Join 3,555 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


The twilight of NASA
May 19, 2014 8:06 PM   Subscribe

Use a trampoline. “The cancellation of the space shuttle may be the biggest blunder ever made by the United States,” Kraft said. “It’s fairly obvious that no one in the government thought through what they were about to bring about when they made that decision.”
posted by bitmage (85 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
The cancellation of the space shuttle wasn't a blunder. Those ships were long in the tooth and how many launches before the 99% survival rate meant that every ship in the fleet was lost.

The blunder was assuming this 1970's tech would last forever. Can you image the Air Force saying something like, "Well, we just retired the last F-16. Time to start talking about designing it's replacement, maybe."
posted by thecjm at 8:10 PM on May 19 [29 favorites]


I forget the documentary, but it had Nasa people taking about how the shuttle was designed as a vehicle to really only take parts for a much larger than it ended up being space station, and was actually a terrible design for any other use. it wasn't as safe, more costly, and many other reasons i'm forgetting at the moment. Not having a proper escape option, which was shown a lot during the times it all went wrong, and options where astronauts are at the top of the rocket is actually much safer.

The shuttles do have the sense of the future for some people, but not as much as they did when they were new, as people get used to things after a while.
posted by usagizero at 8:12 PM on May 19


tl;dr; Nationalism.

The cancellation of the Space Shuttle wasn't a bad idea.

However, the numerous compromises that were made during its design and construction were certainly bad ideas (such as letting the defense sector dictate most of the requirements). Turning a blind eye to multiple systemic safety issues was a bad idea. Continuing the program after it had beyond a reasonable doubt failed to be cost-effective was a bad idea. Failing do plan or design any sort of successor was a bad idea. Prioritizing manned spaceflight over a long backlog of cost-effective science missions is a bad idea. Sacrificing the US particle physics program to fund Russia's plan to put Mir-2 into orbit was gesture of good-will that worked for a little while.

When politicians run NASA, the results are generally pretty awful. Ending the Shuttle Program was probably one of the better decisions made.
posted by schmod at 8:17 PM on May 19 [23 favorites]


No, the real mistake was Bush's insane proposal that we run a manned mission to Mars. What a distraction and fiasco. Not quite Iraq-War-scale, but still terrible leadership.

The fine article is correct though in that we have a problem without any reasonable way to reach the ISS other than relying on Russia. Turns out Russia isn't so reliable.
posted by Nelson at 8:20 PM on May 19 [3 favorites]


such as letting the defense sector dictate most of the requirements

And thus the shuttles became obsolete once it was faster for spy satellites to transmit images electronically from orbit.
posted by ceribus peribus at 8:21 PM on May 19


Turns out Russia isn't so reliable.

Yeah, back in the day (like just a couple of years ago) it seemed like the ISS and the US (and the rest of the involved countries) reliance on Russia to get there was something which was going to serve as a bit of cement in international relations. With what is going on now, it's obvious that Russia has little or no interest in playing that game.

The ISS continues to be, for me, one of the most inspirational things we are doing as a species right now. It makes me heartsick that the feeling isn't globally universal enough to overcome political posturing and powergrabbing.
posted by hippybear at 8:25 PM on May 19 [19 favorites]


For every two NASA astronauts that have flown to the station, three Russians have gone.

Hey, maybe if we keep it up the Russians can take 5 out of 5 seats in the ISS and America can move onto something more ambitious than punting astronauts up into a tin can that's barely 200 miles up.
posted by alms at 8:27 PM on May 19 [13 favorites]


Prioritizing manned spaceflight over a long backlog of cost-effective science missions is a bad idea.

So true.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 8:28 PM on May 19 [5 favorites]


"No, the real mistake was Bush's insane proposal that we run a manned mission to Mars. What a distraction and fiasco. Not quite Iraq-War-scale, but still terrible leadership."

I'm always caught in the middle about the manned vs. unmanned space mission debate, as I totally agree that manned spaceflight is a boondoggle and a terrible way to do any science and it definitely has sucked many dollars away from really great unmanned space science but I used to be a member of the Planetary Society when they advocated for a Mars missions and I do agree that there's an important political and, well, imagination/enthusiasm aspect of manned spaceflight and that it's important to keep a toe in, so to speak. And so, anyway, I'm deeply ambivalent about a manned Mars mission. But if one were actually going to happen, I'd be incredibly enthusiastic about it. More than I have been about any manned spaceflight since, I don't know, I was five years old and they landed on the Moon.

So, that said, here's the thing: when Bush announced that, I didn't for a single second believe that it would happen. I didn't believe that it would even make it very far into planning. It was so clearly a political stunt with no real political backing behind it that it was never, ever going to happen. It was a gesture. Like Bush's "Mission Accomplished", it was shallow and posturing, like the man himself.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 8:28 PM on May 19 [29 favorites]


No bucks? Then no Buck Rogers.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:29 PM on May 19 [4 favorites]


Turns out Russia isn't so reliable.

