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Back to the Moon?

I was thinking I ought to be looking for something creative to say here — blogging gets old, after the first eight years — when a bright young thing at $PUBLISHING_COMPANY emailed me to say: "on the 20th, it's going to be the 40th anniversary of moon landing day, wanna blog about where you were and what it means to you on our corporate soapbox?"

To which I said "sure, but I was only four years old at the time ..."

I hope to live long enough to be four years old that way all over again, some day.

Why didn't Apollo stick?

Well, for one thing, it was a stunt.

Wernher von Braun and his colleagues didn't see it as a stunt, of course. They saw it as a stepping-stone, a valuable intermediate step in establishing a metaphorical beachhead in space. And rightly so (given the state of knowledge of how biological organisms handle zero gravity and high radiation environments at that time).

Unfortunately, the real goal of the rocketry pioneers called for something a bit bigger than an ICBM. Funding their requirements ... not easy. The price of a launch to orbit scales roughly in proportion to the cube of the payload. A modern, miniaturized H-bomb weighs about 200-400Kg (more for the really big stuff, but they're not terribly effective militarily). An ICBM that can lob 3 warheads around the world is actually only lifting about one ton of payload, and it doesn't even reach orbital velocity: it's around the bottom end of a viable space launcher. Von Braun and his Soviet counterparts like Sergein Korolyov knew this well. Korolyov had the relative luxury of the USSR's plutonium shortage and lack of proficiency in guidance technology to help him justify building big rockets: these factors forced the Soviet ballistic missile forces to use single multi-megaton H-bombs (weighing several tons), which in turn needed a 300 ton monster like the R-7 Semyorka to achieve their military goals. The R-7 was big enough to throw a small satellite into orbit without upgrades; with incremental improvements, it has continued to evolve (long after its military obsolescence) into the R-7 family of space launchers, one of the safest and most reliable multi-stage liquid fuel rockets ever.

But the United States had much better guidance technology, and more plutonium (and could therefore use numerous small, efficient, accurately-targeted warheads to do the job for which the Soviets had to rely on a few cumbersome city-busters). While the early US ICBMs were reconfigurable as space launchers, the really big job of going to the moon required something new — the Saturn series of boosters. And the Saturn V configurations that eventually flew to the moon and launched Skylab were far from the largest variants planned.

Let me put it this way: the goal of going to the moon by 1970 forced design compromises on NASA. The objective of putting a man on the moon and bringing him back would be achieved using the lightest lunar lander conceivable — one so flimsily built that, on one occasion, an engineer working in the cabin of one of the LEMs dropped a screwdriver point-down and it punched right through the spacecraft's skin. The LEM weighed under 15 tons, fully fuelled; the ascent stage, in which the crew were to live until they returned to dock with the command module, weighed barely 2000 kilograms (plus crew and 2350Kg of fuel).

Not only does the cost of putting a payload into orbit increase with the cube of the payload weight — this rule holds true in the opposite direction, too. Stick a LEM on the moon and bring the contents back? Easy. Increase the mass that the LEM brings back? Very expensive — the price goes up as the sixth power of the weight you're returning from the lunar surface (because you have to loft the heavier LEM into Earth orbit to begin with).

Think about it. The real mission wasn't to go to the moon; it was to bring two astronauts and 100Kg of moon rocks back from the lunar surface and into lunar orbit (to rendezvous with the CSM stack for the journey home) — and it took a 3000 ton behemoth to accomplish this. Launching a bigger, more useful LEM (one that could carry 3 or 4 astronauts to the lunar surface, along with a decent-sized rover and supplies for a couple of weeks) would have added tonnes to the LEM payload ... and hundreds, if not thousands of tons to the launch stack. With cost scaling as the cube of the vehicle mass, you don't need to be an accountant to realize that the US government, stuck fighting a war in South East Asia, wasn't going to give NASA the money to build in even one kilogram more of payload than was strictly necessary. Indeed, the mushrooming weight of the LEM (it gained about 15-20% during development) threatened to jeopardize the whole mission profile — except that the Saturn V performance exceeded expectations. The per-launch cost of even a minimal Apollo moon shot was $431M, in 1967 dollars — call that $5-10Bn today.

So: the original Apollo moon shots couldn't have easily scaled up to achieve more — not without throwing a lot more money at the program in 1968-70, at a point when NASA was already consuming 0.5% of US GDP. For comparison, NASA's budget in FY 2008 was $17.3Bn; if NASA was funded at 1967 levels today, its budget would be closer to $75Bn.

Is NASA capable of going back to the moon?

I want to believe. But ...

First the argument in favour. The Soviet manned lunar program (cancelled in 1969) were running on less than a tenth of NASA's budget; they nevertheless got four flights into the test program for the N1 before it was cancelled, and may have been on the edge of solving its engine problems. Today, with better simulation and modelling techniques, new materials science, and much better electronics — not to mention 30 years more experience in space exploration — we ought to be able to design and build better (and importantly, cheaper) spacecraft.

Moreover, on the basis of the current estimates, a lunar round trip in Orion/Altair will represent a huge bargain compared to Apollo — delivering 60% of the lunar astronaut surface duration of the entire Apollo program, for a tenth to a fifth the price of a single 1960s moon shot. Even if it undergoes a 100% cost overrun, it'd be cheap compared to Apollo.

But there are problems. 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.

Constellation won't survive a 100% cost overrun — or even a 25% one. Instead, it will almost certainly be cancelled. The fiscal realities of the second decade of the 21st century are horrendously worse than those of the sixth decade of the 20th. The sixties were a boom decade; a better comparison would be the stagflation era of the seventies (never mind the Great Depression). The Shuttle program survived the 1970s but only just — its budget scraped through by a single senate vote at one point. And the Shuttle's specifications were mutilated by the political need for it to support an Air Force mission (one that it never flew, but which nevertheless ultimately doomed the Columbia). Project Constellation has no such USAF mission to cling on to for dear life when the budget axe is swinging.

And so I very much fear that I'm going to have to stay fit and aim to live for a very long time if I want to feel four years old all over again.



I suspect you're too pessimistic about the economy. What we're currently going through is the final blow-off before a long boom, powered by the developed world tripling in size with the addition of India and China, plus the stimulus of rebuilding our entire energy production, storage and transport infrastructure over the next two decades. The US may not get back to the moon, but I think you'll live to see India or China get there.


Mike: you are probably right about India or China. But I don't see the USA making much progress there ....


I don't see why the cost of sending a payload should increase with the cube of the payload size. Why isn't it linear (2x as much payload=use 2 rockets=2x as much cost). That is ignoring economies of scale. If anything, cost should be less for the second half of payload because expertise and technology used for the first launch can be reused the second time.


You're not just lifting the additional payload weight; you're lifting the additional fuel to lift the additional payload. This is non-intuitive. I suggest you google on multi-stage rockets, specific impulse, and mass ratios. Then look into project management as applied to large engineering problems ...


I've heard an apocryphal story that one of the failures of the Shuttle program is that our understaning of the math and engineering involved got too accurate:

Each rocket engine we designed previously (including the Saturn V mentioned above) performed significantly above specifications, meaning that weight overrun issues were somewhat mitigated.

But (according to the story I heard), the Shuttle was designed anticipating some performance "gimme", and didn't get it, we were spot on our predictions. This left an underfunded program unable to achieve some of its design goals.


Worse: the Shuttle was specced out as NASA's next big thing after Apollo. But Congress was cutting NASA's budget, massively. So to keep the Shuttle, NASA had to get the USAF to buy into it. USAF needed a mission -- so they decided to spec out the Shuttle payload bay as large enough to hold a Big Bird or equivalent spysat, the Shuttle launch profile as including a polar orbit option from Vandenburg AFB. This then mandated a requirement that the Shuttle be able to execute its re-entry without passing over Communist territory (i.e. Russia and China) because the Shuttle was military kit.

Upshot: it had a h-u-g-e payload bay (of little use to NASA -- they only really filled it with Hubble, itself built to roughly the same specs as the NRO's big eyes, albeit with different optics). It had to have a big airframe to hold the payload bay, and it had to re-enter quickly, over the Pacific, rather than taking half the Earth's circumference to slow down. This increased its weight, and thus the thermal loading on the TPS. Needless to say, the USAF never actually used the Shuttle as a spysat launcher ... but the design compromises really contributed to the thermal environment in which the Columbia's wing burned through on re-entry.


