September 28, 2005

"Extremely aggressive and just barely possible.”

Such was the design of the space shuttle, according to NASA chief Michael Griffin, who calls seems to consider the whole shuttle program a big mistake!
The shuttle has cost the lives of 14 astronauts since the first flight in 1982. Roger Pielke Jr., a space policy expert at the University of Colorado, estimates that NASA has spent about $150 billion on the program since its inception in 1971. The total cost of the space station by the time it's finished — in 2010 or later — may exceed $100 billion, though other nations will bear some of that.
That's just half a Katrina, so I don't have a problem with the money. The deaths are an obvious problem, but so is the sheer, clunky dullness of endlessly orbiting Earth. Can't we please go somewhere?

UPDATE: Edited for accuracy as noted. He's not so blunt.


Seneca the Younger said...

Can't we please go somewhere?

From your keys to God's ears.

Simon said...

I actually disagree with you on this. It always struck me as being slightly illogical, somehow out-of-chronological-order that anyone talked about going to the moon, to mars and the like without having established a presence in space.

It seems to me that the best approach would be to establish several orbital platforms, and figure out sensible and safe ways to move men and materiel to and from orbit. Having achieved this, you assemble ships in an orbital facility and send ships that would otherwise be too big to launch from Earth to establish a base on the moon and more facilities in lunar orbit, and establish reliable transit methods between those two outposts. So at that point, you have a routine space program maturing and gaining experience in regular surface-to-orbit and orbit-to-lunar expeditions. From there, you build a ship large enough and fast enough to take a crew to the moon without killing themselves of boredom durin gthe trip. Incremental steps, separating the various tasks involved with such an enterprise, and escaping the physical contraints of what we can and can't launch from the planet or recover when it's done.

Ann Althouse said...

Simon: But it's not routine! The two shuttle disasters show that. And the low level orbiting is itself boring. I'd prefer to cancel the whole damned thing.

Hollywood Freaks said...

I think Nasa is a bigger joke than space exploration. We'd be better off granting private organizations money to do the research where there is incentive to be effecient and effective with the grant money from the government. If the government is the customer, then Nasa has a monopoly on space exploration which has always lead to high prices for low results.

Sigivald said...

I think, Ann, that Simon's point was that making spaceflight routine is how you end up usefully "going someplace", not that the Shuttle itself was part of such a program.

Personally, I think it's amazing the Shuttle has only failed twice, given its immense age and complexity. We're talking mid-70s technology here, guys.

Low orbit might be boring, but you have to do boring things to get to do the exciting things.

Simon Kenton said...

What has happened with NASA is what happened with Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, and JPL. They brought in the second, then third and fourth teams. Safety becomes the core of the mission, but it is career safety, not actual, that counts. In fact, career safety excludes the mission. Writing process documents becomes the primary activity. The first team, who are brilliant, productive, quirky, and humorous, cannot bear this and leaves or retires. You will see nothing from these labs again, unless the existence of the nation is at stake. And if Durant and Spengler were right, not then.

gs said...

Unless it believed that events were passing it by, NASA would continue with business as usual instead of admitting error. The implications for advances in spacefaring are encouraging.

Eli Blake said...

'Half a Katrina?' (could easily enough substitute 'half an Iraq,' while you're at it).

That's still very expensive.

I'm a supporter of science and believe in space exploration for the purpose of gaining more knowledge of the Universe and our place in it, but I don't like the idea of spending hundreds of billions to send astronauts to Mars or back to the moon just for the prestige of it. There are too many needs here at home to deal with first.

You are right though, that the past history of sending the shuttle up to orbit the earth with a bunch of eighth grade science experiments was a pointless waste of money and lives.

NASA and other countries should finish the space station (much has already been done) and then concentrate on unmanned missions, or manned missions with scientific value (i.e. to repair the Hubble, or to the moon IF the purpose was to build a lunar observatory).

And-- here is where I actually agree with conservatives-- we should end laws restricting access to space. I suspect that as more is done in space and space travel becomes more routine, you will see some bright entrepreneur start selling space flights. The going price for the Russian flights a few years ago was $20 million a pop, but eventually it (like anything else as people learn what works and how to do it) would become cheaper. And, as the space station is completed, the expertise could be put to use to establish a luxury hotel in space. Last year, a private spaceship made it into space, and where one went, more are sure to follow.

