Friday, December 5, 2014

Orion and Beyond

I find that I have an attitude that seems odd compared to many folks I run across.  It's rather common to hear people talk about wishing they were young again.  I wouldn't want to go back to college age, or farther (shudder).  I don't even particularly want to go back to the best years of young adulthood, when we were established and even starting to get ahead.  I'm pretty OK where I am.  If I had H.G. Wells Time Machine, though, I'd push that lever forward, not backward. 

But there are disadvantages to being an old guy, one of which is the possibility of not being around to see this come to fruition.
A friend of a friend took time off from work to witness today's test flight of the new Orion capsule.  As a bonus, the capsule was mounted on a Delta IV Heavy, the most powerful rocket in the US these days, and those are always cool to watch.  The launch time of 7:05 was right around the time I leave for work, but I was planning on going in a little later and watching it. As the count resumed at 7:01, we heard rain starting to hit the roof.  While it was clear at the KSC, it was raining here and we didn't try going out to look.

Orion is the first component to fly in the Space Launch System, the SLS, that ultimately is planned to take a crew to Mars.  There's a sequence of launch vehicles being planned; the smaller one of which has more liftoff thrust and payload than a Saturn V.
The smaller vehicle will be used for missions closer to Earth than a few million miles.  Not just moon missions, but LaGrange point missions.  The larger vehicle is intended for Mars trips.  The smaller vehicle is well into conceptual design and modeling.  It uses upgraded shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters, and the liquid fueled main engines from the shuttle for its core. 

When?  Well, the advertised times have the 70 Metric Ton launch vehicle flying by 2021 and the 130 Metric Ton vehicle by the 2030s.  Needless to say, those are subject to slipping out, especially as the US financial situations worsens (as it seems it eventually must).  Of course, if there's a total collapse, all of this is moot. 

I've written before about my sense of loss at seeing the US lose manned access to space.  The country that put men on the moon now has to buy access from the Russians, who are flying a ship first designed at the dawn of the space age.  In one of his videos, Bill Whittle points out the frightening fact that no one born after 1935 has ever walked on the moon.  Not before 1935, after.  They are all old men, and are leaving us.  In a few years, I expect dear granddaughter to ask me something like, "Grandpa, is it true men went to the moon when you were a boy?"  And that will break my heart.

I've also written about the bigger picture of whether or not NASA should be doing space flight at all:
Should NASA be involved in this sort of program?  Frankly, I don't know.  I believe a project like the International Space Station isn't something NASA should be doing: it's too routine, too commercial.  The truth of the ISS appears to be NASA needed a mission for its shuttle, and the ISS is a natural fit.  NASA should be leading edge; developing new technologies, like hypersonic transports, cheaper ways to orbit, Warp engines and things with long payback periods, things that companies probably would not invest in.  NASA is now institutionally risk-averse.  They've gone from "The Right Stuff" to arthritic bureaucracy, but that's natural for a government organization that's hung out to dry when something goes wrong (see Hubble Space Telescope, Challenger, Columbia...).  There may not be a commercial reason to go to Mars, so NASA should do that.  There are certainly commercial and scientific reasons to go to the moon and set up a permanent base for many things: science research (the far side of the moon is an ideal place for giant telescopes, radio and optical) and mining (Helium 3 can be mined on the moon and may be the next great fuel). This seems like a place for an industry/NASA team to figure out how to do such things.  
Of course, we never get to know the future.  Anyone of us could die tonight.  If the SLS and Orion proceed as planned, I'll be in my 80s when we get to Mars.  Maybe well into my 80s.  Sure would like to see it, though. 


  1. I'm interested in the Space Studies Institute E-Lab project, which is supposed to study closed environment life support and life cycles; I guess another try at Biosphere 2...

  2. I don't believe space flight is practical or can in the end even work. Could we transport a human to the moon or Mars? Of course but only with massive amounts of money. Could they survive on the moon or Mars? No but with an even more massive amount of money we could keep them alive for awhile. Is there anyway this could be extended to "nearby" planets? There is not enough money to put men on other planets and keep them alive. Perhaps, and this is doubtful, we could send live humans there but they would probably arrive dead or die soon afterwards. So why would we do this? Because some people will benefit tremendously either directly through enrichment siphoning off some of that money or through a less direct approach by feeding their ego and desire for fame. But as a practical matter it is a total waste of money, time and effort. I would rather see all of the money spent on the space program spent finding a cure for cancer.

