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August 4, 2005 2:44 PM   Subscribe

Is there any purpose to the kind of manned space flights we seem to be concentrating on?
posted by pantsrobot (48 comments total)

 
As I understand it, they need to periodically fly the shuttle up into space in order to repair its heat shield.
posted by washburn at 2:53 PM on August 4, 2005


That article could really be condensed to the seemingly never tiring diatribe of teh money should be for teh hungry.

Sending our aspirations into orbit is basic calculus, but unfortunately it is much more difficult to feed the hungry and heal the sick - just ask Jesus.

There's really no math to help Africa, in addition to money only time and politics will allow this to happen.

Plus, the space blanket is choice.
posted by The Jesse Helms at 2:54 PM on August 4, 2005


Pride.
posted by Rothko at 2:55 PM on August 4, 2005


Sending our aspirations into orbit is basic calculus, but unfortunately it is much more difficult to feed the hungry and heal the sick - just ask Jesus.

You know I don't know if he's the perfect example Of that particular difficulty. He' more the leading a spirtual revolution will stretch your neck sort of guy. I mean shit he raised the dead can't get more sick and hungry than that.
posted by Rubbstone at 3:01 PM on August 4, 2005


Brilliant article.
posted by Elpoca at 3:03 PM on August 4, 2005


[...] never tiring diatribe of teh money should be for teh hungry
The point he's making is that we should actually do some exploration, rather than this vicious circle of refit and PR flights
posted by pantsrobot at 3:04 PM on August 4, 2005


I love the shuttle and most, at least, of what it represents. But this is the best imagery I've read all week:

"As tempting as it is to picture a blood-spattered Canadarm flinging goat carcasses into the void"

It really is tempting, isn't it? I think that will keep me busy for some time in fact.
posted by freebird at 3:07 PM on August 4, 2005


it is much more difficult to feed the hungry

No, it's not.

It's what happens after that that's hard.
posted by dreamsign at 3:08 PM on August 4, 2005


Agreed -- The Jesse Helms, I'm as tired of that lame argument as you are but that's not what he's saying here. He seems to be totally in favor of space exploration, and what we're doing with the shuttle is not space exploration. If anything the shuttle program seems perfectly, if unwittingly, calculated to discredit space as a pointless boondoggle when in fact, properly undertaken, it would be anything but.
posted by George_Spiggott at 3:08 PM on August 4, 2005


Easterbrook said so in 1980, before Columbia's first flight.
posted by loquax at 3:08 PM on August 4, 2005


You know you're in trouble when the Russians are adding safety features to your design.

lolololol
posted by keswick at 3:09 PM on August 4, 2005


Totally brilliant. As much as I love love LOVE me some NASA goodness, the Shuttle is a pathetic waste of money and needs to be junked, yesterday.
posted by 40 Watt at 3:09 PM on August 4, 2005


Feeding the poor is difficult. Sending an obsolete spacecraft up at the cost of lives and far too much money is assinine.
posted by bardic at 3:13 PM on August 4, 2005


I think the main purpose of what NASA is doing right now is to stay involved in manned spaceflight. Sure nothing gets done right now, but if we stop completely it will be that much harder to do real science later on, when we've actually got a clue on how to do it. I for one would gladly support the potential of greatness even if current results are... less than spectacular rather than kill it completely. It keeps dreams alive.
posted by blue_beetle at 3:14 PM on August 4, 2005


Haven't scientists said that if we don't throw lots of money at the Space Program, the Soviets will have deathray satellites by 1975?
posted by Mayor Curley at 3:18 PM on August 4, 2005


Actualy, there was a really good suggestion for a replacement suggested in an NYT article. It involved a small crew capsule atop a single boster rocket, and then a HUUUGE capsule on top of a shuttle fuel tank with bosters. The new capsule would have been able to lift like 100 tons into space, and it didn't need to be that safe, because people wouldn't be on it.
posted by delmoi at 3:25 PM on August 4, 2005


I'm waiting for the day when Virgin Galactic has to go up and rescue the crew of the ISS.

