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Moon landing = cancelled until further notice
January 28, 2010 7:46 PM   Subscribe

Return to the moon? Not likely. "President Barack Obama is essentially grounding efforts to return astronauts to the moon...".
posted by deacon_blues (179 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
Can't return to where you've never been.

not really a conspiracy theorist
posted by tomierna at 7:50 PM on January 28, 2010


Having read the story, this makes sense. The world hasn't yet fully recovered from the GFC and using what 'little' (if you can call $6B little) available funds to extend the life of the ISS makes more sense to a layman like me than another trip to the moon (as exciting as that would have been). Seems the ISS is where the real science is being done these days.
posted by Effigy2000 at 7:55 PM on January 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


Good. Can they go to Mars instead please?
posted by notmydesk at 7:58 PM on January 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


I love space exploration. I still believe in manned space exploration, despite all of the well-reasoned arguments to the contrary.

I cannot be upset about this decision at this time.
posted by flaterik at 8:00 PM on January 28, 2010 [25 favorites]


Let's go to Uranus
posted by autoclavicle at 8:01 PM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


The moon's not going anywhere, fellas.
posted by Jimbob at 8:02 PM on January 28, 2010


The moon's not going anywhere, fellas.

Of course not, it's running in circles!
posted by qvantamon at 8:03 PM on January 28, 2010 [5 favorites]


Great. Again, we cancel a program that has already spent billions of dollars, because of a change in president.

Too bad, the moon base was the last thing NASA was doing that I was still excited about. Mars is a place we know about already. It's red. No life found yet. Not that interesting anymore, really. But permanent residence on another planet? That would be amazing! And the moon is the closest, and therefore probably cheapest, place to do that.

Oh well.
posted by Xezlec at 8:04 PM on January 28, 2010


If we don't return to the moon, then the moon terrorists win.
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 8:06 PM on January 28, 2010 [22 favorites]


There are lots of much more interesting science and exploration that could be done - moons of Jupiter and Saturn, a star shield for vastly improved imaging of other star systems, a trip to the gravitational lensing point of Sol, 'riding' a NEO (near-earth object) to the outer planets - would all be big on my list. It sounds to me like the "Flexible Path" is a hedge towards at least some of those things.

Let me recommend here (this is not a plug) the blog Centauri Dreams which is a fountain of intriguing and ambitious ideas.
posted by newdaddy at 8:08 PM on January 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yeah. I was really excited about the new moon project. But priorities, priorities.

I guess.

Not like I was going there.

::sigh::
posted by Splunge at 8:08 PM on January 28, 2010


Robots, guys. It's all about the robots. Two robots have been buzzing around Mars for six years at a fraction of the cost of one manned trip to the Moon.

The Moon is a chip shot compared to Mars. One robot on the Moon ... holy shit, can you imagine what it could learn in the time we're still winnowing down Right Stuff candidates?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:09 PM on January 28, 2010 [13 favorites]


"Mars is a place we know about already"? Are you joking me?

I have a one-word answer for that - perchlorates.
posted by newdaddy at 8:10 PM on January 28, 2010


Science over drama? Much respect for this.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 8:11 PM on January 28, 2010


When all these anti-space program folks flail about, exclaiming over NASA's proposed budget increases, it would be nice if they could somehow manage to reflect upon the actual percentage of the federal budget which goes to NASA: namely, less than 1%.

disclaimer: SPACE IS FUCKING AWESOME YOU GUYS
posted by elizardbits at 8:11 PM on January 28, 2010 [8 favorites]


But permanent residence on another planet? That would be amazing! And the moon is the closest, and therefore probably cheapest, place to do that.

That's like European colonialism in the Caribbean: destined to collapse the moment there's trouble at home.
posted by clarknova at 8:12 PM on January 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


But permanent residence on another planet? That would be amazing!

Why?

The problem with manned space exploration is that the vast bulk of its money is spent doing science on manned space exploration. The means has become the end.

Unmanned space exploration is cheaper, more effective, and does more science per dollar than manned. If I had my way, there'd be a network of satellites around the moon and Mars, controlling an army of probes combing the surface on eight articulated legs (not wheels... grrr!), and we'd be figuring out how to do the same with Venus and Mercury. Instead, we have the Shuttle and the ISS.
posted by fatbird at 8:13 PM on January 28, 2010


Good.

Buzz Aldrin has a great vision for the next step in space.
posted by buzzv at 8:13 PM on January 28, 2010


Find me some anti-space folks, elizardbits. I don't see any in here.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 8:13 PM on January 28, 2010


This cancels America's manned exploration of space in its entirety. Once the shuttles are kaput, we're supposed to rely on....what? Private spacecraft that don't yet exist?

"Hope" my ass.
posted by codswallop at 8:16 PM on January 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


Too bad, the moon base was the last thing NASA was doing that I was still excited about. Mars is a place we know about already. It's red. No life found yet. Not that interesting anymore, really. But permanent residence on another planet? That would be amazing! And the moon is the closest, and therefore probably cheapest, place to do that.

I might be missing something, but: Are you calling the moon a planet? If I can't call Pluto a planet, then you definitely can't call the moon a planet.

Na na na na boo boo, etc.
posted by The Potate at 8:18 PM on January 28, 2010


Please don't tell me nuke the Moon for world peace was just a joke.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 8:27 PM on January 28, 2010


"Mars is a place we know about already"? Are you joking me?

Sorry, that was an overstatement. I just meant, the stuff we're learning is all so technical. Not that "cool", well, except nerd-cool, which is still cool, but not as cool as cool-cool.

That's like European colonialism in the Caribbean: destined to collapse the moment there's trouble at home.

Yeah, maybe. But it's worth a shot. For all its problems, and ours, the ISS has been around a while.

The problem with manned space exploration is that the vast bulk of its money is spent doing science on manned space exploration. The means has become the end.

But why is pure science more of an "end" than learning how to travel in space more easily and spreading the human race? (I mean other than the "humans suck and shouldn't expand" stuff... I've heard that before but don't really agree.)
posted by Xezlec at 8:29 PM on January 28, 2010


Oh, and Earth's biosphere someday... let's not limit my statement to just the human race.
posted by Xezlec at 8:31 PM on January 28, 2010


Once the shuttles are kaput, we're supposed to rely on....what? Private spacecraft that don't yet exist?

Actually...yeah.

I recently had to do some reading up on lunar real estate law (I can't even BEGIN to explain why) and found that some scientists are seriously beginning to entertain the notion of private space travel -- because that is what could possibly renew interest IN a space program. Even here on the blue only a handful are eagerly interested in space right now -- for most of the rest of the country, we've come down from the heady days of Apollo or the initial development of the space shuttle, and now we're at a point where almost no one even pays attention when we send up the shuttle or who's in the space station. Most announcements about some or other discovery about Mars or the moon are greeted with just a hesitation, a raised eyebrow, and then maybe a "hmm," and then a change of the channel.

But -- if people could financially invest in a moon project of some sort, maybe a mining venture or some other commercial venture, that may get people paying attention again -- and calling for more funding in government programs, so as to map out the unexplored regions, or investing in competing ventures, or...

So the private idea is not as loopy as you'd think. Some apparently think it could save the space program overall.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:34 PM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Why go to the moon again when Mars is waiting.

Or the bottom of our own ocean.
posted by bwg at 8:36 PM on January 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


"Hope" my ass.

You thought "Hope" meant "Hope we can go to the moon"?
posted by rocket88 at 8:36 PM on January 28, 2010 [14 favorites]


Perhaps the US could pay for all its wars and flatscreen TVs and oversized cars before it burns a bajillion dollars on another international dick-measuring contest? Just a thought.
posted by pompomtom at 8:38 PM on January 28, 2010 [7 favorites]


Me either, dude. It was just a general comment undirected towards anyone in this thread.
posted by elizardbits at 8:42 PM on January 28, 2010


Get it though your heads, fanboys: there is no future for us in the stars. None. There is no habitable planet we can go to, and no ship to get us there. The moon is a jumping off point to Mars which is a jumping off point on the edge of a cliff. There is literally nothing else to land on. It just gets worse from there. Spending a hundred trillion dollars so we can have a "Now what?" moment on the surface of an airless rock is fucking psycho talk.

Remember which president's Big Idear this was, will you?

To belabor and browbeat: We can never terraform mars. Ever. It won't hold air: pun intended. Bubbles and domes are high-entropy environments that can never be balanced to sustain human life. A fishbowl cannot be left to its own devices, no matter how many snails you throw in. Without endless, continent-scale subsidies from the home planet the whole thing is untenable. And if you haven't noticed the home planet is becoming untenable too.

There is no future for us out there. We can never escape the problems we make on Earth by fleeing into the cold night. We will never birth a culture on a new world and cut the umbilicus.

I'm glad we had this little chat.
posted by clarknova at 8:43 PM on January 28, 2010 [81 favorites]


Perhaps the US could pay for all its wars and flatscreen TVs and oversized cars before it burns a bajillion dollars on another international dick-measuring contest? Just a thought.

This isn't a significant expense. 6 billion dollars is an invisibly small fraction of the trillions we spend. Perhaps the fiscal conservatives could snark about the things that take up 20% of the budget, like DoD, before railing on less-than-requested increases on the tiniest things, like science programs.
posted by Xezlec at 8:44 PM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I am not too worried about this. As soon as some taikonaut knocks over an American flag in the Sea of Tranquility the money will start flowing again.

Seriously though - doesn't this mean, with the last shuttle mission taking place in September of this year, that the US will no longer have a manned space program?
posted by toftflin at 8:45 PM on January 28, 2010


There is no future for us out there.

[citation needed]
posted by Xezlec at 8:45 PM on January 28, 2010 [10 favorites]


This cancels America's manned exploration of space in its entirety. Once the shuttles are kaput, we're supposed to rely on....what? Private spacecraft that don't yet exist?

Hitching rides, the way my country does it now. It is odd to think that by next year, America will, for the first time since the Mercury progam days, have no way to put astronauts into space.

By chance, just yesterday I found the March 1981 issue of National Geographic and Rick Gore's article on the shuttle. The first paragraph includes:

"By the late 1980s, this fleet of orbiters could be making about fifty flights a year."

Heh. Thirty years later, and the total number of shuttle flights is barely into three digits. The busiest year of all, 1985, saw nine missions.

The final paragraph:

"In ten years the current shuttle surely will seem outdated. In 50 years we will probably look back on it as we do the covered wagons that took us to our first frontier. To me the real importance of the shuttle is that it is maintaining a frontier for us. This country cannot grow without one."

posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:49 PM on January 28, 2010


But why is pure science more of an "end" than learning how to travel in space more easily and spreading the human race? (I mean other than the "humans suck and shouldn't expand" stuff... I've heard that before but don't really agree.)

Because pure science and applied science (like robotics) pays off the investment in going into space and to other planets and has far greater practical benefits. Investing billions in figuring out how to keep someone alive long enough to send them Mars and backs gets us... enough science and technology to figure out how to send them to Jupiter and back.

One day we'll be colonizing the solar system. But trying to do it now is like ancient Rome trying to develop cars. They could probably do it with enough time and denarii, but developing the printing press or the cotton ginny would be a much more important advance with much greater real benefit to Romans, and render the later development of cars much more easily (and more cheaply) obtained.

