February 11, 2003
Space Shuttle Replacements And Space Exploration

On the NuclearSpace.com website Robert Zubrin argues that the Space Shuttle is a very inefficient way to put people into space.

In truth, the shuttle is not a space lift vehicle at all; rather, it is a self-launching space station. It is not a truck with a heavy hauling capability, it is a Winnebago whose primary function is to move itself. The shuttle at lift off has the same thrust as a Saturn V moon rocket, yet it has only 15 percent of the payload, because 85 percent of the mass it delivers to orbit is that of the orbiter itself. This is why it is the least efficient payload delivery system ever flown.

Zubrin argues that the Shuttle's rockets could be used more productively with an unmanned upper stage to put payloads into orbit that are as big as what the Saturn V could launch. While this might be a good idea given where we stand right now it demonstrates just how far we haven't progressed since the Apollo program was cancelled. If we make the right decision we can have as much launch capability as the Saturn V provided. Oh geez, why am I not excited?

Zubrin also argues for the creation of a new human carrying spaceplane which would not try to carry cargo with the humans and which therefore would be small enough to sit at the top of expendable rockets (Delta or Atlas) and which would be able to fly back to Earth. It would be able to fly itself away from a Delta or Atlas that failed and, since it would sit entirely above the rocket, would not be susceptible to damage from pieces falling off the rocket. This is not a new idea. As John Pike points out in a New York Times article the idea was under discussion in the 1960s.

Mr. Pike said the concept of a reusable plane on top of an expendable rocket dates from the 1960's, before NASA decided on the shuttle. "When you sit down and do the math, if all you're trying to do is get people back and forth from a space station, that's what you want," he said. "That's the appropriate degree of reusability. After four and a half decades of the space age, the technology to do that is readily at hand. There's essentially no research required. It's literally off the shelf."

At this point it seems likely that NASA will use existing technology to build this kind of design that they should have pursued 40 years ago. They will probably build something better than what they could have built back then because materials science has advanced in the meantime and computers can test and change designs more rapidly than humans could in the pre-CAD/CAE era. But they won't push the envelope of what is possible when they build that spaceplane.

It is probably true that with current technology we could mount a human mission to Mars. Some proponents of a Mars mission argue that since it is technically possible to do it now we should therefore do it because it would be a huge step forward in human exploration. But while it would be a huge step forward in terms of the uniqueness of the accomplishment would it be an enabling step toward later steps? I think we ought to stop, step back, and look at what happened as a result of the human Apollo mission to the Moon. Once the trip had been made people quickly lost enthusiasm because basically it was expensive to do and there wasn't any way (absent even greater on-going expense) to maintain a permanent human settlement on the Moon. The Apollo program did not produce technology that made human presence in space or on the Moon into an economically viable proposition.

As long as the human presence in space is so expensive that it requires widespread public support to get tax money to fund it we are not going to go into space in any sustained fashion. We might be able to get public support to a high enough level at some point to do a Mars mission. But is it wise to do so? After it is over and the astronauts have returned to have their tickertape parade we could find ourselves back in the same position we were in as the Apollo program wound down. If we do not make technological advances that make a human presence cost-effective to maintain then a human presence isn't going to be maintained, let alone grow.

If we are to move into space in large numbers and sustain a human presence in space then we should put the development of new enabling technologies ahead of the building of hardware to execute large missions using existing technology. Building hardware and running missions with existing technology does not move us any closer to the creation of permanent self-supporting human settlements on the Moon or Mars. What it does is it delays the development of those settlements because it burns thru money doing things that do not push the technological envelope very far. If we compare where we are technologically to where we need to be to make self-sustaining settlements it is clear that there is a very large gap. We should make the closing of that technological gap be our highest funding priority. Among the technologies we should pursue toward that end:

  • Nuclear propulsion for human spacecraft.
  • Scramjet launch vehicles. Advances would need to be made in both materials science and in our understanding of the physics of the intake air in hypersonic flight.
  • Nanotechnology for making a cable to reach up into orbit.
  • Biological advances to discover how to prevent muscle and bone loss in low and zero gravity environments.
  • Biotechnological advances to grow foods and medicines for a remote colony.
  • Biotechnological advances to grow structures and fibers for a remote colony.

