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NASA's new ride
October 20, 2011 8:41 AM   Subscribe

NASA is designing a spiffy new rocket, the Space Launch System, which will lob people and cargo to the moon, an asteroid and eventually Mars.

The rocket and plans for it are a bit controversial. Everything from the price tag, who builds it and even the choice of the SLS have been cause for debate.
posted by Brandon Blatcher (92 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
Yay!
posted by Buckt at 8:42 AM on October 20, 2011


PHHHHHHHRRRRRRRROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!
posted by Faint of Butt at 8:47 AM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Too bad the Space Shuttle never really worked out as planned, a lost generation or two of possibilities.
posted by stbalbach at 8:49 AM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


When I a kid, I spent a lot of time worrying about how I would handle being launched into space when I was afraid of the forces you feel in a rollercoaster. I just realized that I don't worry about that anymore and got a little sad.

I think this is a roundabout way of saying that the rocket looks awesome.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:52 AM on October 20, 2011


Yay again! I would go and watch this.
posted by carter at 8:53 AM on October 20, 2011


JESUS my job is boring by comparison.
posted by theredpen at 8:56 AM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


We're going to send people to an asteroid? Seriously? For $36 billion we could cover the entire surface of an asteroid in unmanned probes. JUST GO TO FREAKIN' MARS ALREADY!

I'm not sayin' that I won't be there to watch the first launch, however.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:57 AM on October 20, 2011


BIGGER! BETTER! FASTER! CHEAPER! MORE VERSATILE! BOTH CREW AND CARGO!

However, there's some controversy over the costs, builders, size, and launch mechanism.

Wait a second. We've done this before.

We're going to end up with another Space-Pontiac-Aztec, aren't we? The Space Shuttle wasn't a horrible concept, but far too many compromises and design-by-committee decisions ultimately made it a kludge that did everything, but did nothing well, ultimately failing the vast majority of its original design goals (primarily "being cheap and reusable"). We might have more faith in the spaceplane idea if Russia's Buran and Energia programs hadn't been scrapped -- their "copy" of the Space Shuttle was technically superior in almost every way.
posted by schmod at 9:01 AM on October 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


JESUS my job is boring by comparison.

Yeah, but I bet you don't have Congressional beancounters climbing up your ass every time you ask for a box of paperclips.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:01 AM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Makes about as much sense as enabling fish to roam the land.
posted by anarch at 9:01 AM on October 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


OK, Serious Question time: Why are the boosters solid-fuel? Why not reuse the same fuel and basic mechanism in the main lift rocket (resized as appropriate)?

Any actual rocket scientists know why?
posted by IAmBroom at 9:03 AM on October 20, 2011


This may end up worse than Shuttle. The design process seems to be:

1. Who is going to build it? (namely, whose Senate districts)
2. What are we going to build?
3. Ok, then what are we going to do with it?

In a rational world these steps would be reversed.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:04 AM on October 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Yeah, but I bet you don't have Congressional beancounters climbing up your ass every time you ask for a box of paperclips.

Before this turns into a pile-on-stupid-gummint thread, if you've ever been involved in a really big project at a tech company you know this happens in the private sector as well. Huge projects are inherently frustrating, though the payoff is usually worth it.
posted by aught at 9:05 AM on October 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Currently planned flight schedule from comments in one of the links:

Mission Targeted date Notes SLS-1 2017 Send Orion/MPCV on unmanned trip around the Moon.
-2 2019 Send Orion/MPCV on a manned trip around the Moon.
-3 2022
-4 2023
-5 2024 First launch of SLS Cargo configuration
-6 2025 Manned "Exploration" Mission
-7 2026 Cargo launch
-8 2027 Manned launch
-9 2028 Cargo launch
-10 2029 Manned launch
-11 2030 New configuration, Cargo launch
-12 2031 Manned mission -13 2032 New configuration, Cargo launch
posted by longsleeves at 9:09 AM on October 20, 2011


Lalalalalaicanthearyoulalalalala
posted by The Whelk at 9:10 AM on October 20, 2011


which will lob people and cargo --- getting back? Well, that's your problem.
posted by crunchland at 9:12 AM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I was at KSC this weekend, taking a tour of the facilities and chatting up anyone who'd humour me. The NASA guide wasn't too optimistic - "there's nothing on paper," he kept saying, by which I think me meant that the rendering linked above is the extent of the project.