Apollo was rushed; it wasn't called the Space Race just because of the alliterative rhyme after all. There were plans to go to the Moon incrementally -- build an orbiting space station, assemble a Moon rocket in orbit from modules and only then actually attempt a landing and return.

Instead of developing multiple synchronised launches at predictable intervals and a knowledgebase on how to work in space with Lego-type components they built a single launcher that could carry everything to do the basic job in one lump, from launch to return because they couldn't wait and, it must be said, the funding might not have been there in the event of overruns and delays.

We know how to work in Space a lot better thanks to Mir, Salyut, Skylab and now the ISS whose real value in the future might not be the science carried out there but the effort required to design, manufacture and assemble it and keep it working. The Constellation/Ares system is split with the big Ares V being used as an unmanned launcher and only the Ares 1 being man-rated since NASA now knows how to commit multiple big launches back-to-back and bring them together in orbit. Heck, if the US just wanted to save money (and time) they could buy Soyuz seats from the Russians and forget about Ares 1, or licence the Russian launcher design, build them in the US and fire them off from their own pads in Florida.


I'm involved in human systems integration for Orion. Certainly not rocket science, but important nonetheless (e.g., control/display design, suit design--human factors stuff). I am amazed at the inefficiency that I suppose is part and parcel of huge programs such as this. But you are right, we've lost the institutional knowledge via attrition and lack of a focus on retaining knowledge in the intervening years of Shuttle.

But I remain optimistic, if but to assuage my own fervent off-world dreams. I hope you're wrong, Charlie. But I fear that you may be right.


I had two years to go before I was born, however the landing was on my brother's third birthday.

What I've always wondered is why some of the Apollo astronauts flaked out afterwards. Such as Jim Irwin who spent his last couple decades trying to find Noah's Ark. Or another, whose name I don't recall (and probably shouldn't name, since he's still alive) who claimed to experience a psychic barrier between the Moon and Earth containing all the knowledge in the universe. Okay, that's only two, but still.


semi-random remembrances;

A Rabbi acquaintance of mine who grew up in Huntsville, used to get bounced on von Braun's knee (as a baby, of course) at his grandfather's deli. For myself I met Konrad Dannenberg when I was a kid at Space Camp (that's 'met', as in I shook his hand once). Not sure how I feel about it now, considering their backgrounds.


Two last things from me, for now, maybe.

Any idea what sort of computing equipment will be used on the new vehicles? It's my understanding that the Shuttle still uses 386 processors because anything faster/smaller is more susceptible to having holes punched in the circuitry by cosmic rays, which can't be adequately shielded against.

Your last paragraph sort of dealt something I've wondered about for a while. What might have happened if the original plan to have a fleet of 50 shuttles hadn't been scuttled? The problems that they've had would have occurred sooner, but perhaps some sort of fix would have been found due there being more of an existing investment?


James: the shuttle wasn't suitable for mass production or service -- it was, at best, a prototype; if they'd budgeted to build three generations of shuttle, eight or ten years apart, then we might by now be getting to the stage of having a workable reusable space transportation system. Maybe.


JamesPadraicR @11, astronauts aren't required to believe in specific religions or events. Those two probably had similar beliefs before they went up.


JamesPadraicR - you might be thinking of Apollo 14 astronaut Ed Mitchell, who founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences.

You might find Moondust by Andrew Smith interesting. Published in 2005, it's about the author tracking down and interviewing in some detail the surviving moonwalkers (or, in the case of Neil Armstrong, failing - though he did exchange a word at an event and got some emails).

It's partly about him - he was the "moon-age" of most of the moonwalkers, and so reflects on his own about-40 midlife status. A lot of people in mid-life are supposed to think, is that it? and for some of the moonwalkers, like Buzz Aldrin, there is a sense that this was, obviously, the pinnacle of their lives and careers, that everything after would be an anti-climax; Aldrin famously got depressed and alcoholic afterwards.

And now they are constantly talking or avoiding talking about one brief weekend in their lives, even 40 years later, thousands of times over... it must be like having to repeat the story of your wedding and honeymoon decades after the fact, 10,000 times over to shiny-eyed new people who want your signature and aren't that interested in whatever else you might have done.

I haven't met any US astronauts but I did interview cosmonaut Gherman Titov in Moscow a couple of years before he died - in his case, the pinnacle of his career came when he was 25 in 1961 and flew the second Soviet mission, a 25-hour flight six months before John Glenn, and his anecdotes (through an interpreter) were naturally polished with 37 years of the telling... and in his case, as with Aldrin, much of the interest in him was the "what is it like to be second?" question. Titov might have been the first man in space - he suited up with Gagarin, and drove out to the pad seated behind him in the bus, but Gagarin didn't break his leg or catch flu on the launch pad and so he has that famous place (followed by some tricky politicking after, and an early death).

As for the Apollo bods, Irwin and Charlie Duke got God eventually (Irwin apparently heard God on the moon, Duke after his wife gave him some kind of ultimatum) and Mitchell was into parapsychology. Those three were all lunar module pilots making their one and only flights, which may or may not be relevant. Al Bean of Apollo 12 is still kind of obsessively tied up in his few hours on the moon, but mainly to the extent of doing and selling oil paintings of it (and he had another flight, 59 days in command of Skylab; Pete Conrad and John Young also flew again) and seems quite happy about it.

Anyway, it is an interesting book and worth a look. Some of the scenes are funny and sad at the same time, like the conventions Dick Gordon goes to where he, a Gemini and Apollo astronaut but not a moonwalker (the Apollo 18 mission he was due to command was cancelled) is sitting in his signing booth attracting much less attention than the actor playing Major West from Lost In Space.


Shuttle: Oversized monkey can. Without the canned monkeys it could lift 65 tons to LEO despite itself. (Meaning its wings and the design fault of carrying its overengineered main engines into orbit.) The Buran was by far the superior concept, even though it too was a monkey can (one for up to 10 monkeys though). It was carried on a rocket that could lift 80 or 90 tons into orbit, as it did in its first test-flight without the Buran. The boosters were rather conventional liquid fuel rockets that could lift on the order of 11-14 tons into orbit by themselves (Zenit rocket) without the dangers and violent jerks associated with the Shuttle's solid fuel boosters.

Seriously, if you want to go to the moon, built the spacecraft, but let the Russians launch it. A Soyuz can launch about 7-8 tons and costs $30 mio to manufacture and launch. Launches currently cost about $70 mio because western launch vehicles of this size cost at least $85 and they didn't want to have their markets ruined. A Proton rocket costs on the order of $80 million to the Russians and lifts about 20 tons. In fact, the Russians want to offer round trips around the moon in the next decade by attaching a Soyus spacecraft to a booster stage launched with a Proton rocket. Expected cost is $100 million per ticket, 2 passengers per flight plus one pilot. I guess profit will be on the order of $50 million per flight.

Why is the price so low? Labour costs is one part of the answer, the other is development cost. Both were former ICBMs (the Proton was conceived as a launcher for bombs the size of the Czar bomba ...) and both were built in quantities. The Proton about 100 times, the R-7 (Soyuz etc.) had more than 1,500 rockets built. That's 10 times more than the Ariane 1-4 family, the most successful in the west.

It's no accident that there are no American built rockets mentioned here. They are not built in the necessary quantities to become cheap. Instead, "competition" is forced on a natural monopoly and so the US may very well end up with 4 different launchers capable of launching about 20 tons to LEO. The Delta 4, the Atlas 5, the Ares 5 and the private but government funded Falcon 9. The international market adds the Ariane 5 and Proton M in the same category. To add insult to injury, I guess that the Chinese will come up with their own one in the 20 ton category as well.

All of those saw billions of dollars pumped into each rocket. If you operate on total cost, not marginal cost, then even a moderately successful run of 50 rockets will have a mark-up of $20 million per launch per Billion spend on development. If something like the Atlas 5 costs $4 billion to develop (don't quote me on this number), this would translate to an additional $80 million per launch. Oh and don't kid yourself, neither the Atlas nor the Delta will see as many as 50 launches.

And I haven't even mentioned the necessary investment into facilities to build and launch these rockets and ensure supply for the next 2 decades or so. Much less training and paying staff ...


I was born in the closing days of '89 and I can safely say that I envy you older folks. You got to watch moon rockets, build nuclear reactors, and play with first generation computers/the early internet (the earliest stuff I ever got to play with was Apple II and Netscape...).