If the situation were reversed, I'm pretty sure the US would do the exact same shit to Russia to e.g. get their hands on Snowden.
posted by ryanrs at 8:36 PM on May 19 [4 favorites]


I'm pretty sure the US would do the exact same shit to Russia

Tu quoque.

Anyhow, I know we're dicks but I think we're the kind of proud dicks that would make a spectacle out of being cool about a contract. Kind of like paying Castro in gold for Guantanamo Bay by chucking it at his soldiers.
posted by codswallop at 8:42 PM on May 19 [2 favorites]


We would know if NASA hadn't cut that program....
posted by hippybear at 8:46 PM on May 19


Not to mention "the situation being reversed" implies that we're threatening to invade and annex Canada, over the severe objection of the entire rest of the world, on flimsy ethnocentric/hate/nationalism grounds. Let's not play the false equivalency game here.

That said, the Shuttle was way past its prime, but NASA tied itself to it so thoroughly that they didn't have the money to develop an alternative. It really was a suicide pact.
posted by Punkey at 8:47 PM on May 19 [1 favorite]


"We are working to ensure the rights of the English-speaking population in Canada in the face of neo-Nazi Francophonic oppression."
posted by hippybear at 8:50 PM on May 19 [7 favorites]


That said, the Shuttle was way past its prime, but NASA tied itself to it so thoroughly that they didn't have the money to develop an alternative.

No, Congress tied NASA to STS. The first people in the world who would tell you STS was a bad idea worked for NASA.

STS was a political decision, not an engineering one. The fact that it flew as long as it did is both amazing and also politics.

You must also realize that compared to the Saturn V, STS launches were a bargain.
posted by eriko at 8:55 PM on May 19 [6 favorites]


NASA has had their hands tied by funding restrictions and pork barrel politics for so long that it's amazing the ISS is there at all.
The Shuttle was impractical and dangerous, but it also represented a spirit of adventuring and exploring that seems to have vanished.
I suspect it will be hard to convince a kid born today that the US ever went to the moon (much less in the 60s!). What's more believable, that a government that can't even agree to pay it's debts landed on another world, or that it was faked with special effects?
posted by bitmage at 8:59 PM on May 19


I'd like to call out the rovers and other Mars missions as a big Win for NASA. Boop beep, good job guys.

space = still cool.
posted by djseafood at 9:05 PM on May 19 [22 favorites]


I suspect that there were (and are) legitimate scientific benefits from a manned space program, a lot of it in terms of testing military launch and control systems, communications, and especially materials science.

But all through my childhood, they tried to sell the space shuttle program through these inane science experiments. "Look kids, the astronauts are carrying with them a microbe experiment from Mrs Smith's fourth grade class in Kearny, Nebraska!" It was hokey, and didn't exactly produce a generation frothing at the mouth to support the space program.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:07 PM on May 19 [5 favorites]


I'd like to call out the rovers and other Mars missions as a big Win for NASA. Boop beep, good job guys.

Not just the rovers and Mars... Cassini is amazing, and we have a lot of other non-ground-based robot friends doing amazing work for us scattered all over the solar system.

NASA has great things and great science happening, for comparatively low cost. I love that stuff; it makes me feel like I'm actually living in the future.
posted by hippybear at 9:10 PM on May 19 [7 favorites]


Man, I'm even a supporter of manned spaceflight and this was a bit of jingoistic bullshit. Russia's fucking fascism 2.0, but thinking the biggest blunder the US government has made is to cancel our shuttle program? Did the 90-year-old Kraft just wake up there? How about not devoting any resources to seriously deal with global warming? Or the goddamn Iraq War II. Or, shit, Vietnam?
posted by klangklangston at 9:12 PM on May 19 [6 favorites]


When I read the first line I thought it was going to be about this.

Space shuttle was the biggest disappointment, we went to the moon one generation, then the next generation we had to limp up to fix Hubble. I don't see how repurposing all that money to something awesome is a bad thing, especially with commercial launches actual for reals happening.

Sure it would be cool if NASA spent 20 billion dollars and built new Saturn Vs to go to the Moon, but isn't it cooler that there is now an economic case for manned spaceflight?
posted by ethansr at 9:24 PM on May 19


Don't the Russians also need the US for effective use of the ISS? As far as I can tell, the only current way to return significant payloads from the ISS is the SpaceX Dragon. The Soyuz can only bring back about 40kg!
posted by vasi at 9:30 PM on May 19


The space shuttle was necessary to build the ISS. The ISS was necessary because it gave the space shuttle something to do.
posted by entropicamericana at 9:38 PM on May 19 [5 favorites]


The cancellation of the space shuttle may be the biggest blunder ever made by the United States

How quickly we forget the annexation of Texas.
posted by aaronetc at 9:46 PM on May 19 [50 favorites]


As far as I can tell, the only current way to return significant payloads from the ISS is the SpaceX Dragon.