If there is to be a government-funded space program then it should pursue the achievement of longer term goals. The pursuit of shorter term goals has plagued the space program from its inception. The result after over 40 years of human space flight is a very expensive, unreliable and dangerous set of technologies for supporting human activity in space. It is time to learn from our mistakes and commit to working on the hard technical problems that must be solved to enable permanent self-sustaining human settlements off of planet Earth.

Update: Paul Krugman calls for an end to manned spaceflight using current rocket technology.

Does that mean people should never again go into space? Of course not. Technology marches on: Someday we will have a cost-effective way to get people into orbit and back again. At that point it will be worth rethinking the uses of space. I'm not giving up on the dream of space colonization. But our current approach -- using hugely expensive rockets to launch a handful of people into space, where they have nothing much to do -- is a dead end.

At the risk of sounding repetitive: We should work on making the large leaps in technology that would enable space travel and colonization to be done on a larger scale and on a more sustainable economically self-supporting basis. Money spent operating current technology is money poured down the drain.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 February 11 04:22 PM  Space Exploration

Bob said at February 11, 2003 5:56 PM:

Not to mention that NASA has not been particularly successful at safely delivering unmanned payloads to Mars in recent years.

I don't think we should have any confidence in their ability to deliver human passengers to Mars and return them alive until they can demonstrate a better overall safety record. Doing otherwise would be sort of like trusting a financial adviser whose past recommendations all lost money when he tells you you are due for a winner.

Michael Mealling said at February 11, 2003 8:53 PM:

In most cases (as you even mention in the article) the technology needed to get into space reliably and cheaply was initially developed in the 1960s. It was just never fully developed due to the emphasis on ballistic rocket technology for warhead delivery (hence the reason the X-15 series was dropped in favor of V-2 derived rockets. An X-15 can't deliver a warhead.)

The key to what will actually create the components of a sustainable in-space economy is more legal and business related than technological development. If the US government really wanted to create a viable US economic presense in space, it would clarify things such as space property rights, vehicle certification, launch permits, technology export restrictions, etc. Leave the technology development to the private market.

But, as others have said, the debate of any of these other alternatives is not being had because the overarching question of why we have a space program isn't being asked. "Space Exploration" isn't specific enough. Do we want to just 'do science' or do we want to colonize, industrialize, weaponize, etc?

Randall Parker said at February 11, 2003 11:01 PM:


The space program reminds me of the old Atomic Energy Commission. It was supposed to boost and regulate an industry at the same time. NASA's worse. It has too many missions. I am not certain just how NASA should be split up but it seems necessary to split it up.

I think it would help to have an agency that is for funding space science. Want to study planets? Or asteroids? Go to that agency to submit a proposal. Or move that function into the National Science Foundation. Get it well away from the agency that does the manned program. We need to make it as clear as possible that "exploration" is not science.

Separately I think there should be an agency for funding technological development for building better space launch and space travel and space work tech. Nuclear propulsion, scramjets, nanotubes for a cable into space, or an electromagnetic accelerator to launch materials would all be developed in that agency. Again, all of that isn't "exploration".

I don't even know what exploration is exactly. Should the government be funding the equivalent of the exploration on this planet where people did such things as being the first to climb Mt. Everest or reach the South Pole? If so, its the least important thing that NASA does.

I agree that big mistakes were made in the 1960s. The whole moon shot was a big mistake. The pursuit of ballistic missile development was done in part to help the military and in part because it was the fastest way to get to the moon.

I disagree that technology for getting cheaply and reliably into space has been created. I posted a link to a James Dunnigan article several days ago that had a nice table of launch failure rates for a variety of missiles from a variety of countries. Aside from the shuttle they all had 5 percent or higher failure rates. Compare that to the safety record of the aircraft industry. They have over 4 orders of magnitude higher failure rates than commercial aircraft.

