Who’ll be next on the Moon now NASA’s doing other stuff?

Paul Raven @ 03-02-2010

The MoonWell, the new NASA budget from Obama and chums has certainly got people talking… mostly about the fact that the dream of returning astronauts to the Moon is off the table for the foreseeable future [image by ComputerHotline]. Wired has snippets from the budget summary:

“NASA’s Constellation program — based largely on existing technologies — was begun to realize a vision of returning astronauts back to the Moon by 2020. However, the program was over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation due to a failure to invest in critical new technologies,” the budget summary concluded. “Using a broad range of criteria, an independent review panel determined that even if fully funded, NASA’s program to repeat many of the achievements of the Apollo era, 50 years later, was the least attractive approach to space exploration as compared to potential alternatives.”

However, it’s not a massive close-down operation: NASA’s budget has actually been increased, but earmarked for more practical and pragmatic science research, “sustainable exploration”… and keeping some older projects on the books:

Part of that commitment will involve a reprieve for the International Space Station. Instead of being deorbited in the middle of this decade, the ISS will be treated like a national laboratory, and used to pursue research on materials and long-term human habitation in space through at least 2020, with additional construction, including new infrastructure, planned beyond the end of the shuttle program. The budget also includes money for an extension of the shuttle through 2011, which will allow for the inevitable launch delays in its remaining five missions.

io9‘s Annalee Newitz points out that the prospects of the new budget are actually good for pro-exploration types, because it’s a realistic budget that eschews symbolic white-elephant achievements and glory-recapturing in favour of doing affordable things that will teach us lots of useful new stuff. She worries, however, about the fates of those whose expertise will be surplus to requirements now the Constellation project has been shelved:

One of the issues that concerns me the most is what will happen to all the talented NASA employees who have been working on Constellation and related projects. If NASA’s plan is to outsource the development of space vehicles that can carry human cargo, then thousands of jobs will evaporate. Florida alone anticipates losing 7,000 jobs when the Space Shuttle program ends next year. Earlier today Obama told reporters, “We expect to support as many if not more jobs with the 2011 budget,” but those will not be the same jobs. My hope is that some of this budget money that’s been allocated for private sector companies can also be used to place NASA engineers into private sector aerospace jobs. We need to encourage knowledge transfer from NASA to private industry. That way, aerospace companies won’t have to start from square one as they push humans into orbit.

Paging Ben Bova… Sam Gunn‘s time has come, perhaps. After all, there’s nothing to stop private enterprise achieving a Heinleinian dream and setting up a kind of frontier town based on Helium-3 mining and fast-and-loose land claims… well, nothing apart from the same practical difficulties and vast expense that have kept NASA away for the last four decades or so, anyway. But those difficulties don’t seem to be deterring the people behind the Open Luna Foundation [via MetaFilter], which…

… aims to return mankind to the moon through private enterprise. Initial goals focus on a stepped program of robotic missions coupled with extensive public relations and outreach. Following these purely robotic missions, a short series of manned missions will construct a small, approximately 6 person settlement based on a location scouted by the robotic missions. This settlement will be open for anyone’s use (private individuals to government agencies), provided they respect our ethical conduct and heritage policies.

You’ve got to admire the chutzpah, if nothing else… but I think I’ll hold off investing any money in that operation for a little while yet. But it begs the question: if NASA’s putting the Moon on a back burner, who’s going to make it there next? Private enterprise libertarians like Open Luna? China, India, Brazil? Anyone?

This monkey’s gone to heaven

Paul Raven @ 31-12-2009

monkey cosmonaut in training?I had to agree with Jay Lake when he Tweeted that Any article with the line “Any monkeys sent into space will be supervised by robots.” is totally FTW’. [image by kiewic]

And here is that article… which is actually just a short post on the Freakonomics blog pointing to a longer piece at the Telegraph, which describes Russian plans to simulate a Mars mission using simian cosmonauts:

The Institute is in preliminary talks with Russia’s Cosmonautics Academy about preparing monkeys for a simulated Mars mission that could lay the groundwork for sending an ape to the Red Planet, he said.

Such an initiative would build on Mars-500, a joint Russian-European project that saw six human volunteers confined in a capsule in Moscow for 120 days earlier this year to simulate a Mars mission.

Mr Mikvabia said: “Earlier this programme was aimed at sending cosmonauts, people (to Mars).

“But given the length of the flight to Mars, and given the cosmic rays for which we don’t have adequate protection over such a long trip, discussions have focused recently on sending an ape instead of a person.”


If Russia pursues the idea of sending monkeys to Mars, Mikvabia’s institute could become the site of an enclosed “biosphere” where apes would be kept for long periods to simulate space flights.

The Institute said a robot would accompany the first primate to Mars to feed and look after the ape.