Maybe they'll rename the crewed version "Trampoline".
posted by Segundus at 10:05 PM on May 19 [3 favorites]


What sort of space program do you think we could have gotten for the cost of the Iraq war? It's not that we don't have the money, we just don't care.
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 10:10 PM on May 19 [16 favorites]


...all through my childhood, they tried to sell the space shuttle program through these inane science experiments. "Look kids, the astronauts are carrying with them a microbe experiment from Mrs Smith's fourth grade class in Kearny, Nebraska!"

Yeah, I saw those as almost insulting when I was a kid. So I wondered what they do in the ISS all day myself, and the first page that showed up in a google search was from Cornell University. The first paragraph is basically "exercise to not waste away and perform maintenance on the ISS". OK. But then they mentioned that a lot of experiments were underway. Oh, this must be the good stuff! :

Observing and photographing natural and manmade changes on Earth over time as well as short timescale events like storms so we can better understand our planet

Studying how humans behave in isolation and confinement

Leaving potential future spacecraft equipment outside to see how well it withstands being in space to improve materials used to build spacecraft

Studying magnetorheological fluids using the glovebox to hopefully lead to the construction of better brake systems, seat suspensions, and airplane landing gear here on Earth


Granted, this was only one mission, but I find it really hard to justify humans going into space for anything but maybe the last one. Do we really need to spend millions of dollars to get people into orbit to find out how humans deal with isolation and confinement? I am a scientist, and I am strongly in favor of basic research, but if NASA wants funding, they should have to submit proposals for research that are better than these. Of course, they are still doing the elementary/middle schools submitting experiments.
posted by roquetuen at 10:15 PM on May 19 [3 favorites]


You must also realize that compared to the Saturn V, STS launches were a bargain.

Skimming, the Saturn V cost more at $565 million (current) dollars versus $200 million for the shuttle, but with 5 times the lift capacity. Meaning a lower cost per kilogram.

So, you can put up a bigger telescope, a bigger space station module, or a bigger set of probes to the moon or planets.
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:17 PM on May 19 [7 favorites]


If it means we stop wasting money on the ISS, all the better. More probes, more rovers, less idiotic flying death traps that provide zero scientific benefit. The ISS and STS were an infinite loop of political back-scratching and pork-barrel "science".
posted by petrilli at 10:25 PM on May 19 [1 favorite]


Of course, they are still doing the elementary/middle schools submitting experiments.

Of course they are.

Because back during the days of the moon missions, it was having youngsters inspired enough by the concept of what NASA was doing that fed the pipeline. They are still trying to do this, but they have horrible marketing (or whatever) so what they end up doing ends up seeming pretty lame and isn't inspirational at all.

Chris Hadfield did more to be inspirational about being in space in just a few years than NASA managed in the preceding decades.
posted by hippybear at 10:30 PM on May 19 [6 favorites]


One of the ideas they considered for the Apollo program after the moon was a manned mission to Venus. In a fit of sanity, they decided to build Skylab instead, but what could have been.

The Mars rovers are fantastic, Cassini continues to amaze and delight, and we still get science out of the Voyager program. But we're still stuck in low Earth orbit when we should have a moon base by now. I was promised a moon base when I was growing up, get with it. Stop cutting NASA funding already. Or, at the very least, give us the world of The Return of William Proxmire.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 11:27 PM on May 19 [3 favorites]


No bucks? Then no Buck Rogers.

I don't think NASA regards losing astronauts in deep space as a successful paradigm.
posted by biffa at 11:38 PM on May 19 [3 favorites]


The cancellation of the space shuttle may be the biggest blunder ever made by the United States

I agree that it was a huge error in judgement but oh my god, it is not even in the top 20 cracked listicle of shittiest most heinous most cretinous mistakes made by the USA. Even if I give you a free pass on the genocide and slavery stuff it still doesn't make it into the top 10.

a little perspective is all i ask for
posted by elizardbits at 11:48 PM on May 19 [15 favorites]


i mean lbr of course #1 is the banning of importation of kinder eggs.
posted by elizardbits at 11:49 PM on May 19 [13 favorites]


Blunder? As an Englishman, one feels compelled to highlight that the dumping of a boatload of finest tea into Boston Harbor was a culinary mistake of significant magnitude by the Western Colonies.

That sulky "I'm going to my room and I'm not coming out for a long while" thing that started in 1776 also ranks highly as a somewhat regretful mistake. We are a kindly parent, though, and you are welcome back at any time. Cornwall and the Cornish have recognized status, and they have a flag, so there is no problem with re-accommodating you folk on the same basis (we may have to change your name to West Cornwall for consistency).
posted by Wordshore at 1:37 AM on May 20 [13 favorites]


When did 'Because it fires kid's imaginations!' become a good reason to spend public funds on serious science?

My nephews are never gonna play 'Let's discover how to beat Extreme/Multi Drug Resistant Tuberculosis'.

Or maybe they will and I'll be surprised.
posted by evil_esto at 2:41 AM on May 20 [2 favorites]


My nephews are never gonna play 'Let's discover how to beat Extreme/Multi Drug Resistant Tuberculosis'.

