Sunday, October 14, 2007

Virgin Not Looking So Galactic

Tussman's Law: Nothing is as inevitable as a mistake whose time has come.

Last week, I was offering an opinion about the planned spaceport in New Mexico. I mentioned that Virgin Galactic thought it could launch its high priced roller-coaster ride by 2009. It seems I was being overly optimistic. The Register reports that Virgin is now talking about a launch being "several years away" and that they are still awaiting the results of an investigation into the explosion during their static engine firing.

Let's see, this is 2007, the spaceport is supposed to be ready in 2010 (using $225 mil of New Mexico taxpayer dough), even though they haven't lifted a single shovelfull of dirt, and now the only outfit that will actually use the silly thing is talking about a launch being several years down the line.

Yes, I know, "several" can mean "three", but let's be realistic. In the context of a company that's taken in $20 million in ticket sales against an order for roughly $130 million of SpaceShipTwos that have not yet been successfully tested in any way, we're probably looking at a lot longer than 3 years.

I suspect that Sir Richard Branson, smooth operator that he is, doesn't really care if Virgin Galactic ever launches. In fact, he'd probably be better off if it never got off the ground. What he wanted was publicity in the same way that Pan Am got publicity for selling tickets for Moon flights after 2001:A Space Odyssey was released. I have no problem with that. My problem is with governments squandering public money to build a spaceport that has no customers.

And don't count on commercial ISS support any time soon. RocketPlane Kistler is on the rocks, having fired its CEO, usually a sign of serious trouble. NASA has given RpK notice that they won't be getting any more of that $207 million promised to them because they have failed to raise the $500 million in capital required. Note that we won't be getting back any of the $32 million RpK has squandered so far, and NASA is going to see if they can find another rathole to pour the remaining $175 million down.

Michael "we don't need no stinkin' science missions" Griffin, head of NASA, has apparently been talking out of both sides of his mouth, at one moment saying that RpK's failure doesn't hurt the COTS program while concluding a contract with the Russians to support the Orbiting Turkey.

This would all be pretty amusing if it didn't involve public funds and wasn't giving space exploration a black eye. Worse, the Chinese and Japanese are reinventing the wheel, or space craft, by planning manned lunar missions. So two Asian superpowers are squandering funds when, at the very least, they could be cooperating. Better yet, the U.S. and Russia could be cooperating with both of the Asian nations so that they wouldn't have to recreate technologies that have been around for nearly 40 years.

That would, of course, require an immense degree of common sense and a common plan, both of which have been completely absent from the arena of manned space flight.

Given the record of the current administration, we could hardly expect anything else.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

How to Put $225 Million to Good Use

Mos Eisley spaceport. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious. ~ Obi-Wan Kenobi

Newspapers and news web sites are notorious for misleading headlines, and this one is no exception:

What one learns slogging through the article is that the New Mexico Spaceport Authority unveiled a design for a spaceport that might be ready in 2010 for a presumed flight of Virgin Galactic's high-priced roller coaster. Of that ride, we have only heard of a test firing explosion at a "desert spaceport." That little setback hasn't dampened the hubris at Virgin Galactic, which thinks it can still launch from somewhere by 2009.

Also mentioned in the article is how this spaceport that looks like a Xylon ship from Battlestar Gallactica is going to cost New Mexico taxpayers $225 million dollars. I suppose this could be worse; the taxpayers could be shelling out for some domed stadium for some multi-millionaire baseball team owner. Certainly, it's not unusual for tax dollars to go to pay for airline terminals or other transportation stations, but a spaceport for joyriding wealthy celebrities seems like a dubious way to spend state funds.

As long as we're in the twilight zone, we should take note of the latest scheme to protect us against near-earth-objects that could crash into our planet. This bit of brilliance involves using mirrors to focus sunlight on the asteroid to melt rock and cause the object to change its course. This is reminiscent of a similar idea floated on a science/space program on the Discovery axis of channels some months ago. And it has the same problems.

First of all, trying to keep the mirrors focused on a single spot or spots is going to be difficult beyond words. Second, it would take months of this focusing to deflect the rock sufficiently to miss the Earth. We may not get months of warning. In fact, most likely we won't. New NEO's are found regularly, generally when they're passing very close to us. If they were on a collision course with, say, Detroit, it would be way too late to do anything about it.

The problem is that no one has really come up with a good means for deflecting large rocks with evil intentions from their orbits. We also don't have a way to smash them to smithereens that wouldn't end up with rather large smithereens smashing into various places on the planet.

I don't know the answer to this problem, but I do know that we should get very serious about finding a method of protecting ourselves. Given the history of impacts on Earth, we're way overdue for something to come along and ruin our collective day.

Maybe we should be spending our $225 million dollars on trying to save our necks rather than build spaceports for ships that may never get off the ground.

