Sunday, January 29, 2012

"She Turned Me Into a Newt! ... (I got better)"

SM-62 Snark missile
I must ask the indulgence of this blog's international readership - nearly half of you - for dealing with something as parochial and terrestrial as the US presidential election.

Newt Gingrich is unique among prominent political figures, 'Murrican or otherwise, in that you could imagine him commenting at Rocketpunk Manifesto. Megalomania is an occupational hazard of politicians, but Newt is the only one I can think of whose delusions of grandeur (grandiosity?) were informed by the Foundation Trilogy, in particular Hari Seldon.

On the other hand, if I were a true-believing 'Murrican conservative, this would give me pause. The Seldon Plan uses both religion and free-market capitalism as mere tools to advance a (cosmopolitan and statist!) ulterior agenda: laying groundwork for the Second Galactic Empire. Those who cherish either religion or capitalism for its own sake should be on notice. (Apparently many already are; Newt is taking a ferocious battering from many quarters of the right.)


In any case, my specific pretext for talking about Newt here is his promise that, if he were elected, the US would have a permanent Moon base by 2020. At some unspecified later date, suggested Newt, the Moon could petition for statehood.

One liberal blogger had trouble deciding whether Newt was channeling his inner geek or just making an old fashioned pander. (He made the speech on Florida's Space Coast, hard-hit by the Shuttle retirement.) These are not mutually exclusive; it could be both!

Discover magazine called the lunar base impossible. In the technical sense it surely is possible - just enormously expensive. Which makes it politically impossible, in the current fiscal climate, especially in the absence of any credible plan to build public support for the plan.


The likelihood that Newt will be called on to make good on this promise is slim to none. The GOP nominee will almost certainly be Generic Republican, AKA Mitt Romney. (And I don't think it is pure wishful thinking on my part to suspect that President Obama will make short work of him in the fall.)

But Newt's lunar follies are not without consequences. The last prominent Republican to make reckless promises about the Moon was George Bush ('the Younger'). The circumstances were different. There is no evidence that Bush was ever a space geek. His proposal to return to the Moon was presumably thrown together by advisors who themselves were not space-minded, but merely looking for a Vision Thing [TM].

The results of this careless promise have been fairly dire. Bush got one speech out of it, then paid it no further visible attention. The public barely noticed, and soon forgot about the whole thing. No heed was given to the program's out-year costs, and the US was locked for several years into a gold-plated architecture that made billions for aerospace firms but ended up getting mostly canceled.

The upshot has been to leave the US with no operational human launch capability, and the fiasco significantly discredit the whole idea of human spaceflight. Newt Gingrich's legacy is to have further discredited it, at least modestly.


In longer historical perspective, yes, an argument can be made that a Democratic president, JFK, also overpromised in a way that set back the long term prospects of human spaceflight. I will argue that the post-Apollo stagnation is exaggerated, simply because Apollo was so spectacular, and also must be seen in the context of post-60s backlash and the great tragedy of Lyndon Johnson.

Also, of course, Apollo actually did go to the Moon, which should count for something in this discussion.

By sheer coincidence (or deep synchronicity), two readers brought to my attention a much more thoughtful space discussion by Gregory Benford. He is a far better writer and thinker than Newt Gingrich, but something about space makes him careless too. Mostly he rags on NASA, and it takes him less than 100 words to get from the fatal Shuttle losses to accusing the agency of being "safety obsessed."

Anyone who isn't "safety obsessed" really has no business going into space - and chances are strong that they'll never get there.

In fact, as I have pointed out before on this blog, we have made crucial strides in human spaceflight, and safety is at the heart of them. The ISS has operated for more than a decade without any mishap that required aborting its mission or emergency rescue from Earth. That is the single most important preparatory benchmark for human interplanetary spaceflight.

I'll also note - again, not for the first time - that NASA's robotic deep space exploration program has been a spectacular success, in spite of some embarrassments (feet ... meters ... oops!) along the way.

Yes, I wish we had scheduled commercial flights to the Moon. But anyone who ever said that space was easy was either delusional or selling snake oil. Or both.




An earlier discussion of political ideology and space travel.


Via Wikipedia, the image shows the SM-62 Snark (really!), a 50s vintage cruise missile.

91 comments:

Damien Sullivan said...

Probes: what's up in the solar system in 2012
http://planetary.org/blog/article/00003316/

What we canceled, that could have actually made a stab at finding signs of life on extrasolar planets, for a billion or so:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terrestrial_Planet_Finder
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_Interferometry_Mission

(A friend worked on the coronagraphs for TPF. Their research costs were pennies in the couch, practically, and they were making good progress; a launched probe would have been another space telescope.)

Nyrath said...

Zubrin as well thinks a few more dead astronauts is a small price to pay for space exploration
http://reason.com/archives/2012/01/26/how-much-is-an-astronauts-life-worth

Anonymous said...

I don't really care for either major political party here in America (I haven't voted for a 'major' party candidate since Reagan), but most candidates of whatever stripe often use some renewed space effort to drum up national pride, but aren't really serious about it. During the '60s the Space Program employed thousands of (if not tens of thousands) scientists, engineers, technicians,skilled workers; it developed new materials, technigues, technologies, and spurred basic and applied research and development of science; it was a source of national pride that had some practical advantages, but it was bungled badly as far as the way it was presented and so the public lost interest when Congress and the Administration withdrew support for it. Many of us Americans support a space program, but like many other things, our politicians seem to be out of touch with what American wants and needs.

Ferrell

Tony said...

It's simply not true that the space program caused technological progress. The space program put requests for proposal out to bid and the contractors used whatever technologies were at hand to meet the requirements. Some innovative applications were found for existing or emerging technologies, but they were almost exclusively relevant to rocketry and/or space operations. And they were rooted in technologies developed for other purposes.

Tony said...

Re: Zubrin

He's probably right as far as his analysis of risk management goes. But he's wrong in presuming that Americans should accept the argument on its merits alone. It wasn't even true during Apollo, when the manned space program was essentially an operation of war, albeit a cold war. Even then, NASA management was highly exercised over the potential of program cancellation consequent on the loss of flight crew.

It was possibly the greatest luck in the world that the Apollo 1 crew died in a fire on the pad, during a training exercise. It was tragic, and highly visible, but it wasn't a loss in flight, and the loss could be traced quickly to a condition that wouldn't have existed in flight. Had the loss been for some other reason, in-flight, who knows how the public might have reacted?

Balanced against that is the fact that the Shuttle program lost two spacecraft and 14 flight crew and still managed to survive. So maybe the American public is more reasonable about risk than many suspect. But it is also true that the American public allowed the wool to be pulled over its eyes about the value of the mission for which the lives were lost. In both cases, NASA couldn't even point to the repair of Hubble or the deployment of an exploration spacecraft. The agency just made vague rhetorical connections to exploration and the future and managed to make it stick.

In addition, to be perfectly honest, I don't think NASA has ever been successful when it wasn't safety and, more imporatnatly, reliability obsessed. "Faster, Better, Cheaper" as a paradigm was inherrently flawed, as anybody with commercial engineering experience could tell you -- quick, inexpensive, or well done...pick any two. The safety standdowns after Challenger and Columbia were modeled on what had been undertaken after the Apollo 1 fire.

Jeepers...a little bit of thinking out loud there. In any case, that's what I think about Zubrin's POV -- it doesn't stand up to historical fact.

Tony said...

Now, WRT the actual substance of the issue...

I'm pretty sure Newt was pandering (at least mostly) to his Space Coast audience.

WRT the Moon in particular, well, we've proven we can do that. I think we need to work on going further. As stated a number of times previously, I'm pretty much in support of Flexible Path, for two reasons:

1. It extends the reach of our manned cpabilities, even if only incrementally, and

2. It allows us to defer manned landing technologies until later, and enables concentrating our limited funds on interplanetary technology first.

The Moon can wait.

Z said...