SLS is supposed to be the successor to the defunct-ish Constellation program, which was well underway. The launchpads at KSC - where the Shuttle and Apollo missions blasted off - are already half-converted for Constellation (We were standing beside the launchpad in the rendering.) There was a slightly glum atmosphere there - after Constellation's demise, there's a raft of hopeful talk about private-sector companies taking over some of the facilities - even the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building itself. One engineer I spoke with (retired, but knowledgeable) bluntly said that nothing's going to happen for five years.

Rice will continue to play Texas in the interim.
posted by bicyclefish at 9:13 AM on October 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Bang, zoom, straight to the Moon!
posted by kcds at 9:17 AM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


So what are the major differences btw this and Constellation? If Constellation was cancelled due to budget concerns and the suggestion that it was lacking in innovation, what is different about SLS?
posted by modernnomad at 9:20 AM on October 20, 2011


Why are the boosters solid-fuel?

I'm not a rocket scientist, but I believe the solid-fuel boosters are more efficient (as well as being a whole lot simpler mechanically.) You wouldn't replace the big liquid-fueled rocket with more solid boosters, though, because once you start a solid booster, you can't shut it off. It's much the same principle as a firecracker, writ very large.

So you use some solid boosters to help you get off the ground, and the liquid rockets once you get higher up and need to throttle the engines or make other adjustments.
posted by echo target at 9:20 AM on October 20, 2011


I agree the only reasonable goal is straight to Mars. The moon concept is proven and let flying to the moon be a private project going forward.
posted by bukvich at 9:21 AM on October 20, 2011


bukvich has spoken!
posted by crunchland at 9:22 AM on October 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Anything that's not a reuseable SSTO is a gigantic step back to the '60s. Inexcusable.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:29 AM on October 20, 2011


I believe the solid-fuel boosters are more efficient
Just the opposite. Solid fuels have much lower exhaust velocities (which translates into much lower mass efficiency) than liquid fuels.

Historically, there have been good reasons to use solid rockets anyway. They're simpler, which matters if you need to develop better missiles ASAP. They're easier to store, which matters if you need some of those missiles to sit in silos for decades but be ready to launch on a minute's notice.

And today, there's still one arguable reason to use solid rockets: they're higher thrust, so the disadvantage of lower efficiency can be mitigated by the advantage of reduced gravity losses. But that's not much of an argument; you can do pretty well much more cheaply by just using a dense liquid fuel like kerosene for your first stage.

But this is all talking about the red herring of mass efficiency. The real goal ought to be cost efficiency, and here solid rockets succeed because they fail. Solid rockets are being pushed because they mean lots of money for ATK, their politically influential manufacturer.
posted by roystgnr at 9:33 AM on October 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


So what are the major differences btw this and Constellation?

Constellation was Bush's baby. This is Obama's baby.

Otherwise, not much.
posted by Skeptic at 9:34 AM on October 20, 2011


Mars??? FUCK Mars. Dare to dream, America. Let's get out of this solar system, to other stars! Dicking around with nearby planets is for LOSERS.

Grab a seat, Gen-Xoids, and listen to my pitch. Do you remember when we first saw "Star Wars," all those years ago?

And do you recall, at that time, thinking to yourself, "Golly gee shucks, one day I might like to travel very slowly in a cramped space to a nearby planet where there is very little of interest to see or do, as long as that's OK with my Mom" - ?

OR, did you think, "YIPEE KAY-YAY MULCHER-FUNKERS, I wanna fly faster than light to the STARS and bang kinky alien space hotties in my sexxxy-silver LOVE ROCKET" - ???

I thought the latter, and I assume you did too. So let's drop this tiresome chemically powered vehicle bullshit and get to work on a hyperspace drive at once, before my gonads shrivel up completely. Time is wasting, and we ALL have hot aliens to bang.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 9:38 AM on October 20, 2011 [9 favorites]


IAmBroom: "OK, Serious Question time: Why are the boosters solid-fuel? Why not reuse the same fuel and basic mechanism in the main lift rocket (resized as appropriate)?"

