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The Well: Looking Up [Jan. 15th, 2004|12:11 pm]
[mood |depresseddepressed]
[music |Office clamor - quiet]

[Every time the national space policy comes up I end up about halfway through the same journal entry. Bush's announcement has kind of crystallized some things for me so I think now the time is finally ripe to finish it.]

It costs 28440000 joules of energy to move a pound of matter into space. (Unit discrepancy, I know. Bite me.) That will never change. It is the number written on the toll booth that is our gravity well. We sit on one side of this invisible barrier, built by the very laws of physics. It is this number that keeps us from finding the stars.

We can't change that number, so all we can try to do is find better ways to apply that much energy to the stuff we want to send into space. It's a lot of energy. The best way we can figure out to defeat this number is to strap a very tiny amount of matter on top of a giant explosion and cross our fingers. To our credit, we've gotten pretty damn good at it. From this layman's perspective our rocketry skills are fairly spiffy. But that's still what we're doing.

When that tiny amount of matter is an instrumentation package or a satellite, we pretty much own the show. But when it's a human - a smart, brave, fragile human body - it all still seems so far away. Air. Heat. Food. G-forces. These are things we either need, or need to avoid. Solving every one of those problems adds weight. More energy. Bigger explosion. Harder problem.

There is this wonderful, young, hopeful part of me that says that we should be going into space as fast as humanly possible. Human footprints on the dirt of Syria Planum. Human eyes watching the sun rise from Europa. Space stations glowing from the reflected beauty of Saturn. It's part of what we do, part of who we are. It requires smarts, and determination, and bravery, and I refuse to believe that any of these are in short supply amongst the human race.

But I'm not entirely that person anymore. I've gotten older and more cynical. I have (if nothing else) an elementary knowledge of economics that only really serves to depress me. What is on the moon that warrants a permanent human settlement? Why are we even trying to go Mars while the moon is such a tremendous hurdle? Why why why? Everything I wrote in the previous paragraph seems hollow in the face of the realities of it. Money. 1 billion for NASA? Drop in the bucket. A real functioning moonbase, not some proof-of-concept bullshit that can't do anything useful, may require a trillion.

What warrants that expenditure? Nothing yet. The optimist can say that we don't know what's there until we go. We'll never know unless man lives on the moon and can experiment. But as long as the tickets are so expensive few can go. And experimentation will not flourish unless it is cheap. Lower the barriers to entry and human creativity will explode. It's been seen time and time again. If there is a reason to be on the moon, we'll find it. But we have to be there, many of us, first. Some will die. More will fail. So many lives must cross into the frontier before we will understand even a hint of its wonders. And it's so expensive. The only way this works is if it gets cheaper.

The optimist, then, responds by saying that it *will* get cheaper. If we keep at it. We'll solve the problem. Then I think about the Space Shuttle. The promises of which have gone utterly unrealized. It never got cheaper to operate, never was the revolving door through which man would routinely enter orbit. A launch a month? Please. Not even close. And how many billions were poured into that project? Why should I feel any confidence in this next multibillion speculative venture?

Depressed, again. The optimist takes one last swing at things. The problems are solvable. We have the creativity and the will. But NASA can't do it. They're hidebound, bureaucratic. Not suited for the 21st century. The answers are there, we just have to change for how we look at them. In which case, Bush should be ripping our entire space program apart. Start from scratch. Move in several different directions, all of them new, and see what works. We're 5 years away from even having an organization that could oversee this massive endeavor. More from going back to the moon. Easily more than a decade from going to Mars.

None of these things are happening. A tiny amount of money, for a dubious venture, to an unreliable organization. Why should I have hope? Why should I cling to dreams that have been dead for so long? The Well looms overhead, and it has never seemed taller or more daunting.

28440000 joules per pound. That's what it takes.

From: fishfoo
2004-01-15 11:04 am (UTC)
You make a good point. NASA is not the answer -- like exploration, the answer lies in the the experimentation and ingenuity of private individuals mucking about with this shit because they're driven to, not because some bureaucrat is paying them to do so.