Consider introducing them to foldit.
posted by Wordshore at 3:04 AM on May 20 [6 favorites]


Wordshore, if it wasn't for the USA, you people would be speaking English right now.

uh, wait
posted by thelonius at 4:07 AM on May 20 [3 favorites]


"Bush's vision" -- Houston Chronicle
posted by surplus at 4:28 AM on May 20 [1 favorite]


Sure it would be cool if NASA spent 20 billion dollars and built new Saturn Vs to go to the Moon, but isn't it cooler that there is now an economic case for manned spaceflight?

There are easier ways now. One of the original Apollo proposals was to send the CM and LEM up in separate launches, dock in orbit, then depart from orbit. I vaguely recall plans to even build the spacecraft in orbit. We couldn't do it then, but we could easily do it now with the existing SpaceX Falcon 9. And they have a Falcon Heavy in the works that could probably get an entire Apollo mission payload in one launch. Falcon Heavy hasn't launched yet, but they could probably put one together today if someone just bought one. We already have similar rockets like the Delta IV Heavy. Of course this would all be a lot cheaper and easier with a Space Shuttle.

NASA's role is being taken over by private industry. And that is as it should be. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics was founded in 1915 to help establish the technical viability of aviation. I don't see anyone griping that NACA isn't spending enough money designing and building aircraft. But that is the tone of this stupid article. It gripes that NASA isn't doing what it did in the 80s and 90s. It reads to me like a complaint that NACA isn't doing enough R&D on blimps.
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:41 AM on May 20 [3 favorites]


NASA's role is being taken over by private industry. And that is as it should be.

I'd thought the shuttle program had been folded into the USAF, giving the advantages of guaranteed funding, no requirement for human pilots, and freedom from the projects of schoolchildren. They're up to 500 days or something on the latest mission, which the old shuttle would never manage, and no need to do daft faux international cooperation (or high-school) projects.
posted by pompomtom at 4:53 AM on May 20 [3 favorites]


At present is there any reason not to try to solve this problem by throwing money at SpaceX? How much work needs to be done to get Dragon man-rated anyway?
posted by localroger at 5:04 AM on May 20


I'd like to be dragon-man rated. I think I'm not alone.
posted by jepler at 5:11 AM on May 20 [7 favorites]


Step one to throwing money at Space X is to allow them to compete for business.
posted by skittlekicks at 5:18 AM on May 20


It's already been replaced. I'll bet you a chocolate chip cookie there's already a way to put astronauts in orbit, maybe even a SSTO spaceplane of some description. There are a ton of US military assets in orbit that need servicing from time to time.

The DoD has simply decided not to share with the civilians over at NASA, probably because of the ever deepening Cult of Secrecy crippling the State Department and DoD, and because we sort of want to encourage a private space industry.

(Think of the biggest, grandest experiment in NASA's recent history, the most awe-inspiring achievement of American science since the close of the Cold War. The Hubble Telescope! Turns out the DoD had two more even more powerful telescopes, used for spying on commies out around Sirius Major or some useless shit. It wasn't even a blip on their budget, and they let NASA have 'em, like hand-me-downs you get from your rich cousin once they were obsolete. Think about that one a moment. Of course the military has manned access to orbit. Poor cousin NASA has to hitch a ride with SpaceX or the Russians or maybe they can construct a giant slingshot with the rubberbands found in the desks of laid off engineers.)
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:25 AM on May 20 [3 favorites]


At present is there any reason not to try to solve this problem by throwing money at SpaceX? How much work needs to be done to get Dragon man-rated anyway?

1. Who's going to throw money at Space X and how much? If it's NASA, what programs do you want to cut in order give the money to Space X? I'm not even sure NASA could legally do that or easily. Their budget is determined by Congress, not the agency itself and we see how that's gone.

2. Dragon is supposed to have its first test flight in 2015. This will be just a Earth orbiting mission to test the craft, not a flight to the ISS. I'm not aware of set date for this flight, so I'm guessing they're running a bit behind.

I'll bet you a chocolate chip cookie there's already a way to put astronauts in orbit, maybe even a SSTO spaceplane of some description.

The military realized long ago it doesn't need manned access to space to do its job, i.e. blow things up or provide communications. It's highly doubtful they have a secret manned program.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:30 AM on May 20 [2 favorites]


Sure it would be cool if NASA spent 20 billion dollars and built new Saturn Vs to go to the Moon, but isn't it cooler that there is now an economic case for manned spaceflight?

20 billion? Not nearly enough.

You can't build the Saturn V today. It's not that we don't have the plans -- we do, stored on microfiche at MSFS. It's the materials. Many of the alloys you need aren't made anymore. The electronic components aren't made anymore. The tooling is long gone.

Furthermore, you wouldn't want to build the Saturn V today! Modern alloys are much better. Modern electronics are staggeringly better. The Instrument Unit that controlled the Saturn V was fitted into a 1 meter tall, 6.6 meter diameter ring. You can fit vastly more computing power *and* vastly better accelerometers into your pocket today*

The change in electronics is staggering. Half of the components in the F-1 engine are there to control the fuel/oxidizer flow, to make sure the engine starts and runs smoothly. All of them can be replaced with two modern valves and a micro controller. Oh, and they are doing just that

The manufacturing processes have changed. They didn't have 3D printing, laser and friction-stir welding, chemical milling, CAD/CAM, or hell, composite layup.