Honestly I can't think of anything my generation has to look forward to. Maybe another couple Iphones and quasi-decent cellular service in Canada. That doesn't really compare to leaving foot prints on the moon though. :(


Launch cost do not scale by the cube of delivered mass. In terms of required propellant in a given configuration, it is linear, and there are almost always efficiencies that make it cost LESS with more delivered mass, whether due to economies of scale with more small rockets, or reduction of fixed overheads with less larger rockets.

There are very unfavorable expenses associated with trying to squeeze more payload out of a specific size of rocket, but if you have the option of either launching in pieces on multiple rockets, or building a bigger rocket, getting "more" is usually better than linear. You can certainly kill that by spending huge development costs on a new vehicle that doesn't get operated enough to amortize the expense, of course.

Now, going FARTHER in a delta-V sense, is where you get the extremely unfavorable logarithmic ratios. Landing on the moon is about 7x more expensive, even though the delta-V is less than doubled, because of the requirement to carry the additional propellant for the additional burn time.


How do you see privately funded space ventures changing the equation? Sure, Virgin Galactic is a publicity stunt (and only sub orbital, at that), but I reckon there "soon" will be cheap manned orbital capability. Once we have that, how far is the moon in comparison?


Marilee @13 & Nicholas @14. Points taken, I should have been nicer and said that their eccentricities came out. It's just that, here in Colorado Springs, it was always big news once a year when Irwin would announce his next expedition to Mount Ararat, and you just knew he wasn't going to find anything.

Really, I have nothing but respect for anyone who would willingly sit atop however many tons of liquid Hydrogen and Oxygen.


Just to counterpoint... SpaceX is launching the 2nd Falcon 1 rocket hopefully in the next few hours. They do now have that vital resource of engineers designing systems from the ground up.

They've got a long way to go to get from 2 engines successfully firing in series to 9 firing successfully in parallel, but as one who was a decade too late for Apollo 11, I don't care who pays for the next Moon-shot.


@11 re: computers: If I remember right, the ISS main computer runs a pair of radiation-hardened 486s, which were chosen partially based on the fact that they already had them around from work on Freedom (as was the case for most of the first round of US-built parts). I think it's mainly not so much a matter of speed/sophistication of the processor as having a special high-survivability version built. Which I'd assume makes smaller processes much more difficult (and expensive) but might not rule out newer designs.


The price of a launch to orbit scales roughly in proportion to the cube of the payload.


Launch two rockets. Cost: 2X for 2X payload.

Launch two rockets at the same time, side by side. Cost: 2X for 2X payload...

Launch two rockets, at the same time, side by side, connected by a thread.

Launch two rockets at the same time, bolted together.

At what point does the cost become 8X instead of 2X?


I too think Constellation is doomed. Despite all the work we did on Apollo it will still take longer to get back to moon than the first time. That is ridiculous. Speaking with a NASA engineer recently, I was told that no president wants to be known as the person who killed manned spaceflight. But that is a poor excuse for continuing on in the way NASA does.

As to what we should be doing, Michael Hanlon has a nice rant in the current issue of BIS's "Spaceflight" arguing that we should abandon human space flight for now and focus on the goal of searching for life in the universe. He thinks private enterprise might be the way to go for human spaceflight, once a business model can be found. If SpaceX really can deliver payloads and people to orbit as cheaply as they claim, that will be a start. I don't exclude other like Armadillo Aerospace, since it appears John Carmack posted earlier - :)


Manned space is one of those things that's better done big or not at all.

Trying to do meaningful stuff with manned space while fighting the rocket equation is a suckers game.

If you want to go back to the moon, build a tether launch system and a beamed power propulsion infrastructure for cislunar transport.


The Rocket Equation:

Mp/(Mp+Mf) = e^(Vd / Vex)

Mp = mass of payload

Mf = mass of reaction mass (same as fuel for chemically fueled rockets)

e = Natural log number, roughly 2.7183

Vd = Change in velocity.

Vex = Velocity of exhaust = Isp * g


I was seven years old, back then, and my parents kept me up well past my bedtime (North America, Eastern timezone) to sit with them watching our little black and white TV as Neil Armstrong made that One Small Step.

I really hope I'm still around to see mankind get at least that far back outward again.


I've honestly never heard the story about the screwdriver punching through the floor before.

I was 5 when the Challenger disaster happened so I obviously don't have any first-hand memories of the moon landings but it still amazes me just what was done on the rocketry/computing equivalent of rocks and sticks.

As far as the future of the manned space program goes I'm hoping some of the current keep up the good work of filling in the gaps that our government programs keep making. I'd like to think I'll see a live feed of some astronauts on Mars in my lifetime but short of a new space race developing I think we're still a bit shy of that ability at the moment, but I'll be very happy to have been proven wrong.



I guess your (or our) generation will just have to make do with boring stuff like self-replicating machines (see RepRap for the DIY angle) and creating artificial microbes from scratch (Venter). So unfair! :-)

That said, really big engineering projects are of course very cool, and I suppose there doesn't seem to be as many of those.


All spacecraft ever built have been prototypes (and arguably all sufficiently expensive machines must be prototypes. Or how about: All sufficiently expensive machines can never be refined to repeatable production quality. Ladies and gentlemen: steveg's first law, you read it here first. And Charlie, it's all yours, happy xmas :)

I'm all for unmanned space exploration; I admire the romanticism of manned space exploration, I think I'd rather a dozen unmanned missions over one manned mission. A manned Mars mission... that's just three years of teenagers trying to hack SPCS/IP while bored housewives watch the ultimate TV reality show (surely Nasa will show it live).

One question for the crowd. I swear I saw a photo years and years ago of a military green space shuttle. Am I making that up?


I've got to say, I think reaching the Moon or Mars again is possible, but unlikely. We face a near term future where oil/gas availability declines and with it the societal structures and will to visit space. I've not spotted any escape routes for that yet.

Frankly the only way of making trips to Mars viable is to institute a 'gold rush'. Say that any successful trip entitles the participants to claim a country-sized portion of the Martian surface.

The first man would be on the surface within the decade.


Andrew @22: I'm talking about costs for single payloads -- e.g. going from a 20 ton payload to LEO to a 40 ton payload.

If we were able to chop our payloads up into infinitely small motes of dust, by this rule the launch cost would of course drop to zero :-)

The real problem is, as John Carmack put it, "spending huge development costs on a new vehicle that doesn't get operated enough to amortize the expense, of course." Like Saturn V (twelve articles built, then they closed the production line). If Ares V gets built I wouldn't be surprised to see it go the same way, because who could imagine needing more than 12 launchers that size? (See also the senior executive at IBM, circa 1946, who estimated global demand for computers at about four machines.)


I was 23 and recently back from Vietnam when I watched the moon landing. It was a great day; we were actually using some of our wealth to do something historic and valuable, as opposed to blowing up poor people with politics we didn't like. Been downhill since then in a lot of ways.

Sadly, I agree with Charlie that it's unlikely that the US will get anything like Constellation to the Moon, certainly not on anything like the current schedule (6 years is not a lot of time to build spacecraft and properly test them with incrementally increasing objectives), even given that a lot of the design work is already done. The first major fizzle or crash will set the project back a year at minimum*. And the political will just isn't there; Congress is going to nickel and dime NASA to death while everyone cheers our "return to space".

  • The Apollo 204 fire which killed 3 astronauts almost cancelled the program; losing 2 shuttles has made crashes less like political suicide than that, but it hasn't made project management noticeably bolder.

And the political will just isn't there; Congress is going to nickel and dime NASA to death while everyone cheers our "return to space".

Congress is fighting like a demon to preserve the Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22; why should they be less willing to preserve other LM/Boeing projects?


@22 When you can't split the payload between two rockets and need to carry it all on one (larger) vehicle. Astronauts on one rocket, life support on the other? Carrying components into orbit and building there would mitigate the launch costs, I believe, at the expense of working in a much-less survivable environment.


And that will teach me to reply to a comment thread before refreshing the page...


Jason, the Constellation program is already proposing to split the payload -- the LM and Earth Departure Stage go up on the Ares V, then the crew in the CRV launch on the Ares I and dock with it in LEO.

There are other proposals; the DIRECT plan, for example, and their proposed Jupiter family of launch vehicles derived from bits of Shuttle kit. Nobody seems to be proposing a Saturn-V/Apollo style Lunar Orbit Rendezvous mission profile this time round, possibly because (a) you'd need a gigantic booster to do the job (think: Ares V, but with an additional 20 tons of playload to LEO!), and (b) it's not a terribly flexible approach (try using it to bolt together a Mars mission, or a multi-part space station, or a near-earth asteroid flyby that requires an EDS but no lander).