That's why stuff like the X Prize is neat, and I've been very impressed thus far with how well people like Scaled Composites are doing with the first baby steps towards privatized space flight.
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[User Picture]From: kaynorr
2004-01-15 11:20 am (UTC)

Neat, but fruitless

The XPrize is neat, but I think it's ultimately a sideline. Private innovation is great, but tends to be spread out all over the map. Something like a moonbase or a Mars landing requires a lot of innovation all in the same direction. You have to solve a whole host of problems with a particular goal in mind.

So you have to have incentives. Like I wrote, right now there are no economic incentives to go into space. I'd guess that the chance of finding unobtainium or some incredible zero-g manufacturing process is simply too remote to start a venture around.

Which leaves artificial incentives such as the X-Prize. At best, you spend less achieving the goal then the prize money, and make a profit. At worst, the prize money softens the blow such that you don't mind pissing away the remaining costs. But I'm assuming that all told, a moonbase will require hundreds of millions of dollars, if not a trillion or more. X-Prize's US$10M doesn't even scratch the surface.

You'd have to do something on the order of "US$500B for the first year-old lunar manufacturing concern." At least. Maybe it's completely feasible. I don't know. A neat concept to be sure.
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[User Picture]From: obadiah
2004-01-15 05:29 pm (UTC)

The money

Hi -- pxr5 pointed out your entry. I'm having much the same dual reaction, and you said it very well.

You'd have to do something on the order of "US$500B for the first year-old lunar manufacturing concern."

Which, coincidentally, is about what the US will have paid to destroy and rebuild Iraq. I guess it's all in the priorities, innit?
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[User Picture]From: voxel
2004-01-15 11:47 am (UTC)
Three points, and an unrelated sidenote:
1. NASA problems are less about NASA itself than about any bureaucracy that has to answer to a political body. That's what they are - a bureaucracy that is answerable to Congress, to all its various constituencies, and what we get out of it is for the most part, the intersection of politics, money, and science. Like any bureacracy, there are good people at NASA, and smart people, and some that are neither. NASA could get us to Mars in a decade - the possibility exists if there is the political will. Not mentioning the fact that NASA doesn't want to do this (as it does not expect to get the money required for a venture of this magnitude from Congress).

2. What is it that warrants it? It's there. Government spending on exploration is no worse than other discretionary government spending projects - though it may accomplish less socially than others. Most societal improvements from such expenditures are generally in science/engineering fields which may or may not filter through to the population quickly.

3. That it is expensive is another matter - that is a matter of politics and economics. If the country was interested enough in spending the money required to send men to Mars or the Moon, it would spend the money and resources required to do so. I don't see the $1 trillion in spending getting through Congress, although it would be a huge boost to the economy (though it would be a drag in the long run, if it was not paid for by tax increases). But I don't see Bush talking the Republicans into doing this, and I can't see the Democrats (especially in the House) falling for his half-baked plans ($600 billion is not enough).

I actually wrote a plan for terraforming Mars when I was 15, at the Tennessee Governor's School for the Sciences, based off other plans written about this. I figured out the required materials, the amount of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and water needed to sustain a chain reaction to begin the transformation. The cost would be enormous in dollar terms, though not in actual material terms because there's quite a bit of raw materials that could be tapped through Von Neuman machines or genetically engineered bacteria. So I'm a huge Mars buff. It's that next town over that's forever out of reach.

But this just isn't going to happen. Don't get your hopes up.
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[User Picture]From: kaynorr
2004-01-15 12:25 pm (UTC)
1. My gut says you're right. The hurdle, then is this: how do you organize a multi-billion dollar feat of pure science, R&D, and engineering when there is no profit motive?

2. Your phrase that it "may accomplish less socially than others" doesn't capture the magnitude of it. We aren't talking abou the NEA budget here. Half a trillion dollars. Something like that demands accountability. And political realities are just as tangible as the laws of physics. More immediate, even. And they have to be dealt with all the same.

3. See above. The politics is just as real as the engineering. Both are, one hopes, solvable problems.
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[User Picture]From: voxel
2004-01-15 12:43 pm (UTC)
1. Let's see... find a huge multi-trillion dollar company that does pure science, R&D, and engineering with no profit motive and convince them to do space research? Hmmm. That looks kinda like the U.S. government.