I can hear that phone call now:

VG: "Virgin Galactic reservations, how may I help you?"
NASA: "Yeah, I'd like to by two one-way tickets"
VG: "One-way tickets?..."
posted by darkness at 3:28 PM on August 4, 2005


I for one would gladly support the potential of greatness even if current results are... less than spectacular rather than kill it completely. It keeps dreams alive.

This is definitely a point that shouldn't be discarded. I just went around the neighborhood and asked people to tell me about the dreams they have that include NASA.

Bobby, who is 14 and lives on the corner, has read about a magical food called "space cake" and is very hopeful that shuttle launches will one day make it commercially available.

Richard, who is 37 and lives across the street with his elderly mother, dreams of going into space himself one day and losing his virginity to Counselor Troi.

My next-door neighbor Dottie, who declined to give her age but is well into her 70's, imagines a day when NASA sends the first homosexual into space. And doesn't stop until they are all there.

As Dr. King so eloquently said, "Keep hope alive! Keep hope alive!"
posted by Mayor Curley at 3:37 PM on August 4, 2005


To my mind, and this may sound whack to some of youse, the whole point of manned space flight is to eventually be able to spread the species to other planets/habitats other then Earth. If we stay bound to one planet it is only a matter of time that we get wiped, there are sooo many ways it could happen it is inevitable. From a species POV it makes sense. Should we do it? That's a different question.

"What're we here for? Were all here to go." -W.H.B
posted by edgeways at 3:48 PM on August 4, 2005


Is there any purpose to the kind of manned space flights we seem to be concentrating on?

No scientific purpose. If you needed people in space to do the sort of research astronauts do, you could send them up with cheaper regular rockets that don't fall apart.

The shuttle program is a military space program, in that it keeps American rocket teams and facilities funded (but not out of military budgets, of course) and in practice and it keeps an extra vehicle ready that can be commandeered to dump a schoolbus-sized load of who knows what into space if the military decides it suddenly needs a weapon or soldiers up there for some boneheaded mission probably involving a dictator America has lately fallen out with. It's done under the cover of research and exploration and national pride, but take away military motives (and pork barrel politics) and there is no NASA.

The sensible solution (scientifically) would be to build lots more unmanned rockets to explore the solar system and bring back samples. It's pretty stupid, for example, that it took so long to find out that there is water on Mars. They should have been sure of that by about 1970 or 1980, but NASA was busy putting military pilots on the moon to play golf and drive a fucking dune buggy.
posted by pracowity at 3:50 PM on August 4, 2005


The thing that gets to me is that NASA does a lot of great science, but manned space flight is increasingly a drain from more worthwhile (and individually much cheaper) projects.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:57 PM on August 4, 2005


the whole point of manned space flight is to eventually be able to spread the species to other planets/habitats other then Earth

That's not whack. But we will do that faster and better by first knowing what's out there and where we are going. Do the science -- with cheap, expendable machines -- and then decide where to go. Don't send team after team of people to piddle around in low Earth orbit in overpriced crap.
posted by pracowity at 3:58 PM on August 4, 2005


It's an underfunded project, that nonetheless, is helping to construct a space station.

Theres lots of people saying that the shuttle is crap, a failure, should be scrapped and the reasons given are pretty good. But there's a space station to finish and the shuttle does a good job providing the parts, so lets not count it dead yet.

But what about the Challenger and Columbia disasters?! Those were less technical failures and more of management making (or not making) bad calls.

And lets not forget the number of close calls NASA had with Gemini and Apollo. Had those programs flown 113 times, they probably would have experienced some spectacular failures also.

Finally give NASA a mission and more money.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:08 PM on August 4, 2005


Note that NASA's currently proposed Shuttle replacements are designed to feed the same contractors the current Shuttle feeds. Gotta keep Thiokol in the black, I guess, given all the great things they've done for us in the past.
posted by Ptrin at 4:10 PM on August 4, 2005


As much as I thought that the landers taking pictures on Mars of a twister was really stunning, and many of the Astronomy Pics of the Day are beautiful things that make me think a lot, I also totally and completely agree with this (from this page). I wanted to be in space by now, as all the books promised. JG Ballard's "Memories of the Space Age" killed that idea for me, mostly. I don't know what I'm supposed to feel anymore.
posted by Zack_Replica at 4:18 PM on August 4, 2005


Zack_Replica, regarding the whole "fix Earth first" idea:
1. If we waited to make sure everything was perfect before we did anything, nothing would get done.