The current generations get to do large scale engineering - reterraforming if we are careless for long enough - and small scale biology. I watched the first landing on TV, and would stay up to watch Moon 2.0, but I can't think of anyone I want to send to Mars, interesting for us, but less good for them I fear.


Charlie, have you seen ? They're planning to lift by balloon, not rocket.


I remember being in a discussion ith G. Harry Stine and some people who later created a rocket-motor building company, and it was pointed out that one of the major deficiencies of the shuttle (in their view) was that it landed in a manner different from it's manner of taking off.

That meant that there was a large piece at the start of it's flight envelope where a safe abort was impossible.

That had two major consequences.

The consequence for the design was that it had to work right the first time. When designing an aircraft (simplified story), they assemble a prototype, take it out on the runway, run up the engines, and then shut them down again. When they're satisfied that works, they make it take off, take a short circuit around the airfield and land again. Then they... (you get the picture).

The problem with the shuttle is that you CAN'T do that. Once you turn on the engines, you have to achieve at least (I don't remember the exact altitude, but I think somewhere around 20km) before you can glide to a landing. That means it has to work right the FIRST time. And that means that the engineering process is more complex, requires more and more detailed simulations, and so on, and so on.

That carries over to the operations: The shuttle was supposed to cut cost of space flight by being largely reusable. But, because of the constraints I mentioned above, it is essentially torn out and assembled again before each launch.

Since you can't recover from all places on the flight plan, you can't use aircraft-type operational procedures. Instead of tolerating SOME level of failure and just planing how you will recover from them, you have to guarantee virtually NO failures for at least part of the flight, and that means that you have to INSPECT in the quality.

You have to take the vehicle apart, inspect each part, put it together again, then inspect if you have put it together correctly.

I understand it takes the same amount of energy to get a person to orbit as it takes to get them from US to Australia (I may be wrong, I lost the source for that info).

The cost of fuel is not the principal cost in the shuttle flight: all the ground support personnel that disassemble and reassemble the shuttle before each flight cost significantly more...


Perhaps it's because I read a lot of sci-fi, but I don't think we have the right level of tech for returning to the moon yet; what we have is inefficient, noisy, clumsy, over-precise, and yes, expensive.

Chemical rockets seem very old-hat to me (much of our technology in fact seems to be transitional stepping-stones that are almost ugly paleolithic hammers compared to where we're going). The materials we use have gotten much better, but they are still insufficient to the task... and they are dumb. I see engineering and biotech converging so that structures can not only repair themselves but grow according to morphogenetic principles, responding to the stresses involved.

Until then, something I heard a while back rings true: a space shuttle has hundreds of thousands of parts, each of which has to be engineered and fitted with an incredibly fine tolerance... and even a 99.99% success rate is still not enough. We need more slack in the system.

Also, some bootstrapping like a space elevator or some unpredictable new technology would sure help.


On the difficulties of scaling payloads and ranges up...

The default rule is linear in the mass, for a given distance/velocity change, and exponential etc. in the distance/velocity change for a given mass. However, the choice of technologies affects this. Solid fuel rockets start needing a greater proportion of their mass as structure when you scale them up, since they have to contain a larger force pushing their walls apart even with the same pressure, and buckling problems start happening. The same happens with liquid fuel motors, but it only gets significant at a larger scale and before that there is an improvement from reducing the proportion of the weight used for guidance, control, pumps, etc. - they are closer to a fixed overhead (hybrid rockets used to fall between two stools from having both sorts of factor, until materials got enough better). At larger scales you can switch to multiple motors, but then you start getting interactions between them and it gets harder to provide the right fuel flows; you can get surges that can even blow them up (this hit the USSR's efforts to scale up further). Still, I don't see this working out as a cube law, even in the sense of linear pieces fitting together roughly as a cube law; rather, it's an engineering limit on the upper sizes that can be reached for a given state of the art - a state that should keep developing.

To my mind, the way to go is probably:-

  • Use a jet aircraft to loft a "spaceplane" to the stratosphere, only not carrying it directly but as a glider with throw away wings that double as long range fuel tanks (propane and nitrogen tetroxide or liquid oxygen are good fuels).

  • The spaceplane should go to orbital height, dropping its main wings on the way but keeping the extra motors even though they are parasitic weight, to be able to reuse them.

  • The payload can then be inserted into low orbit with the "long playing rocket" technique, i.e. aiming and pre-spinning a throw away solid fuel rocket to rifle it but providing no on board control systems (the spaceplane systems provide all that apart from maybe a teansponder, bringing them all back for re-use). The spaceplane can then land from orbital height without having to kill orbital velocity, and then be re-used, while the payload can be picked up by an ion rocket tug and towed to a space station, and launched onwards the same way if necessary (though there is a boot strap problem getting those in the first place).

See also the "Mustard" project, which aimed at using several stages all of the same model. That would share a lot more overheads.


ajay @ 33: Well, first, there's already a lot of money invested in F-22, and it's not just LM that gets it. And a lot of congressthings have constituents who will get a piece of that, over many years of deployment (at least that's the theory; I'm still not convinced the F-22 makes sense). And the F-22 is being deployed now; any congresscritter will favor money coming to his state now over money in the future.

Second, I believe there's a much stronger lobby behind the F-22 than any Nasa project, including Constellation, because the lobbyists are predominately old Mil-contract warriors.

Third, after F-22 come other mil-contract projects, for which the vendors are going to fight as hard as possible. In particular F-35, which the Obama administration is trying to cut back. LM has a huge amount of future dollars coming from a full F-35 deployment, and they don't even have to share it with Boeing. The way things are going, F-35 may be the only large scale warplane deployment until someone figures out what to do to replace the B-52, sometime around 2045.


Perhaps a little historical perspective is in order. At the turn of the (last) century, the race for the poles was the Victorian equivalent of our race for the moon. Once the flags of Britain, Norway, etc. had been planted at the south pole, national prestige was satisfied.

Afterwards, nobody bothered much with Antarctica for about another half century, until the first international geophysical year (1959?). Since then, the continent has been studded with permanently manned scientific bases and weather stations.

But nobody has bothered to try to colonize Antarctica on a large scale. Primarily because it is an inhospitable place to live. Yet it is far more inviting and easier to colonize (and to get to) than the moon or Mars. If history is any guide, about a half century after the Apollo program (within the next ten to twenty years) look for permanently manned stations in orbit, on the moon and maybe on Mars. The ISS is the first of these stations.

But don't expect massive colonization anytime soon. Our species simply won't move anywhere in large numbers that we can't walk around outside in street clothes for at least part of the year.


Stross @6: You sound awfully sure that the Black Chamber didn't use the STS for spy stuff. I suggest the absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence. Where do you go to find payload data on each of 125 flights? Couldn't some devices have dual uses?


@Stephen Harris, it's the "only sub-orbital" part that's going to be the big stumbling block there.

As others have pointed out, the distance you want to go (in terms of delta-v) affects things exponentially. Going straight up 100km is relatively easy - it's not trivial, but for the most part it's just a matter of engineering. The main reason nobody has been doing it is because there's not much "there" there. There isn't even anywhere to stop and reconfigure - the lowest stable place is LEO.

Double or triple the delta-v to get to orbit, and you square or cube the difficulty.

Double the delta-v again to get to the moon, squaring the difficulty again, and you end up with a six-stage monster like Saturn + Apollo + LM where you have to throw the camera out the airlock when you've finished taking pictures because you can't afford the fuel to bring it back.

The way to fix this in the long term is either to get high-impulse high-thrust engines (which feed into the same formula on the other side) or something altogether other, like a space elevator. Both of which are ongoing areas of research, nowhere near ready even for experimental use.


theDAWG: the STS was used for military payloads; we know that very well -- the military launches weren't exactly secret. It's very hard impossible to conceal a shuttle launch (especially since construction of the pad at Vandenburg AFB was cancelled there's only one place to launch from) at the Cape, and NASA document the civilian missions exhaustively, which leaves gaps that can be pencilled in. To make life easier, they release the names of the crew on all flights; just look for the ones with lots of blue-suiters and no information on the scientific experiments or civilian payloads.

On the other hand, the USAF mission the shuttle was designed for but never flew involved: launch from Vandenburg (pad not built) into polar orbit (Shuttle has never flown in polar orbit: we'd probably know, because of the need to reconfigure ground stations to track the bloody thing) with a Big Bird sized payload. Optionally: return from polar orbit with a different Big Bird sized payload.

