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What humans are doing in space these days
August 30, 2011 5:00 PM   Subscribe

Hey, remember the ISS, that space station the Space Shuttle helped build before the shuttle was retired? Turns out humans might have to vacate that nifty space station for a bit.

What happened? The Soyuz rocket used to launch crew and supplies to the station is having a bit of problem. Specifically, two rockets have exploded recently. Since that rocket is currently the only way to get to the ISS, if the problem isn't fixed by November, then the current crews might have to come back to Earth. The Soyuz spacecraft is fine though, but you should look at this neat interactive graphic of it.

As to US manned spaceflight, NASA is at work on the Space Launch System, a heavy lift rocket designed to send humans to somewhere else by besides low earth orbit. Currently the plan is to visit an nnamed asteroid by 2025, then onward to Mars. A manned mission to the Moon is not currently on NASA's to do list, since they've "been there, done that". At the moment, NASA is working out the design, costs and capabilities of the rocket, much to the impatience of members of Congress, particularly in light of the Soyuz failures. Supposedly the Space Launch System is more of boondoggle, earning it the nickname Senate Launch System (Seriously, you gotta watch this, the politics are insane). It's enough to make past NASA administrators wonder if the Obama administration is serious about human spaceflight.

Meanwhile, private company Space X is busy working on the second launch of their Dragon capsule, which is supposed to dock with the ISS as test. If that works out, they'll be launching supplies and eventually crews to the ISS under a contract from NASA.

What's China, the third and latest nation to send humans into space, been up to? They're prepping a space station of their own, Tiangong I, set to launch by the end of 2011. Manned expedition to the station will begin in 2012 with Shenzhou 9.

Mind you, several other countries are interested in launching humans into space. Asian countries really have a thing for it, there's even an Asian Space race. India plans to send a humans into space by 2016, Iran by 2021 and Japan by 2025.

What about the Shuttle you ask? After being stripped of those dangerous engine parts, they'll be sent to various locations around the United States. Not to fear though, the process of choosing those locations was not political, according to NASA. Houston, Texas, home of the Johnson Space Center and who won't be getting a shuttle, ain't buying it.

And the ISS, that big old station in the sky? The Russians have spoken of deorbiting it in 2020, which prompted a "SAY WHAT" from the USA and quick correction from Moscow. Evidently they were just talking about plans to deorbit that station, just to be on the safe side.
posted by Brandon Blatcher (93 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite

 
It's a little hard to believe that nobody has the ability to put humans in low-earth orbit presently, let alone anything further out.
posted by BungaDunga at 5:04 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Lots of nations have potential, but few developed it.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:13 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Not hard to believe at all considering there's damn little reason to put humans in low-earth orbit.
posted by 2N2222 at 5:14 PM on August 30, 2011 [17 favorites]


SAY WHAT
posted by Slackermagee at 5:20 PM on August 30, 2011


There's also no reason to produce Jersey Shore by that logic.
posted by GuyZero at 5:20 PM on August 30, 2011 [9 favorites]


I think there's a fair bit of pathological hyperfocus here. The Russians had a malfunction on a related booster stage. They're standing down to be absolutely sure everything's fine before they launch again. This happens All The Time. Unless the investigation is unnaturally prolonged (which is a distinct possibility, not a guarantee), they should be back in business in no time.
posted by zomg at 5:24 PM on August 30, 2011 [4 favorites]


I just hope the stars don't look very different today
posted by The Whelk at 5:27 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


How long could the International Space Station last without astronauts
posted by Dumsnill at 5:28 PM on August 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


Not hard to believe at all considering there's damn little reason to put humans in low-earth orbit.

We need another USSR. China are too subtle to make into a propagandistic cause célèbre to drive another massive advance in science and technology.
posted by Talez at 5:38 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Lagrange points FTW
posted by blue_beetle at 5:40 PM on August 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


[remembers Skylab. feels old.]
posted by Trurl at 5:43 PM on August 30, 2011 [5 favorites]


They'll find a way. These guys live for shit like this.
posted by perilous at 5:44 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Texas doesn't need another space shuttle, they already got the Columbia.

DUCKS
I'll be here all night, folks

posted by localroger at 5:44 PM on August 30, 2011 [6 favorites]


Space is for robots. Meat is too fragile.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 5:46 PM on August 30, 2011 [6 favorites]


I think we can all agree on putting the cast of Jersey Shore into low-earth orbit, whatever it costs.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:49 PM on August 30, 2011 [9 favorites]


I had hoped to put them low in the Earth.
posted by GuyZero at 5:50 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


There isn't that much to do with humans in low earth orbit. The path to deep space or more ambitions adventure is too far away to bother sending up the astronauts.
posted by humanfont at 5:50 PM on August 30, 2011


It's enough to make past NASA administrators wonder if the Obama administration is serious about human spaceflight.

So what? Robots are way better for space exploration & science.
posted by b1tr0t at 5:51 PM on August 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


You gotta go back quite a few Administrations to find one that was serious about human spaceflight. It's just taken a while for the inertia to scrub off.

Like b1tr0t says, "So what?"
posted by notyou at 5:56 PM on August 30, 2011


Robots are way better for space exploration & science.

