Spaced Out

The final Space Shuttle landed the other day, leading to much lamentation over the end of the program, all over the Internet. It was absolutely choking my Twitter feeds for a while, which is mostly what I was thinking about when I re-tweeted this snide comment from Robert Lamb (though, to be fair, most of the people choking my Twitter feeds with Shuttle-related comments are space obsessives anyway, so it’s not that new). I got a little grief for that over in locked LiveJournal land, so I thought I might as well say a bit more about it here.

While there is some part of me that feels a little sad seeing the Shuttle program end– I remember staying home from school (multiple days) to watch the first Shuttle launch, and the Challenger disaster is one of those never-forget-where-I-was moments– on the whole, I’m not convinced that its end is a bad thing. The Shuttle was a ridiculous kludge from the start, and never accomplished much of anything. As Lawrence Krauss writes in the Guardian:

Either aboard the shuttle or the International Space Station, astronauts have explicitly demonstrated that what we learn from sending people into space is not much more than how people can survive in space. The lion’s share of costs associated with sending humans into space is devoted, as it should be, to making sure they survive the voyage. No other significant science has been learned by a generation’s worth of round trips in near-earth orbit.

More than that, I would say that we’ve learned that, contrary to what older generations of SF writers assumed for decades, being in space kind of sucks. Spending long amounts of time in microgravity does Bad Things to humans. There aren’t going to be orbiting retirement communities for the elderly to experience the rejuvenating effects of life without gravity (as lots of older SF stories have), because there aren’t any such effects. It might be fun to visit, but it’s not someplace you want to live permanently.

So, it’s really not clear to me why we’re supposed to be all broken up about losing the Shuttle. It was a giant cash sink, sucking up tons of money that would’ve been better spent on just about anything else.

If there were some concrete purpose to manned space flight, I might feel differently, but there really isn’t at the moment.

“But we need to be able to leave the planet!” And go… where? Life in microgravity sucks, and we are so far from being able to sustain colonies on other planets that it’s not even funny. And the Shuttle wasn’t providing any meaningful progress toward that goal– Karl Schroeder comes in for some mockery for his space-related guest post at Charlie Stross’s blog, and not without cause. But at least Karl thinks big– had the Shuttle been supporting that kind of research, I might’ve been more in favor of it. There’s still no pressing need for colonies on the Moon or Mars, but it’d be nice to have some real data about how they might work, if only as a reality check on whack jobs writing popular books about how easy it ought to be.

“There are vast untapped resources in the asteroid belt!” Yes, and we need them for what, exactly? If we had a foolproof scheme for reversing climate change that just needed a billion tons of nickel to make it work, I’d be as fired up about mining the belt as anybody else. But it’s not clear to me that there’s enough need for those resources to justify the expense of dragging all that stuff back here.

“We have a human drive to explore!” Yes, and it’s being filled admirably by robots at the moment. We have obtained infinitely more useful scientific data from the Mars rovers, Pioneer and Voyager, Cassini, Galileo, and all the rest than almost anything Shuttle-related. The possible exception is the Hubble Space Telescope, and I say “possible” because a telescope in space is not something that inherently requires manned space flight. As Krauss notes, it probably would’ve been cheaper to launch a replacement Hubble on an unmanned rocket than to maintain the Shuttle for the sake of fixing the one that’s up there.

(None of this, by the way, depends on NASA being a large inflexible government bureaucracy, so spare me the long lecture about the wonders of private space flight. The Shuttle was an unholy mess, and getting rid of it may improve the efficiency of launching things into orbit, but that doesn’t make the reasons for going there any more compelling. And getting there remains a hard problem– there’s a reason why “rocket science” is one of our metaphorical yardsticks for difficulty, after all.)

So, basically, we’re giving up the capability to do something that there’s no really compelling reason to do. Which I really can’t get all that worked up about. And that, in turn, makes me a little cranky about people suddenly getting all misty-eyed about a space program that they never much cared about when it was working. Hence yesterday’s retweet.

I’m not saying that higher tv ratings or more Internet downloads of Shuttle launch footage would’ve justified continuing the program, mind. But had more people been paying more attention to the program, that might’ve provided a mechanism to push things in a more useful direction. Instead, everybody was content to tune out and let NASA fritter away vast sums of money on nothing in particular. There hasn’t been any real point to the manned space program for a while now, but the general public retains a vague positive association with the idea, and act all surprised and sad when it suddenly stops. Had people been paying more attention all along, we might’ve gotten a more useful manned space program, or stopped it altogether a while back, and steered the money to more useful activities.

Really, in the end, the worst effects of this are second-hand. The loss to society in general from stopping the Shuttle is pretty well zero, and the direct loss to science is not a whole lot bigger. But the money that the Shuttle was sucking up isn’t going to come back to the parts of NASA that actually do good science, and there are lots of scientists and engineers whose jobs are going to go away with the end of the program. And that will be bad for science as a whole. But not for any reason related to space itself.

