Monday, July 20, 2009

Small Steps

In 1492, Columbus set out for 'Cipangu' and the Spice Islands. He never got where he was going, and never knew what he had found. In 1969 we went to the Moon and discovered Earth. Voyages of exploration are funny that way.

This should not have come as a surprise. A classic trope of travel literature is that wherever you go, what you truly discover is home, because only by going elsewhere can you place home in context. There and Back Again was Bilbo Baggins's name for the book we call The Hobbit, and as discussed in a comment thread last month, the true culmination of Lord of the Rings comes where its journey began, in the Shire.

So it is no accident that the first Earth Day was in 1969 – a few months before Apollo 11, but a few months after Apollo 8, when humans first ventured into lunar space and saw Earth above a moonscape. As I've mentioned here before, until we saw Earth from deep space we did not even know what our homeworld looks like – a planet of sworled blue and white, now so familiar, often with barely a hint of the land surface.

The space and environmental movements have not been on the best of terms, at any rate in the US, for a variety of reasons. Space boosters are big and noisy, not in and of themselves a particularly 'green' technology, but environmentalism as we know it would have been impossible without them. I first learned the word ecology from Heinlein books, and 'spaceship Earth' remains about as good a summary of environmental concerns as anything. If the life support system goes blooey, it is Houston that has a problem, along with every other place where humans now live. Environmentalism as we know it is a child of space travel.

We have continued to discover Earth in the 40 years since Apollo 11. Not by going back to the Moon, which we only did a handful of times before Apollo was canceled, but by going – albeit, so far, robotically - to other places. Missions have visited all eight major solar planets (sorry, Pluto!), with multiple landings on Mars and Venus, a journey into the clouds of Jupiter, and a landing on Titan. In all, a good start on exploring the Solar System. We've also continued to explore Earth itself from space. We have learned more about the weather from looking down at it than we'd ever have guessed from living below it. (Score one more for Arthur C. Clarke.)

Human spaceflight has turned out to be difficult, more difficult in sheer complexity and cost than anyone in the rocketpunk era imagined. The dangers were expected, and we have encountered them: catastrophes during liftoff and reentry; from fire; from crashing; from loss of air. We have learned that microgravity – contrary, this time, to Clarke – is not good for our breed. Progress, since Apollo, has been slower than the breakneck pace of the 1960s led us to expect. This is the historical norm: sudden leaps, followed by much longer periods of consolidation and maturation. (Which will be recapitulated by any interplanetary mission – minutes of thrill followed by months of tedium.)

And since Apollo, only the tragedies have been spectacular. (Well, any space launch is spectacular, but you know what I mean.) The successes have sort of sneaked up on us; it was a few years into the ongoing operation of the International Space Station before it fully hit me that we have a permanent space station. Half a thousand people have gone into space, for up to months at a time.

And the ISS is, among other things, a sort of tethered interplanetary mission. It doesn't look at all like our 'classical' bike-wheel image of a space station, but if you clapped a drive on one end it would look a great deal like an interplanetary ship. It has operated for nearly a decade with no critical emergency – the single most vital benchmark for going to Mars, or anywhere in the Solar System. Long duration spaceflight is achievable, not just in theory but in practice.

We have taken high specific impulse drive out of the lab and into space, flying deep space robotic missions using electric drive. A lot of development is need to scale it to a human mission, but we know that it works. Small step by small step, we are heading toward that first step onto the surface of Mars.

Bittersweet coda: Legendary CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, heard in the clip above, died last Friday. His love of space exploration and the space program shone through his reporting; now he too has passed escape velocity. We will miss him – indeed, we have missed him for many years now. (The footage link is via Atrios' Eschaton, a political blog. You have been warned.)

Related links: Last year I reflected on the 39th anniversary of Apollo 11, and also – quite by coincidence – on the significance of space travel for our understanding of Earth.

Earth over moonscape


Anonymous said...

I'm sure that Walter would have had something profound to say about us not venturing further out from Earth in the last 40 years; robots can do a great deal in support of our exploration of the Solar System, but they aren't us. We need to go...we'll find something worthwhile once we get there; we always do. If nothing else, we can use Luna as a stepping stone to other, more desirable places.


Jim Baerg said...

I heard one of the Apollo astronauts say we should skip the moon & go directly to Mars since it's a more interesting place.

I see the best long term goal of a manned space program as creating an off earth population large enough to be self sufficient if it was necessary to do without imports from earth & to be a source of help in the event of some planetary scale disaster.

One conceivable such disaster would be a large asteroid impact, which would be preventable with a substantial space capability, but other disasters like supervolcano eruptions would not be, but could be mitigated by outside aid.

So I see the moon mars or what question as- what can we do now that would most quickly work to create such a large off earth population?

I think initially working within the earth-moon system & also bringing in material from Near Earth Asteroids to create space industry would be more effective than working at the long distances of Mars. It's a bit like the 15th century Iberians settling Madeira & the Canary Islands before doing really long distance Oceanic voyaging.