Yes, but for funding we need entertainment value. Jersey Shore cast it is.

(Also, hurl half the cast against the other half at near light-speed in the LHC. That should teach them a higgs or three.)
posted by Dumsnill at 5:57 PM on August 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


....Actually, according to what I'm watching on Keith Olbermann right now, NASA'S looking into a manned space flight to try landing on an asteroid.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:57 PM on August 30, 2011


Hubble Telescope Successor Could Get a Financial Lifeline: The budget-busting James Webb Space Telescope could get extra cash from human spaceflight funds
posted by homunculus at 6:01 PM on August 30, 2011


What we really need is one simple, super-reliable, small rocket for launching humans into space, and one enormous super-high-tech fancy rocket for sending up space stations and long-distance vehicles (that can fail without killing anybody).

Unfortunately every time NASA has started working on this, Congress has come back and said "WTF are you doing spending money on two different rocket designs," and forced them to combine into a crazy monstrosity that's good for neither. That's how we get rockets that aren't big enough to launch long-distance missions, and also aren't reliable enough for human spaceflight.
posted by miyabo at 6:02 PM on August 30, 2011 [4 favorites]


b1tr0t: Robots are way better for space exploration & science.

But not so much for romance - bold inspiring deeds - excitement, adventure, and really wild things....
posted by Greg_Ace at 6:02 PM on August 30, 2011


Unfortunately every time NASA has started working on this, Congress has come back and said...

Yeah, the Senate Launch System link in the post highlights this sort of thing to a painful degree.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:07 PM on August 30, 2011


Go SpaceX! Go Scaled Composites. Go Thunderbirds.
posted by sammyo at 6:12 PM on August 30, 2011


Not hard to believe at all considering there's damn little reason to put humans in low-earth orbit.

This is an excellent post with many informative links. I was hoping we could discuss them without having this particular derail yet again.
posted by rlk at 6:14 PM on August 30, 2011


The night Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon, Ray Bradbury did the rounds of various TV studios. After walking out of David Frost's eccentric BBC 'moon party' he was interviewed in the CBS studios by Mike Wallace. “This is an effort to become immortal," he told him. "We’re going to take our seed out into space and we’re going to plant it on other worlds and then we won’t have to ask ourselves the question of death ever again.”

Everybody had different ideas about what the moon landing meant back then, but they all agreed it marked the beginning of human exploration of deep space in our lifetimes, rather than its end. A look at the Apple Shrine just posted on the blue shows the incredible development of computer technology over the last 30 years, but in the same time our capabilities to launch payloads into space have atrophied to the present sorry state of relying on clapped out, and currently grounded, Russian boosters. It's not about technology, it's not even about money, it's about will.

Talez is right in that it will take a major success by another country to rekindle America's interest in space travel. He's wrong in thinking that the Chinese are too 'subtle' for such things. Subtlety isn't exactly their strong point - unless you consider buying a half finished Ukrainian aircraft carrier for use as a "floating casino", towing it half way around the world and then refitting it for military service as subtle, for instance.

The last twenty years have been a waste of time. The problem with the ISS is the ISS itself. Columbus didn't spend a couple of decades pootling around in the harbour, Marco Polo didn't fritter away twenty years exploring his back garden before he set out east. If all the money and effort spent on the ISS had been aimed at Mars we'd be there by now, growing roses, looking forward, not back. It's always been fashionable among some to say we should turn our back on the universe and concentrate on the problems of mankind, but insularity has never been a recipe for success. There was another post on the blue yesterday about efforts to achieve individual immortality but Bradbury was right, the effort to ensure Mankind's immortality must be undertaken in the stars and it's time we started again. If we wait too long, then like the Tasmanian aborigines who forgot how to make fish hooks, it may be too late to get going again.
posted by joannemullen at 6:25 PM on August 30, 2011 [23 favorites]


Unfortunately, since Congress has decided to make NASA into a jobs and lobbyist program, SLS is being forced down everyones' throat. Over at NASAspaceflight.com there are a bunch of very good discussions on the whole mess - but trust me, it's a major debacle.

I wish Space-X and the rest of the commercial guys all the luck in the world, but the decision to retire the shuttle was a premature one considering the sin that we haven't been able to formulate a coherent plan for what to do, post-STS.
posted by tgrundke at 6:26 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yes, I'm curious and excited about Space X docking with the ISS in November. If that happens, they'll be that much closer to launching humans to the ISS and hopefully beyond.

The moon seems like a perfect place to start to learning how to build planetary bases in space. It's a shame NASA isn't currently being directed to do so.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:26 PM on August 30, 2011


When it comes to funding I'd rather my money be spent on putting people into space. Last I checked most intelligent humans are smarter than robots. We're also a bit more excited about exploration than robots are.

It saddens me an amazing amount that the US didn't bother putting something new in place before we retired the shuttle. It would be nice to have the luxury of saying, "This sucks, let's take out the Buick" if this new sports car spaceship doesn't work out.
posted by cjorgensen at 6:34 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Space is for robots. Meat is too fragile.