Figure out better engines to launch better robots to other planets, and space flight will become cheap enough and well enough known that sending humans into space doesn't consume the entire effort.
posted by fatbird at 8:51 PM on January 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


Great. Again, we cancel a program that has already spent billions of dollars, because of a change in president.

Feh. The Vision for Space Exploration was always an unfunded mandate. Bush just had an administrator who was willing to slash unmanned science missions (like the friggin' awesome Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter) and earth-side lab research in favor of the Constellation program. And even then NASA ended up with a 3.2 billion dollar deficit the year after it got announced.
posted by The Bridge on the River Kai Ryssdal at 8:53 PM on January 28, 2010


Good -- going to the moon again would have been like digging a second Panama Canal.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 8:53 PM on January 28, 2010


that the US will no longer have a manned space program?

I suppose it depends on what you mean. We will still have astronauts on the ISS, if I understand correctly. We just won't have shuttles/rockets capable of transporting them ourselves. As others have mentioned, many countries have a similar situation already.
posted by wildcrdj at 8:54 PM on January 28, 2010


TANSTAAFL
posted by turgid dahlia at 8:54 PM on January 28, 2010 [7 favorites]


I agree in the push for pure science at the expense of the manned mission. In fact, I would like to see a lot more money pushed into the search for exoplanets.

However, I am highly suspicious that US, or more accurately, the US DoD is going to be ok with hitching a ride on Russian rockets. When it comes down to it, having that capability to put people in orbit might be thought of as a strategic necessity as more countries (India says they'll be there in 2016) are getting up there.
posted by toftflin at 8:57 PM on January 28, 2010


We can never terraform mars. Ever. It won't hold air: pun intended.

As I understand it, we don't know that, and I don't even think that's currently the majority opinion. It's possible it may leak off gradually, but God knows how many digits there are in the time scale over which something like that happens.

Bubbles and domes are high-entropy environments that can never be balanced to sustain human life.

Again, I thought that was a minority view. Biosphere 2 failed, but that was the first try *ever*.

A fishbowl cannot be left to its own devices, no matter how many snails you throw in.

A terrarium can.

Also, why so angry? What is it about hopes and dreams for the future that piss you guys off to the point of that kind of condescending shouting? It's not a big expense, really. And at the very least, we learn something interesting every time we try.
posted by Xezlec at 8:59 PM on January 28, 2010 [18 favorites]


So the private idea is not as loopy as you'd think. Some apparently think it could save the space program overall.

I don't think it will. Private commerce will do sub-orbital flights for rich tourists, sure, but I don't see much evidence of anything for going beyond that.


Hitching rides, the way my country does it now. It is odd to think that by next year, America will, for the first time since the Mercury progam days, have no way to put astronauts into space.


Right. That's not good enough. We're supposed to lead. This is just pathetic.
posted by codswallop at 9:00 PM on January 28, 2010


When NASA costed out the moon plan in 2005, the agency came up with a total price tag of $104 billion.

Say what you want about percentages of the total budget, but this is a colossal waste of money. What could we do here on earth for a hundred billion dollars? Probably some pretty remarkable things.
posted by Dr. Send at 9:00 PM on January 28, 2010


ricochet biscuit: There's a difference between growth and cancer.

At least as far as the non-cancerous part is concerned.
posted by clarknova at 9:02 PM on January 28, 2010


Because pure science and applied science (like robotics) pays off the investment in going into space and to other planets and has far greater practical benefits. Investing billions in figuring out how to keep someone alive long enough to send them Mars and backs gets us... enough science and technology to figure out how to send them to Jupiter and back.

Is there really documented evidence that pure science, i.e. perchlorates on Mars, gives us more useful, practical, everyday information than the human exploration stuff, i.e. all those papers that were published about Biosphere 2?
posted by Xezlec at 9:02 PM on January 28, 2010


However, I am highly suspicious that US, or more accurately, the US DoD is going to be ok with hitching a ride on Russian rockets. When it comes down to it, having that capability to put people in orbit might be thought of as a strategic necessity as more countries (India says they'll be there in 2016) are getting up there.

God, I hope you're right. Demonstrating that ours is bigger, militarily speaking, has always been the not-so-subtle subtext to U.S. human spaceflight achievements.
posted by killdevil at 9:03 PM on January 28, 2010


Say what you want about percentages of the total budget, but this is a colossal waste of money. What could we do here on earth for a hundred billion dollars? Probably some pretty remarkable things.

It's a national project. National projects represent hundreds of millions of citizens and therefore have big budgets. Also, that $100 billion was over a long span of time. If something is 5% of the budget, it only has to represent 5% of our collective "want" to be justified. You don't even want it 5% much?

OK, I get it, I'm in the (apparently ultra-) minority. In fact, I think I'm the only one who has advocated colonization here in so many words. If that's the case, maybe you're right, it's not my right to spend your tax dollars.

I just wish I were born in a different civilization with a little more stuff I'm interested in.

I'm going to go stare at some power lines.
posted by Xezlec at 9:09 PM on January 28, 2010 [7 favorites]


Now get your ass to Mars.
posted by Effigy2000 at 9:11 PM on January 28, 2010


What is it about hopes and dreams for the future that piss you guys off to the point of that kind of condescending shouting?

We fucked up one planet already. You really think blowing another real estate bubble on another planet just so we can screw it up as well is a good idea?
posted by c13 at 9:13 PM on January 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


Maybe this oldie came up on the President's iPod.

Personally, I think we should forget about the moon and head out further, where the real goodies are.
posted by fuse theorem at 9:14 PM on January 28, 2010


i.e. all those papers that were published about Biosphere 2?

You're kind of making my point: We couldn't do research on perchlorates on Mars without sending something to Mars. BioSphere 2 provided us all that it did without going into space for it.

You haven't answered my original question, Xezlec: Why? What's so awesome about a colony on the moon?
posted by fatbird at 9:15 PM on January 28, 2010


killdevil: That's very true, even the space shuttle had military missions.

However, it would be very naive to assume everyone is going to play nice in space. As both the USA and China have both demonstrated recently.
posted by toftflin at 9:17 PM on January 28, 2010


OK, I get it, I'm in the (apparently ultra-) minority. In fact, I think I'm the only one who has advocated colonization here in so many words. If that's the case, maybe you're right, it's not my right to spend your tax dollars.

For the record, I'm with you on this. Killing the U.S. national human spaceflight capability is an incredibly short-sighted thing to do, especially when it's so cheap in the overall scheme of things.

Better to take that $100 billion and occupy some small central Asian nation or buy some F-22s or something.
posted by killdevil at 9:18 PM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


You really think blowing another real estate bubble on another planet just so we can screw it up as well is a good idea?

You're afraid of us screwing up the environment of a dead rock? Or you're just saying that human beings suck wherever we are, so the fewer of us, the better?

You haven't answered my original question, Xezlec: Why? What's so awesome about a colony on the moon?

What's so awesome about science? Or astronomy? Art? Having a family?

I can't answer your question, but I still don't think that necessarily makes me a moron.
posted by Xezlec at 9:20 PM on January 28, 2010 [10 favorites]


"Yes we can" but "no we won't" I guess. Not very inspirational.

I don't care too much about not going back to the moon, but it seems wrong that we won't have our own way to get to space any longer. It's not much of a leadership position.

Are we running out things to outsource yet? Do we actually do anything for ourselves anymore?

It's disappointing.
posted by DrumsIntheDeep at 9:22 PM on January 28, 2010


This cancels America's manned exploration of space in its entirety. Once the shuttles are kaput, we're supposed to rely on....what?
The shuttles can get us less than two-tenths of one percent of the way to the moon. They're not doing any space exploration, and they never have.
posted by Flunkie at 9:26 PM on January 28, 2010


I can't answer your question, but I still don't think that necessarily makes me a moron.

I'm not calling you a moron. I'm trying to get you to articulate a reason why colonizing the moon is a valuable end in itself.
posted by fatbird at 9:26 PM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


You're afraid of us screwing up the environment of a dead rock?

No. But other than it being "cool", can you name another reason why sending people to live on a dead rock is a good idea?
posted by c13 at 9:27 PM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


The shuttles can get us less than two-tenths of one percent of the way to the moon. They're not doing any space exploration, and they never have.

Which is why they need replacing. Which is what all of this about. Now we can't even get to the ISS under our own steam. One giant leap backwards.

Heh. One big ass mistake, America.
posted by codswallop at 9:30 PM on January 28, 2010


What could we do here on earth for a hundred billion dollars?

Same thing we've been doing. Give it to bankers to light cigars with and to military contractors to slag in burn pits.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:32 PM on January 28, 2010 [7 favorites]


No. But other than it being "cool", can you name another reason why sending people to live on a dead rock is a good idea?

Besides being inspirational, besides being an eventual back up for our species, it'd require us to learn how to be ultra-ultra-parsimonious with resources. The absolute ultimate in living lightly.
posted by codswallop at 9:32 PM on January 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


But -- if people could financially invest in a moon project of some sort, maybe a mining venture or some other commercial venture, that may get people paying attention again -- and calling for more funding in government programs, so as to map out the unexplored regions, or investing in competing ventures, or...

That's the lesson I got from Avatar, too! Unobtainium, here we come! spaceburger.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 9:34 PM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


We fucked up one planet already.

Eh, we're giving ourselves way too much credit if we think we're capable of doing much harm to Earth over the long term. We may blip the free CO2 levels up a bit, melt some polar ice, raise the sea levels, and so on, but in a few million years the Earth will be roamed by a new set of sentient, occasionally-reflective meat sacks, and we'll be a bunch of carbon in a rock strata somewhere.

Which is why I think human spaceflight is worthwhile: it's some of the only stuff we do that lifts our thinking upward and outward, away from the baseness and ephemerality of what we are and toward what we want or hope to be.
posted by killdevil at 9:34 PM on January 28, 2010 [24 favorites]


I'm not calling you a moron. I'm trying to get you to articulate a reason why colonizing the moon is a valuable end in itself.

If there was a reason, it wouldn't be an end in itself. That reason would be the "end". And you still haven't answered my question about science (or art or the other things, but that's OK). You just said it was useful. If that's all, why not directly do science here on Earth regarding things that matter here? You want to build robots, fine. You don't need to launch them to Mars.

But other than it being "cool", can you name another reason why sending people to live on a dead rock is a good idea?

I think it's a little dangerous to have our whole civilization in one place. Also, less of a "pool of personal experiences" than what is possible if you expand. Also, resources. And I think being cool is the motivation for a lot of great human endeavors throughout history (even if they were couched in more practical terms). What's wrong with wanting to accomplish something impressive and be proud of it?
posted by Xezlec at 9:35 PM on January 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


I think it's a little dangerous to have our whole civilization in one place.

And why would that be? Besides, at the appropriate scale, the moon and indeed the whole solar system is one place anyway. And we're not going anywhere else.

What's wrong with wanting to accomplish something impressive and be proud of it?
There are a lot of impressive ( and desperately needed) things that can be done here on earth that you can be proud of.
posted by c13 at 9:43 PM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'd favor a moon base if Russia, China, Europe, India and Japan chipped in.
posted by empath at 9:48 PM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty damned far from being an astronomer, so I'll just say something possibly off-topic.

