Why We Won’t (fill in the blank):

  1. Go back to the Moon
  2. Build a Lunar Settlement (see #1)
  3. Send humans to Mars
  4. Build a Space Based Solar Power Satellite (other than a demo, if that)
  5. Build a real replacement for the Shuttle (i.e. something reusable)
  6. Build a Space Elevator
  7. Fulfill any other wild fantasy of the Space Tragic community


Giving kudos where they are due, I was alerted to this chart by a blog posting at Rand Simberg’s site, Transterrestrial Musings.  The reason I decided to show this here is not to engage in a “who can spend more like a drunken sailor on shore leave” debate between the righties and the lefties – since both parties have long since given up any semblance of fiscal conservatism, proving once again that the old saying:

“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse (generous gifts) from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy….”

While we aren’t quite at collapse stage yet, I wouldn’t hold my breath for any major investments in space-related projects when you are fighting against much better organized and heeled opponents wanting those funny money dollars for their clean coal facilities, bank bailouts, auto bailouts, national health care systems, expanded international adventures with our military, farm subsidies, rail subsidies, etc.

For those of you who are in your 20s – i feel for you.  This is the first recession you’ve experienced, and it’s got to be discouraging (to say the least).  Take heart in the sage words of Chance Gardner, who said:

In the garden, growth has it seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.

What should discourage you even more, and those of you who are even younger that read this blog (all 3 of you), is this: you (and perhaps your children) are going to be stuck working crap jobs and paying high taxes to work off the ridiculous level of debt this country has saddled itself with over the past 30 years, and from the looks of the chart above, will continue to do.


12 thoughts on “Why We Won’t (fill in the blank):

  1. Watch someone try to make the “trillion-dollar asteroid” argument as the magic way out of all our fiscal woes.

    and here’s the rest of that quote:

    “…(which is) always followed by a dictatorship.

    “The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations has been two hundred years. These nations have progressed through this sequence: From bondage to spiritual faith; from spiritual faith to great courage; from courage to liberty; from liberty to abundance; from abundance to complacency; from complacency to apathy; from apathy to dependence; from dependence back into bondage.”

    Written by a Scottish history professor named Professor Alexander Tyler, c.1787

    Looks like we’re on the final leg of that journey.

    Also keep in mind that, in the 96 years since inception of the Fed, our dollar has lost approximately 1% of its value PER YEAR. Won’t be long now…

  2. But in the end, even if you agree with that economic assessment, what can one do? Life goes on, and we all muddle on through the best we can. To paraphrase a wise man when asked if he believed the end of the world was coming, he shrugged and said “Sure. But I still plant cherry trees.”

    I do agree though that getting crazy amounts of money for grandiose schemes just became even less likely than before. I think the key is going to be doing what few small but important steps can be done with the smaller increments of money that are still around.

  3. I think at this point we should just hope NASA keeps their promise and retire the Shuttle in 2010. As much as the Shuttle is an iconic American spacecraft it needs to go the way of the dodo bird.

    Let’s also hope Constellation doesn’t run into the exact same funding problems the Shuttle did in the 70’s, which really is the root cause for both disasters. I applaud anyone who can keep this from happening again.

  4. Seems to me that space has a great chance when everyone is okay with throwing trillions of dollars around. You only want another $2 billion? Okay, that’s peanuts!

  5. I think the solution is to improve power and propulsion technology to greatly reduce the cost of space missions. Then we can afford to do many things in space that are now impractical.

    All major scientific discoveries and technological inventions that I have studied in sufficient detail to determine whether large amounts of trial and error were involved, in fact involved large amounts of trial and error over a calendar period of five to twenty years. The number of trials during a major discovery or invention is probably somewhere between hundreds on the low end and thousands, even tens of thousands, depending on exactly how a trial is defined.