Oriana Fallaci:

a home you can never leave isn't a home at all, it's a prison, and you have always told me that man isn't made to stay in prison, he's made to escape from it and too bad if he risks getting killed escaping
posted by Trurl at 6:38 PM on August 30, 2011 [8 favorites]


NASA is just a way to funnel even more money to defense contractors.
posted by ged at 6:45 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


What a bunch of pithy nonsense on display. Space exploration by humans will happen whether or not the envious reactionary grumps here endorse it. Go play on your flat earth.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 6:51 PM on August 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


NASA is just a way to funnel even more money to defense contractors.

Into space.
posted by swift at 7:13 PM on August 30, 2011


Not sure if Mars or the Moon or Asteroids are the right direction. I do think we should stop sending 'astronauts' what we need are engineers, inventors, machine shops, plumbers, generalists, gardeners and more up there. "Mission Control, we have a problem, we're busy, go have a nice press conference, we'll let you know how it turns out".

Actually if we find one asteroid filled with gold and diamonds, now that'll start a boom that will mean something.

(...or better H2O, useful ores, fissionable materials)

(well a big black monolith would be cool)
posted by sammyo at 7:33 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Here's your mineral rich asteroid. Some country should probably go get it.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:44 PM on August 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


robots in space not romantic? what?
posted by garlic at 8:08 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


When it comes to funding I'd rather my money be spent on putting people into space. Last I checked most intelligent humans are smarter than robots. We're also a bit more excited about exploration than robots are.

How many Cassini's or Mars rovers can we send up for the cost of boosting a bag of flesh into LEO? Sure, a rover may not be intelligent or particularly excited about where it finds itself, but the people analyzing the data it's collected certainly are.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 8:09 PM on August 30, 2011


Here's your mineral rich asteroid. Some country should probably go get it.

Bah. Keep your asteroid, I've got my eye on this baby. Granted, it will take some time to get there...
posted by homunculus at 8:11 PM on August 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


As to robots vs humans, ideally both would used in space exploration.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:33 PM on August 30, 2011


What we need is a ...federation, to boldly go and retrieve asteroids the size of Rhode Island and tankers sucking huge amounts of methane from them thar cloud giants.

It's like barbarella meets adam smith
posted by clavdivs at 8:37 PM on August 30, 2011


stellar post, sir.
posted by clavdivs at 8:38 PM on August 30, 2011


When the article Brandon Blatcher linked was printed gold was $250/oz.
posted by snofoam at 8:38 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Brandon Blatcher: "Here's your mineral rich asteroid. Some country should probably go get it."

Fred Hoyle wrote a short story about a gold asteroid crashing into England and wrecking the world economy by killing the market for gold.
posted by octothorpe at 8:44 PM on August 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


We don't need it go, but how much would this change if we could lift things into space cheaply? Say a small anti-gravity doohickey. Handwave whatever for the sake of argument here. Now what? We can suddenly run to the moon like flying overseas, build whatever we need to sustain ourselves on top of the vast amount of valuable materials we can make in low or micro G. But what, humans still don't belong in space?

We stay on this planet forever with our thumb up our ass until we run through our resources or something comes along and kills us - anyway?
Doesn't sound like much of a plan.
I know this is a rehash of some earlier discussions, but this does seem to be where the U.S. and other countries are going. Navel gazing is fine if you have to get yourself together, but nature doesn't care about your politics or economy.
We have hard limits on our existence on Earth and we either realize that and find the will to do something to mitigate that or accept oblivion as a species or possibly all life here.

"China is not in a space race," Cheng says. "Its program is pragmatic and proceeds very carefully." Developing the capability to send people into space, and perhaps someday land them on the moon, drives the program, which makes no distinction between civilian and military space activities."

Good on 'em. We shouldn't be "competing" on this any way.
posted by Smedleyman at 8:58 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Columbus didn't spend a couple of decades pootling around in the harbour, Marco Polo didn't fritter away twenty years exploring his back garden before he set out east.

Kind of unfortunate examples here. For one thing, Columbus didn't "discover" anything, because there were already people in the Caribbean, and those cultures had already had a long history of interacting with other cultures in South America. Plus, well, we all know the terrible story of Columbus and his successors. As well, he wasn't even the first European to reach North America, although his team was the first to use new navigation and sailing technologies.

With Marco Polo, once again, he wasn't the first European to reach Asia.

This entire poetic idea that humans must somehow colonize space seems to be based on domination, not poetry. Just think of how much energy it takes to life 3 people into space. It's insane. I'd rather have 10 Hubble space telescopes.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:03 PM on August 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


Just think of how much energy it takes to life 3 people into space. It's insane. I'd rather have 10 Hubble space telescopes.

Without manned spaceflight, even the first Hubble would have been almost useless.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:08 PM on August 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


Without manned spaceflight, even the first Hubble would have been almost useless.

Sure, but you could buy a hell of a lot of Hubbles for the price difference between the Shuttle program and pretty much any other launch vehicle.
posted by b1tr0t at 9:11 PM on August 30, 2011 [4 favorites]


I've wondered what would happen if we just launched a new Hubble every few years. They're costly, but so are Shuttle launches.
posted by ZeusHumms at 9:35 PM on August 30, 2011


It's a little hard to believe that nobody has the ability to put humans in low-earth orbit presently

Not true. China is preparing for the 2012 launch of its own orbital lab in two pieces, followed by its fourth and fifth crewed missions.