The issue isn't that I don't think we should sometime get around to having a moonbase- it's that Newt's advocacy is born out of that same weird techno-billionaire evangelism that seems to spring with viral intensity from watching certain TED talks or reading "The Engines of Creation"- I made money with computers, and computers get faster, ergo nanites indistinguishable from magic by Thursday, ergo plenty of everything for everyone including godhood, ergo nothing to worry about except funding tech ventures and making sure America wins at...well, winning, I guess. It was just yesterday that I heard someone saying that we needed to start building O'Neill cylinders in the next five years, because telling people to have replacement levels of children would be much, much harder- nevermind people seem to cut their fertility all on their own and the math for alleviating population crunches with space habitats is stunningly awful.

Sure, I'd like a moonbase. I can think of a half-dozen scientifically interesting reasons to have general-purpose thinker-makers like people on a whole other body- not least among them that I'd like to visit- but it also represent the kind of open-ended capability that you ought to get just because you can't tell what it's good for yet. But Newt likes moonbases because they're Big Ideas, and he's spent his prolific writing career reeling off Big Ideas (sometimes diametrically opposed big ideas, like suggesting legalization of pot in one editorial and introducing a bill creating death sentences for drug trafficking in another,) because they offer the hope that you can accomplish grand amounts of good not by doing messy meddling in markets or conservatively-bothersome social spending or waiting for some bit of social engineering to incubate and likely fail, but just by giving clean-cut heroes of the American industrial way contracts to keep doing what they do best- making amazing machines, or throwing bad guys in jail, or whatever. It's an appeal to a visceral, strong-man-at-the-top dream of leadership- see the evil and crush it, see the frontier and send our best to go there. It's war as the model for perpetual governance, where simple strong measures handed to the men of science and industry save the day, and the simple fact is that every time countries decide to take that fork constantly in peacetime, it doesn't end well.

Cambias said...

Every good liberal will now obediently heap scorn on the whole concept of space colonization.

hybridwebtech said...

@Tony,

I'm not an american, so I can't really comment on the cost aspect of these things.

Having said that:

W.r.t. Apollo not causing technological progress: technically correct, but it misses something big, in my opinion.

This view comes from considering the space program in isolation. What you should do is consider it as an exemplar of those times. The technology to do these things, like going to the moon, was just becoming available, in disparate and disjoint parts, when Apollo was launched. Apollo focused development of those technologies, and arguably accelerated them. Yes, communications tech, microelectronics, etc., would have eventually been developed, but they were hastened by the space program.

One has also to consider the motivation that the space program provided for not just employing hundreds of thousands of highly educated scientists and engineers, but in motivating others to higher education (myself included).

Sometimes the intangibles are as important as the concrete aspects. Your country has coasted for 20+ years on the intangibles of the space age.

With respect to "been there, done that" for the moon, any sensible and practical mars program, meaning not just a bootprints and flags type of mission, will require a return to the moon. Why? Consider this. When you think of the recently terminated space program, you think of two places on earth: Cape Canaveral and Houston. Launch Control and Mission Control. All space program missions, up to and including the ISS, have had extensive ground based control and monitoring. Spaceflight as we know it absolutely depends on ground control.

And thats the problem; a mission to mars will require spaceflight as we do not know it.

One example:

Ground control works because the latency in round trip communications is acceptable. Essentially instantaneous in low earth orbit, and 2-3 sec for the moon.

Mars is considerably farther away, so much so that ground control is impractical.

We will need to develop autonomous, crew based control for further out missions.

Ok, why does that require the moon? Well, as the history of the terminated space program illustrates, things take longer and are more difficult than first thought. More effort and experience is required. Would you rather get the experience for autonomous, long duration space flight by actually doing it for real, or would you rather develop it systematically, on the moon, where if things go wrong (and they will), you can retreat to safety in three days, as opposed to having to stretch it out to between 3 months and 1 year.

Many things can be achieved in earth orbit (such as experience with long duration weightless missions, and the technology required to support them), but there is no better proxy for an inhospitable and alien planetary environment than the moon. Not exact, but much closer than LEO.

With all respect to Dr. Zubrin, mars direct seems a lot like a suicide mission.

Tony said...

Re: hybridwebtech

One can test a long duration hab at a Lagrange point, in space, where it's actually going to operate. If a crew has to bail-out from there, it would be easier than from the surface of the Moon.

hybridwebtech said...

@Tony,

Lagrange points are still deep space, not a planetary environment. You can test out long duration space missions there, and develop *some* procedures, but you still need to develop and prove technology and procedures for mars in a planetary analog. Our closest one is, conveniently, the moon.

Anonymous said...

Z said at January 29, 2012 11:47 AM


The issue isn't that I don't think we should sometime get around to having a moonbase- it's that Newt's advocacy is born out of that same weird techno-billionaire evangelism that seems to spring with viral intensity from watching certain TED talk



You're referring to the Jeff Greason TED talk. But Jeff will go to space with South Korean money while we suicide ourselves with vicious political battles.


Why don't all these people who criticize Newt mention his long association with Pournelle and Rohrabacher? Pournelle was involved with DC/X and Rotary, and his son worked for X-COR.


Why don't all these people mention how Bezos went from a high school student obsessed with O'Neill colonies to a billionaire actually making flying space hardware?


I think the reason nobody mentions these things is that they are largely unaware of the actual happenings in the commercial space world. Do you ever listen to the podcasts at Evadot where actual engineers working on actual hardware actually talk about actual things they are doing right now? Do you ever see the interviews at moonandback with the actual principles involved?

Tony said...

hybridwebtech:

"Lagrange points are still deep space, not a planetary environment. You can test out long duration space missions there, and develop *some* procedures, but you still need to develop and prove technology and procedures for mars in a planetary analog. Our closest one is, conveniently, the moon."

The Moon is no planetary analogue for Mars. It is a lot closer to the Sun and doesn't have weather (or other phenomena associated with an atmosphere, like convective cooling and dust storms). Hardware and procedures worked out on the Moon would have very little validity on Mars.

Re: Anon

No evangelism please.

Damien Sullivan said...

Moon: 1/6 gravity, vacuum, huge temperature extremes

Mars: 0.4 gravity, thin atmosphere, dust storms, generally colder

Earth: 1 gravity. I suspect it'd be cheaper to set up your habitat within an building with Mars-simulated pressure and winds than to set it up on the Moon, and more accurate in every way except gravity. Oh, and radiation, though you could simulate that too.

Z said...

Anon- Hadn't actually seen the Greason talk- and while I've met others at XCOR, I've never had the pleasure of meeting the boss. I meant the pseudo-mystical TED vibe in general, where all problems are amenable to back-of-the-envelope solutions executed by billionaires.

And if I might be allowed to rise to your bait- I've got a relevant education. I go to all the Space Vision conference in Boulder, and got in to the Mars Society on Zubrin's charity because of a ISRU project I undertook, and the family is full of former LockMart missile men. Sutton's "Rocket Propulsion Elements" and the "Fundamentals of Astrodynamics" is literally next to the keyboard. Have had occasion to use them in some small measures, though not for a bit. Have a pretty clever novel turbopump design in files about here somewhere. Have an associate with two VSS tickets as thank-yous from Virgin for spacey service rendered. Such a cloud of space cadets has followed the family for a long time. Have chatted up Rutan, and Diamandis, and blah blah blah. I am, in short, not a magician, but I'm entitled to an informed opinion and have access to information at the source on a pretty regular basis.

And said opinion is that Newt has spent twenty years filling his books with demonstrably premature declarations about technological prowess and demonstrable overestimations about the ability of manifested technologies to eliminate social ills, and then repeats, and repeats. The aerospace industry is acknowledged by even its best friends to be considerably better at producing shiny round-the-corner futures that it is as producing aircraft and rockets (and that includes the new crew in town- I am wildly impressed by SpaceX, but even if their every last hope comes true, they've moved a line down the vast socio-econo-techno-demographic toward '70's visions of the High Frontier.) Limping, lingering aerospace programs have represented a conservatively acceptable form of welfare for fifty years. Combining all that with Newt's penchant to leapfrog between half-cocked "what-ifs" in his rhetorical style, with a fondness for dramatic Band-Aids (like the aforementioned mass executions of dope smugglers,) it's fundamentally a throwaway and it gives me no more cause than before to favor his leadership or expect the results he promises.