Rick said...

I am leaning toward going straight to Mars. In the short to mid term, to return to the Moon we would need to develop a new lunar lander, a completely different vehicle from a Mars lander. (Since Mars has twice the surface gravity, etc., but also has an atmosphere thick enough for aerobraking. True that a Mars transfer ship will be much more complex and expensive, but developing it more or less solves the problem of travel thoughout the inner Solar System out to the asteroids.

And Mars will do more to hold public support. The Moon is outwardly desolate, and has an element of deja vu.

In the long term, Mars has plenty of volatiles, and Deimos may have volatiles, necessary for any large and self-sustaining population.

Jim Baerg said...

"to return to the Moon we would need to develop a new lunar lander, a completely different vehicle from a Mars lander."

Maybe not. IIRC Zubrin, who is very much an enthusiast for Mars instead of the Moon, suggested that the Mars-to-Eart return ship for his Mars Direct program, could be easily adapted to doing Moon missions.

For the Mars mission it would be sent without propellant & fueled on Mars. For lunar missions it would be sent with propellant tanks full & the lower stage used for landing & the upper stage used for launch to earth return.

Whatever the priorities, spacecraft should be designed to be adaptable to multiple missions.

See this for an argument in favor or moon return 1st

His other articles here:
are also worth reading.

Rick said...

The Combs article has some fairly problematic arguments, IMHO. The energy cost of getting off the Moon is a lot less than getting off Earth, but in the near term (which for this purpose means roughly 'before midcentury') energy cost and even overall launch cost pale compared to construction and infrastructure cost.

Combs talks rather blithely about building spacecraft out of lunar ores, but that requires an entire industrial infrastructure on the Moon, from mining to fabrication, a whole slew of things we will have to not only build but learn from scratch, whereas we know a good deal of what we need to know to get to Mars.

Jim Baerg said...

It's true there is a lot of R&D to be done for making use of lunar & asteroidal material, but I think his best point for preferring moon to mars is made near the end.

"But there's one overwhelming advantage of the moon's resources over those of Mars: lunar resources are sufficiently close by that their utilization could have returns to the economy of Earth. I think this is vital for getting the space enterprise started in the first place"

Only if any Mars exploration program includes developing spacecraft that will be useful for lunar & NEA exploration & development would I be in favor of it. I don't want to see just another flags & footprints program.

Rick said...

Combs is conflating two entirely different eras, the age of exploration and the much later age of extensive and intensive development. It is loosely tantamount to saying that no one should have explored the Pacific till they not only landed at Plymouth Rock but built the transcontinental railroad.

But for that matter, I've come to be doubtful of the whole familiar analogy to the New World, the vision of the space future as more or less a recapitulation of the American experience. Back in March I posted a contrarian view, A Solar System For This Century.

Jim Baerg said...

What bothers me about the 'ignore the moon' position is that the moon can hardly be regarded as thoroughly explored. To continue with the strained analogy, Magellen crossing the Pacific doesn't mean there shouldn't be thorough mapping of the Atlantic coast of the Americas.

Actually the real priority should be on cutting the cost of getting into space, so we can afford to both do something like Mars Direct, while using similar spacecraft to do lunar exploration.

I hope SpaceX manages something ofthe sort.

Rick said...

Actually the real priority should be on cutting the cost of getting into space ...

That is the heart of the nutshell, as a Heinlein character once said. But I've come to be very doubtful that an order of magnitude reduction is in the cards for the next few decades. I don't doubt that there is bloat in our present launch systems, given how they evolved, but I very much doubt that there is 900 percent bloat.

More power to SpaceX if they can prove me wrong, but I suspect that, like SpaceShipOne, the secret ingredient is donated engineering talent by volunteer enthusiasts. Which does not scale up very far.

The bad news is that space travel through the near future is likely to have the same general order of cost that it does now. The good news is that in spite of that cost there is enough public and institutional support for steady if gradual progress.

If we have to prioritize, and I believe we do, Mars has significant substantive advantages and is much better as showbiz. :-)

Near Earth Asteroids are a somewhat different matter, because a Mars ship is well suited to reaching them, and 'landing' on one is pretty much an EVA activity.

H said...

Hello, new here. This a highly interesting Blog.

I see a big problem with the moon first aproach: institutional support.

The Apollo program was supposed to be the start of a new era of space exploration: Saturn rockets would be used to put space stations in orbit, a moon base was going to be built and a journey to Mars would be ready for the 1980s.
Instead budgets were cut and the very succesfull Apollos were retired, leaving the US without human Spacefligth until a badly funded and long delayed replacement came.

The question is: If we go first to the moon, will there be enough funds and goverment support for a continuation?

Rick said...

qwert - Welcome, and I agree with your point. While the Moon is still almost completely unexplored, going back there is bluntly just plain less sexy than going to Mars, a critical factor in maintaining sufficient public support.

But the good news is that the special circumstances of the 1960s and 70s no longer apply. The original Space Race was on steroids because of Cold War politics. Once it was defined as a race, and the US won, naturally the race ended. (And I think it very unlikely that the US public would be much motivated to 'beat' China or India to somewhere we went 40 years ago.

Also, what happened to the space program after 1969 has to be seen in context of the very sour US public mood of the time. Things are quite different now. Space is hardly a front burner issue to most people, but it enjoys broad if modest public support.

H said...

Well, maybe we are allready in a situation similar to the one which cut Apollos budget.

We have a Space Shuttle which is going to be retired next year. This is going to leave the US without human spaceflight (well, fortunately today, the russians or chinese migth help for a prize) until its replacement comes online. The first flight for the Orion has already been delayed from 2014 to 2015 (which for me sounds unrealistically early).

This means among other things, that the ISS is being left unfinished and in much smaller size than it was expected because there won´t be Shuttles to carry its pieces.

In exchange for this we have G. W. Bush Vision for Space Exploration which souns great but has no funding, and which is now being rewieved.

The situation for more expensive missions simply doesn´t look well. The US is in the middle of two wars and a huge economic crisis with its biggest deficit since WWII.

All this makes me fear that the entire plan gets scrapped. The Shuttle is phased out next year, the ISS "abandoned" and the Orion and its complementary heavy lifter (the Ares V) getting constantly delayed.
The Lack of a race against somebody migth only make matters worse.

Rick said...

We are in a jam, but in very different circumstances. The 1960 in space were the equivalent of a speculative bubble. Not a financial bubble but a social and political one, inflated partly by the Cold War, partly by the first flush of enthusiam about what had just become technically possible. That's why Disneyland had Tomorrowland.

In 1969, not only did we win the space race, but the whole cultural atmosphere had backlashed. Technology itself was uncool, and did not become cool again till the personal computer era.

The underlying dynamic has stabilized since that time, and I believe that there is enough support that the human spaceflight program won't evaporate, in spite of the horrible planning and development mess it has gotten into.

H said...

I don´t mean that human Spaceflight is going to dissapear. I agree with you that it enjoys important public support.

But what i ask myself: After the ISS is finished and there are neither fundings for the Moon nor Mars, what is NASA´s objective for its manned programm going to be?

Citizen Joe said...

The X-Prize is moving development into the private sector. So, I see NASA moving into the training and monitoring field. Someone still needs to track all that junk up there and basically operate as flight controllers. They can also generate revenue by using the existing training facilities to teach private sector pilots. So basically, NASA would become the administrative branch of space exploration.

Rick said...

qwert - Good question. :-/ I think there is sufficient support for going to Mars, though the whole development process will probably be fairly slow to keep within annual budget constraints. (The ISS did get built, after all!)

Citizen Joe - I don't see private sector exploration as at all likely for a long time to come. Exploration doesn't pay, at least not directly or quickly enough to open the big wallets.

Citizen Joe said...

I think there are existing treaties that make it so countries aren't allowed to 'own' space or stuff out there. However, I don't think those treaties prohibit corporations or private individuals from owning stuff. With the proper incentive, an 'Asteroid Rush' could be fostered where people claim asteroids for mineral rights. At the bare minimum, you would need a transponder on the asteroid and either plot its stable orbit for registration, or impart the object with your own orbit. If it is adrift and off course, it could be considered salvage.

I'd say, just take the American Homesteading laws and export them to space. If you can get there, and stake a claim, it is yours. If you can get to Mars it can be considered yours, out as far as you staked. Ie. if you land there, you have to set up a perimeter indicating your property. And as per homesteading laws, you have to live there for a year or something.

Rick said...

I don't know what the legal framework is, but undoubtedly at some point it can be adapted to accommodate to practical needs. Though the framework might well be more nearly akin to fishing rights than land or mineral rights.

H said...

The private sector may take over the bussines of communications satelites and space tourism, maybe even space manufacturing and other activities at orbit.

However I don´t see the private sector pursuing any actitivity farther away than earth orbit in the short term. The costs involved there are gigantic and even if certain resources become scarce on Earth, I think it will be cheaper to simply find en alternative before going to space s earching for it. My opinion is that launching costs aren´t going to decrease that much in next decades and even if they do, one should expect mining costs to decrease too.

The other option may be to miniaturize and automatize industrial equipment. But unless there is a way to put a entire mining enterprise to something that fits into an Atlas rocket, the cost of asteroid (or Moon) mining will simply be too high.

Citizen Joe said...

Which is why we need something like a Space Elevator to get things into orbit cheaply.

Rick said...

qwert - Your thinking on this is very close to mine. A techlevel that can economically pursue deep space mining is probably also more able to come up with substitutes. That is why commodity prices have generally fallen though the last century.

I suspect that when/if deep space DOES pay, it will be for things other than mining stuff to ship to Earth.

Citizen Joe - Per my reply in the Elevators comments, the key to (relatively) cheap space lift is traffic volume. Unfortunately, the key to volume is cheap lift ...