    The cost per trial and duration of each trial is an extremely important factor is the total cost of achieving a major invention or discovery. Octave Chanute and the Wright Brothers were able to achieve powered flight on a very small budget where better funded efforts like Langley and Hiram Maxim’s attempts failed, in part because they kept the cost per trial very low. They flew gliders made of canvas and wood at low altitude on beaches where crashes would have limited cost, no one was killed, and no expensive engine was destroyed during the trial. The gliders could be repaired and/or modified quickly, often in less than a day. Langley destroyed a small steam engine in each of his infamous failed trials. He only had money for a handful of trials which empirically is almost always too few to succeed. In contrast, Chanute and the Wright Brothers probably conducted hundreds of trials each year for several years. Keep in mind that Chanute was conducting trials of his glider designs in Gary Indiana well before he me the Wright Brothers. The Wright flyer was a lineal descendant of Chanute’s glider design.

    In the case of space and rockets, the current cost per trial is very high, arguably $50 to $100 million for a single rocket launch attempt. If one considers failed projects such as the X-33 and so forth as trials, these purported “cheap access to space” projects have cost hundreds of millions, even billions of dollars each. With these mega-projects, the cost to perform the hundreds or thousands of trials probably needed to succeed becomes anywhere from $10 to $100 billion, even a trillion.

    Similar kinds of economics probably apply to other power and propulsion mega projects like tokamaks or the giant internal confinement fusion experiments. It is true that a tokamak can be modified without building an entirely new tokamak which are now costing billions. But the cost per trial even to modify a giant machine like a tokamak or internal confinement fusion reactor prototype must be huge, millions of dollars, for most modifications.

    What space enthusiasts and others need to identify are technologies and approaches that have reasonable costs and durations for each trial. In the case of chemical rockets, this might mean small scale model rockets (as an example). In the case of fusion, this might mean focusing on non-mainstream approaches like electrostatic fusion where working devices like the Farnsworth fusor can be constructed for a few thousand dollars. This might bring the total cost to actually make a breakthrough down to a few million dollars where either government funding agencies or private sources of funds could actually finance the necessary research and development.

    There is more to successful research and development than trial and error. Brute force trial and error — the famous monkeys pounding on keyboards producing Shakespeare — is not adequate. There is certainly a lot of thought and creativity that goes into major discoveries or inventions, but there is also a lot of trial and error.


  6. John,
    That’s sort of the point that some of the suborbital/amateur groups are going after. Iterating on an orbital design isn’t going to be cheap, so you learn some of the basic early reusability lessons on a portion of the design space that’s actually cheaper and a lot more forgiving. Still hard (we still haven’t flown anything stably yet ourselves, but are hoping to rectify that soon), but easier than orbital launch vehicles. We’ve failed on two vehicles, and are on our third go (with many of the long lead-time parts in for attempts numbers four, five, and six) but in five years, we probably spend less than a company like SpaceX spends in a couple of days.

    That said, even picking an easier goal is no guarantee of success, but I think the probability is a lot higher.


  7. One of the things that Chanute did was to conduct a very thorough survey of all historical attempts to fly resulting in his book Progress in Flying Machines. Chanute was interested in flying from his youth but set aside the interest to pursue a successful career as a railroad engineer (he mad a sizable fortune), sort of the high tech of the nineteenth century. He collected articles on flight all through his life. Once he retired, he combined this collection with further research to produce his book.

    What Chanute did was study all of the failures and the few successes to date. By studying them all he was able to identify a number of patterns. First, the few successes or near successes involved fixed wing vehicles not attempts to emulate the flapping wings of birds. Second, he determined that the key problem was what he called “balance”, that the planes were unstable and often flipped over or crashed, which led to the eventual development of the Wright brothers wing warping mechanism and more importantly the aileron.

    It does not seem that there is a comparable analysis of the problems with the many attempts to achieve cheap access to space to date. There is no Progress in Cheap Space Flight book or web site today.