And, of course, we have 50 more years of experience on what works and what doesn't on a rocket.

So, you don't build a Saturn V. You build something that takes advantage of 50 years of technological advances, and you either get the same mass into LEO for a lot less money, or you get a lot more mass into LEO for the same money.



* It's called an iPhone. Indeed, the only thing you would need external for it is a bracket to hold it in a fixed relationship to the spacecraft and a window for the camera, and you'd be able to correct the alignment of the spacecraft. The accelerometer would measure burns. The one thing you can't directly derive from the iPhone in a bracket is distance to the Earth, you'd need a radio for that -- play a pseudorandom stream of tones into the transmitter, have the ground station relay that back, measure the shift and you have the round trip time, which means you have the distance to earth.

And that's exactly how the AGC did it. Accelerometers measured the burns. A sextant told them which way they were pointed. A psuedo-random stream of noise was broadcast up from the earth and looped back, that gave them distance.

The Apollo Guidance Computer was a major achievement -- for the 1960s. Today, it's a sad, sad joke in terms of mass, power consumption, and processing power. Worse, it needed a IBM 360 on the ground to do the heavy lifting -- in the transcripts, you constantly hear Houston calling up guidance info (called PADs, Pre Advisory Data) that the mainframes calculated. These were critical -- there was a very rigorous procedure on how to fill out the forms, read them up to the spacecraft, and they were always read back to make sure the data was correct.

That's the difference in electronics. What took literally tons of hardware in the Apollo era fits in your pocket now.
posted by eriko at 5:30 AM on May 20 [16 favorites]


Ill just throw this out there.
posted by TedW at 5:46 AM on May 20


Can't we just build a copy of the Soyuz? That 1960s technology is bullet proof. And it's not like the Russians never borrowed from us *cough* Buran *cough*.
posted by jabah at 5:50 AM on May 20 [1 favorite]


Woodshore: Blunder? As an Englishman, one feels compelled to highlight that the dumping of a boatload of finest tea into Boston Harbor was a culinary mistake of significant magnitude by the Western Colonies.

That sulky "I'm going to my room and I'm not coming out for a long while" thing that started in 1776 also ranks highly as a somewhat regretful mistake. We are a kindly parent, though, and you are welcome back at any time. Cornwall and the Cornish have recognized status, and they have a flag, so there is no problem with re-accommodating you folk on the same basis (we may have to change your name to West Cornwall for consistency).


Would you really want to be in an intact Empire where two-thirds of MPs are American? Because you would have had to give up on that virtual representation thing eventually, and then you just get the American Empire in another form.
posted by spaltavian at 5:50 AM on May 20 [2 favorites]


Can't we just build a copy of the Soyuz? That 1960s technology is bullet proof.

I would venture a guess that China would be more than happy to add this to the list of things we buy from them. Then, we can have Shenzhou unboxing videos, too!
posted by sonascope at 5:58 AM on May 20 [1 favorite]


It's not specifically the twilight of NASA. That's just a facet of the twilight of America. We decided to go a different route.

It's sort of like the old joke about World War II from a couple decades ago - that we beat the Germans and the Japanese, but we had to buy their cars. This time it's that we beat totalitarian communism in the Cold War, but we had to become their Stasi.
posted by Naberius at 6:08 AM on May 20 [5 favorites]


No bucks? Then no Buck Rogers.

I don't think NASA regards losing astronauts in deep space as a successful paradigm.


You know, I never understood that line until now. The way I saw it, public adulation of the astronauts drove the funding; robots or computers would not have had the same emotional impact at the beginning, so I thought it should read: No Buck Rogers? No bucks. Doesn't work at all! but I thought that's what the scene meant. Thanks for the clarification.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 6:19 AM on May 20


The other thing about putting humans into space beyond just the scientific possibilities, is simply that as humans we are hard wired for exploration. The moon is there and we had to go put feet on it. Mars is out there and it would be humanity's greatest technological and exploratory achievement if we pulled off a manned mission there. Find a mountain peak pretty much anywhere, and people have gone up there. The moon and Mars are just much bigger peaks. And personally, I'm good with the idea of sending people out there even if it costs a lot of money. There are a lot worse things we could be spending money on... we'd get a lot better return on a Mars mission than what we did off if the whole Iraq debacle.
posted by azpenguin at 6:43 AM on May 20


Kind of a POS, jingoistic, opinion-y article, I found.

"Now, NASA is reduced to timidly paying Russia about $300 million annually for the privilege of flying its astronauts, packed like sardines, in cramped Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station."

As compared to what?!

"A final tally of the space shuttle program's lifetime costs puts the price tag at $1.5 billion per flight, a new analysis shows."