At the rate he makes far-out promises, no one will be keeping any kind of meaningful tally. There's no titanic demographic he'd be disappointing if it predictably (inevitably) turned out to be more expensive than the latest round of ra-ra brochures suggest and it withered. His language isn't peppered with much discussion of actual astronautical science and with lots of talk of beating the Chinese (which is a baffling thing to discuss in and of itself) and of demographically and economically dubious talk about the paypack timelines for resource exploitation. He's doing what he's done for thirty years and I have no cause to be impressed now- even if I have a deep excitement for the bullet point in particular. It's a safe talking point for the self-labelled thinker of the GOP to make in Florida post-shuttle, and it's indistinguishable from the ones he made pre-shuttle. He likes space because space is cool- and I agree, but I'm not suddenly thrilled/optimistic/whatever that Newt is on my team.

Tony said...

I was alive when the Space Shuttle was first conceived. I lived to see it retired. In the meantime, we've had Rotary Rocket, Kistler, DC-X, and a host of other flashes in the pan. But the R-7 launch vehicle predates me, and I may not be alive on the date of its last flight, even if that's 30 years in the future. Since the Falcon is just another LOX/Kerosene rocket -- and I don't believe that SpaceX can run like a startup forever -- I honestly expect the R-7 will live to see SpaceX dead and buried.

IOW, I just can't help but be skeptical about any claims that aren't made by the people who actually build and fly rockets that carry revenue payloads. (If SpaceX survives for long, it will be because they morph into that type of company, with a cost structure and risk non-acceptance that reflects it.) So to me, the question is: what is the customer -- either commercial or taxpayer -- willing to pay for, at pretty much the same rate as always? And the answer is always the same: a considerable amount for things that effect life on Earth, but only so much for exploration and basic science.

Now, manned spaceflight does have a value, in terms of national prestige. (Especially when the other guy can do it simply by continuing to do it, while you can't because you wasted all your resources on a white elephant that eventually came a cropper.) It also has value in exploration, but only marginally, given the great expense. And those are the only real values that manned spaceflight has to the people who have to pay for it. Whatever other values the Space Cadets imagine, they are speculative nonsense to the people who foot the bill. And that's not going to change anytime soon.

jollyreaper said...

track

jollyreaper said...

As to all the space future doomsayers, I shake my fist and say dinofeathers!

We talk about near future and plausible mid-future but another way of putting the timescale is "I/my child/my grandchild will live to see whether I was right."

My primary dislike for the cyclic theory of history is that the future is doomed to be little better than the past and any improvements are doomed to be short-lived. This is an aesthetic and not factual objection, of course.

I prefer the idea of progressive/linear history where for all our problems we are making the future better than the past.

Now of course a human conceit won't change something in the natural world. The simplistic view of evolution as "moving from lesser to better and always an improvement, each next animal being better as if moving towards a distant and visualized goal" is of course completely wrong. But the funny thing is in human society, we can make ideals the reality. If we want a hellish theocracy, we've got it. If we want a liberal, socialist society, we've got it.

I'm brought to mind of a quote by Andrew Bonar Law: "There is no such thing as an inevitable war. If war comes it will be from failure of human wisdom."

Wishful thinking might not make fiscally impossible space colonies viable in the plausible mid-future but it could make the possible yet implausible happen.

Tony said...

Re: jollyreaper

As in most things, there's a little bit of truth in both the cyclic and linear history models. Things do ten to happen over and over, but over a long enough time, we do tend to increase our technological capabilities. Think of it as two steps forward and one step back, over and over and over again.

WRT social capabilities, the Ahtenian response to the Melians* could just as easily have been written by Henry Kissinger (and has certainly been paraphrased by him, acting in his official capacity as Secretary of State**). So I don't think assertions of our alleged social advancement are supported by facts in evidence.

*"The strong do what they can, while the weak suffer what they must."

**When asked about US support for a quick UN response to the Yom Kipur War in 1973, Secretary Kissinger said something along the lines: there are people who talk (i.e. the UN) and people who act (i.e. the Israelis), and he was perfectly happy to let people who act, act.

WRT to this:

"There is no such thing as an inevitable war. If war comes it will be from failure of human wisdom."

I evaluate that as self-righteous equine manure. Whatever else it is, at base war is a means of seeking justice. (You don't have to agree with either side's definition of "justice", you just have to understand that's what they think they're after...yes, even You Know Who.) As long as humans value the concept of justice, they'll from time to time value it so highly that they're willing to fight and die over it.

So war isn't a failure of human wisdom. It's an expression of one of humanity's highest values, however twisted that value might become in particular cases.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"Wishful thinking might not make fiscally impossible space colonies viable in the plausible mid-future but it could make the possible yet implausible happen."

Not quite. It could lead to attempts to make the physically possible, but economically impractical, happen. It won't lead to success in such endeavors.

Sean said...

Cambias said: "Every good liberal will now obediently heap scorn on the whole concept of space colonization."

In this day age it's rightly so that notions of colonizing the Moon are disregarded. We need to understand outer space better before funding a white elephant such as colonizing the Moon.

Damien Sullivan said...

I'm pretty sure a linear view of history is provably false. Pick almost any value, look at history carefully, and see something that isn't even approximately linear. The exceptions would be technological know-how and total population, which are approximately linear.

Which isn't to say everything else is cyclical either; though there are probably reactionary and feedback forces, and generational effects, I'd guess to first approximation a random walk is the best model. Things aren't going forward nor are they going around in circles, they're staggering around. Note this is perfectly compatible with us being at a high point in several areas of rights today. (But not all: try to smoke a joint, or get a hooker).

Tony: war can be a means of seeking justice, but it can also be a means of simple theft. And often, theft dressed up as seeking justice. It's an expression of humanity's lowest values at least as much as of highest values. Chimps and ants have war-like behavior, they don't need any fancy values for it.

Damien Sullivan said...

This good liberal was already heaping scorn on space colonization, because he did the math. No Newt needed. Part of the problem is that we understand space all too well now.

jollyreaper said...


"Wishful thinking might not make fiscally impossible space colonies viable in the plausible mid-future but it could make the possible yet implausible happen."

Not quite. It could lead to attempts to make the physically possible, but economically impractical, happen. It won't lead to success in such endeavors.


That's what I meant about the fiscally impossible.

So I suppose you could have the following four cases:

1. Flat Out Impossible: FTL drives so we can have Wagon Train to the Stars.

2. Possible, But Extremely Difficult With Huge Sums of Money: We could probably put Newt's colony on the moon if we had the political will to do so but for all practical purposes it ain't happening. Train tunnel under the Bering Straight to connect North America and Asia.

3. Possible, But The Economics Don't Work: Supersonic passenger planes. Can be done, was done, isn't done now because nobody can afford it. Nuclear-powered freighter from the 50's.

4: Possible, Seems Implausible, Someone Actually Did it Successfully: Space-X is a pretty good example.

5. Possible, Plausible, Lacking in Political Will: When everything else seems going for it, things still fall apart. The Koreas are on the same peninsula and have the same people but the South is (or was) a tiger economy and the North remains a dysfunctional hellhole. The problem is political, a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the foot.

Tony said...

Damien Sullivan:

"I'm pretty sure a linear view of history is provably false. Pick almost any value, look at history carefully, and see something that isn't even approximately linear. The exceptions would be technological know-how and total population, which are approximately linear.

Which isn't to say everything else is cyclical either; though there are probably reactionary and feedback forces, and generational effects, I'd guess to first approximation a random walk is the best model. Things aren't going forward nor are they going around in circles, they're staggering around. Note this is perfectly compatible with us being at a high point in several areas of rights today. (But not all: try to smoke a joint, or get a hooker)."


I think that a random walk is a pretty good model for social history, but we have to recognize that there are limits to the system. Government that is either too ridiculously repressive or too ridiculously anarchic -- or too arbitrary, see Caligula -- can't survive for a historically significant length of time. They become footnotes.