Solid fuel motors are an order of magnitude simpler (and therefore more reliable) than liquid fuel rockets. They cannot be precisely controlled or turned off, but that's fine for a booster, and you can use the main (liquid) engine to compensate for any discrepancies. They also provide a lot of thrust, which is also something that you want during your initial launch.

Also, the "plumbing" for liquid fuel rockets can be devilishly tricky to get right, even if your engines themselves are of a good design. These issues ultimately doomed the Soviet N1 rocket that would have been used in the Soviet moon landing program.

The N1's engines themselves were fine, and are actually still considered a good design -- there's even talk of reusing some of their leftover components on new rockets. However, the N1's design was so complex that they couldn't reliably plumb the fuel to the engines, and modern analysis seems to indicate that the problems with the N1 were likely insurmountable.

Thus, modern rocket scientists have an aversion to complicated liquid fuel rockets for big launch vehicles; especially man-rated ones. It's far easier to strap a SRB (ie. Space Shuttle SRB) or an entirely independent liquid fuel rocket (ie. Buran/Energia's Zenit stage) onto the main rocket than it is to plumb everything together.
posted by schmod at 9:39 AM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Anything that's not a reuseable SSTO is a gigantic step back to the '60s. Inexcusable.

Obsessing about reusable SSTOs is the actual throwback to the 60s. Trying to make as many elements of a launch system reusable as possible makes good sense (as long as you don't have to completely refurbish the whole "reusable" vehicle after each launch, like the Shuttle). But SSTO is stupid, stupid, stupid. You want to bring to orbit as little unnecessary mass as possible, and taking the whole damn launch vehicle with you just doesn't make any sense. Tsiolkovsky already worked that out one century ago

(Don't even get me started about Delta Clipper, which involved bringing up there and back not just the whole contraption, but also a shitload of fuel to brake the descent afterwards).
posted by Skeptic at 9:45 AM on October 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Anything that's not a reuseable SSTO is a gigantic step back to the '60s. Inexcusable.

Agreed. So now, not just the solid rocket motors*, but the five engines in the main booster will be discarded? Ridiculous, and near-future funding cuts and lack of a clear mission mean this will never get to the launch pad.

* They are sometimes called motors because their thrust cannot be adjusted, unlike rocket engines which can be throttled back.
posted by Rash at 9:46 AM on October 20, 2011


Why are the boosters solid-fuel?

Because pork, that's why. They're made in the districts of some key congressmen and senators, so the Laws of Pork (tm) demand that they re-use the shuttle solid rocket boosters.
posted by thewalrus at 9:48 AM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm a huge space travel advocate, and a member of the Mars Society.

But after following space travel for pretty much all my life I'm a pessimist when it comes to NASA.

Oh, it looks like a wonderful design. I'm sure that it would fly fantastically and it would be a perfect launch platform for a manned Mars mission. But the chances of it flying in my lifetime are slim to none. Who's going to pay for it? Taxpayers? Yeah, right.
Nobody gives a shit about going to Mars except space nerds like me, and they're aren't enough of us to go around.

Someone is going to get to Mars but I seriously doubt it will be NASA.
posted by smoothvirus at 9:51 AM on October 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


Why are the boosters solid-fuel?

Because they are boosters, that's why. As others have already pointed out, solid fuel rockets are high-thrust, low-exhaust-velocity. Which means that they are not very efficient at high speeds, but in the first segment of the launch they provide much-welcome oomph. They give the rest of the vehicle a nice kick in the pants.
posted by Skeptic at 9:55 AM on October 20, 2011


Makes about as much sense as enabling fish to roam the land.

It may not have been sensible (jury's still out), but I for one am deeply appreciative that Whom/What-ever said to hell with the cost, tossed caution to the waves, and went ahead and enabled the fish to roam on land.
posted by notyou at 10:00 AM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


We were actually kicked out, due to eating of the fruit from the Forbidden Plankton.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:06 AM on October 20, 2011


So do these things get their chemical energy from electricity or oil?
posted by -harlequin- at 10:11 AM on October 20, 2011


I want to believe.
posted by tommasz at 10:12 AM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Don't even get me started about Delta Clipper

You mean the delta clipper developed on a shoe-string budget (well, for NASA) that actually worked, and is being re-created by a number of private companies on an even tighter budget? That one? Yeah. Have fun with all the advances the tin-can-on-an-exploding-stick model will bring us.

