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  • The Manned Space Program

    Posted by Michael Hiteshew on January 4th, 2006 (All posts by )

    Cargo Launch Vehicle with Lunar Lander

    Before the end of the next decade, NASA astronauts will again explore the surface of the moon. And this time, we’re going to stay, building outposts and paving the way for eventual journeys to Mars and beyond.

    So opens the article How We’ll Get Back to the Moon on NASA’s website in their Vision for Space Exploration. Brave words. While I’ve no doubt they’re capable of doing it, I do have serious doubts whether we’ll see this program fully funded.

    Why, you may ask, are we even going back to the Moon? Didn’t we already do that in 1969? Is there anything really left there to explore? Here’s NASA’s chief historian, Steven J. Dick, answer to Why We Explore:

    In October 1995 – ten years ago this month – two Swiss astronomers announced the discovery of the first planet around a Sun-like star outside of our solar system. A few weeks later the American team of Geoff Marcy and Paul Butler confirmed the discovery, and a few months after that they added two more “extrasolar planets.” These landmark events were only the beginning of a deluge of new planets. Some 155 are now known in addition to the 9 in our own solar system. Hardly a week goes by without the discovery of more. In a way, each discoverer is a new Columbus, unveiling a new planet rather than a new continent. Although these planets are gas giants, Earth-sized planets are not far behind. A thousand years from now our descendants may explore them in person.


    At some point humans will learn to function efficiently in environments outside of Earth. Those that do will prosper, just as the British prospered from their Age of Exploration; just as Americans prospered from the explorations of Lewis and Clarke. Those that don’t will be left behind. Look at the societies that missed the Industrial Revolution. Many are still now trying to recover, stuck in a no-man’s land between the Middle Ages and modernity. The Information Revolution has already transformed the United States and much of the West (Tom Barnett’s “Core”) and again we see societies across the globe struggling to catch up. Space exploration is investment, it’s research and development on our future. If we succeed, the payoff will be staggering.

    Lander and Return Vehicle in Lunar Orbit

    What about the risks? Isn’t manned spaceflight dangerous? Wouldn’t we be better off sending robotic probes like the Mars Rover or Cassini? Mr. Dick discusses this very question in his essay Risk and Exploration. It was the subject of a meeting he chaired, whose participants were all explorers of one sort or another. Here’s what they said:

    Numerous participants pointed to the risks of everyday life. Some of the explorers of earth, sea and space pointed out that the most dangerous thing they ever do is get in a car and go at a moderate rate of speed facing oncoming traffic separated only by a painted line. Why, some wondered, do we accept thousands of deaths on the roads annually, and then call for an end to the human space program when several dozen astronauts die over a period of 40 years?

    Some participants worried that we are becoming too risk-averse: NASA as an institution and the United States as a society. Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell recalled the race to the Moon. While the Soviets hesitated, and less than two years after the fatal fire in which three astronauts were killed in their Apollo capsule while still on the ground, in 1968 the bold decision was made to send Apollo 8 around the Moon for the first time. “So here was a case where we analyzed the risk and we thought that the reward the achievement and the ability to continue the Apollo program for landing was well worth it.” Seven months later we landed on the Moon. Was that risk any less than the risks we take today with the Space Shuttle, or contemplate on the way to Mars?

    Some participants remarked that if we wanted to avoid risk we could all just sit in Barcaloungers and watch TV. Is that the culture we want?

    How about cost? Many of the critics of the space program ask, “Isn’t this a waste of money? Wouldn’t that money be better spent right here on Earth? What about the homeless?”

    Last I looked, the entire NASA budget amounts to 1% of federal (non social security) spending. That’s one penny for each dollar spent. Social spending accounts for about 65%. So we’ve got a 65 to 1 ratio of social spending to research spending. Enough said.

    Engineering Concept of the Two Launch Vehicles

    From a technical viewpoint, the return to the moon concept being proposed looks remarkably like Apollo (Flash Player animation). The big differences seem to be: (1) instead of using a mega size Saturn V booster to lift the whole shebang at once, the crew and cargo will be launched separately and will dock up in space for the trip to the Moon. (2) the capsule will have three times the volume and will parachute onto dry land. They will also use modern space shuttle main engines, the shuttle hydrogen tank, and modern dry propellant boosters.

    Links:

    Multimedia
    NASA’s Exploration Homepage
    Facts about NASA’s Exploration Architecture and New Spaceship

    Lunar Base (Artist’s Concept)

     

    8 Responses to “The Manned Space Program”

    1. mark Says:

      Whilst I do not doubt the merit of exploration, I am not convinced NASA, or any governmental agency, are the best people to do it.

      The Agency has a stifling effect on the space industry. Rutan said he kept Spaceship One a secret because he was worried NASA would poach all his staff to get the technology, whcich would then be lost in the giant bureuacracy.

      Besides there are other worthy frontiers (both physical and technological)to be explored on earth. Frontiers that are less sexy, and thus attract government spending, are no less worthy and do not deserved to be crowded out.

    2. Ken Says:

      “Besides there are other worthy frontiers (both physical and technological)to be explored on earth. Frontiers that are less sexy, and thus attract government spending, are no less worthy and do not deserved to be crowded out.”

      But lots of scientific and technological frontiers will be crowded out or suppressed as long as all of humanity is crammed together on this vulnerable little rock ball.

      There’s huge support for limiting our use of fossil-fuel energy, for instance, for fear that it will cause climate change on Earth and harm everyone. There’s nearly unanimous support for strictly forbidding the use of nuclear power for nearly everyone for fear that it can be used to kill thousands or millions at once. People will not be trusted with more powerful tools until they get further away from each other and more able to survive without fragile centralized infrastructure.