It has been said many times before that the economy is built upon innovation. This is true. We can put out all the stimulus packages or tax-cuts or what have you that we please but without innovation there's just nothing there. But perhaps the more fundamental issue is that innovation is itself derived from inspiration. What drives us to innovate? What do we dream of for our future? What makes us dream to begin with?

Growing up in the 80s, our aspirations were drawn largely from those of the 50s. The "popular scientists" of the 50s imagined flying cars, videophones, and, yes, rampant space travel. By the 80s, we'd already gotten there on those things or else saw our grasp closing in on where our reach had been three decades earlier. The future was now! We were inspired!

And then, instead, we got the internet - a far more useful tool, more practical, more applicable, which allowed for unprecedented economic growth and changed the world in ways which Thomas Friedman could misunderstand and misrepresent in any number of bestselling books. But it also sort of threw humanity for a loop, I think. In this very actual paradigm shift, we were no longer looking outwards for our new methods of exploration, but looking to our living rooms. But by now the growth based upon the internet has basically plateaued, and instead of flying cars, we got the Segway.

I guess my question is, what do we expect the future to look like now?

Flying cars are out, and seem like the fantastic folly of a bygone age of naive hubris. Videophones are here, but who uses skype unless they're talking with a long-distance beau? Moving sidewalks are impractical and pointless and everyone knows it. Food pellets sound just awful and we don't trust anyone who'd be producing them anyhow. And now space travel is done - unmanned missions are more efficient on any number of levels, and there's nothing out there to terraform anyway.

Instead we've got our hearts set on green technologies and high-speed rail - things which need to happen, but don't really make us wide-eyed by any measure. They're just necessary measures for the mistakes we've made in the past.

So I ask y'all, seriously, what do we expect to see in our future? What do we imagine will be different when we're eighty or so?

I'm not quite thirty, and the world fifty years ago would have no understanding of the world I live in today. But I can't imagine the world fifty years from now as anything appreciably different from my own experience of the present.

We need innovation, but first we need inspiration. Where are the futurists?
posted by Navelgazer at 9:50 PM on January 28, 2010 [16 favorites]


Considering the logistics and expense of sending people into space as opposed to robots, I think this is a fine move. Putting more people on the Moon might be impressive, but it does little at the expense of many resources, whereas robotic exploration of our solar system provides a great benefit to human knowledge at relatively little cost.
posted by drinkyclown at 9:52 PM on January 28, 2010


at the appropriate scale, the moon and indeed the whole solar system is one place anyway.

At the appropriate scale, Pompeii and the whole solar system are the same place.
posted by mdevore at 9:53 PM on January 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think it's a little dangerous to have our whole civilization in one place.
And why would that be?
Ask the next dinosaur that you happen to meet.
Besides, at the appropriate scale, the moon and indeed the whole solar system is one place anyway.
This seems like a rather nihilistic extreme. It seems essentially the same as arguing that seat belts are worthless, because you can die even if you're wearing one.
There are a lot of impressive ( and desperately needed) things that can be done here on earth that you can be proud of.
So you know what we should defund in order to pay for both those things and the space program?

The things that we do here on earth that we should be ashamed of, and that we spend absurdly huge amounts of money to do -- even absurdly huge compared to the amounts we're talking about in this post.
posted by Flunkie at 9:54 PM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


And why would that be?

Because there are a zillion ways we could be destroyed. Asteroid, severe climate change (natural or otherwise), nuclear war, alien invaders, T-Rexes in time machines (with ninja skills), what have you. As much as we might try to keep those things from happening, they still might, and I think it would be nice if there were someone left to learn from that mistake.

Besides, at the appropriate scale, the moon and indeed the whole solar system is one place anyway. And we're not going anywhere else.

That's a definitive pronouncement. How could you possibly know that? We're not right now, but maybe over time. Nuclear engines seem like they might work OK. But if we never leave the womb, we'll never have the chance to learn to walk.
posted by Xezlec at 9:55 PM on January 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


Forget the moon, I say. At least for now; it's not going anywhere anytime soon. What NASA and the ESA and the Russians and Japanese and everyone need to do starting today is stop building these chemical booster rockets and start on the space elevators that will revolutionize space.

Get it though your heads, fanboys: there is no future for us in the stars. None. [Etc, etc.]


clarknova's cynicism is perfectly warranted if you believe that the current model of space exploration is the only one. The moon missions were important because it was an amazing achievement and the technology invented during the 60s and 70s has impacted the economy and industry ever since. That technology seems to have plateaued, though; we don't need a lot of new fangled gadgets to get us to the moon again (though Mars is a different story).

But if we can make space elevators (and assuming they're perfectly safe), space exploration would change overnight. Space habitation would change overnight (wanna stay in the Hilton Space Hotel? About 500,000 a night, transportation included). And though I generally have major problems with them, when businesses and, let's face it, corporations get into the game rather than government agencies, we'll see an entire new economy blossom in geosynchronous orbit.

But even then, forget the moon. It's just a lot of worthless rock. Mars, too, way too much trouble with the technology we have now. Comet mining, now there's our next step. No, really.
posted by zardoz at 9:56 PM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


You guys do understand that the last time a human was on the moon was in 1972, right?

That was 37 years ago that a human last stepped on the moon.

And Obama said that we aren't going to the moon anytime soon. So that affects us how for the next 3-7 years?

So yeah...I don't see the difference between the "hope, my ass" crowd and the "tea party" douchebags.

Space is out there, and we really don't have the technology right now to explore it well enough. Its kinda sad...like if Magellan wanted to devote his efforts to diving into the Mariana trench with a leather sack full of air.

Just relax...lets give it a few years after we finally figure out that we can't live on fossil fuels forever. THEN the real exploration will begin.

Until then...we should explore the oceans...something that isn't given enough credit as "unexplored".
posted by hal_c_on at 10:12 PM on January 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


"In ten years the current shuttle surely will seem outdated. In 50 years we will probably look back on it as we do the covered wagons that took us to our first frontier. To me the real importance of the shuttle is that it is maintaining a frontier for us. This country cannot grow without one."

Colonizing a frontier was easy when it involved learning from, then stealing from the people who lived there.
posted by mobunited at 10:12 PM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


As much as we might try to keep those things from happening, they still might, and I think it would be nice if there were someone left to learn from that mistake.

Let's hope they learn to write sentences that make sense as well...

How could you possibly know that?

Because I went to school and read books instead of watching Star Trek. And what I've learned is that the nearest star is 4.2 light years away. And there ain't any planets around it, either.
But I digress..

Good night.
posted by c13 at 10:13 PM on January 28, 2010


Ask the next dinosaur that you happen to meet.

Duck says "quack."
posted by mobunited at 10:13 PM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Colonizing a frontier was easy when it involved learning from, then stealing from the people who lived there.

Well, I have no comeback to that. If only there were some relevant quotation about doing these things not because they are easy but because they are hard.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 10:17 PM on January 28, 2010


But if we can make space elevators (and assuming they're perfectly safe), space exploration would change overnight.

Absofuckinglutely!!!

But how close are we to building a 144,000km elevator? We're not even close...but we're thinking about it.

Give humans a few (hundred) years to figure out stuff. Everything doesn't have to be invented/popularized during our lives.

We have the internets...lets let the future have their space elevator.
posted by hal_c_on at 10:17 PM on January 28, 2010


Clarknova -- I believe you are exhibiting a serious failure of imagination for someone typing on a computer somewhere in the world which is talking to other computers worldwide -- a device and means of communication not only considered improbable or impossible, but UNIMAGINABLE a few decades ago.

But please, continue to tell me how we'll never be able to make deep space workable, how we'll never figure out the delicate ecological balances to make self-contained habitats livable.
Continue to tell me how we'll never break the sound barrier or even achieve heavier than air powered flight. Tell me how all the laws of physics are known and future scientists are only left to push back knowledge by a couple decimal places.

Tell me everything that's impossible and, if historians of the future dig up the Metafilter logs, maybe they'll chuckle.
posted by chimaera at 10:18 PM on January 28, 2010 [7 favorites]


Apart from the applied science benefits (and a stronger hedge against the extinction of humanity), isn't one huge benefit of space exploration the potential resources to be found in the rest of the solar system? It was my understanding that the asteroid belt is rich in precious metals that are becoming rare on Earth, and that there are more basic resources like oceans of liquid water on some of the moons of the gas giants.
posted by Rhaomi at 10:26 PM on January 28, 2010


And Obama said that we aren't going to the moon anytime soon. So that affects us how for the next 3-7 years?

You may find this astonishing, but political decisions have ramifications that extend beyond the next election cycle. When the team has scattered, the plans and project left undone, they're gone. It takes more time just to get to where you were to begin with.

So yeah...I don't see the difference between the "hope, my ass" crowd and the "tea party" douchebags.

What does this even mean? It's a complete non sequitur.

We have the internets...lets let the future have their space elevator.

To have something in the future, you need to have, y'know, done something in the past.
posted by codswallop at 10:29 PM on January 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


In about three seconds after this hits the conservative boards, someone is going to say that it's because Obama is a crypto-Muslim who doesn't want to commit sacrilege against Allah who is actually a moon deity*. When that gets repeated as gospel on Fox news, people in some conservative houses will look at each other and nod as if they are receiving some great wisdom about the struggle of Real AmericaTM against evil.

*synthesis of several nut job comments I've actually seen.
posted by BrotherCaine at 10:34 PM on January 28, 2010


codswallop, you totally pulled a Fox News story on me and cherry picked a few sentences from 2 separate posts so my input would seem useless.

Way to fucking go! I wish we had more editors like you so we could ban books forever!
posted by hal_c_on at 10:42 PM on January 28, 2010


codswallop, you totally pulled a Fox News story on me and cherry picked a few sentences from 2 separate posts so my input would seem useless.

It was. Completely and utterly. You said dumb things. I'm so sorry.

Way to fucking go! I wish we had more editors like you so we could ban books forever!

See, here's another one. I'm taking the pro-science position and you go all hurr-durr on me.
posted by codswallop at 10:45 PM on January 28, 2010


If the Europeans had bought into the "unmanned robot mission" hype originally, there wouldn't be a United States of America to complain about the budget.
posted by blue_beetle at 10:47 PM on January 28, 2010


Would we be better or worse off as a society had we not pursued manned spaceflight?
posted by dirigibleman at 10:50 PM on January 28, 2010


Would we be better or worse off as a society had we not pursued manned spaceflight?

Well it's like whether I'd be better or worse off had I not blown an hour on MeFi tonight. The question is then what else I'd have done. If the answer is continue breakthrough work in diabetes, then worse I would say. If the answer is re-watch another episode of Rockford Files... well then worse, but I mean, Rockford Files.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 10:55 PM on January 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


Well, I have no comeback to that. If only there were some relevant quotation about doing these things not because they are easy but because they are hard.

And if only it wasn't obvious that said quote exists in the contexts of double-dog-daring the Russians in the midst of the Cold War colonial project.

SpaceFail is the result of the fact that the mythology that drove manned space exploration was fundamentally silly. We looked back and pretended that in Days of Yore, White People explored and then carved out lived in a big, empty Terra Nullius. But there was no Terra Nullius. There were other civilizations that were less disease resistant and unfamiliar with some key White People military technologies.