OK, let me break it down for you why SSTO is the way to go. Unless the entire deal is reusable, you will be expending far more money, time and effort creating new disposable spacecraft than you will be losing in payload over even a short time period. If you can fuel-and-go (well, with inspection and minor maintenance), losing some payload to a larger vehicle and breaking fuel means that we can make up for that lost payload with a shit-ton more flights and incredibly rapid turnaround between flights.

Liquid oxygen is cheap.

Now, if by multi-stage, you mean something like Spaceship One's lifter-craft + spacecraft combo, then, yeah, multi-stage is OK. If you mean dead lumps falling into the ocean or parachuting into someone's cornfield, then no, it's not.
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:18 AM on October 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Send a manned mission to mars, and instead spending the payload on a return vehicle/fuel, spend it on colony equipment. (Also send some cargo supply missions ahead of time, and afterwards.)

You can bet that sending people to mars without an immediate way home is going to grab world attention again. The ultimate reality TV.

And really, it's also the only way to make progress - if the first manned mission returns the people back to earth, then just like the moon, that will be the end of going to Mars. Mars will be checked off the global mental checklist as been-there-done-that-boooring!

Why the hell would we want to send a person to mars instead of a robot if we're not going to colonise?
posted by -harlequin- at 10:23 AM on October 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


People will go to other planets when it becomes profitable to do so. If you're in favor of colonizing other planets, you need to come up with a solid plan to make it pay. Not some wishy washy way-down-the-road sort of plan, but some way to make it pay right now for the people building the rockets. Then you'll see multiple manned spacecraft racing to Mars and other planets in this decade.
posted by pracowity at 10:31 AM on October 20, 2011


I don't have much time, but before you trash SLS, you should understand the two reasons it was such a problem.

1) the refit time for the reusable parts.
2) the lousy mass fraction of STS, which had Saturn V class thrust and Titan IV class payloads.

Those positing SSTO need to keep reading that last part. Taking 40 tons to orbit is useless if you bring 39 back.
posted by eriko at 10:31 AM on October 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


You mean the delta clipper developed on a shoe-string budget (well, for NASA) that actually worked

"Actually worked"? Perhaps, if by "working" you mean taking off, hovering pretty close to earth and landing. Its altitude record was 3,140 meters. A Harrier jump jet can do the same, fly a damn sight higher, and I don't call it a "space vehicle".

OK, let me break it down for you why SSTO is the way to go. Unless the entire deal is reusable, you will be expending far more money, time and effort creating new disposable spacecraft than you will be losing in payload over even a short time period.

Multi-stage doesn't mean single-use. That's the bit that SSTO obsessives don't seem to get into their skulls.

Now, if by multi-stage, you mean something like Spaceship One's lifter-craft + spacecraft combo, then, yeah, multi-stage is OK.

Yeah, that's actually what "multi-stage" means (although SS1 is perhaps rather a "stage-and-a-half" solution. I don't mind more stages).
posted by Skeptic at 10:34 AM on October 20, 2011


So let's drop this tiresome chemically powered vehicle bullshit and get to work on a hyperspace drive at once, before my gonads shrivel up completely.

If the SLS is a gigantic step back to the 60s, then a hyperspace drive is even worse, being from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. As for kinky alien space hotties, they're no further away than your nearest ComiCon.
posted by Capt. Renault at 10:46 AM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Slap*Happy, an interesting proposal for a low-cost, multi-stage, fully reusable launch vehicle was Robert Truax' "Sea Dragon" aka the Big Dumb Booster.
posted by Skeptic at 10:51 AM on October 20, 2011


This is SpaceX's plan for a reusable Falcon 9. I have my doubts that they can pull it off and get enough mass into orbit. But they *are* rocket scientist and I'm just a lowly engineer. I'd be pleased as punch to be proved wrong.
posted by beowulf573 at 10:52 AM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


If you guys want a good discussion on the SLS and stay up to date on it, I highly recommend heading over to Nasaspaceflight.com. There are a lot of existing and former engineers that contribute over there and there are some really good discussions (and heated debates) for those who are into the nitty-gritty.