WRT technological history, I think a steady upward trajectory, with significant noise, is the correct model. But unlike Kurzweil et cie., I don't think the process is quadratic, with an ever accelerating rate of change. I think it's logistic, and we'll see the limits of knowledge soon enough.

"Tony: war can be a means of seeking justice, but it can also be a means of simple theft. And often, theft dressed up as seeking justice. It's an expression of humanity's lowest values at least as much as of highest values. Chimps and ants have war-like behavior, they don't need any fancy values for it."

One man's theft is another man's justice. In every case. The loser always finds means to rationalize why he didn't deserve what he got.

Also, animals have organized competitive behavior, but they won't fight in anyone's interest but their own tribe's. Also, the higher up one goes on the intelligence scale, the less self sacrifice one see in organized behaviors. (The proverbial she-cat sacrificing herself for her kittens -- which doesn't really work anyway, if they are unweened -- is a totally different thing.) Until you get to man...then you see extensive and undeniable self-sacrifice in pursuit of group objectives.

Yes, much that is base is exposed in war. That doesn't mean it is a useless endeavor. I'm not even sure that a person could consider himself moral, or a society consider itself moral, if there was not some thing or things that was absolutely willing to fight for. There are things worse than war.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"4: Possible, Seems Implausible, Someone Actually Did it Successfully: Space-X is a pretty good example."

Not really a good example at all. SpaceX is a startup with angel investing in the form of it's founder's personal fortune and some venture capital on top of taht. That is neither implausible or even improbable. Somebody was bound to do it eventually, given the number of billionaires in the world and the likelihood that at least one would be a space nut who wanted to found his own rocket company.

Furthermore, SpaceX is founded on the not conclusively demonstrated proposition that the current cost of spaceflight contains excessive bureaucratic fat. As I've stated a few time already, I think their startup attitude and business model won't stand up to the engineering realities and financial risks of operating as a for-revenue launch services company in the out years.

Space costs what it does for real reasons -- reasons that the people who should know recognize. If you want an example of what I'm talking about, look at which launch vehicles the commercial manned launch service providers of the next couple of decades are going with. SpaceDev, Boeing, and Bigelow (using Boeing's spacecraft) are going with ULA's Atlas V. Only SpaceX is going with Falcon for their Dragon manned vehicle, and heck, that's their proprietary launch vehicle.

Yes, Atlas V is effectively Boeing's proprietary LV, through their ULA connections. But let's say you discount Boeing -- and by extension Bigelow -- for that reason. The fact remains that SpaceDev, the only commercial manned hopeful not tied to a launch service provider in some way, went with Atlas V too.

Rick said...

"If war comes it will be from failure of human wisdom."

I evaluate that as self-righteous equine manure. Whatever else it is, at base war is a means of seeking justice.

That is an impressively belligerent defense of belligerence! It borderlines on suppressed guilt. More to the point it is a defense of any aggression by anyone smart enough to come up with a pretext. (And given the human power to rationalize, yes, we often believe our own bullshit.)

"I had a right to that TV in the window!"

"She was wearing a short skirt to entice me!"

et al., ad nauseum ...

The list of excuses is as long as the catalog of human misdeeds.

War may sometimes be the lesser of evils. But it is still evil, and no great advertisement for Homo 'sapiens.'

Rick said...

Re Zubrin - The more I hear from/about him, the more he sounds like a crank.

I couldn't even make it through the piece about the price of astronauts' lives. It wasn't an argument. It was a ill-organized ferrago that seemed mainly designed to tickle the erogenous zones of the Reason readership. Bash on environmental regulations, bash on NASA, throw in a little manly-men stuff about Columbus and Lewis & Clark.

Better space advocates, please!

Tony said...

Rick:

"That is an impressively belligerent defense of belligerence! It borderlines on suppressed guilt. More to the point it is a defense of any aggression by anyone smart enough to come up with a pretext. (And given the human power to rationalize, yes, we often believe our own bullshit.)

'I had a right to that TV in the window!'

'She was wearing a short skirt to entice me!'

et al., ad nauseum ...

The list of excuses is as long as the catalog of human misdeeds.

War may sometimes be the lesser of evils. But it is still evil, and no great advertisement for Homo 'sapiens.'"


Guilty as charged WRT the belligerence qua belligerence. But the sentiment is aimed at the fatuous notion that war is inherrently evil and stupid...or, for that matter, that it is inherrently good and sublime. There have been evil wars and stupid wars, that's for sure. But there have been wars to redress real grievances that it would have been more evil to endure than fight to change. (And I'm not even including the American Revolution in that category, BTW.)

Wheneve I speak of war, I speak to the phenomenon in general, not to either idealistic extreme. As a human phenomenon, war seems to me nothing other than a quest for justice, even to the point that when trying to codify good war vs bad war, our own Western civ -- and every other one I am aware of -- we speak of "just" and "unjust" war. It just doesn't seem like there's much wiggle room left for those that want to make it a good or an evil in and of itself, does there?

Rick said...

It just doesn't seem like there's much wiggle room left for those that want to make it a good or an evil in and of itself, does there?

Sure there is - 'the lesser evil' is pretty common usage. For that matter, your own statement that "there are worse things than war" is a concession that it is a bad thing.

Which is enough beating of an off-topic mule.

Thucydides said...

While Speaker Gingrich is probably not going to be able to put his plan into action, I think there is a deeper implication behind his proposal.

By incentivising the project through a series of cash prizes, (similar in intent to the sorts of prizes that spurred trans Atlantic flight , airmail delivery and SpaceShip One), he breaks free of the paradigm of delivering loads of taxpayer cash to politically connected firms. By extension, for some (perhaps a great many) projects and ideas, the government can exit from using large bureaucracies and crony capitalists to get things done (which would certainly reduce the present power of bureaucracies and the connected).

This alone is worth considering, since the "funding" becomes an escrow account delivered to the winners of the contest, and if the contest proves to be too difficult or impossible to do in the required timeframe or set of rules, then the money can be rolled over into the payout of whatever the next compatition is. In other words, the taxpayer is out nothing if the prize goes unclaimed.

The potential is that many people will become involved in the process of attempting to win the prize, and this economic activity and creativity can have positive spinoff effects on its own. Consider that the X prize is thought to have attracted something like $100 million in investments spread over the many teams that worked on winning the prize.

Now there are probably just as many pitfalls and potential politicizations with using prizes to spur competition and innovation as there are with the current way of doing things, but the idea of having people actually doing something as opposed to mounds of paper studies, PowerPoint slide shows and spending millions or billions on projects that are never actually finished before being cancelled makes this type of thinking pretty compelling.

I'm willing to give Speaker Gingrich a big BZ for thinking farther outside the box than most other people (much less political candidates), and certainly hope the next Congress and Senate will give some consideration to this idea.

Anonymous said...

When I think of "going back to the Moon", I envision an outpost simular in purpose to the Antarctic scientific bases; not a 'colony' in the traditional sense. While it may serve as a testbed for developing technology and techniques to establish permanent research bases on Mars and other intersting celestrial bodies, they would be 'colonies' only by default, by virtue of people retiring there and/or children being born there and never leaving for Earth. So I wouldn't expect there to be a "native' population off-world for a generation or three after a permanent base was established.

Ferrell

jollyreaper said...

I do like the idea of government providing the cash incentives.

The thing that pisses me off about conservatives is they complain about big gubmint even as they give taxpayer handouts to their buddies. No matter what the ideals of an organization, it always turns to special interests and kleptocracy.

I like the idea of keeping the doing organizations small and numerous and capable of failing and being replaced with the government regulating and paying and preventing regulatory capture. Splitting up a big project so every senator can get his beak wet has got to stop. Same with blaming social services for bankrupting the nation when we fight multiple wars of choice and cut taxes on the rich.

The problem I've seen with privatization is that the goal is never to do the job well but to do it as cheaply as possible to maximize profit.

Z said...

Rick: I've met Zubrin, and he's really not so bad-provided you keep on the topic of space stuff. Mars Direct is sound and his flex-fueling proposal might have been a clever bit of door-opening legislation. He's just been afflicted with whatever right-of-center simplification disease strikes down engineers of a certain vintage. Maybe they all just miss having a great time building toys for Reagan. Always puzzled me a bit- because when sociologists go looking, it doesn't seem to happen to research scientists, even ones that end up working as engineers in practice.