  3. Anon 1157 - I've seen that argument hundreds of times, but you've got to understand that as an engineer, I just see those as a more problems to solve. It's quite true that at there's no place in our solar system that looks like we could move there, but I don't think that means there's no answer.

  4. Anon, I think you're missing the point. Several of them, actually.

    First, it's in our DNA to learn, explore, develop, improve, grow. At least for some of us.

    Second, there will be, at some point, another life ending event on our little rock. Absolute proof is a bit thin, but evidence indicates that dinosaurs died out about 65 million years ago due to just such an event, and there's some evidence that it was not the first in earth's 4.5 billion year existence.

    It's highly doubtful that human life would fare much better in a repeat performance. At the very least, whomever was left would be starting a fresh civilization from pretty close to scratch. So, if humans are to persevere, we need more baskets to keep our eggs in. Two is one, one is none, etc. That means, first, belief in something bigger, and more important, than just us and where we are now, and second, doing something about it.

    I've seen estimates that human-type life, in some form, has been on this planet for, maybe, 100K-150K years, so that's the time we required to go from climbing out of the soup and learning to walk upright to space flight; getting back to where we are now wouldn't take 100K+ years, but even a millenia is an excruciatingly long time in human terms.

    To SiG's point, our ancestors didn't make the St. Louis-to-Pacific trip in one hop, nor did all who ventured forth complete the trip. Lives and entire fortunes were staked, and many lost, on the venture. I've seen estimates that our current technology allows the ability to gain meaningful information on the universe out to about 450 light years; that's a pretty good range in which to find suitable quarters (one light year is almost 6 trillion miles), and who knows what's farther out, or just how far "farther out" goes.

    Seems to me it's high time we hitch up our big boy pants, accept the risks, challenges and costs, and start the next level of The Great Adventure. Hiding under the bed doesn't accomplish much.

  5. Alien - that's a really great answer.

    Current astronomy seems to be telling us that something I automatically assumed to be true when I was kid really is true. When the dust and gas clouds condense to form star systems, depending on the chaotic distribution of stuff (in the nonlinear PDE (partial differential equation) sense), they either form multiple star systems or planetary systems. That means the stars in that 450 million light year sphere are literally teeming with planets. Furthermore, the idea that a large moon of a gas giant planet might be hospitable is not strictly the domain of Star Wars.

    Now getting there ain't gonna be easy, but (as I've talked about here, there is theoretical backing for the idea of warp drive and impulse engines, long the staple of SciFi. That's just the start of a list of problems, but probably the biggest ones.

    The next really great technology we need to work on is terraforming.

  6. Alien your answer goes right to my point. We can't leave this earth and move to another planet it is a sci fi dream. The physics and reality simply isn't there. It costs billions to move a ton from here to the nearest uninhabitable planet and if we were to find an inhabitable planet 5 light years away it would cost trillions to move a ton there. But the ton of living stuff, like humans, wouldn't even survive. We aren't going anywhere. This is it! If we screw up this planet then there are no second chances.
    But the other half of my point was about the tremendous waste to appease this desire of some to enrich themselves at the expense of others. Satellites yes space stations no. It's too expensive, doesn't return enough for the investment and we live in a time where our wasteful spending is about to seriously impact life and quality of life in ways we aren't going to like. I'm not saying that NASA is the ony wasteful government department but it is the one that was brought up. I am also in favor of doing away with the EPA, Dept of education, Dept of energy, Dept of labor, Dept of agriculture, HHS, HUD, DOT, etc. The U.S. is about to go bankrupt because of excessive spending and our government is destroying the middle class with excessive taxation. I would far prefer that those with grandiose dreams of traveling to other planets buy a good sci fi book and read it instead of encouraging the government to spend a singe dime in the effort.

  7. You want to see space explode? Declare all income earned by US citizens above 99 miles altitude to be tax-free, and then get out of the way. There'll be hotels and casinos and even long-term condos a-go-go up there faster than you can say "zero-g sex".

  8. You want to see space explode? Declare all income earned by US citizens above 99 miles altitude to be tax-free, and then get out of the way. There'll be hotels and casinos and even long-term condos a-go-go up there faster than you can say "zero-g sex".

    Winnah!! Winnah!! We have a winner! Tam, add this one to your collection of Internets. Did you build on an addition for them yet?

  9. There is another point to be made as well. Consider how much of today's technology has come about as an off-shoot from devices and materials developed for the space program. Medical technology and other benefits have originated there as well.