Comments

  1. #1 M
    July 22, 2011

    Chad, I’m going to call you out and call out all of those people that use the term microgravity to describe astronauts in orbit.
    The ISS averages 350 km above the Earth’s surface. Using the simple calculation of g = G*M/(R*R) where g is the gravitational acceleration that you feel, G is the universal gravitational constant, M is the mass of the Earth, and R is the radius of the Earth plus 350 km, we get that the ISS experiences g = 9.05 m/s/s on Earth you experience g = 9.8 m/s/s. The gravity that the astronauts experience is 92% of what it is on Earth.
    If there was a microgravity or zero gravity state at the distance of the ISS it would shoot into space.
    What sucks is free-fall and apparent weightlessness. Everything about our bodies says that you need to feel a weight on your body for it to function correctly.
    Simulate weight in space and things should be better. I don’t remember, but didn’t skylab try this experiment?

  2. #2 John Novak
    July 22, 2011

    So… how much nickel do we use a year, anyway?
    How much iron? How much titanium?

  3. #3 Chad Orzel
    July 22, 2011

    The ISS averages 350 km above the Earth’s surface. Using the simple calculation of g = G*M/(R*R) where g is the gravitational acceleration that you feel, G is the universal gravitational constant, M is the mass of the Earth, and R is the radius of the Earth plus 350 km, we get that the ISS experiences g = 9.05 m/s/s on Earth you experience g = 9.8 m/s/s. The gravity that the astronauts experience is 92% of what it is on Earth.

    But they are in free fall, and according the the equivalence principle, free fall in a gravitational field of whatever strength is absolutely indistinguishable from being in an inertial frame with no gravity. Hence, from the persepctive of anyone in orbit, “microgravity” is a perfectly legitimate description of their environment. And, in fact, a fairly standard way to describe it.

    Simulate weight in space and things should be better. I don’t remember, but didn’t skylab try this experiment?

    Skylab wasn’t all that big, so I doubt it. I don’t know for sure, though.

  4. #4 Chad Orzel
    July 22, 2011

    So… how much nickel do we use a year, anyway?

    A little Googling, because I knew somebody would ask, suggests worldwide nickel production on the order of a million tons per year, which is why I said “billion.” I haven’t heard anything to suggest that this production rate is provoking any kind of manufacturing crisis.

  5. #5 DaveD
    July 22, 2011

    A little Googling, because I knew somebody would ask, suggests worldwide nickel production on the order of a million tons per year, which is why I said “billion.” I haven’t heard anything to suggest that this production rate is provoking any kind of manufacturing crisis.

    It isn’t. Nickel prices are approximately where they were five years ago. They were at about double that level for a short time in 2007, but then collapsed to about half where they are now.

  6. #6 Anonymous Coward
    July 22, 2011

    Re: Yes, and it’s being filled admirably by robots at the moment.

    This.

  7. #7 Eric Lund
    July 22, 2011

    Simulate weight in space and things should be better.

    People have been suggesting that for years, mainly by having your spacecraft or L5 colony spin on its axis. We have been launching spinning (unmanned) satellites for a number of years (this is good for people who like to do in situ measurements of the plasma in space), so it can be done. But there are some engineering difficulties involved with spinning spacecraft. Some of these are solved problems; for instance, you can ensure that there are always solar panels pointing toward the sun by putting solar panels on all of your exterior surface that you don’t need for any other purpose. Other problems do not have a field-demonstrated solution yet, such as how to arrange docking with a spinning spacecraft (there have been concept proposals, but AFAIK none have actually been implemented and demonstrated success). This one is a showstopper for manned flight, which is why most manned vehicles are three-axis stabilized. So are certain science missions; e.g., if you need to keep the spacecraft pointed in a certain direction for any significant length of time (think Hubble Space Telescope), you will need to have some kind of three-axis stabilization.

  8. #8 John Novak
    July 23, 2011

    Call it a million and a half tons a year, more or less, for nickel. Couple hundred years worth of production, with modest growth rates– I think the notion of not needing to mine nickel for a few hundred years is kinda cool.

    Iron, though, is another matter, which conveniently you did not answer. Industry targets for iron in 2020 are, actually, a billion tons a year. And it’s not about avoiding an environmental bottleneck; it’s about maybe not clawing through two and a half billion tons of ore– and the attendant ecological damage it does– every year to provide it.

    But really, that’s just petty irritation at the Argument From Big Cherry-Picked Numbers.

    I’m not a particular fan of the Shuttle, either, nor a die-hard human-presence advocate, except where it makes sense.

    But I can’t tell from your article whether you’re cranky about the Shuttle because it’s too expensive; cranky about the Shuttle because it’s human-presence centered; cranky about private space flight because… it’s… why are you cranky about private space flight? And even if I did know exactly what it was you’re cranky about, I wouldn’t know much more than that– I sure wouldn’t know what you do think should be done in the future.

  9. #9 Chad Orzel
    July 23, 2011

    I have nothing against private space flight per se– if wealthy individuals think there’s money to be made in it, or are just willing to spend their own money on it for gosh-wow value, that’s great. More power to them.