Centuries later, the ideological heirs of these people believed the myths that their homes used to be a vaguely defined empty area (maybe with a dozen noble savages per zillion miles, but they didn't count) and realized two things:

1) They could maybe shoot some guys into an actual Big Empty Space, and since everybody believed they colonized a Big Empty space everyone would buy this wagon train kumbaya line. They didn't know that by the standards of today, those wagon train people were assholes.

2) Some of the more canny folks realized that America wanted to colonize the fuck out of some more places, and thanks to advances in communications and basic, common sense, you had to admit that significant numbers of people lived in those places now. And no Seven Years War crap allowed, since everybody had nukes. Instead, you had to convince rich people in target areas that they wanted to be colonized, and the raggedy-ass Americans who'd get shot in the head that this was a good idea, since they'd be doing the hard work.

So the best thing to do was sending some guys up there, because that would prove the superiority of the American system to comfort future military body bag inhabitants and rich quislings in various warm, politically shaky places. Pop an enormous techno-boner that isn't militarily provocative but is still an effective dominance gesture. That's the early space program, then the manned space program. Yeah, it was about doing something because it's "hard," all right.

It amazes me how people continue to think the myth of the frontier can be Got Right this time, as if it was a good idea ruined by a few dirty pool players or something. Appealing to some sanitized version of colonial sentimentality is kind of like really wanting Step'N'Fetchit, knowing how awful it is, and "fixing" it by creating Jar-Jar Binks. The fact that it's an alien doesn't magically wash away its poisonous significance.

I'd love for people to go into deep space. Really! But what's the context this time? Talking about some vague aspiration of uplifting humanity by sacrificing the resources to help actual human beings is self-evidently wrongheaded. It worked when the goal was to uplift one faction of human beings, as a subset of general assaholic behaviour. This time? Fuck that. You can see the culturally destructive effect in this thread, where we're talking about the Chinese knocking over the Moon flag, or how we're going to fuck up this planet anyway. (This last is why Transhumanism sucks ass too.) The only language left to justify it (science? What do you think is happening on the space station, or on those probes? People on the Moon not needed, thx) is basically religious language. It doesn't make sense from an economic or scientific perspective -- just a fantasy loaded with unsavoury connotations.

Shit: We can't even send a "Debt Cleared" letter to Haiti. Fuck the Moon.
posted by mobunited at 10:57 PM on January 28, 2010 [10 favorites]


"Would we be better or worse off as a society had we not pursued manned spaceflight?"

The US and USSR certainly wouldn't have stockpiled as many ICBM's. Let's not forget that the "Space Race" was, above all else, about who could make the biggest and fastest vehicles for nuclear warheads.

I'm glad we were first on the moon fwiw, but this doesn't strike me as the best line of argument for manned space exploration.
posted by bardic at 10:57 PM on January 28, 2010


You may find this astonishing, but political decisions have ramifications that extend beyond the next election cycle. When the team has scattered, the plans and project left undone, they're gone. It takes more time just to get to where you were to begin with.

Ummm...thats not how advances in science and technology work. Thats how bureaucracy works. We're not talking about bureaucracy since nobody has gotten on the moon for 37 years. Are you really going to tell me that we've been planning a return on the moon for 37 years...and Obama just smashed that? Really?

To have something in the future, you need to have, y'know, done something in the past.

Just because missions to the moon have been grounded for the next 3-7 years...doesn't mean NASA is counting tiles on the roof. Maybe you should have read the link on the post to see what they are doing with the money they are getting.

See, here's another one. I'm taking the pro-science position and you go all hurr-durr on me.

You aren't taking the pro-science position, you're taking the Fox News position. You aren't really adding anything to the discussion, only little snippets that add nothing but static to the discussion.

But really "To have something in the future, you need to have, y'know, done something in the past", just kinda sums up your contribution to this thread.

Good night, maybe you'll be more clearheaded in the morning.
posted by hal_c_on at 10:59 PM on January 28, 2010


zardoz: wanna stay in the Hilton Space Hotel?

Yes, yes, I do.
posted by isnotchicago at 10:59 PM on January 28, 2010


No hope for change.

/W.P.E.
posted by HTuttle at 11:05 PM on January 28, 2010


Are you really going to tell me that we've been planning a return on the moon for 37 years...and Obama just smashed that? Really?

No, he smashed American manned space exploration. Which was my initial point.

You aren't taking the pro-science position, you're taking the Fox News position. You aren't really adding anything to the discussion, only little snippets that add nothing but static to the discussion.

What the hell are you talking about? Don't watch Fox News, don't even have cable. But I am taking the pro-science position that manned exploration of space does have benefits to people here on Earth from environmental technologies to inspiration to material science.


But really "To have something in the future, you need to have, y'know, done something in the past", just kinda sums up your contribution to this thread.


As opposed to your hurr durr about letting the future have their space elevators because we've got internets to enjoy.

Good night, maybe you'll be more clearheaded in the morning.

Nice.
posted by codswallop at 11:10 PM on January 28, 2010


Maybe if there is healthcare on the moon, then maybe I'll care.
posted by elwoodwiles at 11:11 PM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I guess my question is, what do we expect the future to look like now?

A global thermonuclear war resulting in the deaths of billions followed by cannibalistic survivors scraping a hellish life out of a dark and barren planet.
posted by cmonkey at 11:19 PM on January 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


Besides being inspirational, besides being an eventual back up for our species

I always found this a curious argument. Is there any reason that humanity should be spared terrestrial calamity? Now, I have an interest in saving my own hide, if possible. But saving the species? The Universe really doesn't care if people go extinct. Call me a nihilist if you wish, but I don't see much value investing to ensure the human seed will outlast Mother Earth.

it'd require us to learn how to be ultra-ultra-parsimonious with resources. The absolute ultimate in living lightly.

Why could this not be figured out on Earth? Nobody is being stopped. This is a pretty weak reason to colonize the Moon. Who knew living lightly would be so damn expensive for so few people?

Terraforming is a nice loooong term goal. But what is the rush? We can't even create a truly self sustaining colony under the sea, or on Antarctica, either of which is immeasurably more hospitable than any celestial body known to us. If anyone is seriously proposing real long term colonies on the Moon and beyond, why not start with colonizing really difficult places here on Earth as a reasonable baby step? Or does humanity need the circus show of astronauts hopping around on lunar dust, dependent on a terrestrial umbilical cord for sustainability, in order to gain some transcendent and ill defined inspiration?
posted by 2N2222 at 11:19 PM on January 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


As a physicist, albeit not one who does anything related to space or astronomy, neither I nor the more relevant people I've talked to understand contemporary manned space flight outside of our ability to maintain orbiting observation equipment. Manned missions to the Moon are difficult, Mars exponentially harder. At the end of the day, any discoveries are going to be based on using some piece of equipment to measure something. A person could operate such things, sure, but for the same price and (less) time as sending people to either destination, we can do huge amounts of very important science with remote controlled rovers and satellites.

True solar system colonization is a beautiful idea, but its merit is hugely more in its cultural value than in its scientific rewards. Not to say it shouldn't be considered, but don't drop funding from other missions to accomplish it.
posted by Schismatic at 11:24 PM on January 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


Also, why so angry?

I can tell you why I'm angry about it, if angry is the word.. The space program is just a beard for the military industrial complex.
posted by Chuckles at 11:25 PM on January 28, 2010


Wish all the deluded people who think they might some day get into space without being filthy fucking rich would wake up already. Good on you, Barry O.
posted by tehloki at 11:37 PM on January 28, 2010


Maybe if there is healthcare on the moon, then maybe I'll care.

There are whalers on the Moon.

(And they carry a harpoon)
posted by dirigibleman at 11:56 PM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Having read the story, this makes sense. The world hasn't yet fully recovered from the GFC and using what 'little' (if you can call $6B little) available funds to extend the life of the ISS makes more sense to a layman like me than another trip to the moon (as exciting as that would have been). Seems the ISS is where the real science is being done these days.
The worst thing (well among the worst things) Obama is doing is embracing this "The government needs to tighten it's belt too" messaging. Working to send a dude to the moon would employ people, it would make the recession better, not worse.
That said, I'm not sure what the point would be. I'd rather see the money spent on more science. More space telescopes and probes to titan, europa, etc.
posted by delmoi at 12:12 AM on January 29, 2010


Full disclosure: I'm as big a space fan as one can possibly be. I got an MSc in Aerospace Engineering, and one of my deepest, dearest wishes has always been to watch a sunset on Mars.

This said, it's ridiculous to blame Obama for this. Bush may have talked the talk, but he never walked the walk. He never ever bothered to fund his space "vision". It was indeed a vision: a hallucination, a mirage, smoke and mirrors, a shameless delusion from the same folks who brought us the Iraqi WMDs. NASA was set to be left without a manned vehicle this year, anyway.
Now, in case nobody has noticed, his predecessor also left Obama with several costly wars, a serious environmental challenge, and the worst economic crisis in decades. I guess that he does have more important priorities than trying to get funding for an as yet rather fuzzy "vision" from an obdurate Congress facing midterm elections shortly. Especially when even a space fanboi like me considers that there are more pressing issues than planting more flags on the Moon.
posted by Skeptic at 12:21 AM on January 29, 2010 [6 favorites]


Is there any reason that humanity should be spared terrestrial calamity? Now, I have an interest in saving my own hide, if possible. But saving the species? The Universe really doesn't care if people go extinct.

I care. We fought our way from mud and sticks through an unbroken chain a thousand generations of labour deep and tens of thousands of years long. I have spent, and will spend, my entire life helping to build the next link in that chain.
When the civilization is lost, my efforts amount to nothing further.

Our civilization is testament to us, and those that came before us. And I'm just megalomanical enough to want a monument that lasts forever :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 12:59 AM on January 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


I care. We fought our way from mud and sticks through an unbroken chain a thousand generations of labour deep and tens of thousands of years long. I have spent, and will spend, my entire life helping to build the next link in that chain.
When the civilization is lost, my efforts amount to nothing further.


Exactly. 2N2222 is a typical fair-weathered progressive like many of the other pessimists on this thread. You'll find them arguing for progress and social justice in other threads, but when it comes to the future of humanity as a whole it's the typical "hurp durp lolhumanity is teh dumb and I'm a jaded prick."

Oh, and I can name one thing that would be good about getting into space: escaping the pessimistic assholes on the political right and left here on Earth, and forming other sorts of societies (spacesteading, if you will). Gotta love political positions that promise justice and hope, then collectively spit in the face of the entire planet, either by bombing the fuck out of them, or claiming that humanity isn't worth keeping under the guise of hypocritical rhetoric (I'd love to see you guys offer the same opinions of humanity at a protest, occupation, or sit in. "I'm for social diversity, just not for humanity as a whole! Hyuck hyuck").
posted by ollyollyoxenfree at 2:15 AM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


who uses skype unless they're talking with a long-distance beau?

I do. All outbound calls to people as far away as 300 metres to the other side of the world. For video business con calls amongst people as far away as my own city and beyond.
posted by juiceCake at 2:43 AM on January 29, 2010


The biggest reason spaceflight is so goddamn difficult is because we're sitting at the bottom of an enormous gravity well. Rockets are the best solution we've found so far to getting out of it, but the big problem is that rocket fuel is very heavy. Most of it's there to lift the REST of the fuel into the right place. It's incredibly wasteful.