But yes, we do need a bit more cosmopolitan space spokesperson, because this whole manifest destiny 2.0 business, where human decency only happens on the wide open frontier like America had and the end of Apollo represented a moral failing akin to treason, is exhausting. Neil DeGrasse Tyson would be alright, if he ever listened to other people and didn't talk like an auctioneer.

Really, whatever wise old ETI Uncle Carl belonged to needs to just send down another copy...

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Tony:

"As in most things, there's a little bit of truth in both the cyclic and linear history models. Things do ten to happen over and over, but over a long enough time, we do tend to increase our technological capabilities. Think of it as two steps forward and one step back, over and over and over again."

This is just about the comment I wanted to make.

Some things will happen again and again, but each time they will happen in a new way, and with fancier toys.


"So war isn't a failure of human wisdom. It's an expression of one of humanity's highest values, however twisted that value might become in particular cases."

If your values are twisted, then this is a failure of human wisdom.



Damien Sullivan:

"Things aren't going forward nor are they going around in circles, they're staggering around. Note this is perfectly compatible with us being at a high point in several areas of rights today. (But not all: try to smoke a joint, or get a hooker)."

I actually believe both of those are legal in the country I live in. (Not that I would care to exercise this right.)

Can we compromise on "staggering forward"?



Jollyreaper:

"Flat Out Impossible: FTL drives so we can have Wagon Train to the Stars."

FTL is so far out from currently-known science that if we find a way to do it, it will most likely be an accidental side effect of some other research venue, and not the result of anyone directly funding space research.



Tony:

"I'm not even sure that a person could consider himself moral, or a society consider itself moral, if there was not some thing or things that was absolutely willing to fight for. There are things worse than war."

But could you consider a society moral if it did not have two factions that are both willing to fight for opposite causes?

I agree that some things are worth fighting for, but ideally we would not need to fight for them because everyone agrees they're worth fighting for and so nobody would be challenging us.


"As a human phenomenon, war seems to me nothing other than a quest for justice, even to the point that when trying to codify good war vs bad war, our own Western civ -- and every other one I am aware of -- we speak of "just" and "unjust" war."

Yeah, but when people talk of a "just" war, what they generally mean is "yeah, but [insert faction here] are evil, and so they deserve to get bombed to death". Meaning that they're still claiming at least one side in the war is unjust. An "unjust" war is merely one where all sides are deemed unjust.

Teleros said...

Rick: "Anyone who isn't "safety obsessed" really has no business going into space - and chances are strong that they'll never get there."

There are obsessions and there are obsessions though, but in this case it comes down to how much you value the lives of the people you're sending up there. Consider:

1. Much human spaceflight has been for reasons of prestige.
2. Most human spaceflight has also been for scientific purposes.
3. Just about all humans who've been into space have been *very* expensively trained.

Therefore, even ignoring the moral arguments about the value of human life, there are good arguments for getting said people back, alive, and in one piece.

If you're planning on a big presence in space - permanent colonies for example, or commercial flights to the Moon - then you're going to have to accept a few things:

1. Lower quality personnel, with less training.
2. More learning by rote (see #1).
3. Casualties.

Or put it this way: you do not need astronauts to build a space colony at a Lagrange point. You need to move away from the image of astronauts as heroes and to something closer to, say, oil platform workers in the North Sea (or near the Arctic & the Falklands, if we ever find / exploit oil there). It's dangerous work, and of course you'll try and make it safe, but the dollar value of the human lives involved will be lower.

To go back to the original premise: that the non-safety-obsessed will probably never get into space... just remember how little value we placed on human life in say WW1, or when Columbus sailed to the Americas, and how much was nevertheless accomplished. All you need to get into space in a big way is:

1. Money
2. Perseverance
3. The requisite technology
4. Some safety-consciousness, because *some* people must survive up there at the very least

A final thought. We accept thousands of deaths a year as the price of civilisation, be it by car accidents, train crashes, and umpteen other things. We could, in principle, make cars kill just about nobody... but that'd make them so fuel inefficient and so slow that a horse & carriage would be a better solution. Furthermore, car crashes happen to normal people, and so regularly that it's (sort of) normal. Shuttle disasters for astronauts... aren't.

jollyreaper said...


To go back to the original premise: that the non-safety-obsessed will probably never get into space... just remember how little value we placed on human life in say WW1, or when Columbus sailed to the Americas, and how much was nevertheless accomplished. All you need to get into space in a big way is:


I suppose we could say that's one positive change. We thought nothing of losing tens of thousands of soldiers in wars (stiff upper lip!) or carpet bombing cities. Now a handful of dead soldiers can derail a war. That's progress of a fashion. Or that we actually consider the killing of civilians a war crime instead of the cost of doing business.

There was I think a TED Talk a while back with a guy pointing how the overall violence levels of the human race have been going down steadily over the centuries.

Brett said...

Did Steve Pinker give a TED talk? That's what his latest book (The Better Angels of Our Nature) is all about.

Tony said...

Re: Z

Funny, I've had exactly the opposite opinion of Zubrin and Tyson. After listening to Zubrin in person for about 30 minutes, I realized that he was trying to sell something that had problems under the hood. Tyson, being an astrophysicist and educator, talks pretty much like you'd expect that kind of person to talk. He's not trying to sell you something, he's trying to teach you something.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"There was I think a TED Talk a while back with a guy pointing how the overall violence levels of the human race have been going down steadily over the centuries."

I don't know who gave that TED talk, but the general idea is that civilized living is less violent than barbaric living, judged on the percentage of people who die violent deaths. That comes out of archeology and anthropology over the last twenty years. And it includes deaths attributable to world wars and totalitarian oppression.

Barbaric living it seems, is constantly violent. Civilized living has violent punctuations -- much more violent than barbaric inter-tribal warfare -- but not frequent enough to kill as many people per capita. In civilization violent death isn't lurking around the next bend in the trail. But it can still get large numbers of people in very short timespans on occasion. I don't see that so much as less violent, just differently violent.

Z said...

Tony: I mean, that's not wrong. Tyson is a fine teacher and Zubrin does slip into salesman mode. I just mean that his mission architecture and insights about ISRU being the enabler are true- and so is the math behind the terraforming paper he did McKay, and so forth. As soon as it comes to The Narrative, the effect can be used-car-salesman-esque. As for Tyson, the one time I saw him in the flesh and a few times I've seen him on TV, he rocks at monologue, but could stand to relax when it comes to dialogue- tends to steamroll over some social cues.

Tyson said...

Z:

Zubrin has had some good ideas, but he just doesn't see -- or refuses to see -- that they aren't brandable critical enablers. They're just options. And that's the positive. The negative is headlined by an almost blind eye towards economic reality where Mars is concerned. (Which is damningly hypocritical, considering his incisive writings about the economic unreality of space solar power and space colonization.)

Yes, Tyson is a bit of an evangelist, but he's evangelizing factual knowledge, not speculative technology or social schemes. A lot can be forgiven in that context, IMO.

Tony said...

The above was from me, not "Tyson".

Boy, talk about Freudian slips...

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Jollyreaper:

"We thought nothing of losing tens of thousands of soldiers in wars (stiff upper lip!) or carpet bombing cities. Now a handful of dead soldiers can derail a war."

This is partly because the modern wars are seen as "less important" than the world wars. Spending a lot of lives to take down a crazed dictator threatening to conquer the world is one thing. Spending a lot of lives to take down a crazed dictator who never posed a serious threat to you or your allies is another.

jollyreaper said...

http://www.ted.com/talks/steven_pinker_on_the_myth_of_violence.html

Yup, that's the one. I can remember topics but am terrible with names.

jollyreaper said...


This is partly because the modern wars are seen as "less important" than the world wars. Spending a lot of lives to take down a crazed dictator threatening to conquer the world is one thing. Spending a lot of lives to take down a crazed dictator who never posed a serious threat to you or your allies is another.