The ESA also has its ATV program, for which a crewed capability is under discussion.

Lots of nations have potential, but few developed it.

Not really. The first world powers jealously guarded much of the technology as dual (military ICBM) use is a risk. We are, however, reaching a tipping point where we'll have several different national or supranational launch capabilities, as well as private.

This happens All The Time.

Well, not All The Time. Three times in ten years is more than one would like, but Soyuz and Progress together have successful launch records to envy.

NASA is just a way to funnel even more money to defense contractors congressional districts.

FTFY. There isn't as much overlap as you'd think, especially with the DoD having independent launch technology in the post-Challenger. Congress supported Shuttle with much more gusto than the White House over the years because that money went to local pork all over the country.

BTW, the Rand Simberg space policy cartoon has some truth to it, but you should know that Simberg is an extreme skeptic/curmudgeon when it comes to NASA, and a strong advocate of aggressive privatization from a libertarian perspective that is very anti-big-government. He makes a persuasive case, and it's hard to argue with him about the round-robin rocket program circus, but his position is somewhat outside the mainstream.
posted by dhartung at 10:01 PM on August 30, 2011


Without manned spaceflight, even the first Hubble would have been almost useless

If you didn't have manned spacefligut you could have sent 40'hubbles into orbit even if you screwed up the first one. You'd have 39 left. Imagine all the science that could have been done by a 39x increase in capacity for HST time. That's a lot of astronomy.
posted by humanfont at 12:06 AM on August 31, 2011


Several hundred people in NASA, among others, will be personally devastated if the ISS has to be permanently abandoned. I sympathize with them, each and every one; they're good people, educated people, kind and hopeful people, who were willing, at every step of the political dance between NASA Administration and Congress, to compromise on manned spaceflight programs. When we no longer had the money to follow up Apollo, they were thrilled with SpaceLab; when SpaceLab and Mir were deorbited, to burn up in the Earth's atmosphere, they were happy to have the hugely mission-compromised Shuttle and an ISS on which to focus their manned space flight career ambitions.

Robotic spacecraft are the right tools to explore hosltile Venus, and too hot Mercury. They're the only way we'll experience any of the gas giants - Jupiter, Neptune, Uranus. Beyond Uranus? Forget it, as long as Mars nor any of the asteroids are not landed on, by human feet.

But you know what? We know, now, that Mars is cold, and dusty, and if it contains water, or other life building blocks, it is because it is a grave, a tomb, a now-awful-representation-of-a-planet-that-might-have-been-Earthlike-before-Earth-was-pregnant-with-life.

If we must visit it, in person, to confirm that knowledge, and to respect it, for what it once was, fine. Perhaps, as a species, we owe it, and ourselves, and our Earth, that.

But, on chemical rockets, any other respect we might pay the larger universe by human calling card, is limited, hollow, expensive, and foolish. Hurrah, if we learn, in a century or two, that light speed is no limit. Hurrah, if we learn, along the way, ways of changing mass into energy that are not incidentally fatal to us.

Really, I'm all for Star Trek, and even Star Wars. But, outside myths and movie screens, what is so wrong with being a member of a minor, transient race, that recognized itself as such, and learned as much as it could, before its star died, or went nova (or before it poisoned itself on its home world), and sent some small repository of what it had been, and what it had learned, into the larger void, before and ahead of that world extinction event?

What is wrong with sending out a comprehensive racial message, at the end of your race, and your world, even if you haven't gone far, and don't know much?
posted by paulsc at 2:15 AM on August 31, 2011 [4 favorites]


because its fucking weak
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 3:42 AM on August 31, 2011 [8 favorites]


If you didn't have manned spacefligut you could have sent 40'hubbles into orbit even if you screwed up the first one.

That isn't realistic. Then people would be complaining about sending up 40 telescopes, why can't we send just one or two. If money is the objection for manned spaceflight, then it's going to be an objection for unmanned spaceflight.

But, on chemical rockets, any other respect we might pay the larger universe by human calling card, is limited, hollow, expensive, and foolish.

Not a problem, we can use ion propulsion!

because its fucking weak

I was going to wrote out a longer, more thoughtful response, but this sums it up well.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:01 AM on August 31, 2011


How many Cassini's or Mars rovers can we send up for the cost of boosting a bag of flesh into LEO?

How many CGI simulations of Mars could we do for the price of one Cassini? Why bother spending money on robots, when computer effects work is so much cheaper, and you get the results on weeks, not years?
posted by happyroach at 4:14 AM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


Extinction is not a logical choice. Beware of those who offer extinction in exchange for some other quest.
posted by Goofyy at 4:46 AM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


Without human space exploration, by spending the same money on robotics, we'd now know if there is or was life on mars, io and titan, we'd could have a few dozen rovers on Mars and a floating research zeppelins in the upper atmosphere of Venus.

With human space exploration, we have footprints. On the Moon. Which is pretty cool, too.
posted by rainy at 4:51 AM on August 31, 2011


Without human space exploration, by spending the same money on robotics, we'd now know if there is or was life on mars, io and titan, we'd could have a few dozen rovers on Mars and a floating research zeppelins in the upper atmosphere of Venus.