Andy said at February 12, 2003 2:25 AM:

I agree that there is no need for new technology to reduce launch costs significanly (say by a factor of ten. new technology could probably reduce it n y another factor of ten). What is needed is to bring existing technologies together in a way that is cost effective. Any new rocketcraft should be:
Fully reusable,
Have a fast turnaround time and able to fly often,
habe an incrementalt test program.

Ideally NASA should not develop oroperate any new launchers, in my dream senario the US gov. offers a prize (as Jerry Pournelle has suggested)- say, $1 billion for a fully reusable lauch vehicle capable of crew/cargo transfer to ISS, and to make it really interesting, half that amount to the runner up.

In my opnion, NASA should be split into three parts, one responsible for technology development (smilar to NACA), another (international?) body that runs ISS (and shuttle until its retired), and a final part that deals with exploration, both manned and unmanned.

ken anthony said at February 12, 2003 8:46 AM:

I find myself in complete agreement with your first part and almost completely in disagreement with your second part.

The Saturn vs. Shuttle payload percentages clearly define what we should do and the small reusable only for crew and not cargo on an expendable is such a no-brainer idea that even my feeble brain came up with it long ago and independantly.

To delay going to Mars is not going to move us forward faster (removing that money sinkhole NASA - but how to do that? - would probably do the trick.)

We absolutely should move forward on nuclear power for space settlements, because it really is a requirement. Reducing time of travel with a nuclear engine (beyond NERVA I would expect!) is a nice to have but not an absolute requirement to get moving. Development on that can go parallel to deployment with conventional engines. Perhaps we could send unmanned tuna cans first and catch up with crew later when the engines are ready (or if they are not we could still send the crew using chemical rockets.)

The idea that a problem must be studied to death or have 100 safety is the road to stagnation (China will be pulling ahead shortly if we take that route.)

We need to move forth steadily... not in a race and not as an academic adventure... but as real exploration with real explorers.

Randall Parker said at February 12, 2003 9:27 AM:

Guys, using old tech does not advance new tech. Quite often the company that develops the new tech is not even the same company that developed the old tech.

Ken, technological development is not the act of studying something. You can take existing hardware and do safety checks on it. That is not technological development. You can do safety analyses on a new design. That can be a part of technological development. But the key part of technological development is developing new designs and testing them.

Certainly one can learn something from using old designs. Discoveries about how the shuttle design is deficient have been made by figuring out why something broken (including, in the extreme, why people died). But the amount of technological advance we will get from that is pretty limited in terms of bang for buck.

The most cost effective way to advance space tech is to fund underlying scientific research needed to discover new materials and new understanding of extreme conditions (eg hypersonic conditions) and to fund the development of new designs and the building and testing of prototypes.

The National Science Foundation, by funding basic physics, chemistry, and materials science research, is doing more to enable the eventual settlement of other planets than NASA is. NSF has only a third of NASA budget's btw. That's a misallocation of funding.

What you get to watch (e.g. people rocketing off into space, floating in zero g, and stepping out onto a planet) does very little to advance technology. Money spent on things to watch now is money not spent on being able to do more radical things later. Do you want immediate gratification or bigger steps 10 or 20 years from now? The pursuit of more immediate gratification has stagnated the space program for decades now.

Michael Mealling said at February 12, 2003 1:19 PM:

You're suggesting that the goal is to create new technology? I'm sure a NACA like organization might be up to that but technology isn't needed. John Carmack is doing just fine using technology from the 60s and parts from the automobile racing industry. XCOR's X-15-esque prototype is also based mostly on COTs composites techniques I use on the rockets I build in my basement.

Again, please stop talking about what pet technology you think would make a good vehicle and instead talk about what you actually want to do in/with space and how that can actually be funded. Ask any aerospace engineer. The technology exists. It just takes the right constellation of interests to put them together. Figure out what those interests are and get them coordinated and then you've got something novel.

I also disagree that the technology doesn't exist. Comparing launch failure rates of existing launchers based on ICBM designs ignores almost all of the alternative, more efficient methods for getting into space. Most of the XPrize participants got their designs from 60s era NASA investigations into easier ways to get into space. All were rejected because they were to easy or not rocket based.