I know I don't sound like the Liberal I am in matters that affect the lives of ordinary people, but in my opinion, the actual use of space (an expensive undertaking that for the most part neither directly benefits nor harms almost all the people on the planet) is best achieved by the private sector.

Simon said...

Sigivald has it right - I didn't mean to say that the shuttle had made ground-to-orbit flights routine, quite the opposite, in fact. What I'm saying is, that before you start thinking about running, figuring out how to crawl is a good idea, and we have not made spaceflight routine - as demonstrated by the immense ballyhoo every time we launch a shuttle and get one back. The funny thing is, the shuttle was designed partially to make spaceflight routine by providing a reusable platform, but in reality, it was the Russians who achieved routine spaceflight by using throwaway units which did NOT have to spend nearly a year being reconditioned having been recovered. I'm not saying that an American version of SOYUZ is the way to go, but neither is trying to fix a terminally broken shuttle program.

So we need to make ground-to-orbit routine, and we need orbital facilities. Firstly, because that allows us to construct vessels much larger than we could launch from earth, which facilitates the interesting sort of trips you're talking about - to Mars, to Europa, to the outer solar system. One constant throughout science fiction is that the ships doing the exploration are considerably bigger than - and contain more crew than - Apollo. We cannot launch manned missions to explore the solar system more fully without orbital shipyards, period, which makes them boring, but necessary.

Another thing to consider is, what if we'd used the approach I'm suggesting to reach the moon, and an Apollo 13-style accident had happened? As it turned out, we got lucky, and the parachutes worked. But wouldn't it have been a lot easier if the only consideration had been, how do we get them back to earth orbit? Or, more likely, if we'd gone with my approach, we might even have had recovery vehicles that could go out and assist.

Yes, it's boring, but so are several classes that you won't get out of year 1 of law school without mastering. Not everything that is usefull is sexy. the most important component of the United States Air Force is not the fighter jets, although they're important. It's not the bombers, although they might be important, too. It's the airlift capacity - the logistics. Boring, sexy as setting concrete, but absolutely critical to making stuff happen. There's nothing sexy about RFC 791, RFC 793, RFC 1034 et seq. and RFC 1945 - but boring or not, without them, we wouldn't all be having this conversation.

SteveR said...

Simon Kenton is right, sadly so, but very very right. Once that starts happening, there is no return. And that is what happens.

Roger Sweeny said...

Why go to the moon period? After all, we've been there and it has nothing we can use. Well, yes, there are moon rocks--but at several million dollars a pound, nobody really wants them either.

And that's the problem. Getting out into space is tremendously expensive. And there is no way you can make rockets that much less expensive. There is an extraordinary amount of gravity to overcome to get out to space, and an extraordinary amount of energy has to be expended to do it.

Rockets just can't be made that much cheaper. Perhaps space elevators, which effectively neutralize much of the gravity, can be made practical. No one knows.

But since rockets are always going to be expensive, I don't think it is unreasonable to require that they accomplish something major. Communications satellites, weather satellites: these give you something for your buck. Sending people to circle the earth or land on and take off from the moon again does not.

Seneca the Younger said...

I'm going to have to disagree with you on one point, Ann. Two crashes and fourteen deaths in twenty years is not routine, but not for the reason you seem to think: it's not routine because it's an amazing demonstration of how risk averse the whole program has been from the first. There are more than fourteen deaths every year in routine military flight operations, not even counting combat or testing.

Ann Althouse said...

Seneca: I didn't say the deaths were routine. I said the program wasn't routine, as demonstrated by the deaths. There's a difference.

Aaron said...

I attended the launch of the X1 space plane out in Mojave last year. First private orbital flight. Big fun crowd. I think the private sector will eventually crack it. One of the problems is that except for tourism there doesn't seem to be much of a market in the near or middle term. What can we do in space or get from space that can't be gotten orders of magnitude cheaper here on earth? Maybe there is a maverick businessman out there who has some model that shows some profit in space development but it is hard to see what it might be. Government shouldn't stand in the way of private development but I actually think that if ther was strongdesire on the part of private companies they would get the law changed and be doing it already.

Steven said...

Griffin's assessment of the ISS comes as no suprise to anybody who has tracked his career -- which is admittedly very few outside of space nuts like myself. He pointedly criticized the ISS decision-making process back in 1993.

