NASA knows that excitement means mistakes
December 28, 2014 5:50 PM   Subscribe

5200 Days in Space. From The Atlantic.
posted by pjern (18 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
This was interesting, thanks for posting it. I think NASA would have (will have) a really hard time shifting their institutional culture to one that accepts and values autonomy.
posted by janell at 7:00 PM on December 28, 2014


Almost anyone you talk with about the value of the Space Station eventually starts talking about Mars

I wish they wouldn't, 'cause we're not ready to go to Mars and won't be for a while at our current rate. Worst yet, there's little reason to go there at this point. What vague plans there are sound like a one off flag plant.

Either return to the Moon to stay or build better space stations. Preferably both. Once we've learned to successfully live in space, then we can LIVE in space.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:51 PM on December 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


Yeah, Mars can wait. It's not going anywhere, and any manned mission would be a suicide mission if it was attempted with current technology, IMHO. Keep sending ever more advanced orbiters/rovers. Space stations are great, but, damn, are they expensive for something so close. I personally would like to see humanity establish a permanent lunar base. At least the moon has gravity and a short communication delay. Although that would also be very tough and expensive.

Nothing's gonna happen (in the USA), though, unless this sort of stuff can get a decent slice of federal funding.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 8:14 PM on December 28, 2014


Also wanted to say I really enjoyed the article. Thanks for posting, pjern. Best of the web, indeed.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 8:17 PM on December 28, 2014


Also, Thanks for posting this article, thoroughly enjoyed.
posted by RespiratoryExam at 9:18 PM on December 28, 2014


Thanks for the article. it was really great and interesting.

The degradation in eye-sight was surprising and worrying. Its going to be a major challenge for any human missions to other planets.

I have a fear that biological impact of zero-G on human body would become the limiting factor for human expansion in space and ultimately we will have robots colonizing the solar system ... unless we gain the ability to transfer human consciousness into computers.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 10:42 PM on December 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


Why? I have no idea! It’s just the way NASA does things.

Wait, would that be that same NASA whose most recent safety incident was the loss of vehicle with all crew resulting from its being struck by a piece of foam?

Dude, you are not Han Solo asking Chewbacca for the hydrospanner and getting hit in the head with a toolbox for sake of comic relief. If NASA can't assure the structural integrity of a vessel that's been hit with a fist-size chunk of packing material, you better follow their every instruction to the goddamn letter as pertains anything they have the remotest clue about.
posted by 7segment at 12:50 AM on December 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


Thanks for that, it was quite interesting. For me, though, the most intriguing parts were those that eluded to the cosmonauts.

The Russian and U.S.-side astronauts typically keep to their own modules during the workday.
What are the Russian's doing all day? Similar workout regimens? Scientific experiments for Russian ground-based scientists?

Learning to let astronauts manage their own lives in space is going to be as hard as any engineering challenge NASA has faced—and it’s an element of space travel neither Houston nor American astronauts have any experience with.
But Russia has?

I also find it striking that they still haven't put an American into space for a full year while four cosmonauts had already achieved that on Mir. If understanding how to live and work in space for long periods is to be the primary legacy of the Space Station, it seems to me that they probably could have achieved it for less than $8 million a day, given that Mir cost one tenth that.
posted by kisch mokusch at 2:59 AM on December 29, 2014


> "I have a fear that biological impact of zero-G on human body would become the limiting factor for human expansion in space ..."

If that particular issue turns out to be the real bottleneck, I'm reasonably sure that it's a solvable problem even with current technology -- basically a matter of how much money we're willing to throw at it. A rotating ship can give you the equivalent of gravity.
posted by kyrademon at 3:23 AM on December 29, 2014


I also find it striking that they still haven't put an American into space for a full year while four cosmonauts had already achieved that on Mir.

I find it striking only because there are no women in this study or scheduled for a similar study as far as I know. Because the eye problems mentioned in the article don't affect women.

If that particular issue turns out to be the real bottleneck, I'm reasonably sure that it's a solvable problem even with current technology -- basically a matter of how much money we're willing to throw at it. A rotating ship can give you the equivalent of gravity.

We're not willing to throw a lot of money at space, relatively speaking. NASA got a small bump for 2015, to 18 billion, which is huge amount strictly speaking. But not a whole lot considering the number of projects NASA has going at any one time. It's still getting just under half a percent of the total US Federal Budget. During Apollo, the agency was getting close to 5%. At this rate, it'll be a while before NASA could afford to do much else.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:54 AM on December 29, 2014


The take away from all this is that living in space is the hard- much harder than we ever thought. It was the conceit of theorists that a lot of things, from constriction to sleeping would be easier to perform in space, but exactly the opposite is true. In fact it's now questionable whether we will ever be able to make space living routine enough to be worth the effort.