Could well be. To put it another way, how likely are we to return to a life is cheap mentality if faced with a sufficient crisis?

We haven't seen a classic epidemic of biblical proportions since the Spanish flu. How would we react to a situation like that in the 21st century where our cherished notions of the value of human life and the proper dignity to afford corpses gets swept away by the triage? Mass graves, burn the bodies in pits, all niceties cast aside with sheer survival being the only priority.

Anonymous said...

Jollyreaper:



Which brings me to another thing - I don't think we ever had a life is cheap mentality, in the sense some people are suggesting. We have always treated life as being as expensive as it was economically feasible to do with the technology of that era. When we consider life to be cheap, it is only due to resignation to something we lack the power to change.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"Could well be. To put it another way, how likely are we to return to a life is cheap mentality if faced with a sufficient crisis?"

"[R]eturn" to? Ever been to sub-Saharan Africa. The entire phenomena of lowered violence in civilization can be attributable to relative wealth, IMO. If we reach and move past peak oil, or peak healthy water supplies, or peak anything, violence will return. I think it wouldn't be hard at all for Americans to rationalize a very violently selfish attitude WRT other peoples, if their standard of living is at stake. There's already been serious writing in the foreign policy and strategic thought rags about using military power against environmental rogue regimes. It's not much of a stretch to change that into military force to acquire and control limited resource bases.

Anonymous said...

@jollyreaper:

"There is no such thing as an inevitable war. If war comes it will be from failure of human wisdom."

For those two sentences both to be true requires that there are no circumstances in which the failure of human wisdom is inevitable.

Damien Sullivan said...

9/11: under 3000 people killed. Massive social change.

American traffic deaths: 30,000-40,000/year. 11 9/11s every year.
American homicides: 10,000/year. 3 9/11s every year.

Do we hire lots of police auxiliaries to put boots on the ground in dangerous neighborhoods? Do we invest in public transit (buses are really safe) and crack down hard on drunk or impaired driving? No (though we're starting to crack down a bit.)

'Can we compromise on "staggering forward"?'

I think drugs and hookers being legal has been the normal state of civilization, so that's not so much forward as staggering almost to traditional liberty.

Of course those same periods were more cavalier about rape and elite violence. So staggering round and round.

Meanwhile the US is getting cavalier about the liberties of its own citizens, down to execution without trial on executive say-so. Progress!

Tony said...

Damien Sullivan:

"Meanwhile the US is getting cavalier about the liberties of its own citizens, down to execution without trial on executive say-so. Progress!"

Ri-i-ight...

jollyreaper said...

9/11: under 3000 people killed. Massive social change.

American traffic deaths: 30,000-40,000/year. 11 9/11s every year.
American homicides: 10,000/year. 3 9/11s every year.

Do we hire lots of police auxiliaries to put boots on the ground in dangerous neighborhoods? Do we invest in public transit (buses are really safe) and crack down hard on drunk or impaired driving? No (though we're starting to crack down a bit.)


It's the threat of the unusual.

person 1: I'm going to kill 100 [racial epithets] and a clown.

person 2: Why kill a clown?

person 1: See? Told ya nobody cares about [racial epithets.]

The unusual stands out. When we had the DC sniper, people were afraid to go out and get gas. Nevermind that you were statistically more likely to die in an accident on the way to the gas station than be shot by the sniper. We're used to the threat of crashes. Snipers are a new variable.

If we talk about corporate negligence we're more likely to be killed by tainted spinach than die in flames in an airliner crash but we're more scared of planes than produce.

This gets back to the question of how much hysteria came from the public, how much was whipped up by the media trying to sell advertising and how much politicians were able to stoke it all so they could push pet agendas.

Göring: Why, of course, the people don't want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.
Gilbert: There is one difference. In a democracy, the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.
Göring: Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.


I never quite know where I stand on these chicken-egg arguments. Is American pop culture so dreadful? Are the tabloids creating this demand or merely serving it? I suspect it's a kind of feedback loop like eating crappy foods makes you tired and lazy and builds a craving for bad food. Is McDonalds lowering the collective taste of the American public, pandering to it, or is it a mutual cycle of poor nutrition and low expectations?

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"I never quite know where I stand on these chicken-egg arguments. Is American pop culture so dreadful? Are the tabloids creating this demand or merely serving it? I suspect it's a kind of feedback loop like eating crappy foods makes you tired and lazy and builds a craving for bad food. Is McDonalds lowering the collective taste of the American public, pandering to it, or is it a mutual cycle of poor nutrition and low expectations?"

Why look for a demon -- or an angel, for that matter? Why not deal with life as it comes?

To bring thingsback on topic, a lot of this Moon base and private space enterprise talk is people wishing for an angel to lead them to a promised land, rather than deal with the realities of manned space flight as we now know them to be.

Damien Sullivan said...

"Ri-i-ight..."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anwar_al-Awlaki

US citizen. Targeted for killing and killed without ever being indicted for crimes.

This coming after http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jos%C3%A9_Padilla_%28prisoner%29 a US citizen designated an "enemy combatant" by the executive and thus not entitled to the courts. Took a full 3.5 years for that to end. So then we got the NDDA, authorizing indefinite detentions.

jollyreaper said...

Damien, Damien, Damien. This is just a series of isolated incidents. No connection.

Tony said...

Damien Sullivan:

"US citizen. Targeted for killing and killed without ever being indicted for crimes."

Whether or not he was a US citizen, he was an enemy combatant in the field. (Yes, even leaders who don't do any shooting themselves are combatants; the precedents are too numerous to list and too easy for even the mildly curious to discover for themselves.) There was no necessity to indict him.

"So then we got the NDDA, authorizing indefinite detentions."

Of enemy combatants, during a time of war, just like POWs have always been detained. The NDAA specifically excludes US citizens and US resident aliens from disposition under the laws of war(Sec. 1022(a)).

This is what I mean about people looking for demonswhen none exist.

Teleros said...

Tea Bagger: "It's all the Obama-commie-big-gubmint's fault!"
Moonbat: "Blame the Bushitler!"

Right, now that we've got a nice shortcut to the end point in any discussion about current US politics, let's get back to the moon base stuff :D .

Tony said...

Teleros:

"...let's get back to the moon base stuff :D ."

The problem is that the Moon base has the same dichotomy of perceptions associated with it. It's either fundamentally necessary or it's unrealistically dumb.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Jollyreaper:

"Nevermind that you were statistically more likely to die in an accident on the way to the gas station than be shot by the sniper. We're used to the threat of crashes. Snipers are a new variable."

Also, if you have some reason to be more afraid of crashes than usual, then you can compensate for this by being extra careful when you cross the road. If you have some reason to be more afraid of snipers than usual, there isn't much you can do about it except wait for the police to find and catch the sniper. You could try to sneak around places where you'll be hard for the sniper to spot, but since a sniper is per definition hidden, you can never know where it'll strike next.

There is always some risk of being killed by a sniper. Even if your area has no current sniper crisis, there is always the possibility that you will end up being the first victim of a new serial killer.

Anonymous said...

As far as Lunar colonization, I think that the realistic view would be a research base with a rotating crew, instead of Tycho City- home of thousands! One is good for scientific research and the other is good for overexcited fans; I'll let you guess which one the politicians are pandering to.

Ferrell

Rick said...

(Belated) welcome to a couple of new commenters!

I encourage commenters logged in as 'Anonymous' to sign a name or handle, so we have some idea who is saying what.

We fear the unusual, and we also fear hostile intent much more than (equally dangerous) negligence. Flip side, we resist cracking down on 'it could be us' scenarios - which is why drunk driving has historically been treated rather leniently.

On 'targeted killings,' individuals involved in hostilities in war zones have always been targets. The 'war on terror' has plenty of ambiguities compared to traditional wars. But this stuff is happening in places where our ability to go in and arrest someone is nil.

That said, the use of drones has taken us into new territory. Assassination-style military operations used to be extremely rare because so few opportunities arose. (Adm. Yamamoto the exception that proves the rule.)