Back in '93 the technical advisors unanimously said "Do a one-piece station, launch it with the shuttle stack minus the orbiter, and get it done with." VP Al Gore's selection committee overruled them, because that wouldn't allow international participation and wouldn't have given the Shuttle enough work to do to justify continuing the program.

The result is that somewhere around $80 billion above the costs of putting a working station in orbit was spent for no better reason than to make the space station "international" and to give the Space Shuttle program a reason to exist.

That eighty billion could have funded the NASA-modified version of Mars Direct with cost overruns of 100%. We could have had both a fully-operational space station and the first men on Mars already, had the plan the engineers backed for the space station been adopted.

Simon said...

What you're saying makes a lot of sense, but doesn't it also make a degree of sense that it is worth making an effort - even a short-term expensive effort - to make the space station multinational? Aren't there certain gains to be made there in terms of future diplomacy and funding?

One thing that I think must be kept in mind is that, although Russia isn't doing very well at the moment, Russi will retore itself to world power status, by means fair or foul. As it does so, I would rather that it was working *with* us on space projects, even to some extent, rather than as an outright competitor, and the same goes, a fortiori, for China.

William Tyndale said...

You ought to see what this other blogger had to say:

mcg said...

I was so glad to see this today.

The entire space exploration program, as it stands now, is an exercise in incredible risktaking at tremendous expense. And frankly I'm not convinced that it provides significant material and technological benefits in return for that investment, given the pace of non-space technology development today. (Maybe it did in the 60's, that's fine.)

First, we hurl astronauts into space by exploding large bombs strapped to their butts in what we hope is a sufficiently controlled manner so as not to rend them limb from limb. And then we get them down by letting them fall so fast that we can only hope we've wrapped them in enough insulation so that they're not crispy after re-entry. Doesn't that read as irrationally risky to anyone besides me?

Now I'm not against risktaking in total. I mean, I've jumped out of an airplane and skiied far faster than I should have. And, I get in my car almost every day. But I just don't force other people to pay me to do such things.

Does that make me a Luddite? Gosh, I hope not. I'm not saying we shouldn't do space exploration, I just think we ought to figure out how to get there and back in a far less, um, violent way. That's why I find myself very excited about the recent developments in space elevator technology. It promises, it seems, to make the journey into space far more inexpensive, far more efficient, and far more safe than how we do it now.

Once we get into orbit, then it's a whole different ball game, because it's a lot easier to send ourselves to and fro once we've largely defeated the pull of the earth's gravity.

HaloJonesFan said...

People like to say "how was it that we could go to the Moon in the 1960s, but we can't go about Low Earth Orbit today?"

Well, we got to the Moon because John F. Kennedy said "beat the Russians to the Moon, here is all the money you could possibly need". The Apollo program alone cost $150 Billion, adjusted to modern dollars, and that was with 15 years of development work leading up to it.

Once we beat the Russians to the Moon, public interest in space was done. The money was better spent down here.

As far as the Space Shuttle, its original mission (building solar-power satellites) was canceled, along with the civil-space side of the funding. The major source of money was the Air Force, and the only thing the Air Force wanted was a manned vehicle to launch spy satellites, and the Shuttle works quite well for that mission. (Unfortunately for the Shuttle, we launch satellites from expendable boosters now.)

Pastor_Jeff said...

Not having grown up in the 50s or 60s, I was never that interested by the space race. NASA has always seemed to me like a bunch of engineers who found a way to get the public to pay for their grown-up rocketry club. Which is totally cool, but still...

I know the history (Sputnik, JFK, etc.), but given the cost and risks, can someone explain to me the Why of our space program?

Bruce Hayden said...

My problem with NASA is that with all that money going into the Shuttle, little was left for anything else. Plus, the agency seemed to be protecting the Shuttle at all costs, regardless of merit.

I think we saw almost exactly a year ago what could be done with less - in particular with the X Prize competition and SpaceShipOne. But not just that - there is another prize now for a space elevator.

What this says to me is that we are at the point now that we can really start going back into space - as long as we don't squander our money on the 30 year old shuttle technology.

Why the moon? One big reason is that ultimately it is much cheaper to get stuff from the moon to space than from earth to space due to the much greater gravity well that we live in, and even lower energy requirements (is this a square or cube relationship?). And yes, a lot of material can't come from there, but some probably can.