There is zero proof for this. It's a commonly trotted out sentiment though. "If only there wasn't a manned space program, we'd have robots everywhere, for reals!" Hubble had to run the gauntlet of Congress, repeatedly had funding cuts and that was for just $1.5 billion.

With human space exploration, we have footprints. On the Moon. Which is pretty cool, too.

Well, there's rocks, various other experiments and certain nationalistic pride and a brief unity of people, which isn't half bad.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:32 AM on August 31, 2011


happyroach, the simulations are goinna be fuckin boring, just a bunch of red rocks and dust and shit, who fuckin cares about that BS

instead play a video game about mars, it has explosions and aliens to shoot

actually fuck it just watch someone play it on youtube

actually fuck that too, thats boring

just jack off and eat a donut and take a nap

fart fart fart fart
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 5:32 AM on August 31, 2011 [2 favorites]


There is zero proof for this. It's a commonly trotted out sentiment though. "If only there wasn't a manned space program, we'd have robots everywhere, for reals!" Hubble had to run the gauntlet of Congress, repeatedly had funding cuts and that was for just $1.5 billion.

Well, we have to be careful with what we're arguing about.. If your point is that human exploration may not be giving as much return in terms of science, but is easier to get funding for, that's kind of hard to prove one way or the other. Honestly, I think the amount of science that could be done for the cost of ISS alone (so far), would not only be immensely useful to us in actuality but would also look sexier on paper for Congress and whoever else. Hubble is a telescope, they probably still aren't sure how is it substantially better than their pair of binoculars at home.

Life on nearby planets and satellites, swarms of rovers and probes - that's quite different.

If we put all of that aside and assume that X tens of billions of dollars can either be spent on human exploration or on robotics, the latter option is orders of magnitude better at this point in view of our resources and capabilities.

Nobody is saying human exploration should never be done. It's just that it should have started in 2060s rather than 1960s. We were off by a hundred years, just like mixing up meters and feet.

Right now we can only do human exploration in the dumbest possible way. Once you figure out a way to build a space elevator or something of the sort, only then it may start "for reals". Right now we can only play at it and even doing that keeps NASA from doing anything worthwhile.
posted by rainy at 6:15 AM on August 31, 2011


Unfortunately, since Congress has decided to make NASA into a jobs and lobbyist program, SLS is being forced down everyones' throat.

SLS is a much better answer than Constellation was. Ares I is pretty much useless without Ares V, and Ares V would have never been built, because Ares I would have been a boondoggle to start with. It needed to be perfect to make the original requirements, and it was anything but.

(Note: mt, here, means "metric ton", which is 1000kg. It's much easier than writing Mg (which many people misinterpret as milligram) or 1000kg, and is one of the common terms of art, along with the pound-mass, which is the mass of 1 pound in a 1g field.)

Again: All boosters "leak" mass, as they figure out what needs to be done. If you have, say, 20 metric tons to LEO, and you need 15mt, finding out that after work, you can only lift 18mt means you still have a booster. If you need 15mt, you think you can get 15mt, and you only get 14mt, you have a problem. The Ares I solution was to move mass to the "payload" to reach orbit -- that is, the Orion would have to fire as a third stage to reach LEO. The Ares I, at cancellation, could only put it into a -30x100km orbit (yes, that's -30km, or "you will hit the ground if you don't do something.")

Ignoring, for this paragraph, groups like SpaceX, If you just want something that can put a capsule into orbit, you want to man rate the Delta IV heavy or the Atlas V heavy. The point of SLS is heavy lift, not just getting 3-6 people into orbit. SpaceX isn't in this game, and won't be for a long time. The Shuttle could put 7 people and 20mt of payload into orbit. None of the current manned boosters -- Soyuz, Falcon 9, the theoretical Atlas 5H, Delta IVH or Ares I -- could do that. None of them can put 70+mt into orbit, and that's what SLS is aiming for.

Really, the argument isn't SLS vs. Constellation vs. STS. It's "Should the US have a manned launcher at all?" Almost everyone arguing against SLS is arguing that commercial is the right answer -- man rate one of the 25mt to orbit machines and use that, rather than build a dedicated expensive launcher. People in this camp also believe that the government can never build anything cost-effective. I might agree with that but, I disagree that cost-effective should be the only reason to judge a government program, since I believe that governments should do things that market economies would not because of externalities. (This is the "Only the feds would build interstates" reason.) No commercial provider is going to build a heavy or superheavy lift booster. No commercial provider is going to the moon, or Mars, in our lifetimes. There is no payoff for them to do so. Heck, commercial providers to LEO are borderline, and almost all of the boosters used are supported with government money (either directly or through the purchase of launchers for government payload.)

If NASA is going to build a manned launcher, SLS is the right one, because it can serve as both a shuttle replacement (that is, both multiple astronauts and useful cargo to LEO) and as a heavy lift booster in one package, and with the addition of a second stage, it can also be a super-heavy lift booster. Currently, there are no heavy (50mt) or superheavy (100mt) boosters available, period. Arguably, though, maybe we shouldn't be in the business at all.