2. NASA was quiet successful in the midst of the turblent 60s and the Vietnam war.

America can multitask when it wants to.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:26 PM on August 4, 2005


If we waited to make sure everything was perfect before we did anything, nothing would get done.

Well there's a nice false dichotomy for you.
Who exactly is trying to make the earth perfect?
If the space program was in the shape that the majority of the earth's inhabitants are, it wouldn't get off the ground.

Eschewing "perfection" doesn't stop us from prioritizing humanely. fucking hell.
posted by dreamsign at 4:31 PM on August 4, 2005


Oh, I'm not saying America (or any other country with a similar program) can't multitask, I'm just torn between one ideal and another. I like the whole space program. A lot. Except when I don't, and then I hate it. A lot. That's why I end up with headaches.
posted by Zack_Replica at 4:34 PM on August 4, 2005


This whole argument that we should spend the money on some other good, like fighting poverty, is a canard. We should not fund the arts because we need to spend the money fighting poverty. We have enough roads, the money should go to fighting poverty. Feed our children first, then worry about education. On and on it goes.

Mankind has a vision to reach into space, as a people, not just with probes. The Shuttle is past its prime and probably needs to be retired, but that doesn't mean we need to abandon manned space flight. It is expensive, and we will probably always underfund it, but the quest is a noble one.
posted by caddis at 4:49 PM on August 4, 2005


This whole argument that we should spend the money on some other good, like fighting poverty, is a canard...

Feed our children first, then worry about education. On and on it goes.


Dad?
posted by dreamsign at 4:52 PM on August 4, 2005


Sure, we're doing most manned spaceflight now "just" to practice manned spaceflight so we suck less at it.

But sending people places seems in general to be a good idea. Human beings are very good general-purpose exploration machines. We're strong, easily adapted to many tasks, can be easily equipped with a wide variety of tools, have a highly sensitive sensor array (if narrow bandwidth) and so on. Think of the research a geologist (areologist? xenogeologist? planetologist?) armed with a lever and a hammer could do on Mars. You wonder what the inside of that rock looks like? Smack. There's the inside of that rock. You wonder what's under it? Rock, this is Mr. Lever, he'll be moving you. There's what's under it.

As a bonus, human beings are massively fault-tolerant. Sure, we're awfully finicky about having 1/5 atmosphere partial pressure of oxygen, but we're robust to all sorts of minor harms and knocks that might shut down or render useless a robot, especially a robot that's been highly optimized for weight, *AND* we have a highly capable self-repair system.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:59 PM on August 4, 2005


Zack_Replica - taking pictures on Mars of a twister

Is actually
Artist Nilton Renno's concept of a Martian dust devil

Disappointed
posted by Joeforking at 5:09 PM on August 4, 2005


Actually I chose that page because halfway down there's an animated pic of the actual dust devil taken by the rover 'Spirit'.
posted by Zack_Replica at 5:15 PM on August 4, 2005


There's always prep runs to do untill we fulfill the presidential mandate to land a man on Mars.
I think he said this was top priority.
posted by Balisong at 5:25 PM on August 4, 2005


Yes son?
posted by caddis at 6:21 PM on August 4, 2005


Mayor Curley, you cracked me up! That will be one keyboard, please...

I'm as big a space exploration/colonization nut as any, but clearly the Space Shuttle isn't even close to fulfilling its potential. I think the money we spend on it would be better off spent on the Space Elevator, something that has infinitely more potential to open up space to industry and colonization than any rocket-powered launch system. Be good to put more into lots of different alternatives to "flying bombs," really.