A functioning moon base would allow for exploration of the main Solar System with relative ease; the energy required to escape the Moon's gravity is far less. So, if we could build and launch our satellites from there, we could do it at a tiny fraction of the total energy cost.

But to save that energy, we'd have to have a complete industrial economy in place on the Moon. Everything would have to be built locally, nothing sourced from Earth, or the whole point of using the lower gravity well is lost.

So, we'd have to lift an entire economy, or at least enough of one to bootstrap the rest, out of the Earth's deep gravitational well.... using the same rockets that are the problem to begin with! The expense involved in this beggars the imagination. We could put the entire world's economic output into that for decades and not be even close to finished. With current technology, that would be a project on the timeframe of the cathedrals in Europe; it would take at least decades, and maybe a century, and would swallow up an enormous amount of resources. Once we had it built, the entire Solar System would suddenly be in easy reach, but the expense in building it with present technology is insane.

Over the very long haul, it would be completely transformative in what it meant to be human, and would eventually raise living standards to the point that we can't even imagine it.... we'd have more resources than we can easily imagine just falling from the sky. But the sheer scale of the project would beggar us, and it might not even work. Worse, even if it did work, those pesky Moon colonists might get the idea of being self-governing. What if they refuse to send tribute?

In the immediate future, a space elevator makes the most sense. We're fairly close to being able to make one with current materials science. That will make exploration cheap, but slow. Making space travel fast is a matter of new drive technologies, which I won't get into here, because it'll make the post too long. (I actually deleted four paragraphs on that. :) )

A Moon base makes no sense. It's a stupid solution, a giant dead end. A little one will do absolutely nothing; only an enormous one with a population in the tens of thousands will be useful. And we can't even vaguely afford to do that.

We need to go around the gravity-well problem, not try to brute-force our way through it.
posted by Malor at 2:48 AM on January 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


I think some kind of space catapult is a little more feasible than a space elevator. A long magnetic rail on some high plateau in Bolivia or Tibet accelerating vehicles to near escape velocities, harvest asteroids for the material to make orbiting colonies. The trouble is that there doesn't seem to be any good financial investment in making that long term a bet on something that high risk. Which in some ways makes it not worth doing.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:28 AM on January 29, 2010


So, we'd have to lift an entire economy, or at least enough of one to bootstrap the rest, out of the Earth's deep gravitational well.... using the same rockets that are the problem to begin with! The expense involved in this beggars the imagination.

No, this is what is potentially so cool - how small can we make an entire economy? How tightly can we pack it? How much can we shave off to build later? How little can we survive with while we build? It's an incredible challenge with ramifications for industry in under-developed nations and regions of earth.

The obvious stuff is things like instead of shipping up structures and materials and machines and parts, you ship up an ore smelter and a milling machine. (One of the things some hobbiests do with milling machines, is use them to make another milling machine - from raw metal - and they do this stuff for fun. Crazy crazy machinists! :-))

Remember, of the payload that the apollo missions delivered to the moon and moon's orbit, almost all of it was taken up by equipment needed to get the astronauts back to earth.
If you have no astronauts, and no need to send any of the payload back to earth, that's a pretty large cargo supply transport and that was done way back in the 1960's.
Unlike the space station, you have a moon to use - a source of materials and shelter.

I don't think it's stupid. I think it's breathtaking.

And besides, we can't afford to allow a moon-base gap! :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 3:32 AM on January 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think some kind of space catapult is a little more feasible than a space elevator.

A catapult requires enormous amounts of our resources to be used up every launch generating the energy needed for each launch. A space elevator takes the energy right out of the earth - it is able to tap a vast source of energy that we haven't even touched yet.

Of course, the elevator requires more resources up front to build. I'm not sure which one has the lowest lifetime cost, but I wouldn't rush to bet on the catapult.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:38 AM on January 29, 2010


BrotherCaine:

The big advantage of the railgun approach is that you load all the energy up front, and all of it is used on the ground. So you're not using fuel to lift fuel. It's much better than rockets. But it requires a huge amount of acceleration, all front-loaded... it's kind of like being fired out of a very long cannon. Building one long enough to allow humans to survive the acceleration will be difficult and extremely expensive, although not as expensive as an elevator. You're also somewhat limited in terms of the orbits you can reach from your launch tube, although differing energy levels will allow a lot of leeway.

Overall, the elevator is better. Once you have two-way traffic, which obviously takes quite awhile to develop, you gain energy from things sliding down the cable. When incoming mass exceeds the outgoing mass by some small multiplier, which is kind of the whole point of actual space development, launches become essentially free. The profits from selling the incoming energy could pay for staff and maintenance. I doubt launches would ever be free to end-users, but they could be pretty cheap.

As far as I know, railgun-type launchers are something we can do right now, this very minute, with existing technology, so that might be something to start working on immediately. One difficulty is getting the real estate on a permanent basis. We need a really long launch facility with an exit point that's as high as possible, and it needs to be aligned with and very near the equator. Then we have the immensely difficult construction process of building a fifty or hundred-mile launch tube that comes out on a very high mountain peak. As hard and expensive as that will be, it's still cheaper than an elevator. We can then use the railgun to help build an elevator, and use both. In the beginning, the railgun might be cheaper, but over the long haul, the elevator would make it obsolete.

This known obsolescence is why only a government is likely to be able to do it; few companies would invest hundreds of billions into a launch facility that would put itself out of business in a couple of decades.

harlequin: I don't think it's stupid. I think it's breathtaking.

It's a very cool problem indeed. We just can't afford to do it. Railguns and elevators are things we actually CAN do.

At that point, we could consider a Moon base; the railgun helps build the elevator, the elevator can help build a Moon base. But we'd still have the problem of having to lift a fair bit of fuel for the Moon inserting landing; there's still a gravity well up there, it's just a lot shallower than ours. If it still makes economic sense, then we can tackle the bootstrap problem, which as you say, has a lot of other possible applications.

Basically: if we're serious about going to space for real, we can do it. But we can't do it with rockets.
posted by Malor at 4:23 AM on January 29, 2010 [5 favorites]


Oh, another problem I just thought of with the railgun: the departure velocity from the tube needs to be sufficient to reach escape velocity, so it'll have to be going substantially faster than 25,000 miles an hour at the exit point, because of atmospheric friction losses. I'm not sure we can build materials that can take that. The Shuttle hits very thin atmosphere at a much lower velocity, and you see how hot it gets.... a launch vehicle would need to be much, much faster than that in much thicker air. It'll be mountaintop air, so it's not like it's coming from sea level, but still.

That would need truly amazing thermal protection. I suspect the leading edges of the vehicle would reach temperatures of many thousand degrees. So it wouldn't be as straightforward as I initially thought. Accelerating the vehicle to 30,000ish miles an hour is almost certainly achievable with magnatic levitation; making a vehicle that can survive that speed in air might not be.
posted by Malor at 4:30 AM on January 29, 2010


Sigh. "Magnetic".
posted by Malor at 4:31 AM on January 29, 2010


Boy, I'm not proofing well, sorry. Three posts back, "Moon inserting landing" should probably be "Moon orbital insertion and landing". I reworded that sentence a couple of times and it ended up jumbled.

God, I wish we had an edit facility here.
posted by Malor at 4:34 AM on January 29, 2010


What's the future? Mail order steaks.
posted by nervousfritz at 4:36 AM on January 29, 2010


Considering the logistics and expense of sending people into space as opposed to robots, I think this is a fine move. Putting more people on the Moon might be impressive, but it does little at the expense of many resources, whereas robotic exploration of our solar system provides a great benefit to human knowledge at relatively little cost.

I'm just going to reproduce a comment I've made before about this short sightedness:
Yeah, water filters, insulation, cordless tools and pill transmitters that help monitor fetuses are complete wastes of time and money. Goddamn you NASA for the side benefits of manned space exploration!

Look, people this is how it works: NASA sends people in space and brings them back alive. In order to do that, they develop a lot of new technologies that wind up benefiting those back on earth.

NASA isn't the problem, rather it's the various administrations playing politics with the agency's agenda instead of funding it and getting the hell outta the way.

As to fixing other problems first, NASA achieved its greatest feats in the midst of the 60s, while America was going through major shit. Canceling the manned space program wouldn't have done a damn thing to fix those problems.

Frankly, one of the tragedies of America is that it's wiling to spend half trillion dollars per year on defense, but can't spend a tenth of that on space exploration.
But other than it being "cool", can you name another reason why sending people to live on a dead rock is a good idea?

Honestly? Humans need something something to do and our current track record seems to call for war. I'd rather see that time and investment put into civil projects that could open up new industries for society at large. America passed a half trillion dollar defense budget without many people batting and eye, so forgive me if I'm a bit pissy about refusing to spend another a few extra billion on exploration.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:48 AM on January 29, 2010 [9 favorites]


Continue to tell me how we'll never break the sound barrier or even achieve heavier than air powered flight. Tell me how all the laws of physics are known and future scientists are only left to push back knowledge by a couple decimal places.

I really wish people would stop using these historical myths, along with the idea that Columbus argued the Earth was round and Washington copped to a cherry tree.

But if general relativity--that law that nixes any travel outside of our solar system--wasn't true, you probably wouldn't be reading this.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:16 AM on January 29, 2010


Obama was just looking after the safety of Americans. Going to the moon was always a dangerous proposition. My God, it's only full for a day or two and then as it grows smaller and smaller you have to constantly scooting over your entire moonbase to avoid falling off.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 5:27 AM on January 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


Government-led space travel is dead and has been dead for decades, this is just engraving the tombstone.

Ideas that don't make someone money never progress from proof-of-concept to product, no matter how much we collectively want them to. We collectively did the proof of concept in the 60s, now it's time to find some way to motivate more than starry eyed dreamers (myself enthusiastically included) to get into the game.

So, yes, it's time to surrender the nobility of man's triumph over the void to the dirty mitts of profit seeking.
posted by Skorgu at 5:44 AM on January 29, 2010


As well he should. We have an economic crisis, a huge deficit and two wars. This is a no-brainer.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:02 AM on January 29, 2010


Ask the next dinosaur that you happen to meet.
Duck says "quack."
Yes, very witty, and yes, I'm aware. But did I really need to say something along the lines of "ask the next non-avian dinosaur that you meet" in order to make my point? Did you honestly not understand my point? Does your quacking rebuttal actually invalidate my point in any way?

It would be as if, tens of millions years from now, whatever is a "person" discovers this ancient extinct thing known as "mammals", that got completely wiped out by an asteroid. They were widespread across the entire earth and even the sea, they included many, many species, they were highly successful for millions of years. There were even individual species of mammals, such as "humans", which spread virtually across the entire face of the earth. And then the mammals were wiped out, every last one, more or less in the blink of an eye.

The word "mammal" enters popular culture to describe these things, and is established as meaning these things for well over a century.

Then one day, some scientist discovers that, hey, it looks like floorfnibbers, which are existing animals, actually are mammals! They're descended from the ancient mammal species "rats"! How about that! They weren't all wiped out! Just the vast majority of individual mammals, and the vast majority of individual species of mammals.

Scientists begin using the word "mammal" to include floorfnibbers, which it never did before either in popular culture or in science. In popular culture the word "mammal" is still understood to mean the things that were wiped out, although many people understand that in strict scientific usage, it includes floorfnibbers.