They gave up on the idea of retrieving spysats from orbit some time in the early 1970s, when TV camera tech got good enough for them to abandon film completely. (Previously, the issue was how to replace the film cannisters.) But in the original 1960s-vintage specs for the Shuttle, the need to service spysats was clearly somewhere near the top of the list, and the USAF liked it -- it kept them in the astronaut biz even after DynaSoar and MOLAB were cancelled.

For a while, Shuttle was to be the US government's sole satellite launcher. (Utterly stupid, but they had to think up some rational reason to justify the billions they'd already spent on the STS white elephant.) But after Challenger, USAF and NRO hastily went back into the disposable booster business. There are some payloads you just don't want to stick in the payload bay of a shuttle -- a liquid-fuelled Centaur upper stage, for example: not because it's inherently hazardous when things are going well, but you'd be in a whole world of hurt if you tried to fly an abort back to the Cape with ten tons of cryogenic explosives getting sloshed around inside the bay, and a quick-vent mechanism to dump the upper stage's fuel would entail cutting big holes in the airframe.

And so it goes on. The Shuttle just wasn't a good idea -- not for lifting cargo, not for lifting astronauts -- too many design compromises in contradictory directions.


andyet@43: "Our species simply won't move anywhere in large numbers that we can't walk around outside in street clothes for at least part of the year."

Try telling the Inuit that. Antarctica isn't colonized because it is off-limits by international agreement. If the probable coal reserves were allowed to be exploited, we'd have a lot more people there. The Arctic is a case in point - there will be a lot of people in the Arctic circle once oil exploration gets underway. Currently the fight is about who can claim the oil.

We have similar issues with space resources. If you mined the moon for rare earth metals or even helium-3, would you have complete ownership? Same with the asteroids.


Didn't we do this one last year? Sheesh.

Anyway, as far as going back to the moon and planets is concerned, that will only happen via some sort of international consortium, it won't be a solo NASA job. Which reminds me of my favourite Khruschev story.

Kennedy (apparently) made a proposal for US/USSR cooperation in space exploration. Khruschev's son heard about it, and said 'why don't you take him up on this offer? It might be good for world peace.' To which K. senior replied:

'We have nothing to hide. We have nothing, and we must hide it'.


Alex: Lunar Helium-3 is a non-starter -- just ask James Nicoll. (Shorter JN: (a) nobody has built a working commercially-viable fusion reactor yet, much less a highly speculative He-3 reactor, and (b) the energetic costs of getting to the moon, mining ore, extracting He-3, and returning it to earth are in excess of 20% of the total energy you'd get by fusing it even if you have existing handwavium-tech fusors to put it in. In other words, it's cloud cuckoo land right now and for the next few decades, on a par with building huge solar power stations inside the orbit of Mercury and using the juice to manufacture antimatter -- a theoretical possibility permitted by the laws of physics, but you try getting the market to fund it.)


BTW, Charlie, what do you think of the DIRECT proposal?


What we need is NOT rockets, but ... Something like THIS that really works.

BTW, all the claims that it is a perpetual-motion machine, or defies the laws of physics are false. Think of it as a QM Hydraulic jack. The REAL problem is losses - it doesn't/can't work unless it is cold and rigid, which is really difficult, under the circumstances.

Any thoughts?


48: That only works because Enlgish eschews double negatives, while it's the other way around in Russian, I think.


Anatoly: I'm not qualified to comment on DIRECT versus Constellation. Both of 'em seem to be aiming in the same direction, but the Ares-I design doesn't fill me with joy; if it works it'll be the first ever man rated launcher with a pure solid-fuel first stage, and they're betting the future of the manned space capability on it. The technical term for this is "brave". The acid test is coming this autumn, when they flight-test the Ares-IX test vehicle ... ask me again after it flies or flops.

Greg: I'll be astonished but very happy if it works.


@51: So you say we need a miracle?

@52: Actually, it might work in russian. "Нам нечего прятать".


Hey, Charlie. LTNS. Great post!

I think you conflated two things in the intro, however. One is the cost of increasing the payload of a single booster. The other is the problem of developing large projects when there is no hope of achieving scale economies. The first, as you've acknowledged, is a bit of red herring. (Unless I'm missing something.) The second is a huge problem; I just wrote a case on Areva --- but while Areva can imagine a 10/year market for the EPR, it's hard to imagine a 10/year market for the Constellation system.

Alex@47: allow me to engage in some credentialism --- I am ramping up a course on the energy business. So I know a little bit about the cost of coal. And I can tell you with probability one that there would be no coal mining in Anarctica even if you threw the place open tomorrow.

I can imagine an oil discovery that would be economically viable, but such a discovery is extremely improbable given a marginal cost around $60 bbl for undeveloped Canadian oil sands. (That includes the overnight cost of development.) Even if you got such a discovery --- and it would have to be something along the lines of Ghawar, only under ice --- you wouldn't get more than a few hundred people on-site. I've been to Shaybah; it has a population of 920, and it's still under construction. The biggest oil rigs have a crew size around 150. Neither Shaybah nor oil rigs have a permanent population.

You're also mistaken about Arctic oil reserves. The reason why there hasn't yet been exploitation is not political; it's because the discoveries have not yet been in commercially-viable quantities. The Canadian fields weren't viable. Greenland found what may (or may not) be commercially-viable reserves and has already auctioned off exploration rights to various blocks. Meanwhile, the Lomonosov Ridge (the disputed area, although not very disputed) is far from ready for development, even if all the jurisdictional questions went away tomorrow. I'd put my money in Petrobras or Suncor before any of the companies exploring the Arctic.

Recap: Coal, nonstarter. Oil, unlikely. And even if it happened, oil would not lead to whole lot more people, considering as the Anarctica already has an average annual population around 2,500.

In short, you should revise your priors.


Noel: 10 Ares-I launches a year is conceivable, -- if you need to lift 70 astronauts into orbit per 12 months. It's interesting to speculate on just where the demand might come from. This just might do it -- if it scales to multiple gigawatts of orbital powersats (and yes, I've got a vague idea how much that kit would cost, and I'm not sure I believe a word of it: the likely enabler would be political, based on an anti-nuclear and zero-carbon energy requirement) and if they need some warm bodies to maintain them (my guess is that robots would be more cost-effective).

The flip side of the question is that Falcon 9/Dragon is a much more credible solution to that problem, and likely to be cheaper than a solution developed by NASA to keep the ISS crewed and then go exploring the moon and Mars. Hell, even EADS's man-rated derivative of the ATV would probably be cheaper than Ares I/Orion (ESA is a lot more cost-sensitive on manned space exploration than NASA).

Flying 10 Ares V/year is a tall order, but if you really want to loft gigawatts of solar power sats, or build a space elevator (if the direct technical obstacles to either problem are solved) you might well need to be able to put a thousand-plus tons of material into orbit each year. But again, it's a NASA gold-plated platform; would it be cheaper to dust off the plans for Sea Dragon and pay some shipyard to build it?


I have zero faith in NASA's ability to be the vehicle for mankind's permanent settlement of space. Anyone familiar with the Space Activity Suit? Unlike the inflatable Michelin Man suits which rely on air pressure to keep the astronaut from the effects of vacuum, it's simply high-tech spandex. It applies mechanical pressure and so is smaller, lighter, more flexible, and all around vastly easier to wear and work in. They only need to pressurize the bits for the head, hands, and feet. One would think that this sort of thing would fall square into NASA's "must have" line of research, especially given how brutal and unwieldy the current suits are. And indeed, NASA developed a working prototype as far back as 1970. Compared to high-explosive rocketry, vacuum chamber tests are a cinch, right?

NASA shut down that particular project in 1971 and hasn't looked at it in the nearly 40 years since.

The human race needs to colonize space, since our civilization and indeed our very species are hideously vulnerable as long as we are trapped at the bottom of this gravity well. But I gave up caring about what happens to NASA's budget when I read about the SAS, because it's painfully apparent that NASA will play no role in any successful large scale launch system.


As much I would wish otherwise, there is just no financial, scientific or defense justification for a large sustained human presence in space. Defensive spy sats, weather and comsats, robot planetary rovers and orbital probes do the job just fine. No human need apply. From a purely "bean counter" point of view, even the international space station is already a white elephant.