2. I'm talking about a full trillion dollars, actually, and yes, that demands accountability. But money is spent on pure research all the time - superconducting supercollider, department of energy research into fusion, genetic research, and so on. It is a political problem to get things like this funded (although pure medical research, is a bit easier to get funded). I'm not denying this. What has to go into any political push for this is the explanation for why and what we can expect to get out of this. That those answers are lacking at the current time are perhaps indicative of the urgency of such a program.

3. The political problem is quite real, and quite insoluable in the current political climate. We're in a huge deficit, the economy and jobs aren't too hot right now, and the political will to go on a huge spending spree just isn't there. The time may have been right in 2000 to suggest this, get this passed in a time of surpluses. But right now, it is not something that many in Congress will think is affordable. I think there are solutions that could exist to the problem - but I don't think that people will suggest them, nor do I think they'd be adopted if they were.
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[User Picture]From: voxel
2004-01-15 01:01 pm (UTC)
1. Hmmm... what companies could organize a multi-billion dollar fear of pure science, R&D, and engineering and ignore the current profit motive... Well, it seems like the only company that could do that is the U.S. government.

2. Oh, it accomplishes the magnitude of it. Of discretionary spending, the justification for expenditures like the superconducting supercollider, laser research, radiation research, fusion, genetics usually ended in pure science before means were found to utilize them. The political reality is that if there is money to be spent, pure science can usually find some amount of dollars to support it. The political reality also is that that amount isn't a half trillion dollars.

3. The politics and economics of the situation are solvable - however, the solutions available are not politically appealing to those in the administration. They are not willing to pay the price for such a thing - namely tax increases to pay for it - that would alienate the base. Because they aren't willing to pay the price, this won't happen. Perhaps in another time, in another economic and political climate, it would be possible. Maybe when there were still surpluses, in the roaring 90's could such a program be proposed and supported. But not right now.
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[User Picture]From: voxel
2004-01-15 01:18 pm (UTC)
Grrr. I hate it when these things don't update properly, do I rewrote my original comment, and then both appears. Whatever.
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[User Picture]From: kaynorr
2004-01-15 12:30 pm (UTC)
The actual usefulness of what comes out of X Prize is probably going to be a mystery for some time. Maybe it will spawn innovations that make travel out of orbit more feasible. Maybe not. We thought the first Space Shuttle design was just the tip of the iceberg in reusable spaceflight vehicles - whether or not the failure of that project was the result of NASA is up for debate.

Incremental steps are all well and good, but it's wrong to assume that because we could do n, we can do (with just a little more work) n+1.

X Prize gives me some hope, but not too much. We won't know how low cost-per-pound to the moon can go until we try to solve *that particular problem*.
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From: lhn
2004-01-15 03:22 pm (UTC)
X Prize gives me some hope, but not too much. We won't know how low cost-per-pound to the moon can go until we try to solve *that particular problem*.

That's the problem we have to solve to be able to do much in space, as far as I can tell. The lower we can get cost-per-pound, the more things become practical. I'm not sure that NASA's even been trying very hard, and I don't think that anyone's going back to the Moon or to Mars until we do that. The X-Prize may or may not get us there, but it's the only program really pointed in the direction of greatly reduced launch costs.

As for the Mars program, I can't find it in my heart to oppose anything that's going to put people on another planet, regardless of the practicalities and economics. But it doesn't matter-- the time horizon is way too far for it me to really believe anything will happen, short of the kind of firm backing that Apollo got. (And it's unclear that Apollo would have managed it if it hadn't been the dream of a martyr-- would we have gotten to the Moon if Kennedy had lived?) I'd expect this to be whittled down to maybe a new launch vehicle, and endlessly extended deadlines for all the rest of the infrastructure till the issue of space flight is revisited yet again in 2015 or 2020.