Monday, October 01, 2007

The Orbiting Turkey

The International Space Station is an orbital turkey. ~ Steven Weinberg

Last night, I was watching 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was on Turner Classic Movies. Now, I've watched the Odyssey movies and have read all the novels right through 3001. I have enjoyed the books and the movies and have the greatest respect for Arthur Clarke, their creator. However, something has always bugged me about the first movie
. The best way to explain what it is that bothers me is to give specifics.
  • The moon base is the size of Detroit. Okay, maybe not, but it is huge. Even in 1968, it was hard to imagine, when we hadn't even landed on the moon yet, that we would be able to launch massive amounts of people and materials to build such a huge structure.

  • The landing pad on the moon is totally impractical. It's bad enough that you have this immense dome that opens by splitting into wedges which go down into the ground. Once the ship lands, it's lowered down a multi-story elevator into some area which, presumably is flooded with air. How they deal with the amounts of air they would lose every time they did this is beyond me. In fact, why do you need a dome and an elevator? How about we land, extend a flexible airlock (or send a vehicle to the ship that has its own airlock system), and let everyone come in?

  • The space station is monumental in size, although it fits the design most people thought would be used: a circular station that would rotate to provide an illusion of gravity. The method of landing the ship on the station, spinning the space ship at the same rate as the station rotates is just silly.

  • The titanic space ship Discovery I is nearly at Jupiter 18 months from a standing start, which includes planning the mission, building the ship, and training a crew.
So there was some silly technology on display, but the main thing is that the level of progress in space technology Clarke envisioned occurring in 33 years was beyond belief.

Now, I'm sure Clarke did not imagine that, once we had landed on the moon, the U.S. and the Soviet Union would promptly decide that we didn't need to be doing that anymore. In fact, Clarke hints in 2001 and outright says in 2010 that the U.S. and Soviets are partners in space. Of course, by 2010 they're at each other's throats politically (even though they can get together to send another mission to Jupiter), but all that gets fixed when Jupiter becomes a star.

At the rate things are going in Russia these days, we may be needing that alien assistance by 2010.

However, this discussion isn't about failed foreign policies, it's about space. More particularly, it's about Clarke's vision versus the fact of the monstrosity that is the International Space Station. What really got me thinking about this was Dr. Steven Weinberg's withering attack on the ISS. Steven Weinberg is nobody's dummy. He is a Nobel Prize winner, who deals in cosmology, particle physics, and astrophysics, among other things.

It so happens I agree with his criticisms, but coming from me, such sentiments don't carry much weight. That's why it's nice to see a Nobel Laureate speaking out. One can take exception to his statement that "Human beings don't serve any useful function in space", but the way we approach space exploration it's hard to find fault with that. People in space should mean colonization, moving outward from planet Earth, not babysitting some hunk of machinery that doesn't really seem to have much of a purpose.

In the fifties and the sixties, futurists were imagining the building a significant structures in space as platforms to launch colonization efforts and as science platforms. Now, in the 21st century, we still can't do real construction in space. Every module has to be sent up as a finished product and Tinker-Toy(R) attached to the mess that's already there.

So we've got a cobbled-together collection of modules that hold three people whose main job seems to be to just keep the thing working.

That's the crux of Dr. Weinberg's tirade. Science is being sacrificed for an ISS that hasn't generated anything of use. Even the late, lamented SkyLab returned a ton of information on the behavior of the Sun. ISS hasn't generated a single significant piece of science during its entire tenure.

What's worse, funds for science that could lead to finding us a new place to live someday is being sacrificed to spend gobs of money planning missions to the Moon and Mars that will, in all likelihood, never happen. Given the current state of affairs in the U.S. and Russian space programs, it's probable that China will be on the Moon long before anyone else. Worse, they will have wasted huge amounts of money re-inventing technology that NASA had in the 1960's.

Of course, NASA is doing the same thing now, with COTS and Orion.

The problem is that no one has a vision of what space is about. Precious resources are being wasted on building tourist rides or to have private companies suck up federal funds to build space ships comparable to those built 30 to 40 years ago. Well, some companies are sucking up funds; at least one is getting kicked out of the trough. Hopefully, some others will follow, given some of the definitions of "success" we've heard bandied about.

What we desperately need is a plan that involves all the potential space-faring nations, and that plan needs to put science first. If some yahoo wants to spend his own billions to sell roller coaster rides to the lower edge of space to rich folks with a few hundred thousand dollars to spend to throw up, that's fine. But get out of the way of real progress. And leave my tax dollars alone.

The real question is what to do with the white elephant of near space, the ISS. It seems like a prodigious waste to bring it down (which would be no easy or cheap task). The trouble is that, as it is progressing, there seems to be little it will ever do but require a crew to keep it afloat. Perhaps the solution is to attach a booster to it and send it into the Sun. I don't know.

I do know this, though. Until we have an idea of what we are doing in space, we need to spend our time on science missions learning as much as we can. That science just might help guide us to make smarter decisions about what role human beings really have out there.

Of course, we'll need some smarter human beings making the decisions first.