On the one hand, the drone strikes mean far fewer bystanders get blown away. On the other, it is vaguely creepy that going to the wrong wedding party can put you in the crosshairs.

Note also that this is not at all the way how I (or, I suspect, most people) once imagined drones would be used In The Future. My mental image was demi-missiles used against heavily defended targets - not airborne snipers picking specific people off.

As with the whole computer age, drone warfare has turned out to be remarkably different in the event than it was in the speculative foretelling!

jollyreaper said...

The latest figures I heard on drone strikes:

Killing the people we want 90% of the time

Averaging about 50 dead civilians for every intended target

Net result -- we're liked less than ever. Terrorism recruiting is way up.

Rick said...

Getting back to topic (perish the thought!), a theme of this blog - not originally intended - has been the yawning but complex gap between the realities of space travel and the image of space travel that most of us inherited from the rocketpunk era.

Writers like Clarke and Heinlein were broadly correct about space technology, but grossly underestimated the cost and complexity. They also underestimated how starkly unhabitable the Solar System is.

A lot of the space community has not entirely come to grips with these facts, especially the first.

Specifically, a robust commercial marketplace could probably do things 'somewhat' cheaper than a public-private partnership derived from the defense industry. Compare the cost of the C-17 to similar-size commercial jetliners.

But to really change the name of the game in space you need a cost reduction of at least an order of magnitude, arguably two orders of magnitude. Which is a whole 'nother matter, and not what you get from doing the same basic stuff in a somewhat more streamlined way.

Thucydides said...

But to really change the name of the game in space you need a cost reduction of at least an order of magnitude, arguably two orders of magnitude. Which is a whole 'nother matter, and not what you get from doing the same basic stuff in a somewhat more streamlined way.

Which gets to the chicken and egg problem again. Under the current system there is no particular incentive to do things in a more streamlined way. You get paid cost+ to put payloads into orbit, and the market demand is small enough that you won't be punished by your customer base for overcharging.

Prizes can be enablers of new technologies, the classic example being aviation going from canvas and string ex WWI aircraft to fairly modern all metal aircraft appearing by the late 1920's in a quest to produce better aircraft to win those prizes. The market for things like airmail and passenger service was not assured (indeed, anyone could see that delivering mail and passengers by train was vastly more economical and safer than air transport), but people perseervered to claim these prizes anyway.

So there is a good reason to hold competitions with cash incentives to reduce costs by an order of magnitude; all kinds of ideas will be tried and mostly discarded in an effort to win the prize, and if there is success, then the winner has a powerful leg up on the competition WRT gaining new markets (SpaceShipTwo for space tourism is a good example).

Damien Sullivan said...

Teleros: as a strong social democrat, I'm probably in 'moonbat' territory, and I blame both Bush and Obama. Bush was alarmingly authoritarian with the detentions and torture and Obama's pushed it further.

Damien Sullivan said...

And, AIUI, policy was changed to kill Awlaki; before that, a US citizen on the ground meant deadly force veered off. Yeah, someone openly working for the enemy might justify being a target...

...but he and his family were denying the accusations against him, vs. him being an unambiguous enemy leader. So, we have something for conflicts like that, "due process". if he'd been indicted, then there'd be a formal chance for him to 'come in from the cold' for trial, and if he didn't, well.

But he wasn't. We just killed him, because the executive branch decided he was bad, just as the executive decided Padilla didn't deserve a trial, and waterboarding wasn't torture, and the treatment of Bradley Manning wasn't torture.

Trust the Executive, the Executive is your friend.

Damien Sullivan said...

If the market is cost+, I'll be heretical and suggest things could well be cheaper if the government did them directly, without the + for profit. The virtue of private enterprise comes from competition, not simply from being private. If there's not enough market to compete in...

C-17 vs. jetliners: is the cost due to much more than how many C-17s were made vs. how many jetliners? Economies of scale and all.

Geoffrey S H said...

"But to really change the name of the game in space you need a cost reduction of at least an order of magnitude, arguably two orders of magnitude. Which is a whole 'nother matter, and not what you get from doing the same basic stuff in a somewhat more streamlined way."



In addition to propellants hundreds of times more potent and materials super-strong and super-light that can make very powerful, large and light rockets that can haul up thousands of tons of payload into orbit. Oh, and they have to be cheap too, with any nation being capable of fielding them.

That's how I see it anyway- the plausible midfuture will be almost run before we see serious efforts at large payloads in space, if at all....

Tony said...

Re: Damien Sullivan:

WRT to al-Awlaki, AIUI, the legal implications were carefully considered, because a US citizen was being targetted. It wasn't changed so much reconsidered in the context of a new kind of target.

As far as al-Alwaki's and his family's denials are concerned, what do you expect somebody in his position to say? True, not every denial is false, but with almost every terrorist suspect who had been to Yemen directly fingering the man, it's pretty hard to take the denials seriously, don't you think? As for making a pro forma indictment and offer to come in from out of the cold, let's get serious, OK?

Tony said...

Geoffrey S H:

"Oh, and they have to be cheap too, with any nation being capable of fielding them."

I would say that only the top four or five industrial nations need be able to manufacture them, but they would have to be priced so that most nations could buy and operate at least a few examples, much like modern airliners.

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"Which gets to the chicken and egg problem again..."

Sorry, but no. The problem is not motivation. The problem is inherrent physical limitations of the accessible tool set. And that doesn't mean accessible as in not invented yet, it means accessible as in what can be done with physical materials in the real world, in absolute terms.

Also, the prize paradigm worked when anybody could make a plane for a few thousand bucks. For programs that will cost hundreds of billions of dollars, only the government can put up that kind of money to begin with. And only a government could win a prize that only a government could afford, because with space prizes it has turned out that the prize never covers the total cost of the endeavor.

jollyreaper said...


As far as al-Alwaki's and his family's denials are concerned, what do you expect somebody in his position to say?


And would you expect the US government to say anything other than "Trust us; this guy was horrible."

Just a long string of isolated incidents....

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"And would you expect the US government to say anything other than 'Trust us; this guy was horrible.'

Just a long string of isolated incidents...."


FWIW, I've got more reason to distrust government motives than you ever could, having been personally involved in questionable military operations myself. Nothing about al-Awlaki smells of questionable justification or procedure.

Thucydides said...

Tony

Rutan and dozens of other companies spent $100 million vying for the $10 million X prize, so to suggest only governments have access to the resources needed is a bit premature, to say the least. Given inflation, the amount of money spent by aeronautical pioneers in the early part of the last century was probably similar in proportion.

The entire purpose of the prize is to encourage others to spend the time and resources, without putting yourself out. If no one was able to achieve the goal of the X prize, then the foundation would still have the $10 million + interest as a minimum, and could choose to try again at a later date, fund a different competition or disband and distribute the prize money + interest back to the contributors.

If the prize is really unwinnable, then that will be sorted out sooner or later, as entrants drop out or potential entrants choose not to apply when they look at the problem. Prizes might also limp along for decades waiting for conditions to change (the challenge of human powered flight was not won for several decades, despite the large prize available, and not for lack of trying).

The trick is for the prize foundation to write the criterion carefully enough that the goal is plausible, but without setting the terms and conditions so narrowly that many potential solutions are excluded (or that the prize might be won in a way the prize sponsors don't expect; I believe it was Richard Feynman who posted a prize for an ultra small motor expecting some exotic new technology needed to be invented, but payed out to a guy who used a microscope and tweezers to build the motor instead).

Using prize incentives is not the be all and end all, but serves an important niche function, and the fallout of such an event might be beneficial in unexpected manners as well.

Tony said...

Thucydides:

You're ignoring the issue of scale. Rutan could get the $25 million his effort used up by going to Paul Allen, for whom it was pocket change. Tens or hundreds of billions of dollars is not pocket change, to anybody. Nobody but a govern ment can generate that kind of commitment.

Thucydides said...

But the point is that people are not spending billions of dollars to win these prizes. They may be hoping to get billions of dollars by selling or licensing their successful entries, but they are only using such resources are available to them.