      Of course they get that way with the help of… more powerful toos of the kind that they’re not supposed to play with. I think that dispersion and hardiness of individuals will increase faster than their use of the tools for mischief, so a much more “laissez-faire” stance with respect to “dangerous” technology is called for. But I’m nearly alone in this.

      Anyway, getting human populations permanently in space is a good way out of this dilemma, at least for the ones that leave…

    3. Phil Fraering Says:

      I doubt there’s anything “modern” whatsoever about the SRB’s in use on the first stage of the vehicles; they’re mostly unchanged since the post-Challenger design. The reason they’re going with them appears to be slightly political and slightly technical: we haven’t designed a new-build hydrocarbon engine in this country for thirty years or so (except for SpaceX, whose vehicles have yet to launch but are on the pad now…)

      Anyway, you can find fairly decent critical analyses of these vehicles at a lot of the usual suspects’ weblogs, like Rand Simberg’s Transterrestrial Musings or Jon Goff’s Selenian Boondocks. I wish I could point out individual posts, but they’ve both been discussing it at length, along with alternative architectures, for the past several months.

    4. Phil Fraering Says:

      And one of the items they’re discussing currently is this piece at The Space Review by Grant Bonin.

    5. Michael Hiteshew Says:

      Frontiers that are less sexy, and thus attract government spending, are no less worthy and do not deserved to be crowded out.

      Mark, you imply we can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. At 1% of federal spending, the entire NASA budget is hardly crowding out anything. The entire manned space program is just a fraction of that 1%.

      I doubt there’s anything “modern” whatsoever about the SRB’s in use on the first stage of the vehicles

      Phil, I was using “modern” to contrast the all liquid fuel systems of the Apollo program.

      The reason they’re going with them appears to be slightly political and slightly technical: we haven’t designed a new-build hydrocarbon engine in this country for thirty years or so

      That’s a rather naive statement. Lots of propulsion technologies are tested on a continuous basis at NASA’s various research centers. All of them have various drawbacks, from cost to endurance to reliability.

      The engines being proposed, the shuttle main engines (SME’s), were chosen for several reasons:
      A) First and foremost, reliability. In manned spaceflight, safety and reliability trumps virtually everything. Electrical and mechanical components and systems are analyzed, tested and finally rated for reliabilty (or failure rate). Qualified for manned space flight is the highest rating awarded. During the stand-down after the Challenger accident, the entire shuttle propulsion and flight system was analyzed and lists of recommnded upgrades and improvements were generated, despite the solid rocket boosters (SRB’s) alone being the ultimate cause of the failure. All the SME’s were overhauled, including a redesign and manufacture of new hydrogen fuel pumps, the single most stressed component in the SME. Those pumps empty the equivalent of an entire olympic swimming pool of fuel each minute. The SME is a powerful, highly evolved, reliable engine and is now a fully mature machine. That’s important when it’s propelling your expensive equipment and highly trained astronauts. RocketDyne should get an award for those engines. They’re magnificent pieces of machinery.
      B) NASA has been happy with their hydrogen fueled vehicles. The fuel is relatively easy to manufacture and store and is environmentally benign since leaks are nonposionous and it’s post oxidation exhaust gas is water vapor (H2O). It is explosive if it leaks, but hey, it’s a fuel. :D

    6. Bruce Chang Says:

      I don’t see that there’s a great problem with keeping NASA around, but I do think that they need to better justify their budget. I realize that it’s a little more difficult for them, as their projects tend to be longer term, and I’m willing to cut them some slack.

      But I also think that the private sector has an enormous bit to contribute. Let’s recall the voyage of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, shall we? Here were Ferdinand and Isabella, fresh off their victory over the Moriscos, and wary of the Arab and Turkish stranglehold on trade with the Orient. Along comes Cristobal Colon, Genoese guy with a crazy plan and “interesting” maps. You outfit three dinky ships, tell him to pick his crew, and send him on his way. A year later he comes back telling you that he might just have found that westward route to the Indies. He’s wrong, but look what he’s found!

      So, why not? Maybe the US government could stand to sell off a few excess boosters, and maybe even offer prizes such as the X Prize. It seemed to help Charles Lindbergh. Who’s to say that Rutan and crew won’t be next?

      It’s either that or wait for a nucler holocaust and Zephram Cochrane!

    7. tom Says:

      I have often wondered why the rockets on unused ICBMs are not strapped together and used as large boost engines…

    8. Phil Fraering Says:

      B) NASA has been happy with their hydrogen fueled vehicles. The fuel is relatively easy to manufacture and store and is environmentally benign since leaks are nonposionous and it’s post oxidation exhaust gas is water vapor (H2O). It is explosive if it leaks, but hey, it’s a fuel. :D

      Well, it shouldn’t count as relatively easy to store if the last shuttle was lost because of problems with the insulation needed by the cryogenic fuels.

      Yes, the problems with hydrogen can be dealt with, but it may not be the end-all and be-all of rocket fuels, especially if there are easier ones to use in an operational context. Compare the average shuttle launch to the launch of a Zenit Sea Launch vehicle, which is done with a lot less infrastructure and manpower.

      And just because NASA abandoned all-liquid-fueled engines for solids doesn’t make the solids objectively “more modern” or “more advanced.” Not than the engines they replaced, and not compared to the countries that kept working on kerosene-fueled engines.