Even odds that we get out of the manned launch business entirely during the interregnum between the Shuttle's retirement and the supposed launch of the CEV. I don't think NASA will even send people beyond LEO again, for better or worse. If it's going to happen, it's either going to be the Chinese doing it for prestige or someone else figuring out how to do it for orders of magnitude less money. I don't necessarily predict that the latter will happen, but I have to hope it will.
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From: lhn
2004-01-15 12:05 pm (UTC)
It costs 28440000 joules of energy to move a pound of matter into space. (Unit discrepancy, I know. Bite me.) That will never change. It is the number written on the toll booth that is our gravity well. We sit on one side of this invisible barrier, built by the very laws of physics. It is this number that keeps us from finding the stars.

Though it's not really the energy that's the problem. Unless my math's gone south, 28,440,000 joules is 7.9 kilowatt-hours-- in the summer, I put more energy into air conditioning a room each day. A fully fueled 747 has (if my web searches are accurate :-) ) something like 760,000,000,000 joules at its disposal-- enough to put 25,000 pounds into space, if it could be applied that way. (This site says that a one-way transatlantic flight takes an order of magnitude more energy than the Saturn V rocket produced.)

Space travel is an energy intensive activity, but the real problem is applying it efficiently and safely. If we had to fly across oceans using rockets, that would be hellishly expensive too. Conversely, if we could somehow use standard electric generation to put things into orbit with minimal losses, it would cost orders of magnitude less than it does now. (Which is why orbital towers/space elevators are such a holy grail of access to orbit-- you can use the Earth as your reaction mass and electricity as your driving force. Granted, we won't be building one of those any time soon.)

Bringing down the cost-per-pound to orbit is a huge engineering challenge, as witness the pathetic progress thus far made. And if anyone's going to make it, my money's on the X-Prize competitors rather than NASA. It's also a fair question whether a manned interplanetary shot will bring us closer to that goal. But there's no physical reason that applying those 28 million joules to a spacecraft has to cost anywhere near as much as it does now.
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[User Picture]From: feldrax
2004-01-15 01:32 pm (UTC)
Maybe I'm still in dream land, but I keep reading reports about Space Elevators that will greatly decrease the cost of getting stuff up into space. Sure the technology isn't 100% there yet, but pretty much everyone seems to believe that it will be there soon. (At least on the admittadly optimistic reviews that I've read... ;) ) I've always been a huge proponent of a real honest to goodness star dock in space. And something like a space elevator (or some other really cheap way of getting goods into space) would be necesarry to build it. Ships going to mars, the moon, etc... would then be able to be built in space, and not worry about such things as leaving the atmosphere. Always seemed to make sense to me.
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[User Picture]From: piratedan
2004-01-15 09:06 pm (UTC)
I had a discussion not entirely unlike this one recently with my former girlfriend. Her argument was the tired (to me) "we haven't fixed every single problem down here, going to space in unconscionable so long as one child is hungry on earth."

Granted, I'm a big fan of "the human spirit" but find that human beings, by and large, aren't all that worthwhile. Even ignoring my justifiable if confusing misanthropic humanism, the fact is that we need to go to space. It's in our blood to explore. We need it for morale. Hell, we need the fucking room. As long as we allow viruses like Catholicism to infect the minds of our species so that millions upon millions spew their spawn upon the earth in obeyance with religious doctrine and in violation of Malthusian laws, we are very much in need of looking to the stars before it is too late. It's hard to explore space too early. It's not so hard to start exploring too late.

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[User Picture]From: kaynorr
2004-01-16 07:06 am (UTC)
Sadly, relieving population pressure is one of the worst and least-realistic reasons to go to space. At least for the forseeable future. The amount of resources required to build ships and relocate people on that scale (global-level population pressure) is staggeringly large. Assuming we can get them off planet, there's no where to put that many people in a practical way. Terraforming is a slightly better equation than the emigration costs because presumably the resources for making another world habitable is coming from a different pool.

I can't imagine a scenario where those resources can't be better spent increasing the carrying capacity of the Earth. If we've hit some sort of absolute barrier on that front, we better have either figured out FTL by then (to go find Earth-like planets that require no effort to settle) or made it all the way to green Mars.
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