A few years later, some people are casually discussing why it might not be the best idea to keep their entire civilization on a single planet. One asks "And why might that be?" Another answers "Ask the next mammal that you happen to meet."

But someone has a comeback: "Floorfnibber says 'blork'."

Hah hah! Witty! And a crushing blow to the argument!

Yet all of humanity was still wiped out in the blink of an eye, as were cows and dogs and shrews and reindeer and marmosets and aardvarks and you name it.

I mean, as long as you don't name rats.
posted by Flunkie at 6:06 AM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


"The moons not going anywhere, fellas"

That's what they thought back in 1999, too!
posted by wittgenstein at 6:09 AM on January 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


which allowed for unprecedented economic growth and changed the world in ways which Thomas Friedman could misunderstand and misrepresent in any number of bestselling books

LOL
posted by Ironmouth at 6:12 AM on January 29, 2010


Wow, Obama is even worse than Bush on something I care about. Hope indeed.
posted by smackfu at 6:22 AM on January 29, 2010


Clarknova -- I believe you are exhibiting a serious failure of imagination for someone typing on a computer somewhere in the world which is talking to other computers worldwide -- a device and means of communication not only considered improbable or impossible, but UNIMAGINABLE a few decades ago.

Yeah but there were never any laws of physics preventing it. Seriously, you can't go faster than light. Thus we're not going to have an interstellar civilization. Relativity, people.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:22 AM on January 29, 2010


Yeah, water filters, insulation, cordless tools and pill transmitters that help monitor fetuses are complete wastes of time and money. Goddamn you NASA for the side benefits of manned space exploration!

You could make those things without building a rocket to the moon.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:26 AM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


You could make those things without building a rocket to the moon.

Yeah, but no one saw a need for them BEFORE we built a rocket to the moon.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:28 AM on January 29, 2010


Too bad, the moon base was the last thing NASA was doing that I was still excited about. Mars is a place we know about already. It's red. No life found yet. Not that interesting anymore, really. But permanent residence on another planet? That would be amazing! And the moon is the closest, and therefore probably cheapest, place to do that.
The moon base might be exciting to you, but it's not really science. If mars is uninteresting because of the lack of life or it's uniform colour then the moon is even less interesting. From a scientific point of view however saying that either object is uninteresting fatally short sighted. All the press releases about mars have been very exciting if you have an actual interest in science, there is no doubt that there is lots of more discoveries to be made. Beyond mapping very little exploration on mars has been done. Calling mars explored at this point would be like claiming earth science is done on the basis of having randomly sampled a few locations on Belle Isle in Detroit Michigan.

I love the idea of a manned space program and a lunar outpost and missions to mars and wish it would happen but I never really got it mixed up with science. Science and engineering happens during the process of getting there and at an accelerated rate because of the narrowed focus but the actual outpost isn't science.
posted by substrate at 6:28 AM on January 29, 2010


Here are Obama's promises on the Space program.
posted by smackfu at 6:29 AM on January 29, 2010


That's like European colonialism in the Caribbean: destined to collapse the moment there's trouble at home.

I'd just like to point out that after the de-colonialization of the 20th century, the Caribbean is one of the few places that still contains European territories.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:29 AM on January 29, 2010


"Obama... I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine... Obama, you're no Jack Kennedy"
posted by LakesideOrion at 6:30 AM on January 29, 2010


Government-led space travel is dead and has been dead for decades, this is just engraving the tombstone.

Space travel is massively expensive. It is not the cost of a single rocket. It is the cost of all the rockets prior to that one as well. The cost of a successful mars landing includes the cost of all the failures that came before it. What private entity can commit the resources for the repeated attempts necessary before an actual successful arrival is achieved?

The problem is one of public relations, not science or money. NASA's PR is a case study in failure. How many people in this thread know that there is a video of a spacecraft landing on Saturn's moon Titan? I would expect the answer in this thread to be 100%, given that this is metafilter and there is above-average interest for these things. What do you think the percentage is in the general public? Do your parent's know this?

The job of PR is to develop the public's interest in things that are going to happen anyway. You have to do this be cause the public's buy-in is important.

Buy the buy-in of Congress is equally important, which is why NASA needs to source technology for missions from a wider variety of congressional districts, even if it makes it more expensive. If a congressman knows that 50 jobs in his district are devoted to an image processor for a Saturn mission, he's going to be reluctant to kill the project. But if NASA continues to source everything from only the skunk works in California and Texas, the willingness to spend the money will be limited.

NASA has to reach out to small companies nationwide and feed them a lifeline. Let them develop and keep the data compression, communications, processing, fabrication, and power technologies they develop, and let them exploit them in the markets back here however they want. Let them own the patents outright. This will keep high tech jobs here, spur innovation, all while generating widespread public interest in space.
posted by Pastabagel at 6:31 AM on January 29, 2010


"Obama... I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine... Obama, you're no Jack Kennedy"

Yeah, pills and womanizing just aren't Barry's thing.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:31 AM on January 29, 2010


Or... apparently exploring the moon. Boo!
posted by LakesideOrion at 6:34 AM on January 29, 2010


Seriously, you can't go faster than light. Thus we're not going to have an interstellar civilization.
A does not imply B. There are known ways to get a ship to Alpha Centauri in a century or less; there have even been NASA studies on this.

Granted, many things about this seem very difficult, such as justifying the costs, ramping up the tech to be able to carry people, sufficient numbers of people to start a colony, finding those people, et cetera. But difficult though all those things will be, they're at least conceivable, and the speed limit of the universe does not alter that fact.
posted by Flunkie at 6:35 AM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


How many people in this thread know that there is a video of a spacecraft landing on Saturn's moon Titan?

Many probably.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:35 AM on January 29, 2010


Dear geeks,
     Unfortunately, due to political pressure, I am sorry to report
that I will be canceling outer space until further notice.

Sincerely,
President Obama

posted by Salvor Hardin at 6:36 AM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


a video of a spacecraft landing on Saturn's moon Titan

Also, I'm now convinced that the ESA is even more sloppy then NASA with their Moon Landing fakes. I think they used the money to take a kick-ass trip to africa and combined film footage of them dropping a camera out of a plane over Namibia with a recording of a guy playing an mbira and the modified dasboard from an old Commodore 64 game.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:50 AM on January 29, 2010


I'd love to see the Venn Diagram for people who think government should spend money on space programs and people who read/watch lots of sci-fi.
posted by rocket88 at 6:56 AM on January 29, 2010


I asked a dinosaur about this on my way into work this morning. It reminded me that his order not only survived the KT event, but his uncles dominated multiple niches for some time afterwards. It then cocked its head, and asked me if I was going to eat that last crust of bagel.

But "ask a dinosaur" is a stupid argument. Arguing for space exploration as a contingency plan for the long-term survival of the human species is like arguing that we should backup our tax records by printing them out and putting them in a paper bag on our front curb. The environment after the KT and Permian extinction events was still far more hospitable than any extraterrestrial one in our solar system. If anything becomes the kings of Mars, I'll place my bets sluggish transhumans who hoard energy and oxygen, or machine intelligences who don't give a nit about air and can shrug off radiation. Both will be pretty alien.

Human exploration of the solar system is likely a historical inevitability, which is why I'm not especially concerned. We couldn't build semi-autonomous exploration vehicles 30 years ago either, and yet, we have missions that are more successful than their designer's dreams. I'm comfortable with a long-game view on this, because I never really bought the line that space exploration was the primary driving force behind our technical innovation.

Having followed the link, everyone is going completely nuts about little or nothing. What we have is an unconfirmed report from an anonymous source that the NASA budget is going to be increased by $6.9 billion, but this probably isn't going to be enough to fund the massive space-winnebago that was the centerpiece of the Bush plan. There's not enough detail to know how that's going to be spent, but I'll shed no tears if development of the Bush Honorary Lunar Winnebago gets sacrificed in favor of a Constellation lift vehicle (already tested) and command module that will not only replace the shuttle, but do more than it.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:15 AM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


At least for the next century, the bang we get out of space exploration is data, and keeping projects like Spitzer, Chandra, and Webb going is just as valuable as the planetary missions.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:20 AM on January 29, 2010


Brandon Blatcher -

"Canceling the manned space program wouldn't have done a damn thing to fix those problems. "

Cancelling the moon shots in the '70s didn't help. Threw a lot of people out of work, too - and the economic repercussions flowed. The mid and late 70s weren't a great time.

The money spent on space isn't just stuffed into a Saturn 5 or a Space Shuttle cargo compartment and jettisoned in orbit. That money is used to pay people within the NASA structure, to pay for goods and materials to build whatever NASA builds. It also funds research into materials and products, a lot of which have applications far beyond aerospace. You need innovative people - and the hard sciences in universities nationwide get a boost. Companies come into existance to take care of those needs. Those companies employ people and pay them - those people need places to live, stores to sell them the goods they want, entertainment and suchlike. THOSE places employ more people.

Someone comes along, thinks it'd be great to build a computer - looks how the computer in the Apollo Guidance system worked, builds some circuits - and other nerds build computers for fun. Then someone goes "Hey, I can do something and sell it commerically" - and APPLE starts up. IBM gets into the mix, open-sources the circuitry, other makers start up to provide add-in cards for memory and video and whatnot - and then the clone makers in Taiwan start up. The PC revolution explodes. Innovation takes hard drives from 5 MB for $3000 (damn, how are we going to fill up all that space?) to 1 Terabyte for $90 retail - with advances to come.

NASA spending ends up being a spark that starts a lot more than most people realize.

Anyone care to guess what this decision's going to do to the area around the KSC?

On preview - What Pastabagel said. NASA's PR sucks mightily. It's like they're afraid of actually sounding positive about their accomplishments.

BTW, Congress just voted to increase the spending limit by $1.9 trillion. We have an almost $900 billion 'stimulus' package that hasn't accomplished much - and we can't even figure out really how many jobs were 'created or saved' by it. We have trillion-dollar deficits for years to come - but we can't find money to keep existing jobs going, or expand what NASA does - which WOULD create good, hard, accountable jobs?

Something's not right with that.
posted by JB71 at 7:24 AM on January 29, 2010 [4 favorites]


There is no habitable planet we can go to, and no ship to get us there. The moon is a jumping off point to Mars which is a jumping off point on the edge of a cliff. There is literally nothing else to land on.

Unless you count enough free-floating mass and energy to support a few quintillion people, of course. Do the math. There's a reason why "fanboys" are on average pretty good at math.

You're right that none of that is currently easily habitable, though.

But tell me: do you live someplace that's human-habitable? Could you put down your farmed food right now, walk outside your habitat, take off your clothing, and live that way for the next year? I'd die of hypothermia within a day without technological support, and I live someplace famous for warm weather. The interior of the Space Shuttle isn't the prettiest environment, but it's a lot safer than most of the Earth's surface.

For that matter, even the habitable parts of the Earth's surface aren't all that habitable, are they? Anthropologists tell us that these billions of people we can support with technology are an exception to the rule, that the human population was knocked down to bottlenecks on the order of tens of thousands of people through events as simple as a volcano eruption on the other side of the planet. Even moderate levels of technology were only a limited fix. Seen any Vikings in Vinland lately?