Monkeys en route to Mars with their robot overseers? There’s a whole raft of story ideas right there…

Karl Schroeder deflates further Mars FUD

Paul Raven @ 02-11-2009

After dismantling the suggestion that a Mars mission is too inherently dangerous for humans to undertake, Karl Schroeder has a new targetScience Daily announces a paper that claims that we can’t go to Mars because the spacecraft will fill up with nasty bacteria and make everyone sick [via SlashDot]:

Frippiat and colleagues based their conclusions on studies showing that immune systems of both people and animals in space flight conditions are significantly weaker than their grounded counterparts. They also reviewed studies that examined the effects of space flight conditions and altered gravity on virulence and growth of common pathogens such as Salmonella, E. coli and Staphylococcus. These studies show that these bacteria reproduce more rapidly in space flight conditions, leading to increased risk of contamination, colonization and serious infection.

The basic facts there are quite true, but they’re being deployed alongside some invidious assumptions, as Schroeder points out:

This doesn’t mean that space flight is intrinsically dangerous.  It means that badly shielded tin-can environments that aren’t spun for gravity are a bad idea.  And that is quite a different conclusion.

Prolonged exposure to zero gravity weakens the immune system, so don’t expose astronauts to prolonged zero gravity.  Invest in some research into how to spin the spacecraft.  Then spin the spacecraft.

Secondly, shield the damn things.  The only reason why radiation is considered an issue is because it’s expensive to transport heavy shielding into orbit. One solution would be to use lunar water; simply put bags of the stuff around the ship.  That makes it heavier and hence requires more fuel… but now the problem can be seen for what it is, a simple problem of launch costs.

Spaceflight is not bad for our health.  Cut-rate spaceflight that avoids the obvious solutions is.

Those obvious solutions are, of course, a function of the launch cost issue – there’s a solution for pretty much everything if you can just get the necessary hardware up into orbit, but that’s not an option while we’re constrained by the limitations of rocketry.

I suspect that we’ll get there eventually, provided we survive our short- to medium-term future. After all, sailing ships were almost impossible to keep disease-free at first, until some smart minds got focussed on fixing the problems – and the motives for those fixes were profit and colonial expansion, which are likely to be exactly the same factors that propel us out of the gravity well. Perhaps the commercial space operators will break out of the rocketry box, given the chance.

Worlds enough, and time: NASA commitee says Mars too costly, asteroids more plausible

Paul Raven @ 26-10-2009

MarsEven someone who struggles as badly with their personal finances as myself would be hard pressed not to realise that NASA finds it hard to balance its lofty ambitions with the number of greenbacks in the jar on the mantelpiece. Now the Agency’s recently-appointed committee is saying the same thing in plain language: the money for a Mars mission just isn’t there, but more realistic goals like jaunts to asteroids and the Lagrange points can and should be followed up.[image by jasonb42882]

Now, I’d like to see manned Mars missions happen in my lifetime (as I’ve made plain here a number of times), but I’d rather that the planet’s biggest player in the space game got the maximum bang for its diminishing buck. As things stand now, everyone else follows where NASA leads, and while that won’t be the case for ever (or even for long, if you want to be a pessimistic realist about it), and I’d rather see them pushing the envelope steadily than trying to blast heroically through it. Watch the private space companies, as Brenda suggested the other day; those incremental baby steps soon start adding up.

And after all, there’s plenty of interesting stuff to do that doesn’t require a jag all the way to Mars. As the committee’s report points out, asteroids are easier to get to, and there’s still plenty they can teach us. Plus there are resources to be had; maybe NASA could balance the books a bit by slinging some or all of an asteroid back to Earth? A big lump of ice and minerals in close proximity to the home planet is the sort of thing a lot of the smaller fry would pay for a piece of, and it would be a handy thing to have in inventory for your own future works at the top of the gravity well (and beyond). And then there’s the the Lagrange points… depending on your focus, you could either do some good science out there, or get all Ben Bova on our asses with hotels and heavy industry.

Thinking pragmatically, the committee are right: Mars can wait, not just for NASA but for everyone. We should go, yeah, but we should go when we’re ready and able. As this rather charming infographic at BoingBoing shows, our success rate has been improving ever since we started trying to reach the Red Planet… but by trying to punch above our current weight, maybe we’re missing out on flooring some more manageable targets closer to home.

Friday fly-over: Mars’ Gusev Crater

Paul Raven @ 25-09-2009

Right, it’s Friday – so have some Martian landscape porn. A guy called Doug Ellison put this together to celebrate the Spirit rover’s third birthday… counting in Martian years, natch.

Pretty impressive, given it’s made purely from data collected by the Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter and Spirit itselfas Paul McAuley says, it’ll not be long before there are versions that’ll allow you to explore the Red Planet at will, and Google Mars is getting pretty close.

And on the subject of Mars, there’s been more sightings of water ice, though it’s been somewhat overshadowed by the discovery of water on our nearer neighbour the Moon. Isn’t it high time we got to work on reducing price-to-orbit and actually going to these places in person?

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