in the Legislature and Executive branches. We cannot dedicate ourselves to tasks that span decades while knowing full well that the next administration is likely to pull us right out of it.

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