We really do need to establish a permanent foothold in space - not even on the surface of some other planet or moon, just in space. It's actually the only way to continue the massive growth economy of the technological society of humanity. Even though people disagree about when our easily-tapped energy and materials resources (not to mention actual living space) will run out, they will eventually run out... and there's a lot more energy and living space up there than down here. Plus, if we can become a space-living, spacefaring race, we can probably exempt ourselves from extinction, if we can spread out enough. The sun's gonna turn into a red giant in about 5 billion years, we ought to figure out how to leave the area before then. ;)

However, we should keep one shuttle, because we'll need it to send up the Space Marines to attack the evil Drax Corporation's stealth space station, and save the human race!
posted by zoogleplex at 6:21 PM on August 4, 2005


>>It is much more difficult to feed the hungry
>No, it's not.
>It's what happens after that that's hard.


Good point. "Poverty" isn't fixable with giveaways. I am reminded of two quotes: "Give a man a fish..." and Kinnison's "YOU'RE LIVING IN A FUCKING DESERT!"

Even though people disagree about when our easily-tapped energy and materials resources (not to mention actual living space) will run out, they will eventually run out...

We've barely scratched the surface of the earth.

and there's a lot more energy and living space up there than down here.

I thought the movie Aliens had a pretty good visualization of life, such as it is, in space. I don't see much difference living out in the vacuum of space vs. the ocean depths. Better view up in orbit perhaps, but nothing a 80" 1000DPI display won't simulate.

If we can terraform Mars I would think reforming Earth would be a piece of cake. We look at the fearful lifeboat/population crisis, but until lifetimes go out way past 100 years the educated world is facing an actually pretty nasty depopulation crisis.

Plus, if we can become a space-living, spacefaring race, we can probably exempt ourselves from extinction

I always find this a curious argument. OOoh noes! humanity's extinction! I just don't have the same perspective on this, the universe got on fine without us for billions of years and I expect it will continue to do so afterwards.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 7:28 PM on August 4, 2005


The author makes some good arguments. If you read any books about the development of the Space Transportation System (STS - what we commonly call the "shuttle" today) in the 1970s you will see that it was a program riddled with budget battles, congressional funding debacles and desperate searches for money.

The basis thesis is correct: NASA does some pretty incredible things when given a firm target and solid, consistent budgetary and congressional support.

The original STS program design was a great idea. Sadly, it was never adequately funded for it to come to fruition in the way it should have.

NASA is and should be, to me, a research and exploration organization - the 21st century Lewis and Clark. From the research end, the STS program has provided some extraordinarily valuable information for engineers in this country. It's provided an incredible test bed for new technologies and the construction of the International Space Station (sadly, I agree it is also a mere shell of what it could be) is teaching us volumes about construction in outer space and advanced engineering.

I believe the work on the ISS is valuable because if NASA is in fact going to continue exploration and pushing the boundaries, we are going to have to keep learning how to do things in space (with people) in the least complex fashion possible. If the Shuttle has taught us anything, it is the immense value of K.I.S.S : Keep It Simple, Stupid.

I also believe that we've missed the opportunity to turn the ISS into what it should be: A higher-orbit assembly and and launching platform for moon, mars, and beyond. One thing we have learned in the last 30 years is that it is hard and expensive to get into low earth orbit. Once we're there, we do pretty well (safety wise and statistically). Utilizing the ISS as an assembly platform for components for vehicles and missions beyond the Earth is a great idea. Perhaps that may even come to fruition.
posted by tgrundke at 8:26 PM on August 4, 2005


Y'know, I'm sorry that everything I've seen posted to this thread so far is shit, but it is.
I'm someone who grew up in the sixties when this whole manned spaceflight thing was evolving into getting a human being to the moon and returning them safely prior to exploring the outer planets, which of course never happened.
I was one of the few out there who explored a career in planetary science, as did Harrison Schimdt who was one of the last two humans to walk on the moon.
My conclusion, as it was of planetary scientists who made it far, far further than I did was this:
We need to focus on robotic exploration now in the present and in the future because manned space flight as it is now is a financial Titanic: There is nothing to be gained, nothing to be solved by pushing a warm, soft body into low earth orbit or beyond at this point in time. Whoever disagrees with me is simply blowing shit in the wind, financial and otherwise. There is nothing to be gained here. NOTHING.
Cosmic radiation at sustained exposure will kill you. Nothing to be gained there. Walking on Mars will kill you. Nothing to be gained there. Going to the outer planets in person: Nothing to be gained there; it will kill you before you reach them. Forget about it. Concentrate on robitic missions above all else until you work out how to solve the problems of sheltering warm, soft bodies from cosmic radiation. Sorry to spoil the Star Trek nonsense, but human kind as it is now is in no shape whatsoever to conquer the stars. Leave that to another, more capable generation. One who can really appreciate 'Ad Astra'.
posted by mk1gti at 8:34 PM on August 4, 2005