    And for those whining about how much it will cost, I feel pretty certain that mining near-earth orbit asteroids could repay the costs involved in developing the technology to do so.

    And when you consider that the People's Republic of China currently have control of most of the rare earth elements being mined, there could very well be a strategic value to mining those asteroids, too.

    On the downside, now that The Won has tasked NASA with muslim "outreach", what do you bet that the next major mission will include a muslim crew member? I mean, gosh, we got all of our science and math from them, didn't we? Like the Fibonacci Sequence - wasn't Fibonacci a muslim? And wasn't it a muslim rug maker who first came up with String Theory?

  10. @Anon (again, and, last time, I promise):

    We can't leave this earth and move to another planet it is a sci fi dream. ... This is it! If we screw up this planet then there are no second chances.

    Well, then, we'd better start getting prepared for humanity, as we know it, to disappear forever. It's a foregone conclusion that we're halfway through the life cycle on this planet; somewhere around 4 to 5 billion years into the future, our sun will begin to burn out as its fissionable fuel is consmed, turning into a Red Giant and expanding to a very much larger, weaker star, incinerating our planet.

    Game over. Forever.

    There is a hypothesis that our 15 billion-year-old universe (assuming our age estimates are correct) is still expanding, will continue to expand for X billion years, at which point it'll begin contracting for Y billion years, gravitational attraction pulling the mass together until all matter is compressed into a single, uncontainable point where the mass becomes energy and the Big Bang happens all over again. It's not "game over," it's "reset button" with totally random results; the game you were playing doesn't restart at the beginning, it's now a totally different game, with completely different rules, and by the way, all the players - assuming there areplayers - are new.

    I have no clue if that's how it actually works, but if that's the sequence then we might as well all lie down and expire because obviously there's no hope whatsoever of humanity's survival, anywhere; let's give up now and save ourselves all the trouble and expense of venturing into the beyond to search for stuff we don't even know we're searching for, and in the meantime let's burn the Quik Trip down because of real or imagined slights because 9:45 PM Tuesday is the most important point ever in the cosmic flow of time.

    I'm assuming you would have burned Copernicus, Magellan, Columbus, Perry, Salk, Fleming, Bohr, et al at the stake because the resources they consumed in exploration could have been put to better use feeding the poor, or paving a street, or painting your house.

    Humans, for the entire time we've been here, have been saddling up and riding out into the unknown to do the unknowable because that's what we do. It's not just our mission, it's our existence. Those who made it back brought knowledge and built a higher step from which to launch the next foray.

    I, for one, am ready to appoint Tam as Minister of Getting Out Of The Way so we can get started.

  11. Anonymous at December 7, 2014 at 1:09 PM, your claims are disproven, here is the evidence: There is an enormous amount of law prohibiting non-governmental rocketry and space exploration. All that law was passed because otherwise people would be doing those actitivies today. Same argument goes for private building of roads. The laws banning it exist because legislatures saw people doing it who were going to succeed.

  12. Graybeard,
    I've had the same nightmare. My first grandbaby is due in May of next year and it scares me silly to think he/she will ask me that question.

    That said, I have absolutely no faith in NASA to get us anywhere. NASA became a jobs program during Apollo when the NASA facilities were put wherever the most powerful congress-critters wanted them. The whole SLS project isn't really feasible and NASA would drop it if they could. But, congress won't let them; got to keep their constituents happy.

    Tam is more right than any of you. Until money can be made in space by private enterprise, man going to the moon permanently or Mars at all is a non-starter. Were I a rich man, I'd certainly pay to go to a low orbit hotel. I'm not alone in that. dream.

    And Anon, the science is much closer to supporting mankind on Mars than you may know. Costly, yes. But the money is spent here on earth employing a lot of people (see previous comments on NASA). Compared to what we spend on entitlements in this country the money to really fund a Mars mission isn't really that much. But, entitlements will win out every time because "votes" counts. Doing what's right and necessary for the nation or humankind...not so much.

  13. Anon,

    Your major point of contention seems to be that it's too expensive. Everything is too expensive until you do it, then do it a little better, then better still, and pretty soon it's cheap and ubiquitous. I'm sure people in the 60's and 70's would have had the same reaction you have to the idea of miniaturizing computers so everyone could have one. Too expensive, impractical, better uses for the money, etc. Let the engineers have a crack at the problem, and we will find a way to solve it.

    However, I don't think it will be NASA solving the problem. I have a few friends who work there and the culture is simply not conducive to risk-taking and making major leaps in technology. The advances will be coming from the private sector.