Eric Berger writes for the Houston Chronicle... and Houston is known for profiting from big, expensive NASA programs. Sounds to me like he's preaching to his choir, especially when he says "During a widely hailed speech at NASA’s Washington D.C. headquarters in 2004, President George W. Bush gave the space agency a vision to go back to the moon and settle space. This became known as the Constellation Program, and called for retiring the shuttle and building a new rocket, the Ares V, and spacecraft, Orion..."

Of course, this new vision was vague and notoriously expensive. NASA's initial estimate was that it would cost over $97 billion (in 2008 dollars) and wouldn't be finished until 2020... but unsolved technical and design challenges made it impossible for NASA to provide a credible estimate. A review later concluded that it would cost on the order of $150 billion for Constellation to reach its objective if trying to keep to the original schedule.

From the article: "instead of having U.S. spacecraft flying astronauts to the station next year, commercial transportation won’t be available until 2017 at the earliest."

That's not what SpaceX says:


— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 29, 2014

SpaceX plans its first Dragon test flight with humans as early as 2015. Progress doesn't have to wait until 2017, but even if it did, we have seen perhaps the biggest advancement in rocketry in its history over the past few years, as a result of NASA funding companies like SpaceX.

Reusable rockets are the holy grail that will give the US a decisive longterm advantage over the Russians, Europeans, and anyone else who tries to compete, as it would reduce launch costs *VERY* dramatically. SpaceX recently carried out a soft landing over water that was so promising that engineers believe SpaceX will be able to launch and return a rocket booster by the end of the year.

Is it a blunder that the Space Shuttle was canceled without a viable backup being ready in time? Sure. But this would've happened, even under the most optimistic estimates for the Bush Administration's program, and the commercial response to that blunder has turned the situation into a huge opportunity.

posted by markkraft at 6:44 AM on May 20 [2 favorites]


Two words: SPACE VEGETABLES
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:45 AM on May 20


In the editing I did, Elon Musk's Tweet was eaten...
"Sounds like this might be a good time to unveil the new Dragon Mk 2 spaceship that @SpaceX has been working on w @NASA. No trampoline needed"
posted by markkraft at 6:51 AM on May 20


5 Horrifying Facts You Didn't Know About the Space Shuttle
posted by markkraft at 7:04 AM on May 20


Abandoning manned spaceflight is a terrible idea. NASA is studying this for all sorts of reasons, but one absolutely has to be because a colony off this planet might save the entire human race from the known coming extinction of our species. NASA knows better than everyone this planet isn't going to sustain us forever.
posted by agregoli at 7:41 AM on May 20 [1 favorite]


You think having half a dozen people in a tin can on the moon is going to save the human species?
posted by entropicamericana at 8:17 AM on May 20 [1 favorite]


half a dozen people in a tin can on the moon

We gotta build a few reed boats before we can sail the Atlantic.
posted by cmfletcher at 8:30 AM on May 20 [6 favorites]


Would you really want to be in an intact Empire where two-thirds of MPs are American?

The Empire wouldn't be intact, Canada would just be a lot bigger.

(Hitler would have been defeated much more quickly because they would have entered the war at the start. But that means rocket technology would have advanced more slowly, so there probably wouldn't be an ISS. Or maybe the unchecked Imperial economy would have produced the technology anyway. Maybe India would already have a permanent moon base. With elephants.)
posted by Segundus at 8:31 AM on May 20 [2 favorites]


Segundus you might enjoy Warren Ellis' Ministry of Space. It describes an alternate timeline with the British Empire In Space, though there's a subtler thread of social commentary running through the text.
posted by Wretch729 at 8:39 AM on May 20 [2 favorites]


Yeah, as much as love the idea of Moon base and space stations, using the rationale that it'll save the human race is a bit much. If the survival of the species depends on moving someplace else after they've screwed up their habitat, that's not really solving the problem.

If you're worried about asteroid strikes, worry about them sure, but as an extinction level event, the odds are pretty low.

Can't we just build a copy of the Soyuz? That 1960s technology is bullet proof.

Sure, but you gotta design, build and test it. That requires money and Congress doesn't seem keen on giving NASA much more money. Somewhere up in the thread, some suggested taking 20 billion and building more Saturn Vs. NASA's current budget is about 17 billion a year, so that's not gonna work.

Throwing more money at the problem isn't going to instantly fix it at this point. Money needed to be thrown at it in 2008 or so, in order to get ships designed, tested and built.

Apollo happened because Congress was willing to allocate 4-5% of the national budget for several years. That peaked in 1966 and it's been downhill ever since. Currently NASA consumes about half a percent of the nation budget.

Bonus knowledge: This old comment by eriko sums up why politics screwed up the Shuttle and the program.