But long-story-short, things have pretty much been a disaster since Bush announced the retirement of the shuttle in 2004. I'm not blaming Bush, per se, just that the entire federal government has been utterly incapable of getting behind the mission, properly funding the mission and getting actual hardware in place to support the mission.

A lot of space-oriented discussions get very religious: some people blame big government, some people blame lobbyists; there are those who support 100% privatization, there are those who claim that fuel depots with smaller boosters are the way to go, there are the "lunar firsters" and then there are the "Mars firsters". There is a LOT of dissent and a lot of people pulling in a LOT of different directions.

What SLS has going for it is that it is a pretty measured approach, it re-uses a lot of engineering and existing hardware (first few launches will use existing shuttle SSMEs and possibly their entire main propulsion systems), is scalable and will allow us to lob massive amounts of cargo into orbit.

The very valid concern is that NASA will chew up its entire budget on SLS and have little left for the actual missions. This is a valid concern, when you consider that outside of the vehicle itself you're going to need money for operations, for things like lunar/mars rovers, habitation modules, research into all of that, etc. I am cautiously optimistic that NASA has learned its lesson the last seven years and has a much more focused, efficient plan for SLS development and management of operations. Some of the discussions I've followed at NSF.com lead me to believe that there is reason to be optimistic that we can make this a sustainable program, so I'm hopeful. I'm also hopeful that the commercial providers come online much sooner than we're expecting and are able to deliver on their cost/performance/safety promises.

For the sake of our setting up permanent settlements off this rock in the next 20 - 30 years, let's hope
posted by tgrundke at 10:54 AM on October 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


beowulf573 -

Yeah, SpaceX has gotten lots of attention for that reusable vehicle demo. I wish them all the luck in making that happen, I really do, but there is an order of magnitude of about a million difference between that demonstration/technical study and the actual application.

Let's hope they can pull that off effectively.
posted by tgrundke at 10:59 AM on October 20, 2011


Skeptic: I liked Project Orion. It makes sense really, "Well, the problem is energy density, so what's the densest source of energy we have available?" Start from there, and the idea of using a scaled up coke machine to dispense nuclear shaped charges to blast a 10,000 ton spaceship to Saturn is just perfectly reasonable engineering.

Honestly, the money would probably be better spent in materials science so we can actually build a space elevator or some other method of getting material into to orbit that doesn't cost over twenty grand per kilogram.
posted by Grimgrin at 11:14 AM on October 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Robert Zubrin is the fucking man.
posted by newdaddy at 11:14 AM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


There are terrorists on Mars, planning to convert us all to their religion. They are also single gender, and they have a communal society that is loyal to the state first.

That's right folks.

Gay Communist Alien Marslamofascist Terrorists are there.

Funding. Approved.
posted by Xoebe at 11:17 AM on October 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Robots, dammit. Unless ALL of the physicists are wrong, the future of space travel is robots.

Gigolo Joe: We work under you, we work on you and we work for you. Man made us better at what we do than was ever humanly possible.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:26 AM on October 20, 2011


If you're in favor of colonizing other planets, you need to come up with a solid plan to make it pay.

It will never pay. Except in the Dr Strangelove mineshaft-gap sense.

But going to the moon didn't pay either, and it was done. It's not all about money. Money would definitely help, yeah, but it ain't gonna happen.
posted by -harlequin- at 11:27 AM on October 20, 2011


Someone PM me with an offer of tickets when this thing launches please.

(Preferably Moon or Mars launch. Thanks.)
posted by run"monty at 11:39 AM on October 20, 2011


The choice to use solid rocket boosters, as mentioned above, is equal parts about reducing up-front costs, and equal parts pork. The SLS plan apparently leaves the door open for liquid fueled replacements in the future, and there is a sizeable controversy over whether they should have been considered in the short term too.