Fortunately life isn't about bean counting, or even solely about maximizing profit. The spirit, elan and morale of a society are at least as important as its material wealth, perhaps more important. I'm old enough to remember being thrilled by blurry black and white, live TV images of men walking on the moon. Apollo was primarily about non material things like national pride, prestige and patriotism. However as the world becomes closer and borders blur, such chest thumping patriotism may go out of fashion, and won't provide the impetus for further efforts in space. Maybe Chinese taikonauts will provide the same goad as Russian cosmonauts, but more likely future space missions will be multi-national, cooperative efforts.

In its mystical aspect Apollo embodied the spirit of its age. Every so often in history, a civilization rises up and uses its accumulated economic surplus to create something which has no practical value (from a bean counter's point of view) yet is absolutely essential to the morale and spirit of its people. The Egyptian pyramids and Gothic cathedrals are two examples. The Saturn V rocket in many ways was our Notre Dame or St. Peter's. IMHO we have lately become so mono-fixated on economics that we have forgotten that it is the intangibles which make a civilization great. "Without a vision, the people perish" — I believe both secular humanists and devout theists can agree on that.

A comparison between the Saturn V rocket and the Gothic cathedrals or Egyptian pyramids is an apt analogy. Perhaps, just perhaps, religious faith might provide the necessary spark for a renewed effort in space — and not just because many Apollo astronauts experienced a profound religious awakening while in space and on the moon.

So why not a "faith based" space program? How about founding another "shining city on a hill", this time on the Moon. Why not "touch the face of God" from orbit? How about a "new Jerusalem" on Mars, free from the corruption and immorality of the Old World? As crazy as this may sound, we made need to harness the same motivation whch built the cathedrals and pyramids to send humans back into space.

Since there may be no rational reason for man in space, we may need an irrational reason.


@57, I have total distrust in any sentiment that involves the phrase "mankind's permanent settlement of space". Especially the eggs-in-one-basket argument, viz "The human race needs to colonize space, since our civilization and indeed our very species are hideously vulnerable as long as we are trapped at the bottom of this gravity well" -- which is all too easy to rework as "we need to colonize other worlds -- we've fucked this one up beyond repair!"

This basically sums up my opinions on the subject.

@58: space exploration is a whole different issue from space colonization. Exploration: good. Exploration as an alternative to the traditional alpha primate sport of ripping the shit out of one another: even better. I was with you right up until the last bit about a "faith based" space program. The problem with building the "New Jerusalem" on Mars is that the colonists don't get to walk home if things go wrong. As Bruce Sterling observed, the Gobi Desert is a hell of a lot nearer and easier to colonize than Mars -- for one thing, we can breathe the atmosphere! But we haven't done that. We haven't even gone there to build a shining city on a hill sand dune. And you can just about walk (or drive) out of it, if things are terminally FUBARed.

Let's not talk permanent space colonies until we've figured out how to modify canned primates to survive in vacuum for the couple of minutes they need to dash for an emergency airlock/air supply. (Given the way the genomics revolution is going, we might not have to wait very long ...)


charlie@49, noel@55. Helium-3 was an example of a resource. I don't make any claim that it would work in a fusion reactor. But getting it might drive a small robotic, mining operation. Noel I take your point about coal not being viable as an Antarctic resource today. My point was less about the economics than the assertion of where humans might live. Obviously people tend to live where there are food resources, heat and shelter, which allows circumpolar environments, but tends to exclude deserts. Pickings are slim enough in the arctic, so population densities will be low.

Space mining operations will no doubt be highly mechanized and robotic if only because of costs. Attending discussions on lunar operations, it often amazes me how careful the robot people are of not suggesting that robots can do almost everything humans can, at least on the moon, for a lot less cost. That may not be as true further out. My sense is that space resources for earth have relatively little economic rationale, although space based solar power satellites might be (some day in the future).

I think a case can be made that humans will live where they can get enough water. That might make Mars a lot more attractive than the Gobi desert before you get to the other advantages of Mars.

charlie@59: Survival in vacuum without a pressure suit: Looks like we can already almost do the 2 minutes today...


Charlie ---

The specific mission the Air Force laid upon NASA as being the mission they wanted the Shuttle Orbiter designed for, called for only a partial orbit. To wit: Launch fron Vandenberg Air Force Base to the south, make orbit, kick the spysat out of the Shuttle cargo bay, button the cargo bay up, re-enter -- and then land at Vandenberg (or perhaps Edwards AFB). The rationale was that this didn't constitute a FULL orbit, and so the launch wouldn't have to be reported to the U.N. (as the 1967 Outer Space Treaty called for). If you put something into orbit, you have to report it (if you're a treaty signatory); it it's only a partial orbit, well, it didn't happen, then, did it?

This, of course, is the so-called SAPOM. That's the acronym for "Silly-Ass Polar Orbit Mission."

The requirement that it be done in such a way so that the Orbiter landed back at the launch site -- Vandenberg -- meant that the Orbiter needed to be able to move 1200 miles or so to the east, to match the 1200 miles or so that the Earth had rotated during the flight, which moved V'berg 1200 miles or so to the east. To do that, to achiieve that "cross-range," the Shuttle Orbiter needed to have a big-ass delta wing. (Big-ass in in this case being a technical term.) Given the Air Force-dictated Orbiter cargo bay volume of 15 feet by 60 feet, plus the delta wing and cross-range requirement, meant a much higher heating rate on the Orbiter than the original NASA design (which was designed to one thing and one thing only: take crews to and from a space station). The original NASA "small" Orbiter could survive its much lower heating rates because it was smaller, it had no cross-range at all, and could therefore use the metallic thermal protection systems proven out already in the ASSET and PRIME programs (along with what had been developed for the X-20).

But the "Air Force-designed" Shuttle Orbiter had heating rates that could only be taken care of by using the "shuttle tile" system we've all come to know and love.

NASA was in a big-ass bind (technical term, remember?) NASA, in order to get approval from Congress for Shuttle development/money, needed the political juice the Air Force could bring to bear from its numerous Congressional standard bearers. So, NASA said, "yes, please, darling, let's get hitched" to the the Air Force, and thus we got the current Shuttle Orbiter design -- the one with the big-ass delta wing -- the one that could supposedly then fly the SAPOM.

Ain't love grand?

The divorce happend three years later, when someone in the Air Force realized that the SAPOM was a momumentally stupid idea, really -- and the SAPOM requirement was quietly dropped. (Reference: Dr. Scott Pace at the George Washington University's Space Policy Institute.)

But by that time the Shuttle Orbiter's design was fixed, metal was being cut, and it was too late to do anything about it.


Just to throw around some numbers, on the off-chance that anyone cares.

So, is it possible to have a permanent mars settlement?

With a budget on the order of Clintonian defense budget ($500 billion), you could buy about 3000 Ariane 5 rockets per year (each 120 million euro per launch), not considering economies of scale nor required investment in infrastructure.

Each can carry 5000 kg to mars, 7000 kg to the moon. Source:

Pending development a new upper stage could increase this by about 50%.

Using those numbers only, you could expect to be able to ship 15,000 tons of stuff to mars each year, a bit more to the moon. How much of this you use to bring anything back (like canned monkeys) is your call.

That's not the whole story, you may expect launch costs to drop to something like 20% or less of original cost, as you produce about 200 times as much as before.

To make a long story short, you can get a Panamax container ship or two to Mars each year at the cost of the US defense budget or roughly 1% of world GDP.

So yes, a permanent settlement on Mars of a few hundred people is possible with current technology and erm considerable effort.

If economies of scale work out the way I think, having ground side Martian infrastructure in place, as well as space tugs that only need refueling and restocking to make the round trip between Mars and Earth several thousand are not inconceivable within several decades.

From my point of view I'd say there are even less efficient ways of spending money, but this is certainly no recommendation. Remember, this means spending the money of 70 million people on earth to let maybe 7000 people live on Mars, in one of the better cases.

I'd prefer a Martian space race to a third world war any time though.


@28: I'd very much like to see some Drexleresqe nanotech; if only so that I don't have to worry about cancer so much. That and active removal of carbon from the atmosphere...


What I don't understand is - why? One of your most well-known essays is about the infeasibility of space colonization. You say that exploration is still good, but what's the point of sending a canned monkey into space to do it? We'd be better off to spend that money on designing smarter machines to do that work for us - or on something more relevant to life on Earth, like a cure for cancer, or basic research that could lead to same.


ce, last things first: space research and cancer research are orthogonal; you can't simply divert funding from one to the other and expect results. It takes a decade to train up an aerospace engineer; ditto a genomics researcher. And they're not easily cross-trainable in less than multiple years -- the fields are very different.