I have no idea what's going to happen with the ISS, NASA or the new rocket, the Space Launch System. It'll probably be up to the 2016 US Presidential winner to nudge things in a particular direction. But that all depends on whether Congress wants to work with the President on that.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:41 AM on May 20 [1 favorite]


No, I don't think anything will save the human race, actually. I also said nothing about any moon base, or any base. Confused why my statement would invite ridicule - please be respectful of other posters, thanks.
posted by agregoli at 8:50 AM on May 20 [2 favorites]


It doesn't have to be an extinction-level event to be dangerous.
posted by Celsius1414 at 9:53 AM on May 20


As a side note, the USAF has had their own robot space plane for quite some time now. And its missions always seem to be secret.
posted by ZeusHumms at 10:42 AM on May 20


Colonizing other worlds could well be vitally important to the future of humanity, some day. Today's NASA probably has about as much pertinence to it as the 4th century BC Carthaginian project to climb to the very top of that big hill over there had to the Apollo program.
posted by sfenders at 11:34 AM on May 20


NASA is all about "someday." It's kinda their thing.
posted by agregoli at 11:39 AM on May 20


Today's NASA probably has about as much pertinence to it as the 4th century BC Carthaginian project to climb to the very top of that big hill over there had to the Apollo program.

Hanno the Navigator's exploration of the African coast, however, is probably not entirely unrelated to later geographic knowledge and exploration. If Classical civilization hadn't broken down, he might have been the direct inspiration for a Roman voygage to America.

The point is, we're not ever exactly sure what leads to advancement. Basic research is important.
posted by spaltavian at 12:08 PM on May 20 [2 favorites]


Pretty and heart-stirring as the ISS is to many, it hasn't returned much on that $100,000,000,000 investment. What makes me heartsick is the fact that so little thought was given to its future that it was nearly de-orbited.

Considering how much it costs to put all that stuff up there (something like $10,000 a pound??), was/is there no PLAN to keep all those materials up there for later re-use? (E.g. pushing it into a thosand-year parking orbit.) Clearly: no, there was no such planning. That tells me that the ISS was part of no concerted plan whatsoever. Profits today, fuck tomorrow.
posted by Twang at 12:20 PM on May 20


"Abandoning manned spaceflight is a terrible idea. "

It's a good thing we're not doing that, then.

What will ultimately decide our future in space probably has a lot more to do sharply reducing the cost per pound sent into space, than whether we can spend a couple hundred billion at a few billion dollars per person to send some people to Mars... and NASA has been absolutely horrible at reducing the costs of getting payload into space.

If you want a future for our species in space, it becomes a *whole* lot more doable when there's a profit to be made on it.

Right now, the bog standard cost of getting something into space is about $10,000 per pound... more, obviously, if you want to keep it alive. By having reusable vehicles, SpaceX is talking about reducing that to something closer to $709 per pound, with the ability to routinely launch more flights into space, because they aren't constantly destroying their vehicles.

It's a lot easier to convince someone to visit the Orbital Hilton for their honeymoon when it only costs $350,000 rather than $4 million to do so, and when they know that they can expect most of the comforts of home when they get there. Who knows... they might even cash out their life savings and be one of the first ones to settle on one of Jupiter's moons.
posted by markkraft at 1:16 PM on May 20


(E.g. pushing it into a thosand-year parking orbit.)

Things in space have a shelf life.

Yes, a lot of effort goes into putting things into space. Yes, it would be great if we could leave more permanent, reusable assets up there.

It is easy to think of space purely as a vacuum where everything is perfectly preserved and that while mercilessly inhospitable to life, is fine for the long term, low maintenance storage of space infrastructure.

There's still heat and cold up there. Radiation. Things expand and contract. Propellant boils off. I am very much in favour of things like an orbiting propellant depot but these things are more complicated than they sound. Specifically, sustaining space stations over time has historically proved extremely difficult, and not for lack of trying.

ISS's predecessor ended up needing to be de-orbited because it started to develop fractures and leaks over time and pushing something as massive as the ISS into a high orbit and then pulling it back down for future use would be no small undertaking even if the capability had been built into the station at the outset. Even if it did work, you'd have to do a ton of maintenance to get the thing capable of habitation again, with no guarantees the maintenance attempts would even work - they sure didn't on MIR.
posted by striatic at 1:20 PM on May 20 [1 favorite]


In short, we won't know how to keep something in thousand year orbit until we put something up there and see what causes wear and tear.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:24 PM on May 20


I'm OK with ISS having a good run and then de-orbiting. I was also OK with the Shuttle being cancelled and the orbiters going off to museums (as I've said, it beats being in tiny pieces covering half of Texas). There's no way they can last forever and -- importantly -- still be safe with either continued use or mothballed in some way. (Heck, Zarya and Unity spent about two years sitting up there mostly unoccupied to begin with!) It's a bit frustrating that we're still in this phase where we don't know how to build the structures we'll need to be a spacefaring species, but the discovery of Ringworld Scrith is a bit beyond us right now, so we'll need to make do. It is likely that nothing can stay up there for long without continued energetic maintenance.

I'm not terribly happy about the US lack of a crewed launch system right now, but obviously the Chronicle is speaking here about the lost jobs and the dissolution of the core group of people with extensive knowledge who formed a cadre for the last four decades devoted to Shuttle and then the ISS. Still, I think we're approximately on the right track and while the budget situation may look dire compared to past Apollo or even Shuttle days, I'm pretty confident that Congress will get its act together in time to fund what is necessary for the next step.