Regardless, I think the whole SLS plan is a waste of money at a time when the US has little. There is no need for such a heavy launch system at present, and when there is, commercial players will bid on it. This congressionally mandated project is a white elephant (albeit a really cool space elephant.) I guess it's your country's money though - spend it how you like.
posted by Popular Ethics at 11:50 AM on October 20, 2011


Mars??? FUCK Mars. Dare to dream, America. Let's get out of this solar system, to other stars! Dicking around with nearby planets is for LOSERS.

Traditional link to bummer article for space enthusiasts.
posted by Artw at 11:51 AM on October 20, 2011


Traditional link to bummer article for space enthusiasts.

I'm just trying to get to the moon, bro, why you downing me?!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:12 PM on October 20, 2011


NASA is designing making animations of a spiffy new rocket.

nothing will actually be done
posted by Confess, Fletch at 12:20 PM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


People will go to other planets when it becomes profitable to do so. — pracovity

Amen! So what's the real deal regarding he3? Would it pay? China says they want to go get it, is this for real?
posted by Tom-B at 12:33 PM on October 20, 2011


nothing will actually be done

Are you kidding. I'm sure they'll at least build a launch platform, or fire off some test rockets for designs they'll never use.
posted by Popular Ethics at 12:35 PM on October 20, 2011


is this for real?
No. Sorry. We can't even do fusion with easy-to-get fuels.
posted by Popular Ethics at 12:35 PM on October 20, 2011


But going to the moon didn't pay either, and it was done.

I'm not sure if that's such a boast. What's the opportunity cost of the lunar missions? A decade setback in robotic missions perhaps. I guess if you want to land meatbags on a foreign surface for a few hours at a few tens of millions of dollars per hour, then you can pat yourself on the back. If want real space science, real exploration, and a deeper understanding of the universe, you just let the "RAH RAH THE MOON!! USA USA!!" types have their day and lament that we'd probably have rovers and other automated probes all over the system by now. Subs in Europa, all sorts of moon and asteroid landings, probably the discovery of real alien life (hint it probably isnt on the moon or mars), etc.

Sorry, but humans are just too delicate for this kind of work. Maybe when we start making a real crack at human engineering and start making spaceworthy humans then we can pretend to imagine a permanent Mars of Moon colony. I imagine by then we'd have functional AI working and it would still be smarter and cheaper to send synthetic humans anyway.

Face it, a human with our DNA is just not going to causally live off-planet like a character out of Star Trek. It just makes more economic sense to modify the humans to fit the mission, not the other way around.
posted by damn dirty ape at 12:38 PM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Eponysterical
posted by memebake at 12:43 PM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


What's the opportunity cost of the lunar missions? A decade setback in robotic missions perhaps.

Meh, robots weren't as developed as they are today or will be tomorrow. Hell, sending men to the be moon probably did enable more exploration of it back then, despite the higher expense.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:00 PM on October 20, 2011


Stupid question, could a theoretical spaceship3 (further scaled up in size from the spaceship2 and its carrier aircraft) achieve LEO? I imagine one of the main constraints would be the wingspan and size of the carrier aircraft, which would need to be significantly larger than the spaceship2 carrier plane.
posted by thewalrus at 1:09 PM on October 20, 2011


But going to the moon didn't pay either, and it was done.

Going to the moon was a byproduct of, and the nice parade face on, a technology competition between missile-wielding enemies. A few military jet pilots flew some missiles to the moon and back. The big experiment was the rockets, not the rocks. It paid for itself indirectly as PR for building a huge missile research program.

If you want dudes on Mars, you need to come up with something that makes it pay off, and you have to do it with private money, because no one wants to pay their damned taxes anymore and no wants to pay for a "bridge to nowhere". You'll have to do something like give the exclusive rights to everything found in a hundred-mile radius around the colony for a hundred years to the organization that first builds a self-sustaining colony of 20+ people on Mars.
posted by pracowity at 1:20 PM on October 20, 2011


could a theoretical spaceship3 (further scaled up in size from the spaceship2 and its carrier aircraft) achieve LEO?

Maybe. Orbital has an aircraft-launched spacecraft called Pegasus, but the payloads are really tiny: < 1000 lb to LEO. You might be able to launch one person with that kind of capacity, but not much more.