The Columbia accident, and now -- perhaps paradoxically -- the Discovery worries -- have changed me from a frustrated booster to a bitter critic.

All Idlewords said, and more. All Easterbrook said, and more. (Easterbrook's article was shouted down as know-nothingism by a "sportswriter" in the space newsgroups, which told me something -- it was time to quit reading them.) As the Shuttle program has aged, it's been cut from more and more roles. The USAF no longer used it, after Challenger, to launch its spy satellites. Nor would "ACE trucking" take any more commercial sats up. The dangers of explosion caused the Centaur upper stage -- if you can believe it, a rocket booster inside the orbiter cargo bay -- to be axed, eliminating Shuttle from launching interplanetary probes. Hubble needed service calls, but those have now been axed. The only real jobs left, after all of this, were building ISS and performing microgravity science, and really, the second one can be done just as well on ISS, but NASA still had the SpaceLabs sitting around, you see. So the only real purpose it has, anymore, is building ISS.

And the thing was, the bitterest irony of them all, is that the very same design compromises that crippled the Shuttle ... would feed into ISS, and cripple that project from being all it could be. The whole ISS project had to work around the design limitations of its primary launch and resupply vehicle. The station had to be broken into components, and NASA thought it was neat that its astronauts would practice microgravity construction (think how many missions they used just for practice). But the Russians were ready -- originally, and now again -- to use one of their super boosters, capable of thrust comparable or exceeding the Saturn V. The whole of ISS -- all the space station anyone could need -- could be launched in two or three unmanned flights.

Whatever ISS could have been, under those few constraints, is unknown. What it is today, alas, is redundant.

ISS is a destination for the Shuttle.

Shuttle is a launch and resupply vehicle for ISS.

They have little to do, except justify each other. Even ISS never had much to do with science; the real reason it was approved, after years of Reagan and Bush I getting nowhere with Congress, was as a carrot and stick for the Russian science community. Don't give bombs to, um, anywhere, and we'll give you lots of dough. Payola. Protection money. Now even that is largely moot. The threats come from elsewhere.

The price of all these compromises, and offset justifications, has been paid in blood. Fourteen lives.

NASA, stop killing our astronauts. Give up your perks, your contractors in 35 states and 200 key congressional districts, your taxpayer scam. If we're going to space, make it worth the cost -- Mars. But we won't pay for that, and you know it. Stop jerking us around. Do planetary science. Chase comets. Build more awesome robots. You do that well, you are parsimonious with the monies we give you (you have to be, because Shuttle costs so much), and you do it without risking a single life.
posted by dhartung at 8:59 PM on August 4, 2005


After you've overrun the planet with all those no-longer-hungry, no-longer-dying people, where do you propose to house all of those damn humans in, say, 500 years? Doesn't all that space out there seem like one place to look for more homes?

While we're hardly flying the most inspirational of missions, and certainly not concentrating on improving the technology (like heavy man-rated lifting and efficiency improvements) that will move humanity into space, we're putting humans in space. Keep doing that. It's our home.
posted by majick at 9:07 PM on August 4, 2005


Doesn't all that space out there seem like one place to look for more homes?

More liveable than the ocean? No. Hell, space isn't even more liveable than living underground.

Keep doing that. It's our home.