I do want us to continue exploring the solar system and building up the base skills for eventually being able to deflect an asteroid -- or tow one for mining and exploitation. I'm not as keen on, say, a Mars base as I once was, but I still think it's doable and we'll find a way to get there sooner than later. The main thing I hope for is a NASA that functions with a long-term vision and doesn't get caught up in the politics of this or that president or this or that specific program. The wavering and uncertainty is bad for the ultimate goals.
posted by dhartung at 1:37 PM on May 20


"In short, we won't know how to keep something in thousand year orbit until we put something up there and see what causes wear and tear."

I think it's more than that. We won't figure out how to keep something in a thousand year orbit until it becomes so valuable as to merit the costs of doing so.

The ISS' actual value -- the money it generates -- is not so much that people aren't thinking that it would likely be better to scrap it, and do something new.

From that article I linked to about what was so horrible -- amd expensive -- about the Space Shuttle:

"Yet another reason (the Space Shuttle was expensive) is that the equipment was so very old. Designed in the 1970s and completed in the 1980s, the Shuttle had some modifications over the years, but for the most part, it remained frozen in time. . . “Over thirty years, some companies go out of business, or basically their entire business is that one component, which is being paid for purely by the government. So the cost goes up because they’re not selling to anyone else besides the government, and their entire assembly line to build that piece needs to be maintained by the government. These issues led to rising and rising costs.”

Famously, at one point, NASA had to find parts for the Shuttle–parts that no one else made anymore–on eBay."

posted by markkraft at 1:39 PM on May 20


A heavy, complex system like the ISS would not be a great candidate testbed to learn the particular lessons of mothball and recovery.

The ISS is really about learning how to live in space for long durations. The rest of the science is largely window dressing. It's about learning how to build and use things like this in a safe, LEO environment where access is easier and mistakes are recoverable.

I think the best next step is to build the ISS derived DSH and test *it* in a 500 day, unscrewed, heliocentric orbit, but the launch vehicles necessary for that mission have yet to be built.
posted by striatic at 1:44 PM on May 20


I think a large part of NASA's goal was or should be to provide something intangible: A dream. That sense of yearning, accomplishment, and pride that we can all feel when people explore the ocean depths or the reaches of our solar system. On top of that, the science and practical benefits are enormous. Would we have the same level of technology and near-magic materials we have today without NASA? (I honestly don't know, but I bet no, we wouldn't)


I'm just glad there are people with the vision and funds! to work on space exploration and spaceflight.
posted by Jacen at 3:37 PM on May 20


An organization of the magnitude of the United States should be able to manage projects that cost trillions and last decades, but it finds itself unable to over and over again - because we see extreme short-sightedness on the part of our lawmakers, which translates downwards into short-sightedness in the lower levels of government, which translates into failure.

It feels to me that the US has reached its level of incompetence, and this is just another example of it.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 3:38 PM on May 20


There's a NASA engineer/instructor who answers a lot of ISS related question on Quora. He gave a fascinating answer about what we've learned from the ISS. Mostly it's one of thousand mundane things that'll matter to future long term missions.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:28 PM on May 20


As much as it pains me to say it, we're going to have to leave it to the private sector to move forward in space. For the time being, anyway. It's already started with Virgin Galactic and Space X and the like, with short trips to space for billionaires. Next up are extended stays in the ISS, for, say, a cool hundred million per night. That will lead to funding for a station specifically for these one percenters, a geosynchronous hotel.

The moon might be a viable place for another hotel, but the more likely scenario after that is unmanned asteroid mining. Gold, sliver, of course, but more importantly precious metals for use in manufacturing can be brought to earth by space mining outfits. Then maybe we could see a space elevator and a genuinely huge wheeled habitat in orbit. And a locked space elevator station would be a launch pad for real exploration: manned trips to the asteroids and Mars, for starters. Governments could get in on the action, of course, but we're gonna need billionaire nerds to fuel the rockets, so to speak.
posted by zardoz at 7:16 PM on May 20


Don't forget that source is an excellent environment if you want to truly isolate an experiment. Such as dangerous recombinant virus experiments. So if I want to do the bioengineering that will create my sexy bioroid army, it would be best to do it in space.
posted by happyroach at 11:36 PM on May 20


The thing you have to understand about NASA, and I speak with some experience here, is that agency management operates a bit like a stereotypical robot. Give them a task, any task, and they will bust ass and work very hard to do it in the best way possible. But they are completely incapable of asking "Is this actually the right thing to do?" and pushing back a little bit. If congress and the president tell NASA "Here, do this stupid thing" you can be assured that agency management will do their very best to fly right into that mountain.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 5:44 AM on May 21 [2 favorites]


SpaceX Dragon V2 Unveiled Tonight
posted by Golden Eternity at 11:59 AM on May 29


« Older The Age of Uncertainty, A Personal View by John Ke...  |  The new "Guardians of the Gala... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments