Thursday, February 4, 2010

NASA: A Change of Orbit

Orbit-Change Burn
In early 21st century space news, the Obama administration has released its new NASA budget, and the moon has been placed on hold. The entire 'Constellation' program has been scrubbed. Overall the new spending plan adds $6 billion, a modest 6 percent, to the NASA budget over the next five years. It puts more emphasis on technology development and (robotic, for now) deep space missions - and looks to the private sector for post Shuttle human orbit lift.

So what should we make of this? Obvious disclaimer that I am unabashedly political, pro-Obama, and so would approve on purely terrestrial grounds. But I'll try to stick here to the space perspective.

Constellation was eating the NASA budget. From the fairly little I know it became a classic boondoggle, a system that was supposed to be 'lean' and based on available tech, but ballooned out of hand. More fundamentally - and the likely underlying cause of its technical runaway - is that it presumed a time line out of synch with available resources.

Did anyone really think we were going back to the Moon by 2020? The 'Murrican public has demonstrated its willingness to support a modest space program, about $20 billion/year. On that budget we can and have carried out a steady, ongoing reconnaissance of the Solar System, and expanded a standing human foothold in Earth orbital space. What you can't do on that budget is replicate Apollo (even with benefit of second generation technology) - especially if you also intend to do anything else.

Launching a program like that without committing the resources (political as well as financial) was somewhere on the spectrum from thoughtless to dishonest, and doomed the program to all the problems that plagued the Shuttle, only more so. It's better to cut our losses now, at 'merely' $9 billion. For what it is worth, objections to the change of direction seem to be coming mainly from politicians in Alabama. (Hmmm, in what state is Huntsville located?)

An interesting twist in the new budget is the element of 'privatizing' orbit lift. This is not so much privatization as such - US spacecraft have always been built by private firms - as a slap at the current procurement system and an opening to new players. I do not regard private enterprise as a magic drive, but shaking up a stagnant procurement culture might help and certainly can't hurt.

This is no profound New Start for NASA and the US space program. But it is a credible, sustainable way forward in the long term enterprise of space.

Irony alert: The image shows Constellation hardware that will be canceled under the budget plan.

Related posts: I previously recommended skipping the Moon for now, though it has turned out to be more interesting than I thought.


M. D. Van Norman said...

While I am unabashedly not pro-Obama, I can’t yet say this decision is a bad one. While I have always longed for bold leadership into a spacefaring future, I have also resigned myself that this will never happen. There’s just not enough vote-buying pork to go around for that.

I hope that this change to NASA policy will actually advance space technology. The private sector will be encouraged to step up through real competition and innovation, rather than the sweetheart deals we have seen so often in the past.

If necessary, we can always buy future launch services from China and Iran …

Anonymous said...

I'd like to point out that Obama has not cut NASA's budget. He's cut a single special project, one estimated to have a final cost of ~$100 000 000 000 but with very little of that money ever actually put aside for the program. NASA's operational budget is essentially unchanged.

Some of NASA's operational budget has been earmarked for leasing launch-capacity from commercial companies. Virgin Galactic gets most of the publicity, but there are other firms out there with significant private launch capability. Using NASA for routine satellite launches is a waste of resources.

On a lighter note...


VonMalcolm said...

In order to light a fire in the public's imagination as to fund more support for the space program, NASA has to perpetually 'Bodly go where no man has ever gone before'. Repeated shuttle missions, missions to the moon, satellite launches and even robotic missions maybe more practical but a President declaring 'We choose to go to Mars (in person) in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy but because they are hard' is the only thing, IMO, that would really get the space program moving again (at least in the public's eye).

The Mars rovers are interesting, but won't provide the drama that a human on the planet would provide. Unfortunately marketing, not just science, has to be a driving force in pressing outward. Obama has that je ne sais quoi that JFK had, if he would only use this power for the Dark Side (of space). But I guess he has that whole recession thing to deal with as well as that pesky Taliban thing.

'and do the other things' always struck me as funny, vague: What other things? Did JFK even know what other things?

Ferrard Carson said...

For the life of me, I don't believe I will ever understand how the American government's procurement system got this screwed up. We've got parts built in 30 different states by 40 different companies, being assembled in 3 other states, all because some Congressmen are greedy SoBs. Does anyone think that's a good way to do space exploration, much less anything in regards to the military?

Private enterprise has always earned a bit of distrust in my book for the Pinto-Memo factor, but the more I watch congressmen in action, the more the greed of a private company looks like the lesser evil.

And I'm pretty sure the romanticism of the solar system has left humanity. We no longer find it special that there are people living in space 24/7. Personally, I find that to be amazing, as I'm quite sure many people on this blog do as well. I would be so stoked to see a team of scientists land on Mars and send back footage and samples and all sorts of scientific goodies that we can't even imagine (and bring back the rovers while they're at it - the little guys deserve recognition and a lovely retirement)

Unfortunately, we spacers are the minority, especially in times hard as these without any sort of national pride to hang on to. There is no esprit de corps for Americans who, it seems, are more concerned with squabbling over what Political-Hack #804 said today. Or who really should have won American Idol (Have we come to that? Yes we have -_-)

~ Ferrard

Qwert said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Qwert said...

Well, I think it´s a good thing to cancel a program which never received enought funding.
However I am worried that the US will be left without ay capability to send astronauts into orbit for a very long time.

What happens if the private companies aren´t able to deliver what has been promised?
After all we know NASA can design and built a manned spacecraft, but no private company has ever done so, ...yet.

Ferrard Carson said...

Random bit: I think Pluto finally got word that we're calling it short now. It's getting angry.

jollyreaper said...

I remain cautiously optimistic. The standard method of developing these systems has yielded no new manned flight hardware since the shuttle. The space station bleeds money. I'd like to see us get this stuff straightened out. The current approach is failing.

Jim Baerg said...

And will anyone ever try this, which was brought to my attention in a comment to an earlier post on this blog

Rick said...

Interesting question about JFK and 'those other things.' I will guess that they were a shuttle and station. The 50s era assumption was that we'd build those things first, then go to the Moon.

According to one argument I've read, JFK committed the original sin, so to speak, by opting for a spectacular moon mission instead of an ongoing effort.

But in any case those circumstances aren't likely to replicate. Don't hold your breath for another space race. Certain emerging powers are finding out the cost of human spaceflight is as eye popping in yuan or rupees as it is in dollars or rubles.

The programs that have the most trouble are the ones that try to do big things on the cheap. That almost always ends up costing you more to get less. If you don't have a lot of money, you had better plan on doing small, clever things.

The robotic deep space program is a great example of a bureaucratic government program that performs very well, in spite of one or two spectacular FUBARs (ahem, feet/meters). I would say this is because it has a clear and achievable focus.

Mega projects that keep getting canceled breed a subtle type of corruption, I believe. When people don't have confidence that the end objective will happen, they will drift into milking the system.

Jean Remy said...

I think Bush actually said something about getting to Mars soon (at a date safely well beyond his own term) Sadly those announcements are now almost common, a half-hearted and cynical attempt at recapturing the JFK "fire". Sadly I'm pretty sure even he said it only as a political flowery speech without real intent. I wouldn't bet against the fact that his assassination actually pushed the program. Respect for JFK leaped forward massively after his assassination, and I don't put it past us that making his "vision" happen may well have been spurred on by that. You know what they say about the dangers of making martyrs.

Maybe going to the moon this soon did a disservice to the entire space enterprise by reaching too far (for the moon) too soon. Apollo was unsustainable, and anything that came afterward could only be a letdown and dash our hopes, and our interest.

Oh by the way NASA never designed or built anything. Boeing, Rockwell and a great many more corporations designed and built the space shuttle via funding money coming from NASA. Check videos of launches: the guys in white jumpsuits getting the craft ready have great big corporate logos on the back. Visit Space Academy in Huntsville and you'll find the same corporate logos pasted everywhere. NASA is an administration that funnels money where appropriate (*ahem* pork barrels) in order to get things done, and administers and controls launches and operations of said hardware. It isn't an engineering firm or an aerospace manufacturing company. NASA dose NOT know how to build spacecraft. Boring ( <--this was a typo but I kind of like it so I'm going to keep it as is) and Rockwell, however, do. Virgin may show up with a couple of new tricks up its sleeve and little government oversight, but the know-how to build spacefaring vehicles has been in the vaults of private corporations for a long time now.

On subject: I think Constellation was misguided and mistimed. Apollo was a flashy one-time effort which as I said above hurt the space program far more than it helped, in the long run. I'd really rather not see that mistake repeated. As much as I want to dream of lunar bases and system-crossing torchships I rather favor a slow but steady approach, that will eventually get us there, rather than a series of disappointing flashes in the pan which will leave us all disillusioned and bitter about space.

emdx said...

It's not so bad the Moon was cancelled.

What is needed is a cheap surface-to-orbit transportation system. Once up there, you can go anywhere...

Surely, this is not asking for the moon???

magpie said...

"Did anyone really think we were going back to the Moon by 2020?"

No... but I was prepared to be pleasantly surprised. After all, the distance NASA covered in technical accomplishment between 1960 and 1969 was profound.

As much as it pains me to say it, space exploration is so big a thing to do that it needs another narrative going on to move it along. We used to have the Cold War, and the irrational fear that a single Russian walking around on the moon would spell immediate collapse for all democracy on Earth.
Now we need another narrative. Preferably a more sensible and positive one than that.

M. D. Van Norman said...

“What is needed is a cheap surface-to-orbit transportation system.”

And we’ve been waiting on this for more than half a century.

Eventually, we will have to build our real spacecraft in orbit, or we won’t be building any at all.

Rick said...

Welcome to another new commenter!

The Apollo program was already fairly well along when JFK was assassinated. It fit very well in the 'Murrican mood of the early to mid 60s.

Space itself, as we space geeks think of it, hardly figured in that equation. To the public, I'd guess the Moon was super-Everest, and beating the Rooskies in the ultimate Olympics higher-faster-farther event.

And I tend to agree with Jean that Apollo may have hurt space progress in the long run by setting up false expectations.

Bush 'launched' Constellation with a speech in January 2004. It roused no big wave of excitement, and he never again put any emphasis on it - I don't think he even mentioned it in his State of the Union speech a month later.

The whole thing surely originated at the staff level, then became a contractor hustle. The $9 billion spent so far is chump change in that universe, and Obama is pulling the plug ahead of the big bills. But there was never any national oomph to do the thing.

On cheap space lift, I disagree with the specifics in the piece that Jim Baerg linked, but the broad principle is about right.

Space lift is expensive primarily because it is rare, only about 100 launches worldwide per year. So for example Vandenberg AFT is a complex on the scale of a large airport, but handling about one flight per month.

The bootstrapping problem is that space lift can't be cheap(er) until there is a large volume traffic demand, but while cost is high demand remains limited. And in real life no one, alas, is going to pay to build and run the trains whether or not there is anything for them to carry.

jollyreaper said...

The article about massively increasing traffic is interesting. But I'm thinking of what would come next after chemical rockets. The Orion Drive is fascinating but a political and environmental non-starter. But what about antimatter bombs? Antimatter is supposed to give a flash of gamma rays but doesn't ionize. So assuming we floated AM drive ships out into the middle of the ocean before launch, everything should be cool, right? The only question then would be the cost of creating that much antimatter in serious, commercial volumes. Do we even have a guess as to how to do that in theory?

Citizen Joe said...

The gamma rays are exactly the problem with normal fission. The question becomes burst vs. continuous emission.

Fission initiated fusion bombs which use Deuterium and a bit of tritium produce far more neutronic radiation. That is actually easier to capture in water.

In general, you don't want to use antimatter in the atmosphere (since atmosphere is matter).

From the stand point of creating useful energy (rather than just blowing stuff up) antimatter isn't very efficient since it turns into gamma rays, which are hard to harness. Which means it dumps into water, which you then turn into steam and you have essentially a steam punk Star Trek hybrid. Charged particle fusion is more efficient since we can directly use particles rather than using it as a heat source.

Luke said...

There seems to be some misunderstanding on the nature of antimatter annihilation products.

Antimatter proper is usually considered to be made up of anti-atoms. Antiatoms are made up of positrons orbiting a nucleus composed of one or more antiprotons and possibly antineutrons (by far the easiest anti-atom to create is anti-hydrogen, which has a nucleus of only one antiproton and no antineutrons, but this is more or less incidental).

When a positron meets an electron they can annihilate each other, creating a pair of gamma rays. This is fairly benign - the gamma flash could kill people exposed to it, but there will be no long term radioactivity. Unfortunately, it is also rather useless for propulsion - the gamma rays are too penetrating to heat reasonable sized propellant capsules, have very little momentum by themselves, cannot be directed with magnetic fields, and electron-positron annihilation gammas make up only 1/2000 to 1/4000 the energy of the antimatter so you usually don't concern yourself much with them anyway unless you are storing only positrons (rather than whole anti-atoms) in which case you can't collect enough positrons to produce enough energy to be useful for propulsion.

The interesting stuff happens when the antiproton(s) and antineurtons (if any) meet a proton or neutron in a nucleus of normal matter (note that antiprotons can annihilate with neutrons and antineutrons can annihilate with protons, in addition to proton-antiproton and neutron-antineutron annihilation). For convenience, I will refer to protons and neutrons as nucleons, and antiprotons and antineutrons as antinucleons. The annihilation of a nucleon with an antinucleon produces several particles called pi mesons (also known as pions), moving at high energy. If there is only one nucleon and one antinucleon in the nucleus (that is, hydrogen on antihydrogen annihilation), the mesons escape from the reaction region. Pi mesons come in several different charges, neutral and plus or minus one fundamental electric charge. The neutral pi mesons decay almost immediately into two very high energy gamma rays. These have all the problems of the positron-electron annihilation gamma rays, except that they carry a lot more energy - enough energy to potentially make them worthwhile, but also enough energy to drive photo-nuclear reactions. Basically, if these high energy gammas smack into a nucleus, they smash it into radioactive fragments. The gammas are too penetrating to do this in reasonable sized propellant capsules, but since we were discussing project Orion you might well be using unreasonable sized capsules that can absorb many of these gammas in order to turn into a hot plasma for your exhaust.

Luke said...

The charged pi mesons stick around for longer. Since they are charged, they can be directed by magnetic fields for thrust - not much thrust, but you get an incredible exhaust velocity, making them suitable for an interstellar rocket if not for earth launch. Eventually, they decay into muons (plus mu (anti)neutrinos), which go a kilometer or so before decaying into electrons or positrons (plus more (anti) neutrinos, this time of the electron variety as well as mu neutrinos). All this assumes the pions (and muons, etc) are going through vacuum. In matter, a high speed pi meson can smack into a nucleus, smashing it into radioactive fragments just like the neutral pi meson decay gammas. In addition, since these are charged particles, they can slow down in matter and will eventually come to a stop. When this happens, the negative pi mesons will displace electrons to be captured by nuclei and form exotic atoms. The negative pions spiral in to the nucleus until they actually contact it. Then, when they decay, their energy goes into splatting the nucleus into radioactive fragments rather than making muons. Expect a muon to be able to go through about 10 cm to 50 cm of condensed matter (solid or liquid) before smacking into a nucleus - this is the size of the propellant capsule you will need to capture the energy of the pions.

Now if you have your antihydrogen reacting with heavier atoms of normal matter, some of the pions from the annihilation are directed straight into the nucleus at which the annihilation takes place. These pions immediately dump all of their energy into the nucleus, smashing it into radioactive fragments. In this way, maybe about a quarter of the energy of the annihilation can be harvested as the fireball of hot nuclear fragments without needing huge propellant capsules.

You will note that most forms of antimatter annihilation leave lots of radioactive garbage around. If you only have light elements nearby (oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen, and the like), you can limit the damage somewhat, since there are not all that many long-lived radioisotopes that can be created by smashing these atoms to pieces - you've got radiocarbon, a weak beta emitter with a 5700 year half-life and no decay gammas; beryllium-10, a somewhat stronger beta emitter with no decay gammas and a 1.5 million year half life; beryllium-7, which decays by electron capture, emits some gamma rays in the process, and has a 53 day half life; and of course tritium. If the annihilation radiation gets to medium-weight elements, like what you find in rock (silicon, aluminum, magnesium, calcium, etc) you get a few other nasties, such as sodium-22, aluminum-26, magnesium-28, and silicon-32. You need to smash up heavy elements to give you the normal litany of bad guys you typically see from fission - the radioiodine, radiocesium, cesium-134, europium-154, and so on. Also, smashing atoms liberates neutrons, which can be captured by other atoms and make them radioactive - again, not too much of a worry until you get to elements in the transition metal region and heavier.

jollyreaper said...

Amazes me that people were able to figure this stuff out. So, barring magic tech like antigravity and reactionless drives, what's our best bet for something other than chemical rockets? I know beanstalks are still pretty far away.

Luke said...

jollyreaper: I presume you are asking about surface launch into orbit (since electric thrusters should work okay in space). I like the idea of laser launch, but you will need large lasers. There are also various orbiting exo-atmospheric tether systems, so you will only need to jump up to the top of the atmosphere rather than getting to orbital velocities.

Jean Remy said...

Catapults are also a good idea, but mainly for cargo containers because of the high acceleration. Unless you build a very long accelerator rail so you can get a smoother acceleration curve? At least it could give a nice kick start. And of course there's the Virgin option: drop from a carrier aircraft.

Either way, no, any form of reaction drive has to be chemical, anything else with the needed kind of punch would reduce the launch pad into radioactive slag. Ok, I exaggerate, but still Geiger counters would have a field day.

Thucydides said...

Conservative commentators approve of the announcement because it finally opens the market to actual market forces.

In the past, contractors had to jump through hoops of fire to please their single source customer. NASA thinks "twin keel" space stations are the right answer? Every contractor produces "twin keel" station proposals. Similar stories can be found on topics like "Big Dumb Boosters", Mars missions and SSTO, which contractors flock to until the next political apparatchik picks a different flavor of the month.

Now that NASA is moving (or being moved) away from being the customer of hardware to buying services, the ecosystem of the marketplace can take effect. Vendors can take multiple paths to reach the goal, and many side branches that NASA does not think of might now be open for exploitation. New markets and services will be discovered. Since the big contractors have plenty of paper studies for vast numbers of missions, they are actually well positioned to start building hardware (although they might have lost a lot to decades of bureacracy and internal empire building).

Of course political influence will still be a big part of the game for years to come, but as alternative markets and services are discovered, some of these new companies will be able to survive without NASA contracts and make space access available to whoever can pay the freight.

jollyreaper said...

Conservative commentators approve of the announcement because it finally opens the market to actual market forces.

I don't want to get overtly political here but it rankles me when a certain party talks about how government is inefficient and never works and then engages in the very same kind of earmarking and influence-peddling that makes a government corrupt and inefficient. There's a reason why NASA makes sure the subcontracting work gets farmed out to virtually every district in the nation.

The sad thing is the Republicans talk big talk about small government and how government isn't the solution but the problem but support massive government spending so long as they get a piece of it. The Democrats are willing to praise government but are still sitting there waiting for handouts for their districts. There was a republican this week who threatened to block all of Obama's nominations until a few billion in earmarks went to his district. But you can't really call him out by himself because a certain democrat from Louisiana did the same thing a few weeks back over the health care bill.

I'm still not exactly sure how things are changed with this new proposal. NASA is still going to be the only customer for rockets big enough to put up space station parts, the only one who will be paying to put people in orbit. So wouldn't it all come down to a single customer once more?

UmbralRaptor said...

There are still rockets large enough to launch space station parts (Proton, Ariane 5, some Atlas V, and Delta IV configurations). But for the most part, they're optimized for putting smaller payloads in in geosynchronous orbits. I do wonder if this means that NASA will have any issues with getting upper stages for various interplanetary missions (especially outer solar system)...

As for private companies and additional competition, it's not clear to me that SpaceX will be able to lower costs significantly. As far as I'm aware, the EELVs did little to nothing there, and former Soviet hardware has had no more than a modest effect. Is anyone more familiar with this?

Thucydides said...

There are some things which a private contractor can do far better.

The Space Shuttle and virtually any piece of hardware built for a government contract is built from parts made across as many congressional districts as possible to spread the pork, while a vendor like SpaceX can accept bids from subcontractors on price and performance only; no need to worry about pleasing a congressional apparatchik at the same time.

Since vendors are no longer on "cost +" contracts (or at least that's the way I am reading it, correct me if I'm wrong), there is no incentive to pad bills, and great incentive to lower costs in order to make a profit. Vendors can lower costs by eliminating the "standing armies" required to launch today's rockets (DC-X could be launched from a trailer with software running on a 1990 vintage laptop).

Finally, if vendors are able to find and exploit more markets than NASA and government contracts, there is the possibility of setting up production lines and gaining economy of scale. Mass production does have the great advantage of lowering costs. I wish I remembered the source, but I recall reading that for about $1 billion more, Rockwell could have set up an assembly line and built 10 space shuttle orbiters (complete flight articles, Enterprise was never flight qualified and Atlantis was built out of a set of spare parts).

From a technical perspective, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and other companies can gain economies by rewriting their software and changing some hardware to eliminate the need for "standing armies", and some wrenching corporate changes to operate under a competitive market vs a "Cost +" revenue model. As long as there are only a small number of launches a year, this will make only modest changes to costs, but once launches rise to 100+ (probably due to space tourism), then economies of scale will kick in and costs will come down much more quickly.

VonMalcolm said...

Apparatchik, nice word.

Ferrard Carson said...

The motive to lower costs is what I'm worried about. I won't deny it does work - at first. The Virginia-class subs the Navy has arranged to be built are efficient and just as capable (if not more) than the flight-II Los Angeles they're meant to replace, and a heck of a lot more useful than the Seawolf-class super-subs.

There was a problem with the torpedo transfer racks - one of the contractors installed the wrong kind of bolt, meaning the racks could shift during maneuvers. Obviously, very bad, but I don't doubt similar mishaps have happened on the Congressional Super-Pork-Projects.

The problem is that after a while of paring away, there's no easy way left to reduce costs without losing quality. Things'll start out small, but it's space travel we're talking about - there are no small problems, and we can't exactly take a spacecraft out for sea-trials.

I'd like to think professional pride in space travel would overcome the pervasiveness of the profit motive, but history has consistently shown otherwise.

~ Ferrard

Rick said...

Welcome to another new commenter, I believe!

I am even more slack jawed than usual by Luke's discussion of mass annihilation, which I'll have to reread to more fully absorb.

A gentle reminder that politics has properties like nitroglycerin and should be handled ... delicately. I was taking a chance with this post and so far it has paid off. Just remember that it is explosive stuff.

You can't have a true market in conditions of monopsony, only one buyer, or one major buyer, aka NASA.

But what you can do is shake up an ossified system of relationships, so everyone has to scramble to readjust. Eventually people will learn to game the system, but mainwhile a little musical chairs gets everyone on their toes.

I doubt it will reduce costs as much in the short term as the optimists claim - space geeks have a notorious history of lo-balling, going back to von Braun. Probably there will be a continuing long period of tech refinement before we get something robust enough to be cheap, plus enough launch demand to make it economical.

Thucydides said...

The big difference between congressional super pork projects and the market is people and companies are held accountable in the free market. The F-22 Raptor had a very embarrassing debut when it turned out no one considered the international date line when writing the software, but who got fired and which company had their contract canceled because of this?

Costs in government contracts are mostly inflated due to the need to pay for armies of accountants, lawyers, lobbyists, bureaucrats etc. Robert Zubrin points this out in "The case for Mars", where he says the cost for his Mars Direct program could be as low as $5 billion, while the same plan done on a NASA cost plus basis would be over $20 billion.

Breaking the cost plus mentality, eliminating the standing armies and providing new market paths that allow vendors to find markets outside of NASA are great ways to change the system, hopefully for the better.

jollyreaper said...

Agreed about the politics.

Concerning civil vs. government, there's a certain quote from Orwell that I feel is appropriate.

"We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, is possible to carry this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield."

If you take a few liberties with this quote, it remains truthful and applies to a great many situations. I've worked in companies with some highly caustic groupthink but there was no way of telling them this from the inside. The only way those people were disabused of their incorrect notions was when the company impacted the ground at high speed and flew apart violently in various directions. A person/company/country can operate in a bubble of self-delusion for a very long time before external factors make themselves felt. The bigger the delusionist, the greater the reality shock required to get some attention.

Shows like VH1's Behind the Music, Jonestown, historical accounts of Hitler in the bunker, my own work experiences, they all share eerie parallels. You look at the Nazis at the end of WWII, it's fascinating to see the high-rollers gauge the tipping point in their own personal estimations, when the advantage of currying favor with the existing power structure drops to the point where bugging out and saving their own asses becomes preferable. Some people think the prospects in the wilderness are better while others will redouble their efforts crotch-sniffing and ass-kissing to ingratiate themselves with the crumbling power structure.

Back to the F-22 topic, I'll compare it with Microsoft's operating systems. Microsoft is a damned important company on the world stage but it smaller than a major defense contractor and the contractor is smaller than the government. Unless Microsoft has significant government backing for a given Windows OS, chances are they'll bump into Orwell's "solid reality" far sooner than the defense contractor. Indeed, these programs seem like they can ignore reality for years. We saw the V-22 Osprey revived from the dead, the B-1 bomber, the F-22 shepherded through various cost overruns, etc.

Microsoft delivered a turd with Vista and the scramble to undo that damage was visible to anyone with eyes. Even though Seven is just Vista rebranded, it's extremely telling that Microsoft had to abandon the Vista name and do so much damage control. They couldn't shrug this hit off. Seven had to do a better job of it.

The problem with government institutions and contractors who are tied in so closely with the government that they may as well be government institutions is that they can be too big to fail. We chided the Soviets for the inefficiency of their state-owned businesses, saying that with our companies they would go out of business if they couldn't compete and would be replaced by willing competitors, all without government intervention. Now we allow companies to merge and merge until they are so big we cannot allow them to fail for risk of losing the rest of the economy. While we have come about it from a different angle, we've arrived at precisely the same problem as the communist-style command economies. Karl Marx is laughing in his grave and Adam Smith is doing a facepalm.

Anonymous said...

Maybe this change to NASA will introduce a bit of realism to the space-business...but I'm not going to hold my breath. I'll be pleasently surprised if the private-industry sector pumps up the space-launch tempo by expanding the non-government orbital presence.

BTW, besides chemical, beanstalks, and nuke-booms, what other ways are there to get into orbit? Magnetic repulsion, lasercraft, and...? What? Any suggestions?


Jean Remy said...

Farrell: I think that's it. They can be combined, like partial "hovering" beanstalks reached with chemical rockets, catapult systems with a built-in laser to continue trusting after leaving the catapult, drops from an aircraft igniting a chemical rocket with a laser to reach a partial beanstalk if you want, but there's really nothing short of magitech besides that.

I think Rick and I sort of agreed there is nothing in the theory that prevents a contra-gravitational drive, basically using Earth's gravity against itself, but that hovers so close to magitech it's not for this century if it's possible at all (not impossible theoretically and possible practically being two concepts really really far away from each other) Of course that does involve actually figuring out what gravity *is*... LHC, find us a graviton please? Thanks.

I think opening up the previous monopsony/monopoly on space exploration in the US is only a first step towards a true international effort in space exploration. I think everyone is starting to realize space is both pretty bloody expensive and pretty bloody critical to our future. The ISS is a shining example of multinational collaboration. The Europeans and Japanese abandoned manned space launchers (like the ESA's Hermes) in order to help with the ISS and hitchhike on the Space Shuttle, as well as contributing financially to said, indicates a change in how space will be handled in the future. NASA's move then could be considered a preliminary legal move to start involving European and Japanese interests in future large-scale space projects. I highly doubt our return to the Moon will be the achievement of a single nation, and Constellation and the old way of doing business with NASA were scrapped to pave the way for a sustained international effort.

However, I don't think space exploration should *solely* be left in the hands of corporations. Too often they think in short-term goals (investors tend to want their money back, and more, pretty quickly) and therefore are generally wary about pure science efforts with no foreseen return. That they tend not to realize that without pure science to pave the way, the practical, expected-return research would not even be possible. Governments must have the longer view, because no one else does. The day we can't count on the government to finance the little silly frivolous things like science, arts, and education is the day government fails.

Ferrard Carson said...

"The day we can't count on the government to finance the little silly frivolous things like science, arts, and education is the day government fails."

I couldn't have said it better or more succinctly than that. And good point about the internationalism - it seems for a great many countries (excepting the "rogue states") have stopped the daredevil "space-race" mentality of being the first to get somewhere. Part of it is because there really aren't that many important "firsts" left to claim (first people on Mars is really the next big one, but it's a heck of a lot tougher than the U.S. title of "first [and only] people on the moon")

I'd like to think that it's more due to that spirit of cooperation and practicality rather than the loss of the romance. Five research teams in five countries all trying to do a re-usable launch vehicle in separate cubical farms won't get as far as one unified team constructed from those five countries, so long as everyone understands the difference between metric and imperial measurements.

~ Ferrard

Citizen Joe said...

New Scientist had a recent article on gravity where the scientist was talking about the fundamental relationship to space time. It seemed kinda technobabble and I think that scientist was going in a different direction. However, I've been suggesting that the reason that gravity isn't playing well with the Grand Unified Theory is because the rest of the forces deal with how matter interacts with itself while gravity details how matter interacts with space time. That doesn't directly help, but until we know what gravity is (and not just how to mathematically model the effects) we won't be able to do much to affect it.

Jim Baerg said...

Ferrel said: "BTW, besides chemical, beanstalks, and nuke-booms, what other ways are there to get into orbit?"

This provides a pretty good overview of most of the possibilities.

Also I think 'nuke-booms' wouldn't include various *steady* high thrust nuclear rockets eg: this or high thrust solid core nuclear rockets.

Thucydides said...

Cooperation has its place, and so does competition. The economy is probably best described as an ecosystem, with various players filling the various niches.

Right now, most of the niches are filled or suppressed by the huge government monosopy of NASA/USAF and the NRO in the United States, which in ecological terms is similar to plowing the land and engaging in agricultural monoculture. Ask the Irish how well that worked for them.

Perhaps to carry this analogy a bit further, we are now getting to the sort of model the USSR had and China has today, where farmers still toil in the collective fields but are now able to get their own food from their own garden plots. Another analogy might be the farms which preserve legacy seeds and provide the source material for new hybrids working on the margins of Agribusiness.

Even if the resulting spacecraft are still high cost (due to small production runs), we are still increasing the number of approaches to do the job, and creating new markets where none may have existed before.

Even stranger things might happen. A future administration might go full bore in fielding ABM missiles. The mass production of launch vehicles with high delta V and long cross range performance mated to a mass produced standard buss and spacecraft might set the standard for microsats and small high performance spacecraft for missions in LEO, and the producing company/consortium would be pleased to recoup their investment by using the "standard" components to fill other needs like micro communication satellites, Earth and space observatory constellations and even one man high performance capsules for on orbit inspection and maintainence (the US Navy had a design for such a one man ship to be launched from a submarine using a Trident booster, so this isn't impossible).

Rick said...

Taking up on Thucydides' point, I think people forget exactly what the 'magic of the marketplace' is.

Once you get much past the six geeks in a garage level, a corporation is a bureaucracy, functions like one, and succeeds or fails like one. 'The market' simply means that if it fails, someone will muscle into the vacuum in a relatively smooth way.

100 years ago the Southern Pacific Railroad was mightier than Microsoft, and about as close to a true railroad empire as history has to offer. 'The market' didn't make it any smarter, and over time it became just another railroad, and at last was assimilated by the Great Yellow Borg.

The path is less smooth for public institutions, but they can be well run for a long time. Since I brought trains into the discussion, an obvious example here is SNCF. I don't know about it, but it is some kind of public agency, and they obviously know how to run a railroad.

Compare to the fact that the US and to lesser degree the Brits have futzed around, without much to show but a few half-fast trains.

Still, in its clumsy way the political process can get fed up with the status quo, and that is the case here. Obama's budget more or less implements the recommendations of the Augustine Commission. In other words the conventional wisdom was demanding a change, and a new administration is taking the opportunity handed to it.

Which is more or less how the system is supposed to work!

jollyreaper said...

But what does this mean for the future, realistically? When the shuttle is gone, we'll no longer have a domestic manned space capability. We'll be buying seats off the Russians. Will the Space-X capsule be ready soon?

I suppose the size of the shuttle is deceptive. A capsule doesn't seem like much but what was the rest of the shuttle there for? It was going up for a two week mission and acting as a flying lab. We have a space station now, no need for the shuttle to be that lab. We aren't servicing and returning sats. Station modules can be nestled into place with the existing station arms, right?

I must say I do like the idea of committing to buy a few hundred boosters and seeing what we can do with them.

Jean Remy said...

The SNCF actually operates in general at a slight deficit. While everyone (or most everyone) knows of its TGV flagship, which is expensive to maintain but represents too great a technological display to the world not to, the SNCF runs a hundred small unprofitable lines between remote villages on old clunky diesel engines. A lot of those villages would be well-nigh inaccessible without those lines, due to heavy fogs or winter snowfalls, and are really a lifeline that no politician would want to sacrifice, no matter how much clamor there is about the line's lack of profit (five farmers a day doesn't really generate a lot of revenue) No one wants to be the politician who condemned the small township of StWhatever to oblivion.

The true money maker for the SNCF is neither the expensive to maintain TGV nor those small lines, but the light rail suburbans, insofar as there is such a phenomenon in Europe as "suburb". The reason that the SNCF survives at all is that public transportation is very much a part of everyday life in France. Every city runs its own public transportation system, from very comprehensive bus lines to metros in cities big enough to warrant them. Every train station is a major hub within its own city, and even a medium-sized city will have anywhere from two to four or five major, multi-line train stations in and of themselves. Shopping areas and "main drags" are never far from a train station. The Florida situation exposed earlier simply does not happen in France: everything is interconnected, and most of it is government run, whether it is on a national level, like the SNCF itself, or at the city government level, like the buses and metros.

Yet, despite the seeming inherent dangers of government monopolies, ticket prices are extremely reasonable. a TGV ticket from Nice to Paris is far cheaper than a plane ticket, and though the trip is itself a couple of hours longer, if you include the time needed to check through the airports (crawling with submachine gun-toting Gendarmes) you might get pretty close to it. Smoother, too. It really is a fantastic ride. And there's a bar.

Overall I think there is a far greater tolerance for government involvement in France. There is only one power company, and only one train company, yet none of the Republican fears of rampant socialist domino-effect have materialized. Oh, and government workers can unionize and go on strike. And do. Often. A Worker's Paradise? Hardly. France is still a capitalist country, but it strikes what seems to be an acceptable balance between unrestrained capitalism and dictatorial socialism.

Qwert said...

Well, the SNCF sounds good until you take into account two details:

1) Ticket prices may seem reasonable, however it is only because the taxpayer is subsidizing them. While I am not arguing to abandon those isolated villages, it is certainly something that has to be taken into accuont.

2) French public-sector unions have an annoying tendency to strike frequently an violently, effectively provoking city- and nationwide blockades. In a sense taking the entire population as hostage.

jollyreaper said...

As a public service, it's meant to be operated in the public good. This includes subsidizing services.

If we're talking about selling people groceries, you can leave that up to the grocery stores. They can select their own locations, their own stock, and the market can see to their fates. But something that rises to the point of being a public utility or public transportation cannot be left to sheer market forces. Market forces would say you abandon the non-profitable people out in the country and concentrate on cherrypicking the best areas in the city and the burbs.

The thing we have to look at, societally speaking, is if we as society are really losing value on the service. When you can no longer even justify the cost of a program for society's benefit, then it needs reevaluated.

Jean Remy said...

Qwert: absolutely. I pointed out that public sector workers can unionize and strike, and do so frequently. While it may be annoyed by a halt in the rail traffic, I do (or did when I still lived there) generally support them.

I have a tendency to feel like regular instances of widespread civil disobedience has a tendency to keep the government honest. Consider the 1969 student riots, nicknamed the "Cobblestone War" because they would rip the cobbles and throw them at police. Because civil disobedience is common, police forces were trained to react in that situation. There were some wounded, perhaps a death or two due to overzealous beatings. Now consider the events on a US campus (need to get that reference somewhere) a US college mounted a protest. Taken aback by this turn of events, they unleashed the National Guard. Completely unprepared and untrained for this, they fired into the crowd, killing students.

I'm not advocating regular riots like in LA, certainly not, simply that experience helps. I suspect that US police forces are now far better trained at dealing with riots.

I think I went off on a tangent here, and I am not sure exactly where.

Rick said...

Things like subsidizing rural rail service are either a feature or a bug, depending on perspective. Whether it is being done efficiently is a separate dimension - and it may help efficiency if you are unabashed about what you are doing.

Thucydides said...

From Next Big Future:

Spacex is Assembling a Falcon 9 and Targeting March 8, 2010 Launch

The preparation of the first Falcon 9 rocket is a big step for the upstart space company, which has become the virtual front-runner in the White House's new plan to privatize
human space flights to low-Earth orbit in the post-shuttle era.

Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) announces that all flight hardware for the debut launch of the Falcon 9 vehicle has arrived at the SpaceX launch site, Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40), in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Final delivery included the Falcon 9 second stage, which recently completed testing at SpaceX's test facility in McGregor, Texas. SpaceX has now initiated full vehicle integration of the 47 meter (154 feet) tall, 3.6 meter (12 feet) diameter rocket, which will include a Dragon spacecraft qualification unit.

“We expect to launch in one to three months after completing full vehicle integration,” said Brian Mosdell, Director of Florida Launch Operations for SpaceX. “Our primary objective is a successful first launch and we are taking whatever time necessary to work through the data to our satisfaction before moving forward.”

Following full vehicle integration, SpaceX will conduct a static firing to demonstrate flight readiness and confirm operation of ground control systems in preparation for actual launch.

Though designed from the beginning to transport crew, SpaceX's Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft will initially be used to transport cargo. Falcon 9 and Dragon were selected by NASA to resupply the International Space Station (ISS) once Shuttle retires. The $1.6B contract represents 12 flights for a minimum of 20 tons to and from the ISS with the first demonstration flights beginning in 2010.

VonMalcolm said...

<"We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, is possible to carry this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.">

Jollyreaper/Orwell brings rise to an interesting (IMO) dichotomy that I have been pondering lately: self-assuredness even to the point of self-delusion brings about confidence in yourself and more importantly confidence in you from others. Hitler was wrong on so many levels but his supreme confidence in himself made him into The Fuhrer, with more 'self checks' he would have been a better man morally but would he have been a bigger man historically being that he would have been doubting himself all of the time? When you know you are flawed you are unsure of yourself and when you are unsure of yourself other people are unsure of you, so even though you are the better, more balanced person, you probably will never gain the confidence in enough followers to become The Fuhrer.

So do you have to be a know-it-all idiot to be a leader? -and are we destined to follow these 'leaders' to the grave (or economic or environmental ruin) because of their self-delusional cult-of-personalities?

jollyreaper said...

I think there is a disturbing tendency towards needing to be an egotistical ass to make things happen. Consider the surgeon. Here's someone who thinks he's going to be able to cut you open and poke around in your guts to make you better. That's some goddamn arrogance right there! But if he can, who can argue with him? He's right.

Early Republican criticism of Obama was along the lines of him being arrogant. Of course he is! He thinks he's qualified to be the president of the United States! Anyone who thinks that has some arrogance to him! Doesn't mean he can't pull it off but yeah, that's not humility speaking there.

I don't have an answer to the leader problem. It seems like there's always a disconnect between what it takes to become a leader and what it takes to rule wisely. Not to go all Godwin's Law here but if you look at Hitler, it was clear that he had a very savvy political mind but he proved inadequate as a leader when he started a war with the rest of the freakin' planet.

Having been involved peripherally in local politics, I've seen the dynamic of able, capable people shying away from the spotlight and wanting to work in the background, thus leaving the leadership role and spotlight for the vain, grasping personalities that crave attention. And because this is the way we monkeys organize our tribe, the least worthy person gets the most authority. It'd be a wonderful thing if we gathered as a group and voted on who among us was suited to lead, no campaigning necessary, being seen as base and unworthy of a gentleman. That's the ideal the Founding Fathers espoused but it fell apart from the very start. Hell, they didn't even want political parties but Founding Fathers formed them!

Jean Remy said...

I think it's pretty much a law of the universe that the least worthy of leadership become leaders and the most worthy do not. Well, and there's also the whole absolute power corrupting absolutely thing, so even if he was worthy at first...

"Pessimist is what an optimist calls a realist."

Rick said...

I'm a bit more sanguine than that - if the worst consistently rose to the top, complex societies would be so unstable they couldn't exist at all. (They cause enough damage as it is, e.g. Hitler.)

The whole of political philosophy is broadly a discussion of how to minimize this hazard. It is one of the paradoxes of our human condition that such a discipline is both possible and necessary.

Thucydides said...

Hate to throw another wrench in things, but in Organizational Theory, Politics is roughly defined as a means of allocating limited resources.

Cooperation and consensus are the means most of us would approve of, but Politics is morally neutral, so being the most ruthless SOB in the valley of death is also a possible means of allocating the resources towards ends that you desire. Office politics where gossip, rumor mongering and back-stabbing are common is a perfect example of this meme.

Minimizing the hazards of local warlords taking over is a big sub theme in politics, with many possible solutions. The ancient Greeks tried timocracy, term limits and random drawings of juries and members of the eklassia, the Res Publica Roma was a form of timocracy and the Founding Fathers also were very much in favour of timocracy as well as separation of powers.

Sadly, the answer to this question still seems elusive as ever.

Rick said...

Like I'm supposed to believe that anyone really hates throwing in a monkey wrench!

Good point about the historical emphasis on restraining local warlordism. We are better able to appreciate this than just a generation ago, thanks to 'failed states' and the like.

Which is something to keep in mind in these discussions of political fragmentation in space, and/or a balkanized future Earth.

Anonymous said...

The difference between a "evil" leader and a "normal" leader is that one belives that leadership is a personal path to glory and the other believes that leadership is a necsissary (even ornerius)duty that needs to be fofilled for the general good. Unfortunately, you don't know until they get into office which one they are...most tend to vacillate betwen the two on any given issue.


Jean Remy said...

I'm not sure there has ever been a leader who didn't see it as a path to personal glory at least in some part. It takes a strong will and a strong persona and a great ambition to rise to power, even in a democratic system. The path to leadership involves stepping on too many people for a truly selfless person to undertake it solely for the good of all. To become a leader of a nation, you got to *want* it, not just understand it is a necessary evil, but to actually, genuinely, deeply want it. Now the best leaders also want the job to make their nation great, according to their idea of what makes a nation great. But even for the best leaders to have ever emerged from history, ambition had to be a central motivator.

That said, they cannot be purely selfish either. Even Hitler did what he did to make Germany great. (oops Gordwin's Law... damn it that slipped out)

Rick said...

One major part of political philosophy is and has been trying to define the rewards of ambition in a socially useful way.

The Space Race may have been bad for long term space development, but it was very good for the US and USSR, giving them both a harmless and possibly useful way to beat their chests and act like the biggest ape in the forest.

I am finding lately that my acceptance of humanity is greatly increased by embracing Darwin's truth. Everything you see online is what happens when you give apes access to liquor, car keys, weapons, and the Internet.

Jean Remy said...

"We’ve heard that a million monkeys at a million keyboards could produce the complete works of Shakespeare, now, thanks to the Internet, we know that is not true."

-- Robert Wilensky