More like a meal-ticket for $40B/$80k = 500,000 people in this country. I had to do that calculation twice since it looks like 2 orders of magnitude greater than I thought it would be.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 1:06 AM on August 5, 2005


There are two reasons why we go into space. Just two. Anyone who says different is lying or doesn't know what the hell they're talking about. It's just two reasons:

1. Because it's there.
2. Because it's whats next.

These are the same reasons that have proppelled humanity to explore the world. It's one of the things we do as species, we go find out what's over the hill because we want to know. Once we know what's over the hill, we usually come up with a way to exploit that knowledge to help us.

So all those who say we should be doing more robotic missions, I heartly agree. We should have a whole fucking communications system set up throughout the solar system by now. We should have several probes circling each planet, with several more on the surface. Not just because it's cheaper, although that's a good reason, or it's safer, which also a good reason, but because we'll need to know the conditions we face when sending humans there.

At the very least, NASAs budget should be doubled. If we can spend $200 billion in Iraq and half a trillion for defense, we afford to spend 32billion for exploration, and I'd prefer to see $100 billion spent. Will people die? Yes. Will some of the money be wasted? Yes. But we'll be supplying jobs and adding to the economy and doing it in a peaceful way.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:46 AM on August 5, 2005


But we'll be supplying jobs and adding to the economy and doing it in a peaceful way.

Cargo cultism at its finest. We could do a lot more interesting things with those resources. Antarctica is a lot more hospitable than Mars, plenty of New Frontier there for you romantics to chase.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 12:03 PM on August 5, 2005


These are the same reasons that have proppelled humanity to explore the world.

No, it was greed (and lots of sails) that propelled humanity around the world, not "because we want to know," but because we want to get rich. Subtract the search for silk and spices and gold and slaves that could be sold back home, subtract the desire of kings and queens to expand their empires, and you wouldn't have had much exploration at all. We went around the world to come back with booty. (Can "booty" still be used without everyone thinking of buttocks?)

In those terms, consider this: give some smart businesspeople the NASA budget and tell them to do whatever they like in space (within reason and within the limits of international treaties), and give them limited commercial rights to whatever they find as long as every flight has a science payload and as long as at least one in X occupants of every manned spacecraft is an independent scientist doing real research (not Japanese whale "research"), and there will be a hell of a lot of exploration. I don't like the idea of commercializing space, but that's what would work.

The get-rich-quick folk would work out everything, including a lot of the science just as a byproduct of their commercial efforts, because the idea of getting rich makes people work long, hard hours and take the right chances. We would soon have probes headed to and from everything between Mercury and the Oort Cloud that is bigger than a Volkswagen. If they thought it might pay to send people into space, there would be busloads of entrepreneurs (or their flunkeys) shooting through the dark in ships whose names all end in ®.
posted by pracowity at 1:28 PM on August 5, 2005


The deep ocean is less inhabitable than Antarctica, but at least there are monsters there, as there has to be monsters in any new frontier, it seems, or at least that's what the movies say... and the old maps too. Like Alien/s. But seriously I think life in space would be a lot like the Alien movies, perhaps like the colonists on LV-426. Big Dust. Big Rocks. Big Boredom. New things to look at though, but then "Anything can become a bore, even the planet Mars." (-John Carter, Warlord of Mars) hope i got that quote right.. Naturally, I hope that I'm wrong, and also I think that these shuttle pics are really neat!
posted by Zack_Replica at 2:01 PM on August 5, 2005


because the idea of getting rich makes people work long, hard hours and take the right chances

seems like getting that fat NASA-esque contract would be sufficient.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 3:25 PM on August 5, 2005


The get-rich-quick folk would work out everything, including a lot of the science just as a byproduct of their commercial efforts, because the idea of getting rich makes people work long, hard hours and take the right chances.

This totally fails to describe nearly all of the truly talented and effective people I have been privileged to know.

Almost without exception, they have been motivated by sheer love of their subject, and in many cases would continue to do it even if they weren't paid to.

I'm sure that people motivated by money have, on occasion, done truly wonderful things. It just happens to be the case that nearly all the people I know who *have* done wonderful things (some of whom even ended up making a lot of money) were actually motivated by their perception of the intrinsic coolness of what they were doing.

Economists, take note.
posted by nickp at 1:46 AM on August 7, 2005


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