As to the lobbyist program? That's been true since Mercury.
posted by eriko at 6:16 AM on August 31, 2011 [2 favorites]


Several hundred people

Between the space agencies and the contractors, it's been estimated that 200,000 people worked on ISS.
posted by miyabo at 7:20 AM on August 31, 2011


When we no longer had the money to follow up Apollo, they were thrilled with SpaceLab;

It wasn't Spacelab, it was Skylab, the first space station the USA built. Spacelab was the ESA laboratory that rode in the cargo bay of the Space Shuttle.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:59 AM on August 31, 2011


Hey eriko, what about the Falcon Heavy, from Space X, where does that fit in all this? It's supposed to be launched in 2012 and be capable of sending 53 mt to low earth orbit.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:36 AM on August 31, 2011


Space exploration by humans will happen whether or not the envious reactionary grumps here endorse it.

It actually seems like space exploration by humans will happen only if there is a compelling economic reason for it, whether or not the envious reactionary grumps around here endorse it. After all, human space exploration is a pretty big endeavor, that so far requires nation-state type resources to pursue, much like planetary exploration did in the age of sail. But planetary exploration had a big compelling goal: a vast sucking unfulfilled demand for pepper, a known target location where pepper could be obtained, and the means to economically transport large quantities of pepper back to where it was valuable. The whole thing was just a race to find the best transportation route for a known commodity to a known market. Sure, we discovered lots of other interesting things along the way, but that was never the point.

Space, on the other hand, has so far proven to be huge, empty, and worthless. There is no necessary resource we know we can find in space or produce economically in space. There is nothing to look for there except adventure. And I'm just as keen on human adventure as any of you, I guarantee, but the desire for adventure has never driven national-scale enterprises, and never will.

So perhaps the private companies will launch someone into low earth orbit sometime in the near future. But I doubt they'll ever explore Mars, because if they do they'll find it's a stupendous, staggering risk and cost for a return of nothing. Nations are the only entities that can spend a lot of money for zero economic return, and on this, they never will.

The US space program is a jobs program for defense contractors. Even satellite launches, which are the only valuable things you can do in space, have mostly gone private. We've learned what there was to learn about human spaceflight, which is that it's inspiring, dramatic, and worthless.
posted by rusty at 9:11 AM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


Space exploration by humans will happen whether or not the envious reactionary grumps here endorse it.

Look, space exploration is a great thing, as is human space flight, no matter how illogical an allocation of resources it is. However, let's face it, space exploration until now has been intertwined with the "military-industrial complex." ICBMs put the first astronauts into orbit. And how many classified military missions did the Shuttle ferry up into orbit?
posted by KokuRyu at 9:23 AM on August 31, 2011


eriko: No commercial provider is going to build a heavy or superheavy lift booster.

As Brandon points out, SpaceX is going for 53mt to LEO next year. Putting both larger LEO payloads and payloads that include boosters for smaller payloads to GEO are both potentially very profitable reason to do this. And their CEO has already said publicly that they would be happy to sign a fixed-price contract to provide the even heavier lifters needed for a return to the Moon.
posted by localroger at 9:27 AM on August 31, 2011


And how many classified military missions did the Shuttle ferry up into orbit?

If you go to the Wikipedia page that lists all of 135 Shuttle missions and do a search for 'classified', you get eight hits.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:31 AM on August 31, 2011


Followup: Russians discover cause of booster malfunctions. As I was saying, this will probably all work out fine.
posted by zomg at 10:19 AM on August 31, 2011


Between the space agencies and the contractors, it's been estimated that 200,000 people worked on ISS.

...and I'm currently one of them. There is a shocking amount of misinformation banging around in this thread, starting with the notion that Shuttle was astoundingly expensive. If you do the math for the life of the program from 1972 to 2011 in dollars and pounds to orbit, it's actually right in the sweet spot with most other launch systems. Hey neat, it brought stuff back, too! It certainly wasn't perfect, but it wasn't the dramatic disaster it's always painted to be.

As for the robotics argument, I'm forced to agree with Steve Squires- you know, the guy who ran the much-loved Mars rover program. Brilliant dude. I'm paraphrasing here, but he basically said that he loves robots on Mars because that's all we can do right now. Because frankly, everything that Opportunity has done since 2004, a single human could have done in a day. A day. The idea that robots can now, or will in the foreseeable future, equal the capability of a human is nonsense. It HAS to be a partnership, and we will never fully know a place until people are there.

To those arguing against ISS, I give you this. And that's only the beginning- it's almost criminal how little funding we are giving to research up there, and we're still managing to learn potentially game-changing stuff like that (well, the Japanese are learning it, but hey, proof of concept).

The ISS will be fine- I personally don't think we'll have to de-crew (the Soyuz is a phenomenally reliable rocket, and pretty well understood by the guys who fly it), but even if we do, we're in a good place to get it back. And we will get it back. There's too much to learn not to.

(BB- great post)
posted by zap rowsdower at 10:21 AM on August 31, 2011 [5 favorites]


he basically said that he loves robots on Mars because that's all we can do right now. Because frankly, everything that Opportunity has done since 2004, a single human could have done in a day.

I hope you're paraphrasing because this would be a very stupid thing to say.

