I’ll trade a Puffin for my as-yet undelivered jetpack, thanks

Paul Raven @ 14-04-2010

Personal electric aircraft? Yes please!

NASA Puffin personal air vehicle concept

Nice to see NASA aren’t just resting their feet on the desks at the moment, though whether the Puffin concept would ever make it out of R&D (let alone strike anyone as useful or necessary at a consumer level) is a question probably best left unasked. As charming as it is, I look at that thing and think “oooh, Sinclair C5!” Though maybe some of the world’s crankier and/or more show-offy military forces would invest in them just for their wow factor.

I know I could never afford one, but even so: the avarice, it burns…


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?


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.


Karl Schroeder: one-way tickets to Mars are a cost issue, not a risk issue

Paul Raven @ 22-09-2009

exploding rocketWe’ve mentioned the one-way option for Mars missions here a few times recently, the latest being in response to the Krauss op-ed in the New York Times. Earning himself his second Futurismic mention in as many days, Karl Schroeder tears down the “poisonous meme” that claims the journey to Mars is too dangerous – the reality is that it’s too expensive.

The objections all sound reasonable:  too much radiation!  Too far away!  Zero gravity is too debilitating!  Too expensive!

All of these objections are true, while at the same time they’re all wildly wrong, and largely for the same reasons.  In fact they’re all true only if getting from Earth to orbit remains as expensive as it is now.

Consider the seemingly insurmountable problem of radiation that Krauss complains of in his piece.  What’s the solution to radiation?  Shielding.  Is shielding a spacecraft impossible, or even difficult?  No, actually it’s easy.  Two meters of water around the crew cabin are enough to solve the problem of radiation in the inner solar system.  The problem is not the shielding; it’s the cost of shipping the water up to orbit that is the problem.

Ditto for, oh, let’s say zero gravity.  No astronaut should ever have to put up with zero gravity for more than a day or two at a time; the simple solution to the debilitating effects of freefall is to spin the spacecraft.  To do it in a manner comfortable to to the astronauts, you need a long boom arm, which might be heavy and awkward to lift from Earth.  The point is, the solution is easy.

Too far away?  If a space voyage is going to take months or years, there are two simple solutions:  send the ship faster, by using more propellant; or bring along more supplies.  Both of these solutions are primarily constrained by the cost of bringing stuff up from Earth.

That cost is, of course, the cost of old-school 1960s vintage chemical rocketry – $10,000 for every kilogram of stuff you want to get into orbit. Schroeder lists a number of alternatives, some of which you’ll have read about here or elsewhere: magnetic accelerators, laser propulsion launchers and so on… all with much lower to-orbit costs, all within the reach of NASA budgets – if they abandoned rocketry.

The question stands, though: given that NASA is well aware of its own budgetary problems, why is it clinging to such dated and inefficient methods? Is it for the prestige, the showiness, the rocket’s red glare? (You have to admit, a Space Shuttle launch is pretty impressive to watch… when it works.) [image by jurvetson]

But back to Schroeder:

Space is only a costly and dangerous destination if you insist on using 1960s technology to reach it.  Once NASA–or more likely the private sector–finally abandons that route, what was impossible will become easy.  —I only fear that the meme of space’s inaccessibility will prevent us from ever building the launch infrastructure that will prove it wrong; at this point, the meme looks like it’s turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That would be a sad thing – to turn our backs on space, not because it was genuinely impossible, but because we’d allowed ourselves to be convinced that it was.


Space is the place

Paul Raven @ 15-07-2009

CGI rendering of the International Space Station Thanks to the anniversary of the Apollo Moon landings, everyone’s talking about space at the moment – and it’s still as contentious and passionate a subject as ever. [image by FlyingSinger]

Charlie Stross looks back at the Moon landings and decides that despite the huge advances in technology since the 60s, NASA’s proposed Constellation Moon landing program is unlikely to come off:

Today we lack a vital resource that both Wernher von Braun and Sergei Korolev took for granted: thousands of engineers with the experience of designing, building, and launching new types of rocket in a matter of years or even months. We used to have them, but some time in the past 40 years they all retired. We’ve got the institutions and the data and the better technology, but we don’t have the experience those early pioneers had. And I’m betting that the process of rebuilding all that institutional competence is going to run over budget. While NASA’s Constellation program might work, and while it could deliver far more valuable lunar science than Apollo ever did, it will inevitably cost much more than NASA’s official estimates suggest, because it’s too big a project for today’s NASA — NASA, and indeed the entire space industrial sector in the USA, would have to grow, structurally, to make it work.

Elsewhere, Paul McAuley laments the ‘disposable space truck’ model of space flight, saying it’s:

like building an ocean liner to cross the Atlantic and setting fire to it when you reach New York.

Meanwhile, SpaceX have just completed their first commercial satellite launch, successfully putting a Malaysian Earth-imaging sat into orbit.

SpaceX landed a NASA contract for hauling cargo up to the ISS some time ago, but it looks like they won’t be able to rely on that as a long-term entry on the balance sheet, as Bruce Sterling points to an article in the Washington Post wherein NASA’s space program manager announces the controversial plan to de-orbit (and hence destroy) the International Space Station when the budget runs out in 2016:

Suffredini raised some eyebrows when, at a public hearing last month, he declared flatly that the plan is to de-orbit the station in 2016. He addressed his comments to a panel chaired by former aerospace executive Norman Augustine that is charged by the Obama administration with reviewing the entire human spaceflight program. Everything is on the table — missions, goals, rocket design. And right there in the mix is this big, fancy space laboratory circling the Earth from 220 miles up.

The cost of the station is both a liability and, paradoxically, a virtue. A figure commonly associated with the ISS is that it will ultimately cost the United States and its international partners about $100 billion. That may add to the political pressure to keep the space laboratory intact and in orbit rather than seeing it plunging back to Earth so soon after completion.

Apparently physicist and vocal space critic Robert Park suggests palming off the money-eating white elephant on the Chinese instead. I’d have thought auctioning it off to the highest bidder would have made more sense, and I’m pretty sure there’s be some interested parties – China included, but plenty of non-state parties also.

And finally, via Warren Ellis comes something for flicking your geek switches – HFradio.org can supply you with space weather updates via Twitter. As Ellis remarks, “it’s like the Shipping Forecast for space”… now all we need is a way to convert it to an audio stream. Anyone got a zero-g Nabaztag?


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