And yet, here I am. Sitting in a soft comfortable chair while the planet around me is covered in mud, about to have a nice hot shower in the middle of the freezing rain, nibbling on some fresh fruit that won't be in season for months. Trying to find the right way to convey (using a thinking machine connected by a global network of modulated light, of all the damn irony) that just because something was impossible yesterday and is hard today doesn't mean it won't be easier tomorrow and commonsensical the day after.

The universe is a huge place. We don't need to ignore it forever because it looks scarier than Olduvai Gorge.
posted by roystgnr at 7:29 AM on January 29, 2010 [5 favorites]


Xezlec and other Space Colony Advocates:

Have you ever wondered why nobody ever talks about colonizing Antarctica? I mean, its warmer than Mars, with much more plentiful surface water, good air pressure, and an extremely Earth-like atmosphere. We've had the technology to get there for more than 500 years!

-
posted by General Tonic at 7:30 AM on January 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


Manalive, this thread is depressing.

My background is astrophysics, and my professional interests lie more along the lines of spending what monies we have in sending unmanned probes to the outer planets and keeping world-class telescopes in orbit.

And yet, the idea of manned spaceflight - that we can leave our planet and stand back and look at it from the outside - is hugely meaningful to me. I grew up on stories of the Apollo and Gemini and Mercury programs, and there's a part of my soul that would be crushed if we made a collective decision to plant our asses here and never move, no matter how many little robots we send out.

I don't care if it's practical. I don't care if I personally never step foot off this rock. This is something that touches me in the same way that art and music does. I have hope for humanity, and I don't think we're doomed to have our only legacy be that we fucked up the planet we live on. We're better than that. So laugh all you want that I'm naive and short-sighted I've been overly influenced by a healthy helping of Star Trek along with my science. It's probably all true. The current form of manned spaceflight isn't sustainable, but that's where the challenge comes in! Apollo was just the first step, and here's where we need the innovation. I hope with all of my heart that we find a way to get back out there, and that that way involves the collective effort of governments and not solely private companies.
posted by Salieri at 7:32 AM on January 29, 2010 [12 favorites]


KirkJobSluder

Looks like Constellation's going to get the axe. They'll just scrap what they've done so far, and look at making something new.
White House insiders say Obama budget axes Constellation program, plan to return astronauts to the moon - OrlandoSentinel.com

When the White House releases his budget proposal Monday, there will be no money for the Constellation program that was supposed to return humans to the moon by 2020. The troubled and expensive Ares I rocket that was to replace the space shuttle to ferry humans to space will be gone, along with money for its bigger brother, the Ares V cargo rocket that was to launch the fuel and supplies needed to take humans back to the moon.

There will be no lunar landers, no moon bases, no Constellation program at all.

In their place, according to White House insiders, agency officials, industry executives and congressional sources familiar with Obama's long-awaited plans for the space agency, NASA will look at developing a new "heavy-lift" rocket that one day will take humans and robots to explore beyond low Earth orbit. But that day will be years — possibly even a decade or more — away.
When can we really expect it? Um, let's see... government program, subject to the whims of Congress, always fighting for funding, lousy PR... just a sec, carry the 5, subtract two or more Presidential election runs and accounting for political winds...

Never? Does that work for you? Okay, let's pencil that in...
posted by JB71 at 7:33 AM on January 29, 2010


Gah, but now that I've got all the next-century, touchy-feely crap written in a nice separate post, back to the immediate news:

Just because exploring space is the right thing to do doesn't mean Constellation is the right way to do it. We've already done a lot of launches with throwaway, inconveniently fueled, high-maintenance missiles designed in a non-evolutionary fashion to one-size-fits-all requirements, and we've learned a lot about science and engineering along the way, but one of the engineering things we should have learned is that these aren't the right ways to do it. I say this despite knowing that cancelling Constellation will have a slight negative impact on my job and may have a serious negative impact on a friend's; I suspect the question would look even more clear to people who are just footing the bill.

On the other hand, turning to "I like to use the term ‘entrepreneurial interests,’" is pretty dangerous. We're in a situation where those interests are limited to one oligopoly that's got decades of expertise in being too expensive, vs. one still-nascent startup that's just managed to put 2 small payloads in orbit out of 5 attempts. Private markets typically work better than government monopolies, but private monopolies are worse than either, and the latter may be the most likely outcome here...
posted by roystgnr at 7:43 AM on January 29, 2010


JB71: When can we really expect it? Um, let's see... government program, subject to the whims of Congress, always fighting for funding, lousy PR... just a sec, carry the 5, subtract two or more Presidential election runs and accounting for political winds...

And how is that different from the Bush plan which was plagued by similar problems and congressional budget cuts?

If they are scrapping Aeries I and V, well that is indeed a big problem.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:44 AM on January 29, 2010


Because I went to school and read books instead of watching Star Trek. And what I've learned is that the nearest star is 4.2 light years away. And there ain't any planets around it, either.

I went to college too, where I learned (at least some) humility and respect for points of view other than my own. I also learned that 4.3 ly is not insurmountable by certain propulsion methods, and that we don't know whether there are planets in the α-Cen system because our telescopes aren't good enough yet. Also, growing up in the 80's, I learned that new technologies arise constantly and lots of things you never thought possible are always coming true, thanks to smart people with inspiration and motivation.
posted by Xezlec at 7:57 AM on January 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


roystngr: Trying to find the right way to convey (using a thinking machine connected by a global network of modulated light, of all the damn irony) that just because something was impossible yesterday and is hard today doesn't mean it won't be easier tomorrow and commonsensical the day after.

Well, let's be blunt. Even the harshest of terrestrial environments benefit from billions of years of ecosystem development. If extraterrestrial colonies become viable, they will require either evolutionary changes on the order of our separation of Australopithicus, or outstanding revolutions in technological development. (Either of which is also likely to increase our chances of surviving an extinction event on Earth.) As mass-extinction events (other than those caused by our own species) are relatively infrequent, I don't think that a decade or so will seriously hinder ultimate exploration and colonization.

And in regards to Constellation. Pardon, but I thought that one of the benefits to it was that it wasn't one-size fits all. The basic problem as we saw with the shuttle, is that there are huge compromises needed to create a spacecraft that barely pretends to be flightworthy under the control of automated systems on an ideal and cleared flight path. Reusing the shuttle resulted in systems that were grotesquely complex and high-maintenance.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:59 AM on January 29, 2010


> We can never terraform mars. Ever. It won't hold air: pun intended.

As I understand it, we don't know that, and I don't even think that's currently the majority opinion.


Mars doesn't have much of a magnetosphere and, unlike earth, isn't well-shielded from the solar winds. Solar wind ablation is thought to have removed much of the atmosphere from Mars. Its spotty magnetic field is thought to form bubbles of atmosphere that float away in the solar wind.
posted by peeedro at 8:04 AM on January 29, 2010


Xezlec: If the rubysilver slippers of near-relative propulsion technologies, century ships, and discovery of planets with a highly Earth-like environment just happen to fall into our laps in our lifetime, I'll be happy to be surprised. I also would also convert to some form of scientific Deism, as I find the possibility that other planets would have happened to evolve biochemistry that's compatible to our own to be nothing less than miraculous, although I'd more likely buy the matrix hypothesis that I'm just a character in a science fiction game.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:09 AM on January 29, 2010


Sam Seaborn on space exploration... shucks I miss The West Wing.
posted by Perplexity at 8:17 AM on January 29, 2010


Yeah, water filters, insulation, cordless tools and pill transmitters that help monitor fetuses are complete wastes of time and money. Goddamn you NASA for the side benefits of manned space exploration!

Don't forget Food Sticks and Tang!

Highlighting unintended developments as a benefit of space travel is a really goofy justification. This reasoning totally works to justify any new outlandish defense spending, which has yielded just as many nifty new widgets. Why not an underwater city? Imagine the cool stuff that will end up at the surplus shops as a side result? And think of the jobs it would create! Yeah, that's it. The space program can be justified as a massive make-work program! Relying on that sort of broken window fallacy as an argument for the space program is grasping at the wispiest of straws.
posted by 2N2222 at 8:22 AM on January 29, 2010 [4 favorites]


We invented the plastic bag for use in WWII. Sounds like it's time to invade Europe again!
posted by Pollomacho at 8:25 AM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Salieri:

I understand that space travel gives meaning to your existence. That notion has been expressed by others on this thread. I submit that this is an instance where the old gods have failed, and humanity's destiny among the cosmos is source of quasi-religious inspiration for you. You want the country's collective effort used to fund your spiritual fulfillment.

Human exploration of space is inevitable. But there are scant few reasons why it must be done now. I'm less optimistic that humans can ever really sever the ties to Earth. In the mean time, I think people would be much better served if we faced the reality that humanity is pretty much stuck on this rock, and we'll have to make due.
posted by 2N2222 at 8:51 AM on January 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


Should we abandon the study of astronomy?
posted by dirigibleman at 9:03 AM on January 29, 2010


I asked a dinosaur about this on my way into work this morning. It reminded me that his order not only survived the KT event, but his uncles dominated multiple niches for some time afterwards. It then cocked its head, and asked me if I was going to eat that last crust of bagel.
Again, none of this changes the fact that many, many species were wiped out completely.
But "ask a dinosaur" is a stupid argument. Arguing for space exploration as a contingency plan for the long-term survival of the human species is like arguing that we should backup our tax records by printing them out and putting them in a paper bag on our front curb. The environment after the KT and Permian extinction events was still far more hospitable than any extraterrestrial one in our solar system.
That's no solace to the individuals and species who died, nor does it change the fact that they died.

I'm not going to argue this any further. If you want to continue to say that it's "stupid", and if anyone else wants to continue taking me to task for using the word "dinosaur", feel free. Goodbye.
posted by Flunkie at 9:32 AM on January 29, 2010


Human exploration of space is inevitable. But there are scant few reasons why it must be done now.

It's not inevitable without fusion for the same reason why now might be the only time it can be done. We're on the cusp of a time when energy resources start becoming more and more expensive per capita. If we can't transition from oil to fusion, widespread fission (if we have enough fuel), or some kind of extremely cheap/efficient alternative energy, then every argument that we have more important priorities than exploiting space will become more rather than less persuasive.
posted by BrotherCaine at 9:33 AM on January 29, 2010


KirkJobSluder -

"If they are scrapping Aeries I and V, well that is indeed a big problem."

Ares 1 and V are part of the Constellation program. NASA's scrapping the overall framework they'd be used in - so I'd say they're history.

"And how is that different from the Bush plan which was plagued by similar problems and congressional budget cuts?"

With funding for NASA being so... tasty in the eyes of Congress, it's not surprising that folks would look to glom onto that for their own purposes. And you can demagog against NASA as a waste of money quite easily. "Why should we spend money on space when we need jobs here on Earth?" is a nice example, when you don't bother to think that the money spent ON space will actually employ quite a few people.

But wasting money in politics is always in the eye of the beholder, as is quite clear lately...
posted by JB71 at 9:34 AM on January 29, 2010


Because it is possible to send relatively small, cheap robots to explore first, it would be stupid to load the whole gang into much more expensive ships now and head out on road trips. Let the robots go up the dead ends and never come back. Save the expensive round-trip or colonizing missions for when having people on site would make a great difference to the mission. That might not be for another couple hundred years. Wait.