One of the things Opportunity has spent many hundreds of hours doing is holding the Mini-TES and Mossbauer Spectrometer next to rocks to perform integrations. It's difficult to see how a human presence accelerates that; in fact, it's the kind of thing robots are better for than humans, because they can be infinitely patient. Even if you figure the human would pick the rock up and take it to his lab instead of doing a field exam he ends up lugging an awful lot of rocks around.

I would agree that with a human Opportunity's five years of progress might have been duplicated in a single year. Maybe even a few months. Less than that, not so much; even if you figure the human would be much more selective with instant feedback instead of deciding after a day or two whether to proceed past each potential target, the thing has taken literally millions of measurements. That takes time, and even if it takes one tenth of the time that's time you are spending keeping a human being alive on Mars which is a lot harder than providing electricity for the robot.

The fact is even if we get humans to Mars the size of the job and hostility of the environment mean we will be doing nearly everything outside by telepresence. Having humans on scene will still be a big advantage because of sub-second vs. 20 minute to day+ turnarounds, but the advantage isn't nearly as vast as this quite makes it sound.
posted by localroger at 11:30 AM on August 31, 2011


Space, on the other hand, has so far proven to be huge, empty, and worthless. There is no necessary resource we know we can find in space or produce economically in space.

Actually, this isn't true. There are trillions of dollars worth of precious metals and minerals in near earth objects. In fact, I would argue that space is the natural habitat for an advanced industrial civilization. Solar energy is potent and available continuously. There's ready access to hard vacuum and microgravity, both of which are useful to various industrial processes. In the absence of gravity and atmosphere, shipping and commuting become extremely cheap in terms of energy, and you can organize your "buildings" three dimensionally instead of being confined to a plane.

Granted, the energy cost of getting up there and returning these resources to earth is prohibitive. But that's why the focus needs to be on space settlement, not space exploration. We're already starting to bump up against the carrying capacity of the Earth, and we run very real risks of crashing the system in ways that would be very painful. There are resources within the Earth-Moon system to sustain a human population into the billions, and resources within the solar system to sustain a population into the trillions.

I tend to believe more people, in general, is better. It means more innovation, more culture and creativity. However, right now this large population comes at the cost of a mass extinction event that's significant on geological scales. Adapting ourselves to the space environment is the only way to continue to grow our population, and perhaps even sustain it, without risking destruction of the environment that spawned us.
posted by heathkit at 11:34 AM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


I hope you're paraphrasing because this would be a very stupid thing to say.

I paraphrased only a little-

What Spirit and Opportunity have done in 5 1/2 years on Mars, you and I could have done in a good week. Humans have a way to deal with surprises, to improvise, to change their plans on the spot. All you've got to do is look at the latest Hubble mission to see that.


-Steve Squires

(interview here)

You are correct about telepresence- that's one of the reasons you hear about ideas to send humans to Mars orbit without actually landing- it's a lot easier to drive robots with no lag, and then you get closer to the benefits of having a person on the surface. That would still be a precursor for putting them on the surface eventually, though.
posted by zap rowsdower at 11:40 AM on August 31, 2011


GAH and I've been spelling his name wrong the whole time. SQUYRES.
posted by zap rowsdower at 11:42 AM on August 31, 2011


A Plan To Place An Asteroid In Earth Orbit: Chinese scientists have discovered a near Earth asteroid that, with a slight push, could enter Earth orbit
posted by homunculus at 1:59 PM on August 31, 2011


you can organize your "buildings" three dimensionally instead of being confined to a plane.

Wow! Where do you live?
posted by banshee at 2:52 PM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


A Plan To Place An Asteroid In Earth Orbit: Chinese scientists have discovered a near Earth asteroid that, with a slight push, could enter Earth orbit

"What could possibly go wrong?"
posted by notyou at 3:00 PM on August 31, 2011


zap rowsdower, I would maintain that even your more exact quote was at best a vast exaggeration on Squyres' part. The flip side of the long comms turnaround with Opportunity is that a vast amount of human consideration has gone into each of Opportunity's moves, and every observation has been carefully examined. A huge amount of data has been gathered, much of which was of unknown importance when Opportunity recorded it. To think that could have been done in a week by even a small team of humans is moonshine. I would accept an estimate of a few man-months, especially if the man is mainly making snap decisions for telepresence robots. Perhaps if you sent a team of 30 people to Mars you could get all that observation done in a week but that would be even more vastly expensive than sending a more reasonable sized crew of 3 to 5.
posted by localroger at 3:39 PM on August 31, 2011


What could possibly go wrong?

Since the asteroid in question is 10 meters across, the answer would appear to be "you might make a crater somewhere a couple of city blocks in diameter." It would suck if you did that in the middle of a city, but that's not too likely, and even the tsunami kicked up if you drop it in an ocean isn't likely to be too noticeable.
posted by localroger at 3:47 PM on August 31, 2011


I would accept an estimate of a few man-months, especially if the man is mainly making snap decisions for telepresence robots.

"Hey, you expert? I don't believe what you're saying!"
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:47 PM on August 31, 2011 [2 favorites]


Hey, you expert? I don't believe what you're saying!