Anyway, it seems the prize meme is becoming quite popular, from Forbes:

http://www.forbes.com/sites/briancaulfield/2012/01/26/peter-diamandis-rocket-man/

Diamandis has throw weight. A Harvard M.D. who never practiced, he has keen interests in space and ocean exploration, genomics and the Internet, telecom and artificial intelligence, hyperfast electric cars and epic environmental disasters. He knows just about everyone in these fields and has persuaded half of them to become a trustee or big backer of his X Prize Foundation: The Ansari family funded the original prize, a private spaceflight vehicle; Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin raised $30 million to put a robot on the moon; Bill and Melinda Gates are sponsoring a better device to detect tuberculosis; Qualcomm’s Jacobs is helping turn Dr. McCoy’s everything machine into reality. Diamandis also has leads on some of tomorrow’s promising entrepreneurs via Singularity University, a boot camp for startups he launched with futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil.

Rick said...

Re the X-prize, also remember that 'getting into space' in the sense of a suborbital flight is far less demanding than getting into orbit.

Also agree with Tony that the era of aviation prizes was an era when aviation technology was basically souped up automotive technology, and anyone with a well equipped garage could jump in.

My impression is that things changed roughly when 'modern' planes started to appear (aluminum rather than wood, fabric, and wire; power upwards of 1000 hp; etc.). A performance level that required far greater resources to play.

Now, in fairness to the private space fans, outfits like SpaceX are in a different league than the private efforts of the 80s and 90s era.

But as Tony has noted, SpaceX has taken a very conservative engineering approach - just the opposite of what used to be touted as revolutionary.

Rick said...

I sort of hate even getting into al-Awlaki type of thing, but I have no one to blame but myself, and it is relevant to the future of conflict.

And I admit that I have done no 'due diligence' in parsing through claims on either side, neither of which has an automatic claim to be believed.

So, we have something for conflicts like that, "due process". if he'd been indicted, then there'd be a formal chance for him to 'come in from the cold' for trial, and if he didn't, well.

I dunno, that could be taken as even more cynical, given the truism that prosecutors can indict a ham sandwich. There are slippery slopes and slippery slopes, and this one doesn't seem all that close to the precipice.

Rick said...

Dammit, I forgot to finish the point I wanted to make about 'private space.' It seems that the whole matter is getting a pretty fair field test, with real money behind it.

One way or the other, within a few years crow will be on the menu here. The important unanswered question being who will be serving it up and who will be dining on it. :-D

Damien Sullivan said...

Not to draw out the tangent too much longer, but while indictments might be cheap, public trials aren't. If he'd surrendered for trial, well, he'd be alive and we wouldn't be having this conversation. Instead he's dead. And while I understand not wanting to rush to judgement without information, one side here resulted in the death by executive order of a US citizen, who was not a member of a country we were at war with, or even organization I think (Al-Qaeda of Yemen isn't the same organization as Al-Qaeda). I feel some prejudice (pre-judgement) is called for here.

Tony said...

Damien Sullivan:

"Not to draw out the tangent too much longer, but while indictments might be cheap, public trials aren't. If he'd surrendered for trial, well, he'd be alive and we wouldn't be having this conversation. Instead he's dead. And while I understand not wanting to rush to judgement without information, one side here resulted in the death by executive order of a US citizen, who was not a member of a country we were at war with, or even organization I think (Al-Qaeda of Yemen isn't the same organization as Al-Qaeda). I feel some prejudice (pre-judgement) is called for here."

1. War isn't the sole domain of nation states. Even the formal war conventions between nation states recognizes that. It can be conducted by any entity that can conduct it.

2. Al Qaeda has never been a formal, membership-based organization. If you say you're al Qaeda, and pursue al Qaeda's goals, you're al Qaeda.

3. Al-Awlaki was fingered by several different terrorist suspects who had been apprehended for prior to executing planned terrorist attacks.

4. US citizens, resident aliens, and non-citizens all deserve and receive the protections of US laws while in the the US or its territories. But when you leave the country and join an organization at war with the US? Then you assume a leadership role? Nobody has the right to expect any better treatment than any other leader of the organization should expect.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Rick:

"One way or the other, within a few years crow will be on the menu here. The important unanswered question being who will be serving it up and who will be dining on it. :-D"

Who cares? I just feel sorry for the crow. :(

Anonymous said...

On Al-Qaeda: OBM raised a private army and, through word and deed, decalered and waged war on the U.S.A U.S. citizen who joins an army that is waging war against the U.S. is guilty of treason; Al-Awlaki never denied he was a member of Al-Qaeda. As a de facto officer in said army, the rules of war permit his being killed by whatever means.

On private space programs; the main draw of these kinds of contests aren't the prizes' stated goal in and of itself, but the fact that winning the prize will (in theory) lead to big sales of the winning design (or derivatives thereof), perhaps even by some that may not have considered it before. Overcoming the difficulties of obtaining that goal is what stimulates innovation, no matter what the contest is.

Ferrell

Thucydides said...

I notice one incentive based initiative missing from the tangent on real or presumed AQ terrorists:

"Wanted, dead or alive. Reward, X dollars"

That ought to send lots of heat their way....

Tony said...

Steering more or less back onto the topic, we should note that, with NASA and (maybe) Bigelow being the only viable American customers for manned spaceflight anytime soon, the space industry as a whole is probably wasting a lot of money on Comercial Crew Development activities. We simply don't need SpaceX Dragon, Boeing CST-100, and and SpaceDev Dream Chaser crew vehicles. We need one crew vehicle that can be made as inexpensive as possible for a given safety/reliability standard, because it achieves the highest possible rate of production.

Of course, going that way would not be popular with the commercial space idealists, but it would satisfy practical market conditions.

Anonymous said...

Tony said:"
Steering more or less back onto the topic, we should note that, with NASA and (maybe) Bigelow being the only viable American customers for manned spaceflight anytime soon, the space industry as a whole is probably wasting a lot of money on Comercial Crew Development activities. We simply don't need SpaceX Dragon, Boeing CST-100, and and SpaceDev Dream Chaser crew vehicles. We need one crew vehicle that can be made as inexpensive as possible for a given safety/reliability standard, because it achieves the highest possible rate of production."

Tony, I think that the point of the compition is to determine which one that would be...

Ferrell

Tony said...

Anonymous:

"Tony, I think that the point of the compition is to determine which one that would be..."

CCDev has been run with the intention of having two non-NASA manned launch providers qualified for NASA missions. It's not generally the way government programs are operated. They usually compete the vendor choice, but then choose a single vendor in the end. And with space programs, they don't compete at the prototype level. They compete on the basis of designs and vendor capabilities, only bending metal after the vendor is chosen.

I know, we have the precedent of EELV, where two launch systems were eventually chosen. But that was for the specific purpose of redundancy in a strategic system. If I had been in charge back in 2003, when the Challenger investigation recommended, I would have extended EELV with a manned spacecraft payload provided by ULA, as a contract extension on EELV.

Paul said...

The argument about the worth of human lives serves mainly to illustrate the duplicity of current manned space activity. If it were really worth billions to send people to some destination in space, then putting lives at risk would also be acceptable.

But it isn't acceptable, and that's because manned space programs are theater, not activities delivering value via accomplishment of their ostensible goals. Dead celebrity astronauts would ruin the entertainment.

Anonymous said...

Paul, I think that the disconnect between politicians and the scienists/astronauts when presenting the goals of a space program is what leads to confusion and disgust; politicians want theater and the scienists/astronauts want to explore and do research; but the politicians are the ones holding the purse-strings, so guess whose voice gets heard by the public?


Ferrell

Rick said...

But note that two losses - of fairly large crews in both cases - did not actually put an end to the US human spaceflight program.

Tony said...

Rick:

"But note that two losses - of fairly large crews in both cases - did not actually put an end to the US human spaceflight program."

Both caused long safety standdowns and considerable reorganization. The basic hardware worked, and subsequent hardware modifications would, in a normal aviation program, have been introduced in continued service. But not with manned spaceflight. Crew losses in that arena cause serious soul-searching. Even the Soviets, at the height of the Cold War, suspended manned spaceflight for over two years after losing Soyuz 11.