Meanwhile, space exploration is basic research that may ultimately lead to something more useful. Space colonization is unfeasible as things stand, without one or more breakthroughs in different areas -- but what you may have missed (and a lot of the readers of that essay missed) is that those breakthroughs are not in principle impossible. The problem is that, beyond low earth orbit, there's no "there" there; and even if we ultimately want to go into the resource extraction business throughout the solar system, it's probably going to remain cheaper to ship astronauts up from earth to run mining platforms on long shifts than to produce permanent colonies. (See for example offshore gas and oil extraction platforms and how they're run.)


Those of you drawing parallels between the Moon and the Antarctic might like to consider that Apollo was equivalent to the 18th-century voyages to the Antarctic and Arctic (Cook might have clapped eyes on the Antarctic continent, and some of the people send up to the Northwest Passage came back alive). That puts "small colony" into the 200-odd year range.

Frankly, Cook's ships were safer, more versatile, more mature technology than the Apollo rockets. Interestingly, both were re-purposed military kit.



Three reasons all in line with historic events:

1) Religion: (E.g.) A new sect has formed in the 90ies after reading the Mars Trilogy in a church and consuming way too much LSD. They believe that Jesus will walk the ear^h^h^h^mars in 2061. Problem is, you have to be there to see him. Nothing the Egyptians wouldn't have done.

2) Bridges to nowhere: We have a recession, to jumpstart the economy we need some massive spending. How about spending a few hundred billion dollars on a mars colony to relief unemployment or at least seem to be doing so. The US has already spend $700 billion officially in one year and my estimate is a mere $500 billion per year. ;)

3) Big North Korea: new leader of some country says he wants to and gives little his minions little choice but to do what he says.

You want plausible reasons? Those are all plausible, given the irrationality of mankind.


"The problem with building the "New Jerusalem" on Mars is that the colonists don't get to walk home if things go wrong."

Two words: terraforming and paraterraforming. If Mars and Venus can be made more hospitable in whole or in part than the Gobi or Antarctica, colonists will go there - provided its done before they arrive.

Completely reshape the Martian environment before colonists arrive. If that is too ambitious and time consuming, just paraterraform part of it. We should just start "small" and terraform just the 4 mile deep Valles Marineris. It's depth would allow it to sustain (with some biological/industrial maintenance and replenishment) a sufficiently thick and breathable atmosphere. At 2500 miles long and 360 miles wide, it's area is 900,000 square miles (about the size of Alaska and Texas combined, more than enough room for any conceivable initial colonization effort). Cities could be carved into the canyon walls like pueblos. The colonists would then proceed with the terraforming of the rest of the planet.

If we become tunnel dwellers on Mars, we can live in floating cities on Venus. The upper reaches of the Venusian atmosphere are Earth like in terms of pressure and temperature and derigibles filled with a breathable oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere would be bouyant. We just got to protect the city's external skin from all that sulfuric acid. Factories in the floating city can extract carbon dioxide to produce carbon based nano structures which can be used to build even more cities or floating solar screens to block sunlight. Eventually, the dense, hot Venusian atmosphere can be rendered into habitable structures and sun screens.

As for not being able to return home if something goes wrong, that is the very nature of exporation. Sea going vessels during the age of sail had no idea where they were going, no port of refuge in case of storm, no sure source of water and victuals. Jungle explorers deep in Africa and the Amazon had no way of surviving if anything went wrong - and many didn't. Arctic explorers like Scott often starved or froze to death. Both the Jamestown and Plymouth colonies nearly died out from starvation. Other colonies like Roanoke did fail.

Just because ships get lost at sea doesn't mean you stop sailing. Just because explorers die doesn't mean you stop exploring. Just because colonies fail doesn't mean you stop colonizing.

Besides, as Buzz Aldrin points out, manned exploration of the solar system SHOULD be one way for the same reasons that the Pilgrims knew they were never going back to England and settlers travelling the Oregon Trail (with many dying along the way) were never going back East. Manned travel to Mars makes more sense if you plan on it being a one-way trip. A trip best made by senior citizens (aka "Geezers in Spaaaaace!").

Don't let the possibility of death scare you off. As Heinlein ponted out "Pioneering means discovering new ways to die".


"As Bruce Sterling observed, the Gobi Desert is a hell of a lot nearer and easier to colonize than Mars"

Not only is the Gobi being colonized, China just brutally put down rioting in a major city there. OK, I admit that's attacking the metaphor, as Urumqi is in one of the less extreme bits of what gets called the Gobi. But hey, pedantry is fun :).

More on point, back when you could make mad amounts of money on the Silk Road there were strings of cities in the Taklamakan, a desert so brutal the name is translated as "you go in but don't come out" (the Taklamakan sometimes gets lumped in with the Gobi). Even so, people didn't move there en masse for kicks, and I have no idea if there ever will be a space equivalent for the silk.


@67, by tp1024:

"Three reasons all in line with historic events:"

I'll hit these in reverse order.

"3) Big North Korea: new leader of some country says he wants to and gives little his minions little choice but to do what he says."

The trick is that the country would have to have the resources to do this (N. Korea is doing good to launch an IRBM) and have a political system to divert massive resources into such a project and be in a position where outside interference was difficult (e.g., the USA/EU/Russia decides that they don't want Whackjobland colonizing space, and cut off tech exports).

"2) Bridges to nowhere: We have a recession, to jumpstart the economy we need some massive spending. How about spending a few hundred billion dollars on a mars colony to relief unemployment or at least seem to be doing so. The US has already spend $700 billion officially in one year and my estimate is a mere $500 billion per year. ;)"

Considering that there's a massive number of large projects which need to be done at home, and which have political patrons, this is unlikely. And long-term stimulus is less useful to the political system.

"1) Religion: (E.g.) A new sect has formed in the 90ies after reading the Mars Trilogy in a church and consuming way too much LSD. They believe that Jesus will walk the ear^h^h^h^mars in 2061. Problem is, you have to be there to see him. Nothing the Egyptians wouldn't have done."

That's very nice, and they can have themselves a compound in the desert, ...., but running a many-billion $/year project for 20 years?


Well, I didn't say it is particularly reasonable. But neither was building the Pyramids or the statues of Easter Island. Both putting a similar, I'd argue much greater, strain on the population of the respective countries compared to the US military and US population. And now try and justify the usefulness of those ... It's all just a matter of how many people in the right places are convinced they are doing the right thing (TM). And suddenly, people start building pyramids instead of better housing. It's not reasonable, but as real as it gets.

Also, if the US had had todays technology and todays GDP, but 1960 consumption and 1960 needs, I'm not sure they would have STOPPED at colonizing mars. Apollo was hugely popular and only stopped because of very serious budget deficits, not because it was unreasonable or unprofitable.

If the budget had been there to do it, Americans would not have thought twice about going to Mars right after the Moon. It's only after Apollo was scrapped that a considerable part of the population even started thinking whether the whole space travel thing was reasonable or not.

The mind set of the people is all that matters.

Germany spent $7 billion on "cash for clunkers". That's not reasonable either.

Or talking about massive annual sums of money: finance makes up 14% of the US economy, more than twice the defense budget. And it's not like you couldn't get the same service out of it for half the work. In other words, its completely and utterly wasted and you don't even have pretty pictures of space suits in red sand to show for it.

Trust me, I think this is more unreasonable than having a colony on Mars would be. But just because it is less unreasonable doesn't mean you should do it.


Completely reshape the Martian environment before colonists arrive. If that is too ambitious and time consuming...

Why yes. Yes it is.

If there was a human survivable environment floating around in the solar system, I, and I suspect 95% of the the manned space skeptics here, would be saying "Giant Rockets! Manned Explorations! Do it! Now! Before the Russians/Chinese/Indians/Americans get there!"

(I'd have volunteered for astronaut training, been rejected (too tall, heavy and bad eyesight) and probably tried to slip into some sort of space science program at university as a starry-eyed youth in the 90s)

If we need to terraform or paraterraform before we go there then we need to solve the rocket design and cost problems being discussed here first. If that happens (and I'm more optimistic than our host - we need a magic-wand breakthrough, but any one of a dozen will do) then we can maybe discuss how to get people out there. I'd suggest banning* kids from reading science fiction to raise a generation of fanatical wanna-be space colonists, but other people may have better ideas.

  • Because force-feeding them it will turn them off, but if it's banned, they're sure to read it

If people were sensible about interplanetary flight, they'd be assembling "nuclear lightbulb" rockets in orbit, something that could hot rock as reaction mass for the return. Chemical boosters from down the gravity well are like pyramids versus skyscrapers - you can get there with an army of mooks and a king's ransom, but you don't end up creating a technology or a capital base that makes it easier to repeat.