And because you can't take your suit off on another plant, there will always be something between you and the alien environment. Visitors to Mars will not walk on Mars, they will walk on and in plastic, looking through plastic, picking things up in thick gloves, listening to whatever their microphones pick up, tasting snacks packed on Earth, and smelling their own farts and sweat. When you can't see, hear, smell, taste or touch anything there directly, you might as well be millions of miles away and sensing things remotely.
posted by pracowity at 9:45 AM on January 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


Developing self-sustaining colonies on another planet will require environmental engineering on a planetary scale. By the time we get to the point where we might be able to use Mars as a backup ark for the Planet Earth, we'll have the technological sophistication to mitigate most threats to the Earth as well.

But those things that will require centuries of work.

He's another problem we just figured out. In the last decade, very smart molecular biologists figured out that you can filter large quantities of stuff for the DNA, run PCR, and by searching for unique variations on some key genes common to most life, discover new species. And what we found is that we don't know squat about most of the microbial species on our planet. Our ecosystems contain hundreds of populations of eubacteria, each of them probably in their own little biochemical niche, and we have no idea what they are doing.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:47 AM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


The six year-old in me feels like stomping her feet and throwing a temper tantrum over this. Of course, the six year-old in me still dreams of becoming an astronaut, so there you go.
posted by futureisunwritten at 10:06 AM on January 29, 2010


I think the funding for space exploration would be easier to obtain if it was directly geared toward making money. Asteroid mining, anyone? I don't know if it would be a good or bad thing to flood the market with literally tons of gold and platinum, but gold being priced in the neighborhood of aluminum seems like a high class problem.
posted by mullingitover at 10:12 AM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Say what you want about percentages of the total budget, but this is a colossal waste of money. What could we do here on earth for a hundred billion dollars? Probably some pretty remarkable things.

Yeah, like bail out the rich bastards who almost destroyed the banking system and almost plunged us into a great depression one seventh times.
posted by lordrunningclam at 11:09 AM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yes. Abandon the moon. There is nothing up here... er up there that you want. Forget about it and go back to your lives.

There certainly isn't any kind of robot army up h.... there forming in a secret dark-side base to crush the puny Terran forces and enslave you all. Nothing like that, that would be crazy talk.

No. Stay home. It's for the best.

*steeples fingers*
posted by quin at 11:10 AM on January 29, 2010


We choose not to go to the moon. We choose not to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, not because they are hard, but because they are spendy. That goal might serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, but that challenge is one that we are not willing to accept, one we are willing to postpone, and one which we intend to forget, and the others, too.

It is for these reasons that I regard the decision to shift our efforts in space from low to no gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.
posted by kirkaracha at 11:14 AM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


"If they are scrapping Aeries I and V, well that is indeed a big problem."

By big problem, you mean "big victory."

The way the Ares I was leaking mass -- the last stated entry orbit was 100x-60km* -- it was going to undergo a cost escalation that would have made the shuttle look cheap. The idea was "Shuttle derived", there was basically nothing left from the Shuttle -- new, extended SRB, new second stage, new engine, new crew capsule.

If you are going to clean sheet a booster, you start with a clean sheet. If you are going to build a derived booster, you only make the absolute minimum changes possible to the existing components.

What I would do if I were Lord of all NASA, and didn't have the budget for a clean sheet (because there's no way in hell I get one.)

1) Crew lifter: Man rate the Delta IV Heavy for a 7-unit capsule, and use the (now man-ratable) Delta IV Medium as a 3-unit lifter. Why? Neither use solids, and you have to man rate the Medium to man rate the Heavy, because the Heavy is a Medium with two extra Medium first stages bolted on as boosters.

These exist today. Man rating basically involves instrumentation and new flight profiles (esp. for the Delta IV Heavy) to make sure G-loads are kept reasonable.

Bonus: Test flights can carry normal Delta IV class cargos that fit in the capsule size. So, you get paid for the test flights!

2) Mass lifter. We'll need to reconfigure a booster, but what we do is this. We take the Shuttle External Tank, mount the engines *below it*. This will require newly built hardware, but the tanking is the same, the shape is the same, so tooling will remain common. Since this will boost-to-orbit, the reusable SSMEs won't be, so we'll bolt on 2 or 3 RS-68 engines -- since we already have to rebuild the base of the ET anyway, we don't save any money by reusing the SSME here, and while the SSME has better performance than the RS-68, it costs considerably more because of the reusability. We strap on two SSRB to the top, and we put a fairing on top, and fling 130 tons or so into orbit.

Why do I know that stack will do that? That same power and size lofts a shuttle with payload.

Why the RS-68? LH2 powered, similar to the the SSME, cheaper (not reusable) and, oh, check it out, it's the *same engine* as the Delta IV heavy.

Hey, our crew and mass lifters use the same engine! One that already exists and is tested! One that doesn't need to be rebuilt from 1960s designs!

It's simple. The shuttle stack is a great mass lifter, penalized by the mass of the shuttle. Get rid of it, use the cheaper RS-68s, and you've got a Saturn-V class heavy lifter, and you've done 60% of the design and engineering work *already* -- if not more. If you need more lift, build a second stage on top of that stack. Ideal? No -- in this case, you really want to burn the vastly more dense RP-1, rather than LH2, in the first stage to reduce the size of the first stage, but using LH2 in the ET is workable, and *derived from components you already use and know work.*

That's the key. You limit the rebuild. Engines? Stock. SRBs? Stock. Main stage? Not stock, but using common engines, common size hardware (the ET) and common tankerage. This means the flight dynamics will be similar, so common control systems.

Ares I changed everything, so everything had to be built anew, then tested, then rebuilt when it didn't meet performance.

That's a derived booster. DIRECT uses a similar config for both mass and crew lifters (and has good arguments for that) but if you absolutely must have a separate crew lift booster, use one that already works, and you pick the LH2 powered Delta IV, rather than the RP-1 powered Atlas V, because that seriously minimizes the changes you need to make to the Shuttle hardware to make the mass booster.

This would work. DIRECT would work. Ares *was not working,* and we cannot afford another cost climbing, performance dropping mess like STS became.




*Yes, the Ares I would *require* your typical payload to have it's own booster, or it wouldn't stay up for one orbit. This is the first orbital booster I know of that cannot loft its standard payload into at least a short duration parking orbit.
posted by eriko at 11:17 AM on January 29, 2010 [9 favorites]


Thank you eriko.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:29 PM on January 29, 2010


Cancelling the moon shots in the '70s didn't help. Threw a lot of people out of work, too - and the economic repercussions flowed. The mid and late 70s weren't a great time.

Yes, the economic repercussions of cancelling trips to the moon caused a recession. In imagination land.

Personally, I think the work that needs to be done to develop space colonization can be done in our backyards with not much more than a shovel. We can't live sustainably on this planet. What makes people think we would be able to do so on a planet with no other life?
posted by symbollocks at 1:39 PM on January 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


I don't care if it's practical. I don't care if I personally never step foot off this rock. This is something that touches me in the same way that art and music does. I have hope for humanity, and I don't think we're doomed to have our only legacy be that we fucked up the planet we live on.

If you can't do on Earth you can't do it on Mars. You clean up your room young man and maybe we'll think about letting you have a dog.
posted by clarknova at 2:05 PM on January 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


symbollocks -

The whole PERIOD then was a friggin' recession. Cancelling Apollo threw a lot of engineers out of work, we had energy problems, we had a President that bailed while the getting was good but we ended up electing Carter. And then (shudder) to top it all off Disco got popular. AND Leisure suits!

The misery just kept escalating...
posted by JB71 at 7:14 PM on January 29, 2010


oh good <3 I was hoping they'd wait on me to grow up!
posted by rubah at 7:49 PM on January 29, 2010


I want man to go to the moon, or mars, or the bottom of the sea, or wherever not because of science or nationalism. I want people to do these things so they can come back and tell the rest of uswhat it is like, and what they saw, and what it felt like to see things like Earthrise over the moon's horizon.

This is what it is all about. It's about expanding human perception and looking past our borders.

Pure robotic exploration can, and should be a part of this. But it can't replace a human explorer going to these places and then telling us what it was like and how it felt.

This is really sad news. I hope Russia, China and India continue their manned space programs and tell us their stories.
posted by schwa at 8:38 PM on January 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


We can't live sustainably on this planet. What makes people think we would be able to do so on a planet with no other life?

Because if we don't, we die right then and there, instead of a bunch of people we don't know five generations down the track.

It's the difference between a smoker saying "I can quit any time I want to" and so continuing to smoke in the comfort of their own home, vs wanting to go to an exclusive nightclub where if you actually flout the rules and light up, you get thrown out the door headfirst into the nearest parked car. The rubber meets the road.

Or something like that :)

I imagine a moonbase would drive huge advances in sustainable living and footprint reduction. I think some of that might just come in handy down here :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 1:27 AM on January 30, 2010


I imagine a moonbase would drive huge advances in sustainable living and footprint reduction. I think some of that might just come in handy down here :-)

Yes, a brilliant idea--expend massive amounts of scare resources and pollute lots to send up a metal room into space to learn how to live more sustainably. Staggering illogic.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:36 AM on January 30, 2010


I'm not too keen on manned space exploration at this point, but I think that we desperately need to move some of our mining and energy generation off the planet. It's a lot easier to permanently and safely deal with pollutants when there's no air or water to muck up and you can drop it into the sun or just throw it out of the ecliptic plane.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:50 PM on January 30, 2010


That being said, hopefully it's a job for robots.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:51 PM on January 30, 2010


Yes, a brilliant idea--expend massive amounts of scare resources and pollute lots to send up a metal room into space to learn how to live more sustainably. Staggering illogic.

And yet still less illogical than what we are currently doing and what we will continue to do because we don't feel the pressure. Thus, an improvement.
posted by -harlequin- at 7:57 PM on January 30, 2010 [2 favorites]


I mourn the loss of human ambition. I recognize that it is probably more cost effective to send robots to do the work they can do, but human existence is about more than practicality. Sending people to the moon for a prolonged period of time is a necessary step to send people to other planets. Why should we do this? In addition to the possibilities for colonization, new scientific advances, and new economic sectors, the act of putting people into space inspires people.

Throughout history people have done things for the sake of doing them. We as a species keep records of our "records" even when the purpose of the skill those records represents is vague. Hell, even the first person to comment on an internet forum topic is now afforded with some level of recognition. It is sad that our pioneering spirit has been reduced to that level, but at least it is still there.

Secondly, space, especially the near solar system, is a place we can conquer without the need for bloodshed. Manned space flight has shown great promise in strengthening the ties between nations even when terrestrial politics are nearing a meltdown. Humans must work together in space to survive while also sating the human need to conquer.

Lastly, space travel and the attendant research will inspire our best minds to get back in the game. While many intelligent and productive people are willing to do what is necessary, they will natural desire to do what is extraordinary. Developing sustainable energy, food, and other industries for the purpose of glamorous space travel will fully engage the talents of our best and brightest. We can all benefit from the technologies they design, many of which will be adaptable to terrestrial use, but we will also give back to those who created them in the form of the lasting legacy of the new space age.

Ending consideration of manned space flight is probably the biggest setback for civilization since the end of the golden age of Greece.
posted by epsilon at 8:44 AM on February 2, 2010 [3 favorites]


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