What SpaceX is doing with Falcon/Dragon is 100x harder than what scaled composites is doing with spaceship2 (not that it isn't cool in itself).
posted by Popular Ethics at 1:29 PM on October 20, 2011


I'm familiar with the Pegasus. Pretty small. If I remember right it's dropped from a L1011 or DC10/DC11 sized aircraft that's been retrofitted for the purpose. If a purpose built carrier aircraft could be built to carry a theoretical SpaceShip3, I wonder if the payload to LEO (ISS resupply?) could be equal to the capacity of a Progress or Soyuz.
posted by thewalrus at 1:40 PM on October 20, 2011


My 100-year plan goes something like this. We use simple rockets like this and expand/continue the ISS. The next big leap should be the asteroid belt. Forget the moon, forget Mars. Ain't no money to be made there. But the asteroid belt...that could have all manner of precious metals useful to us monkeys back on Earth who, as of now, seem to be digging up and consuming all our precious metals at an alarming rate. Those laptops and iphones don't build themselves, the stuff they're made of has to come from somewhere.

So we send some probes (launched from the ISS?) to the belt, pick some good candidates, then send some drilling drones and bring back that precious cargo. Sell back on Earth, repeat. As the tech gets cheaper, and a kind of infrastructure around this is established, the next Gold (so to speak) Rush takes off. Richard Branson goes bonkers and lets loose a fleet of miner craft. Eventually manned missions to the asteroids get going, and a belt space station helps things along.

Back on Earth, we all see the benefit of all this space metal. Now there is an actual space economy. At this point we could a) set up a moon colony, b) set up a Mars colony, or c) start building a launch loop or space elevator. I'd go for c, as that would spur things along even faster.
posted by zardoz at 1:44 PM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


If you want dudes on Mars, you need to come up with something that makes it pay off

"In the event of nuclear War, the American State of Mars shall recolonise the Earth, and the Entire World will become America, and We Win Everything! Don't tempt us to press this red button!"
posted by -harlequin- at 1:49 PM on October 20, 2011


Maybe they'll find a huge supply of Coltan on an asteroid.
posted by thewalrus at 1:51 PM on October 20, 2011


So we send some probes (launched from the ISS?) to the belt, pick some good candidates, then send some drilling drones and bring back that precious cargo. Sell back on Earth, repeat. As the tech gets cheaper, and a kind of infrastructure around this is established, the next Gold (so to speak) Rush takes off. Richard Branson goes bonkers and lets loose a fleet of miner craft. Eventually manned missions to the asteroids get going, and a belt space station helps things along.

The best part about this plan is that, much to the consternation of the "do everything with robots!" crowd, the drilling drones will turn out to be totally inadequate to the practical problems of mining, so we'll have to solve the problems of how people can live and work in space sooner rather than later. (I'm not being sarcastic.)
posted by The Tensor at 2:29 PM on October 20, 2011


I am all for dropping "do everything with robots!" when something not easier to do with robots actually comes up.
posted by Artw at 2:35 PM on October 20, 2011


Manned spaceflight advocate that I am, it seems silly to use robots and probes in conjunction with people. Send robots to investigate the polar regions of the moon, set up a base or partial base, then send humans. It seems crazy and wasteful not to work that way.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:40 PM on October 20, 2011


It may not have been sensible (jury's still out), but I for one am deeply appreciative that Whom/What-ever said to hell with the cost, tossed caution to the waves, and went ahead and enabled the fish to roam on land.

Well, it only took a few hundred million years to reach this stage, so if governments and budgets can survive long enough to develop reliable substitutes for space gills, sure, it'll be fun. I'm not holding my breath (haw haw).

I'd much rather spend the money on making sure we don't fuck up this planet though. It's the only nice one around.
posted by anarch at 2:46 PM on October 20, 2011


Doing things with people is more exciting and interesting, but generally it's for the sake of using people, not getting the thing done. And, you know, we've learned a lot that way so we shouldn't snear at it.
posted by Artw at 2:48 PM on October 20, 2011


that could have all manner of precious metals useful to us monkeys back on Earth who, as of now, seem to be digging up and consuming all our precious metals at an alarming rate.