Also, if they were sensible they wouldn't be headed to the moon (which is mostly useless and has an inconvenient gravity well). They'd be headed to the asteroids, to mine them for profit.


"if the US had had todays technology and todays GDP, but 1960 consumption and 1960 needs"

In other words, if the US was a feudal state where most of the GDP went on things that were completely useless to the population. If it was more like North Korea, let's say, or Soviet Russia. Because those are both classic examples of Societies With Their Priorities in the Right Place.

Yes, if you had a feudal state with the GDP of the US that failed to supply the material needs of its people, and instead wasted all its productive effort on useless megaprojects, it could have colonized Mars by now with a few hundred or a thousand miserable, cold, lonely, radiation-bombarded souls who could live there for a few years or a decade until the screaming insanity of "colonizing" a cold, dead planet with no atmosphere got to them and they either killed themselves or fled back to Earth (at colossal expense).

Really, it's hard to see what kind of right-thinking person wouldn't support that vision for the future.

KSR has a lot to answer for. Well, OK, he'd probably be the first to tell you that the Mars books were fantasy, so that's not at all fair, but you know what I'm saying.

As for the human return to the moon: when I was a kid I was sad that nobody had been to the moon in my lifetime or that there weren't permanent bases there. As an adult I realize that the fact that people have been there at all is a durable accomplishment, and that permanent bases there would be - at best - like being stuck in an airport for a reaaaally long time. That doesn't mean Apollo should be the high-water mark of human spaceflight, and a human flight to Mars would be another astonishing accomplishment. I would pay for that (technically, I am paying for that) because I think the technical spin-offs probably justify the cost, and that it would be as profound a symbol of the need for reconciliation and peace on Earth as the photos from the Apollo missions were: the exceptional smallness of the Earth compared to the distance to even the closest planet to us; the demonstration, on arrival on Mars, that the most Earthlike planet we know of is a desolate, lifeless hell compared to even the worst environments on Earth.

But permanent bases on the moon or Mars serve no purpose. We don't have the technology or the money anyway. And the first manned trip to Mars will make it perfectly clear that nobody but the insane would want to stay there, so I don't think that will be a problem.

Now, give it another few decades, give us self-replicating robots and superstrong materials and tailored extremophile organisms and fusion reactors at Wal-Mart, what is practical will change. But those things aren't here yet, and they wouldn't be the products of a larger manned spaceflight program. We already know we need them for lots of other purposes, and we're already working hard on them, so we just have to be patient.

Anyway, I guess I support the manned program's evolution back to an Apollo/Soyuz-style capsule-based system, and the final, well-deserved junking of the shuttle, long may it rust, but I certainly don't support it on the basis of delusional ravings about colonization, and I think that much more of the useful science will (continue to) get done by the robotic program.

(And with Really Big Dumb Boosters from the manned program, you can send Really Really Big Robots to Mars and other interesting places, and maybe even have them come home with nifty souvenirs. Another really big outer-planets mission would be cool.)


if the US was a feudal state where most of the GDP went on things that were completely useless to the population

Take a really hard look around you in the US and think about whether or not the conditional was the right grammatical device to use in this sentence.


Julian@73: Given the hoopla over Cassini's Earth flyby a couple of years ago, because of the probe's radioisotope batteries, I'd say that we won't be seeing flying nuclear reactors any time soon.


Mauro, nuclear reactors -- not RTGs but full-up reactors -- have been flying regularly for the past four decades ... on military satellites (e.g. the Soviet/Russian RORSATs. (I don't know whether the USA's equivalent -- the NRO Lacrosse satellites -- are nuclear powered.)


jacob @ 74: self-replicating robots and superstrong materials and tailored extremophile organisms and fusion reactors... wouldn't be the products of a larger manned spaceflight program. We already know we need them for lots of other purposes, and we're already working hard on them, so we just have to be patient.

This is true, important, obvious, but all too often overlooked. Tech that advances fast is tech that is wanted in many domains, so that the cost is shared widely and amortized fast. All historical parallels are dubious, but think about aviation 1903-1933. Improved power/weight from piston engines was a crucial driver. Now: was anybody else designing, manufacturing, using, refining a metric buttload of piston engines in those years?

Might that have provided a wide, deep base (economies of scale, skilled personnel, learning curve, etc.) to support progress that accelerated progress in aviation engines at the high end?

Anyone? Bueller?


Monte @ 78: The car and motorcycle industry probably had most influence in training a cadre of engineers and enthusiasts around 1900; after c.1910 the needs of the automobile and the aero-engine industries diverged too far for the former to have much influence on the latter. Most of the performance improvement came entirely from the aero-engine side of things, where development was funded by the military, who didn't really care if there were motorcar spinoffs. The serious problems that people such as Ford had in mass-producing aircraft and engines suggest that many of the high-tech advances in aero-engines were simply too expensive to have had much effect on Detroit.


On a space-related but not directly Apollo note, last night I watched live on NASA TV as the shuttle launched from Florida at 11.03pm my local time. About 20 minutes later I stood in my garden (in south west England) and watched it fly overhead.

There was something brighter and orangey about a half-fingernail below it flying in formation and I realised it was the detached external fuel tank. (Somehow I'd always assumed it fell into the Atlantic like the solid boosters but there isn't time and they fall into the Pacific or Indian ocean instead).

It's the first time I'd seen that; I guess most shuttle launches are earlier in the day, not 6 in the evening EDT, so it is not dark enough in the UK. No-one in the US can ever see it, but it must be a more common sight in, say, Saudi Arabia, looking at where the ground track is.

A few minutes after that (11.40) the ISS passed by as well.


Damn, that sound's so easy if you think about it.



Since you're talking about missile accuracy, I have to point to a very interesting report from the US Congressional Budget Office.

The gap was closing by that point in the Cold War, but US missiles still had a big accuracy advantage.

I once showed an architect friend of mine this, and he was astounded to find out that people built buildings designed to resist 5,000 psi of blast overpressure.


Space mission tech lag mean that what people think they 'need' and then don't. Telescopes on the moon - don't bother we have the Hubble and its orbiting replacements.

That's the problem

Space exploration has made us all look at the planet we all call home rather than manned space exploration. Better computers mean unmanned space flight is better and risk free.

Moon volleyball or some 'sport' seems a bit a retarded reason to go back to the moon and you all know some idiot at nasa would suggest it if they do go back.


Charlie@77: wow, I didn't know that! And the reactor is ejected from LEO to a "safe" high orbit after the mission is done - Michio Kaku would have a cow if he heard that.

Reading Saturn's Children and loving it - thank you!


Not to start the whole space colonization argument up again, but there's a fundamental technology missing, and it's not a propulsion system. Right now, we have 3 humans living in space at all times, sometimes increasing by up to 3 at a time for short periods (ISS, right?). We can't keep them up there without continuous shipments of supplies from earth because we have no clue how to build a closed-cycle environment efficient enough not to need resupply constantly. I mean that literally, we have no idea how to do it at this point; lots of thoughts and theories, sure, but no notion of something that scales in both time and space.

So how do we go beyond the moon (which I'll assume we can constantly resupply if we really need to) on multi-year trips? How do we keep the "construction shack" going on Mars while we do the terra-forming? Until that problem is solved, the whole question of sending humans on long space trips is academic.


In line with the previous comment, I think the best reply to the "all eggs in one basket" argument has to be this: We only have one basket. All investment in egg-putting is futile without significant advances in basket-weaving. Space colonization now could be compared to taking one of the eggs in our basket and balancing it on top of a pencil which is balanced on its point on a tightrope strung over a fjord.


Getting to Mars is not desperately hard, and living there is not desperately hard either. Read Zubrin's book. The trick is to realize that you don't need a load of new technology to do it: developing new technologies for the purpose would cost a couple of orders of magnitude more money than just doing it with the technology we've had for several decades. You don't need terraforming. You don't need closed-cycle ecosystems. You don't need fusion power. You don't need new propulsion technologies. You need a few tens of billions of dollars and the determination to go to Mars (as opposed to, say, propping up random parts of the aerospace industry).

However, our esteemed host is quite right that we don't have, and are unlikely to get, a good reason to do it. There's no money in manned space. There's essentially no science in manned space. Propping up random parts of the aerospace industry is much better done with arms or LEO projects (which don't have to actually work).

This is why the Chinese will do it first, for national prestige.


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