Personally, I think we're up to a century away from being able to send humans to Mars. It's also quite likely that this is the last burst of space activity before we give it up and try to survive the next couple centuries of climate change and economic and political chaos.

If we're lucky, we'll take it up again in a couple centuries. If not, then as we slowly slide into senescence, it will slowly be forgotten, or fanciful tales will be told about when people went into space, like those around the pyramids.
posted by happyroach at 12:47 PM on December 29, 2014


7segment, that's certainly not the first astronaut who's questioned the NASA Way™. Jerry Linenger infamously went "off schedule" to work at his own pace while stationed aboard Mir, and reported that this reduced stress and improved performance for him. There have been numerous incidents over the years going back to Gemini and Apollo where the astronauts felt like monkeys being forced to do tasks with unclear value and having things reduced to what seemed unnecessary levels of minute breakdown.

The NASA approach to this day uses something they call "Form 24", which is a task breakdown and schedule for the day, in five-minute increments (i.e. tasks/breaks are given in units like 5, 15, or 35 minutes). [pdf ex]

While cosmonauts get different instructions and have schedules and deadlines as well, apparently more of their work is conducted at their own pace and with authority resting in the commander or senior officer on board, rather than on the ground. (To answer kisch mokusch.)

Now, while the whole "The US spent millions developing a space pen; the Russians used a pencil" thing is pretty much a myth, it does point to some differences in approach and temperament that are pretty real. The US tends to have much more of a systems approach to things, unsurprising with NASA's roots in the aircraft industry and the Organization Man era. It has more privatized contractors; it has closer and more complex relationships with the European and Japanese partners. There's a reason they want everything in triplicate. The Russians, to this day, still have a space program with closer roots to the military and a more vertical public-private partnership between RSA and Roskosmos.

So when you get to a question like why the US hasn't put someone into space for a full year when the Russians did it ages ago, you still need to think about the context and how that works in a NASA milieu. Somebody needs to not just say "Let's put someone in space for a year", they need to do preliminary studies and justify that proposal with concrete goals that would be attained by the exercise, just for starters. There might be other things that need to be done first; there might be ongoing things that would be negatively affected by this one; there might need to be volunteers, to be medical and monitoring teams created and trained and equipped, and so on.

As to the long-term mission or goals, I think many of us assume it has to be Mars or asteroid mining or something like that, but organizationally NASA isn't set up that way. They are much more focused on the current mission than what they might be doing under the next Administrator or President, largely because they have to be and they have decades of experience with rugs being pulled out from under them. It can be argued that this is a toxic way to approach your own work, but they've come to live with it.
posted by dhartung at 12:59 PM on December 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


It's probably worth pointing out that the Russians haven't kept a cosmonaut in space for years on the ISS. Presumably they'd have the authority to do so, what with running their own segment, along with the Soyuz spacecraft. There's probably a logistics reason they haven't do so yet.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:09 PM on December 29, 2014


Brandon, might it not instead be a political/organizational reason why the Russians haven't repeated the long duty term?
posted by janell at 3:12 PM on December 29, 2014


It's interesting to think of ways that NASA could test out more astronaut autonomy and at the same time time keep the public interested enough in space that we approve of space funding. Maybe a science version of reality tv, basically- a group of astronauts try to find the most efficient way to complete a task, or work together to perform some routine function without ground support, while we watch and cheer them on?
posted by Secretariat at 3:18 PM on December 29, 2014


might it not instead be a political/organizational reason why the Russians haven't repeated the long duty term?

Could be! Just interesting that they've done it four times before, but not recently.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:52 AM on December 30, 2014


dhartung: "7segment, that's certainly not the first astronaut who's questioned the NASA Way™. Jerry Linenger infamously went "off schedule" to work at his own pace while stationed aboard Mir, and reported that this reduced stress and improved performance for him. "

There is also the example of the Skylab crew who went on "strike" and simply shut off the coms for a day or so.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 10:36 PM on December 30, 2014


Oh, and also Wally Schirra vetoing Deke Slayton's commands because of Wally's head cold. I wonder how much Mr. Schirra earned from his famous Actifed commercials.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 10:39 PM on December 30, 2014


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