We're not transmuting this stuff into vapor. Its all sitting ready to be mined in landfills, which is going to be a million times cheaper than sending drilling crews to rocks. Oh, the modules on the ISS will shortly be retired because they were only engineered to last so long. You're going to have a lot of problems with material stress, breakage, crazy maintenence if you want to keep that boondoggle going.

Sorry, but we're going to have to grow up and be responsible adults who care about our planet and put in the proper public policies to keep the human life on Earth comfortable. If we're at the point where we are drilling for precious metals on asteroids, we're probably on humanity's last days anyway. That means something horrible has happened on Earth.
posted by damn dirty ape at 2:53 PM on October 20, 2011


We're not transmuting this stuff into vapor. Its all sitting ready to be mined in landfills, which is going to be a million times cheaper than sending drilling crews to rocks.

No, you just find small asteroids, nothing too enormous, but not so small it all goes away in re-entry, aim them at the Australian Outback or the Sahara desert or North Dakota, and drill them here on earth. Robots will do a great job in selecting and aiming these things... however, you'd need someone to maintain the robotic systems every now and again, and that means meatbags in tin cans.
posted by Slap*Happy at 3:17 PM on October 20, 2011


Let me get this straight, you want to purposefully crash asteroids onto Earth, is that correct?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:49 PM on October 20, 2011


We've never actually got anything back from space any other way that purposefully crashing it into earth, you know.
posted by Artw at 3:54 PM on October 20, 2011


Slap*Happy sounds a little different from gently gliding or parachuting a spacecraft to Earth.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:02 PM on October 20, 2011


Probably a waste of energy that would make the whole thing economical. Of course it's questionable if getting all of the equipment and fuel out of the gravity well so you can go bring the asteroids back is economical either.
posted by Artw at 4:04 PM on October 20, 2011


Makes about as much sense as enabling fish to roam the land.
Many were increasingly of the opinion that they'd all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.
Which is, of course, completely stupid, but funny.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:46 PM on October 20, 2011


NASA imagined spaceship, the Nautilus-X, complete with artificial gravity.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:17 PM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Cryogenic fuels and SRB's? Fucking wonderful...
posted by mikelieman at 9:14 PM on October 20, 2011


I agree the only reasonable goal is straight to Mars. The moon concept is proven and let flying to the moon be a private project going forward.--bukvich

No. The moon is the proving ground for aspiring national space programs, such as the ones in China, Japan, India, and heck, even Iran.
posted by eye of newt at 10:00 PM on October 20, 2011


Send robots to investigate the polar regions of the moon, set up a base or partial base, then send humans.

And what would the humans do?
posted by pracowity at 10:56 PM on October 20, 2011


Finish the base. Explore. Experiments. Fix robots.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:09 AM on October 21, 2011


The job of the fleshbags is to make it necessary to construct a fleshbags supporting enviroment. Everything else is to give them something to do.
posted by Artw at 7:13 AM on October 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


But going to the moon didn't pay either, and it was done.

Not true at all! Here's a list from NASA on all the technology spinoffs created by the Apollo program. Here's a Wiki link to spinoffs from NASA in general.

Having these sorts of crazy goals like going to the moon are great for focusing science and engineering development. I would argue that the money spent on sending a bunch of Air Force jockeys on a joyride has indirectly enriched the economy many times over and saved lives.
posted by backseatpilot at 7:21 AM on October 21, 2011


sending a bunch of Air Force jockeys on a joyride

Minor nit pick: Roughly half the Apollo guys were Navy.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:29 AM on October 21, 2011


Minor nit pick: Roughly half the Apollo guys were Navy.

If we are going to be this pedantic: five were Marines.
posted by Skeptic at 10:02 AM on October 21, 2011


Two were civilians!

Only one was named Edgar!

posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:03 AM on October 21, 2011


A problem with getting an asteroid to earth is where to find enough energy to move so much mass into such a vastly lower orbit.

If we could find a way to lower the orbital energy by sucking energy out of the system (and sending those terrawatts back to Earth) instead of by generating and exerting energy to oppose the orbital kinetic energy, THEN we'd be cooking with gas.
posted by -harlequin- at 2:51 PM on October 21, 2011


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