One goal that may be in our reach in our lifetimes is the ability to build a self sustaining industry in space - for not that much more than it took us to put someone on the moon (in today's terms).

Plus, if you want unlimited power - solar power in space. Indeed, even nuclear power there. The problem will be getting it down to earth... But then again, you can put some industries that consume a lot of it in space - if you can get stuff up and down cheap enough.

I know - a lot of pie in the sky stuff. But don't we need to dream?

Steven said...

Simon --

I'm all for working with the Russians, but the way we should have worked with them was buying Energias or Energia launches. Maybe launch the space station on an Energia stack instead of the space shuttle stack; the Russians already had it working as a heavy-lift booster, while the "Shuttle C" would have taken some work. And Mars Direct would have needed heavy lifts; Energias would have filled the bill perfectly.

It would have also made sense to use the off-the-shelf Soyuz capsules as the escape capsules, hire the Russians to do tracking, etc. Lots of room for Russian participation; the Russians had skills and designs that complimented U.S. capabilities quite well.

Instead, we hired the Russians to launch rockets with the same capabilities as ones the U.S., and build space station components we could have built as well. This left the Energia program to disintegrate, leaving the entire world without a heavy-lift rocket.

The international cooperation the space station design was chosen to facilitate was European and Japanese. And no, I don't think we got decent reurns from that, especially compared to what we wound up spending.

gs said...

Pastor_Jeff, some offhand thoughts, in no particular order, follow as to why we should have a space program. My intent is plausibility, not persuasion. I won't defend the space program we have!

There is important science which can only be done in space. Beginning with the first satellite, spaceflight has been a matter of great-power prestige. It's important to be ready in case space becomes more militarized (herein lies a rationale for human spaceflight: if military decisions must be made in space, I want them made by humans instead of e.g. Microsoft Windows).

The most important reason, imo, is that a world-changing technology--something comparable to the printing press or automobile--might happen in space or involve space. The USA should be ready to pioneer or participate in such a development. We shouldn't foreclose the possibility of making a space-related breakthrough which could dramatically improve our material quality of life; prudence suggests that we not be flatfooted if the breakthrough is made by one of our global competitors.

Unfortunately, the previous paragraph's argument is unlikely to sound compelling to Congress.

Pastor_Jeff said...


Thanks for the answer. Good qualifier, too! I'm still not sure of the value - either long-term or short-term. But the threat of SDI had a role to play in the Cold War, so I can see some justification from a national defense perspective. And the ability to launch satellites has certainly transformed global communication. Maybe I'm really just skeptical of the shuttle program, but it seems like NASA is a legacy program in search of a justification for its existence.

Roger Sweeny said...


I suspect that argument would sound plausible to many in Congress. However, it doesn't sound plausible to me. Or rather, I can think of a million similar plausible arguments. A world-changing technology might come from deep ocean research or extreme cold research or any number of things. I don't see space as any MORE plausible. (Actually, my bet for most earth-shaking potential would be bacteria.) If we're going to spend several billion dollars on every plausible, we'll use up the entire GDP.

The military argument may be the most important. The United States must maintain a significant presence in space to scare off anyone else who might try to militarize it.

gs said...

Pastor_Jeff, I share your lack of support for the shuttle. However, trying shuttle technology was not a mistake; the mistake was persisting with the shuttle after tibecame clear clear it wouldn't be cost-effective (and safe). Therefore Griffin's hindsighted characterization of the shuttle as a mistake makes me uneasy. I don't think we could have known in 1970 that a technical tour de force led into a blind alley. Exploration of complex unknowns necessarily involves trial and error. Suppose that Thomas Edison, instead of experimenting with the myriad filaments he tested while inventing the light bulb, had insisted on using the first one...

Roger Sweeny, I am very open to persuasion that we spend too much on space, and I believe that most of the money spent on the shuttle has been wasted. It's not clear to me that there are a million plausible arguments for world-changing technologies. Tens or hundreds, certainly; more than tens of thousands, possibly.

However, I agree that we can't fund every remotely plausible idea. Since high-risk high-payoff speculative technology by definition involves chance, why not introduce an element of chance into the funding of such projects? After the proposers' qualifications and the proposals are subjected to a minimal screening, available funds are distributed by a lottery. (Offering prizes is a complementary, or better, approach which is already being tried.)

Personal Development said...
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