Mr. Expert isn't the only person who programs robots to do his bidding. I call his bullshit.
posted by localroger at 7:29 PM on August 31, 2011


'he basically said that he loves robots on Mars because that's all we can do right now. Because frankly, everything that Opportunity has done since 2004, a single human could have done in a day.'

'I hope you're paraphrasing because this would be a very stupid thing to say.'


Because all exploration of remote areas on Earth is done by robot?
There's a clear preference of sending people, albeit with robot accouterments.
posted by Smedleyman at 7:52 PM on August 31, 2011


Mr. Expert isn't the only person who programs robots to do his bidding. I call his bullshit.

Ok, what space program have you headed up?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:55 AM on September 1, 2011


Here's an annotated animation of the ISS construction, complete with timeline (requires Flash).

The Shuttle program officially ended yesterday.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:40 AM on September 1, 2011


Ok, what space program have you headed up?

This may come as news to you, but outer space isn't the only place automation is used instead of human labor. I've spent the last 25 years building industrial controls. I have a better idea than most people ever will of what machines can and can't do.

I am in favor of human space exploration myself, but Squyres' statement is ridiculous. It would be just as persuasive to say something that is supportable and not ridiculous, such as "a tenth of the time." But to suggest, as he did, that one person could duplicate more than five years of robotic work in a day or a week is stupid. Not just ridiculous, stupid. Going on record with such stupid statements does not help your cause, it just makes your cause look stupid.
posted by localroger at 5:42 AM on September 1, 2011


I've spent the last 25 years building industrial controls. I have a better idea than most people ever will of what machines can and can't do.

That makes sense, but I'm having trouble believing that you know more about running robots on Mars than the guy who's done that. I'm not saying that to be snarky or argue for arguments sake, but I'm not seeing how your experience means you know better than Squyres does on robots vs humans on Mars. Also keep in mind that the exact quote is "What Spirit and Opportunity have done in 5 1/2 years on Mars, you and I could have done in a good week", so he's hedging his estimate a bit. Hell, the Opportunity rover has taken 5 years to cover 20 miles. Apollo 17 did that in 3 days, and that's with taking time out to sleep.

Rather than hashing out exactly that is meant by a "good week", it might be better to consider the overall point, that humans could have accomplished the same tasks as the rovers much quicker.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:09 AM on September 1, 2011


Actually, rather than hashing out what is meant by "good week" it might be better to hash out what is meant by "cover." It's not what I know about driving rovers around on Mars; it's what I know about gathering information in person, and being somewhat conversant with the data Opportunity has actually gathered. Yes, I could travel 20 miles in a few days instead of 5 years, but I wouldn't have gathered the millions of observations Opportunity has made. Would I have found the meteorites? Would I have noticed some of the more important mineral specimens which were only detected after humans spent time going over the data, occasionally important enough to send the rover backtracking? Would I have made the Mossbauer integrations or even been able to gather and bring back to the lab all the rocks that Opportunity sampled with it? Of course not. To do even a fraction of that in a week, even with a well-equipped rover, would be physically impossible. I don't have to know anything about Opportunity to figure that out.

Had he just said something more reasonable like "a few months" I'd have no complaint. There is a case for sending humans when possible and I probably believe in it as strongly as Squyres. He doesn't want the success of his own program to be used as an argument against something he wants to see happen one day. But that case should be made with reasonable figures, not ridiculous exaggerations that look foolish to anybody who has ever gone rock collecting.
posted by localroger at 7:43 AM on September 1, 2011


Also, robotics technology has improved dramatically in the last 10 years. It's now not unreasonable to make a rover that can move fast over the Martian surface with no human intervention, identifying interesting objects as it goes. Of course there's always a risk that the bot will get stuck or break, but you can send up a hell of a lot of them for the price of one human.
posted by miyabo at 7:50 AM on September 1, 2011


heathkit: Yeah, there's lots of minerals in space. But getting them from there to here involves a big gravity well, so chances are slim that they're any less expensive than terrestrial mining. On the other hand, if you devise a way to cheaply exploit near-earth objects for minerals, the great likelihood is you're going to flood the market and crash the value of whatever you're producing. So, yeah, there's stuff there, but I would contend that the margin for producing it cost-effectively is incredibly thin, and we're nowhere near being able to do it right now for anything.

And the big problem with space settlement is that space is an incredibly hostile environment. Setting aside the wild temperature swings, total lack of air, omnipresent vacuum, and the terrible effects of microgravity on human physiology, you've still got to deal with lethal radiation. There's a reason space isn't teeming with life already -- it's a profoundly harsh enviroment. Just keeping humans alive outside of Earth's atmosphere is at the limits of our ability right now. Living and working in that environment is unthinkable.
posted by rusty at 12:41 PM on September 1, 2011


Space junk rising exponentially: Scientists warn of 'tipping point' but Shuttle's demise means there is no easy way to remove defunct satellites
posted by homunculus at 11:41 PM on September 1, 2011


The good news is that the Shuttle's demise doesn't really impact our ability to remove defunct satellites. The bad news is that even with the Shuttle, we didn't have such an ability.
posted by localroger at 6:18 PM on September 2, 2011


Yeah, space junk seems like another project where a purpose-built solution is going to be far better than anything shuttle based.
posted by b1tr0t at 8:19 PM on September 2, 2011


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