    There is a tendency to blame the persistent problems and failures on specific technical excuses, e.g. we failed to tighten a bolt (SpaceX for one failure), rather than identify deeper systemic problems. This happened with Langley’s attempts. He blamed the crashes on faulty construction and assembly of his “aerodromes” . He apparently never realized the aerodromes were unstable even though he knew Chanute.

    It often takes a comprehensive look at a large number of failures to identify a consistent pattern or underlying problem. This is probably one of the reasons for the large amount of trial and error in most breakthroughs and the substantial calendar time that elapses.

    In the case of the many cheap access to space attempts of recent decades, as a (mostly) outsider, it is difficult to identify the underlying problems. My educated guess is that both NASA with its huge budgets and the alt.space crowd are encountering manufacturability problems where consistently reliably and cheaply producing components and systems is very difficult. Because rockets explode catastrophically due to small errors, this is difficult to overcome even though recent advances in computer controlled machine tools should offer a resolution.

    But the proper procedure is not to jump to conclusions, but to do what Chanute did and systematically review the many trials and failures. This is something that enthusiasts can do on a shoe string budget much as Chanute did a century ago. This can be done both for chemical rockets and more advanced systems like fusion power.


  8. Amen on the original post, Shubber. Being from Canada, our money woes might not look as bad to our Southern Cousins, but when you consider the numbers on a per capita basis we’re actually in a worse position than you, or have been until recently. Of course the graph you led off with is, unless I’m mistaken, a view of budgetary surplus / deficit coming from Washington, NOT the actual funding hitting the NASA bank account and how that is being distributed.

    Now, since the discussion has moved off of the money issue and onto the more practical issue of technology and development, let me say that NASA really has made a smart move by setting up COTS and establishing a development time-line for continued funding. It allows for several different design groups to try a variety of approaches and, hopefully, learn which ones work and which ones won’t without tying the hands of the developers in too much bureaucratic red tape.

    Private developers are more likely to look more for systemic weaknesses in design than to focus only on single point failures, and monitor quite heavily during test phases looking to pre-empt future failures by trying to find where the next few are likely to occur. This was part of the NASA culture during the early manned space program and only started falling out of favour in the shuttle program after flights started becoming ‘routine’. We all know where that led to.

    John has been making excellent points and comments in a similar vein, and we’re seeing some progress now from SpaceX and other foreign nationally funded systems who are trying to do what NASA did in the ’60s and ’70s. What we’re really needing is a fully reusable system going to orbit (LEO or better) with a variety of cargo types and payload capacities and for some reason, which nobody seems to be talking about, I just don’t see it happening. Am I blind, or are these programs being kept under such tight wraps that they could qualify as an Area 51 Black Op?

  9. I figured I’d revisit this subject. The new NASA Administrator has already said a couple of revealing tidbits about where NASA is now headed. First, he mentioned that NASA’s goals are not sustainable. Nothing shocking here (because it’s true) but coming from the head man in charge is startling.

    Second, he mentioned he believes NASA will go to Mars in his lifetime (he’s 62 now). This is more confusing than revealing, if NASA is going to Mars within the next 20-30 years they’re going to have to be very inventive and come up with something outside the box. Nuclear? I’m for it. International? Count me in except this time make it cheaper rather than more expensive like the ISS. Commercial? Ultimately, this is how I’d like to see it done but it’s just a pipe dream.

    I don’t know what’s up with NASA’s chief nor the Augustine Committee. Obviously the Shuttle will still be retired and the moon is lost. Will they still keep the Ares I and V programs alive? I have a funny feeling they will.

  10. Second, he mentioned he believes NASA will go to Mars in his lifetime (he’s 62 now). This is more confusing than revealing, if NASA is going to Mars within the next 20-30 years they’re going to have to be very inventive and come up with something outside the box.

    He’s going to instruct NASA engineers to cryogenically freeze him. If or when in the future they have the technology to thaw him out without killing him, they may also have the technology to affordably send astronauts to Mars.

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