    I’m annoyed about overenthusiastic private space flight fanboys, who act as if recapitulating the Mercury program (not even, really) is a grand advance, or that the mere fact of being private grants them magical powers. It doesn’t. The laws of physics don’t give a damn about where you get your money from.

    What I think should be done in the future is for NASA to get out of the human space flight business, which is largely pointless, and spend its limited resources on things that work. If we’re only going to spend a tiny fraction of the Federal budget on doing stuff in space, it should go to robotic exploration missions and space telescopes, not dinking around with a space station that produces nothing of value.

    In an ideal world, even the money wasted on the Shuttle is chump change compared to the Federal budget, but we don’t live in that world. As long as we’re stuck giving inadequate funding to science, we should direct that money to places where it can do some good, and human space flight is not one of those.

  10. #10 John Novak
    July 23, 2011

    My basic notion would be to get NASA out of the launch business (as long as another launch provider actually exists) and let them focus on doing actual science. Despite the glorious past of the Apollo project and so forth, they’re not all that great at the former. They are pretty damn good at the latter.

    And I sure wish you could point to someone claiming that private industry obeys different laws of physics than government industry. Maybe I just read better sources than you do, because I just don’t encounter that idea except in the form of particularly combustible straw men.

    What I can say, based on direct experience and observation, is that private industry has a different incentive structure than government industry. NASA, as directed by Congress, is really not about efficiency or product improvement. It’s about capturing jobs in particular voting districts– you can see this, because the allegedly efficiency-driven market-oriented Republicans make sharp pivot turns when NASA jobs in their districts are threatened.

    This is not uniquely American, or uniquely aerospace, but my experience is all aerospace, so that’s where my examples come from. NASA is an obvious one. Airbus is another where, again, certain amounts of economic activity in certain nations is just as important as the economics of the finished product itself; until recently, that was an advantage Boeing enjoyed over Airbus. The big American defense companies aren’t immune to it, either, because their defense products are highly regulated by government.

    Private space industry won’t be completely immune, either– that much money (some of it defense related) will invariably attract government entanglement. But it will at least bolt an actual profit motive on top of the entanglement. Having several simultaneous private launch companies would be even better.

    So it makes perfect sense to me to let NASA keep doing the stuff it’s good at, which is already the stuff that has no serious profit motive– pure science. On the other hand, the launch services, which are recurring costs not only for NASA but for price-sensitive “real work” (recon, weather sats, agricultural/environment sats, communication sats, and any other other markets that open up with lower launch costs) are a natural fit for entities that respond to price signals.

  11. #11 CCPhysicist
    July 23, 2011

    I’m old enough to know that NASA grew out of NACA, so it is kind of strange to think of an aeronautical research organization that is no longer interested in what it takes to make it easier for humans to fly — in or out of an atmosphere. Ditto for JPL. It seems that others are now doing basic and applied research into improved jet propulsion. I’d like to see NASA go back into creative R&D and have operations passed on to the commercial “partners” that are already doing most of the unmanned launches.

    The shuttle was an incredible engineering accomplishment, but that turned out to be its fundamental flaw. Being so close to the cutting edge meant that it was incredibly expensive to carry out man-safe missions. This was complicated by the fact that much of what it put in orbit was not people.

    Separating heavy lift of a replacement module from the launching the people who would install it makes much more sense. However, the sort of robotic docking that is almost routine today was but a gleam in 1970. The real problem was that the NASA design cycle was (and is) so slow that the system was almost obsolete by the time it flew.

    Side note: One ancient innovation, the NACA duct, is still in use. One of the new non-NASA space vehicle designs goes way back to NASA lifting body research and the USAF DynaSoar space vehicle, while all of the others look like what NASA came up with for the Apollo CM.

  12. #12 Crissa
    July 31, 2011

    Human presence in space has something no robot can do: Near instant reprogramming or diagnostic of any experiment. A robot has to be built to do things, and if those things don’t work, generally you have to wait until the next robot gets there.

    We wouldn’t even had landed on the moon had we not send flight-train astronauts who were able to land the spacecraft safely. A single astronaut on the ISS can run hundreds of experiments daily of dozens of kinds without having to launch and relaunch equipment as results come back or need to be refined.

    Robots are great for big, tiny measures, or for looking at things. But when it comes to running many experiments or adapting to changing input, nothing beats human presence.

  13. #13 darius
    August 1, 2011

    But the money that the Shuttle was sucking up isn’t going to come back to the parts of NASA that actually do good science, and there are lots of scientists and engineers whose jobs are going to go away with the end of the program. And that will be bad for science as a whole.
    You should have put this at the beginning. this is the real reason people should be sad. 3000 engineers just lost their job down there in Florida. If NASA wants to downsize and redefine its mission, it has to be done judiciously and in a planned way, not by shutting down this and shutting down that. I’m afraid we see more and more evidence that a democractic admin, is acting as if it is a republican one. They are going to spend the same if not more money to send people into space, only they will give to private contractors with unproven technology, and insufficient expertease. Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with NASA and have no personal stakes in this matter.

  14. #14 Paul
    August 10, 2011

    Manganese nodules contain > 5 billion tons of nickel, so no asteroid mining would be required.