I also can't understand the knee-jerk desire to still have government agencies doing this stuff. Don't split NASA up. Just cut it way down and let the market handle some of this stuff. If Congress would just streamline the regulatory environment and establish some space property rights then you'd do more for a future space based economy than any government technology program ever could.

But I still digress, again, what do you want to be doing up there?

Randall Parker said at February 12, 2003 2:14 PM:

Michael, the goal for me is for large numbers of humans to be able go somewhere else and live. Colonize the Moon. Colonize Mars. Make colonies that can produce what they need to survive and grow. Doing those things requires much more technology than we have now.

I have no interest in paying tax dollars to allow a small number of people to go to places for the first time. I do not get any kicks out of watching a big rocket shooting up into space. I don't get any kicks out of watching a small elite of astronauts floating in zero g having an interview with Mrs Smith's 3rd grade class in Des Moines.

I don't want a space agency to build and operate an expensive small launch fleet. I just want the development of science and technology to advance far enough that private concerns will be able to build big cheap fleets.

If it was up to me the government manned space effort would be cancelled entirely until the military decided it had a military reason to put people into space. I'd confine the government to technological development that would eventually make private space efforts affordable. In a separate agency I could see the point of funding of space science with unmanned probes that could study planets, moons, asteroids, the sun and other stuff up there (the space science is pretty cheap).

Rand Simberg said at February 14, 2003 2:10 PM:

We can get large numbers of people into space, affordably, with existing technology. We simply have to invest in a vehicle designed to do that--something that's never happened, because no one, government or private industry, has seen a need for one.

Among the leading technologies that are not only not needed, but probably not even useful, are scramjets.

It's not a technology problem--it's a business, market, and general institutional problem.

Ken Anthony said at February 14, 2003 6:46 PM:

Just think what we could have done to advance in our use of space with all the money that's been wasted (and will continue to be wasted) on the shuttle fleet and the ISS?

It's not about technology. Technology will advance with time and as the needs become apparent. Yes, if we sent a colony ship to the nearest star there would probably be millions of people waiting for them when they arrived because the technology got better while they were on the trip. But let's call that long term. In the short term (traveling to Mars and the asteroids) the development time of any new technology is not going to pass by the determination of those that set out first now. My expectation is that a heavy lift vehicle would send unmanned habitats, then if nuclear drives are developed in time we use them to send the following teams of astronauts (= colonists, sticking a flag in the ground does nothing for me... been there, done that, rocks is rocks.) But we don't stand around with thumbs in butts waiting for technology to save us (dollars, time or anything else.)

I agree with remarks I've read from Rand that tourism is a viable avenue to space, and I cheer for that to happen. But we can proceed on other fronts too. I keep seeing livable real estate (that I never expect to personally stand on) one solar orbit away.

Is it possible to finance a colony with land futures or some other financial instrument? Let make NASA our gift to our friend and ally France, then let business do what business has always done.

We need a new Kaiser to build new liberty ships. Let's not listen to those that say it can't be done!

Randall Parker said at February 14, 2003 9:39 PM:

Rand, a lot of countries have built rockets and bring out new generations of rockets and, while some of them are cheaper, those that are cheaper are generally less reliable. Even within the United States there are multiple makers of launchers. They do major revs of their designs. Are they all incompetent?

You can say that the aerospace industry has institutional problems. But some of the same companies that make rockets also make commercial aircraft that are over 4 orders of magnitude safer and more reliable.

Bob said at February 15, 2003 9:55 AM:

Rand and Ken,

I find some of your statements unconvincing. For instance, Rand, you claim we can send large numbers of people into space affordably. Define 'affordably'.

From a business perspective, a cost is affordable if, after factoring in all other costs including the cost of capital, the eventual reward suffices to cover those costs plus a markup commensurate with the risks involved.

If it really is affordable, draw up a good business plan and investors will give you the money to do it. Demanding your neighbours pay for such a venture at the point of a gun is just plain wrong. And taxation comes at the point of a gun.

Ken, colonization is about economics. Yes, Mars has lots of land. Earth has lots of land too. Most of it is very cheap, and a lot of it is simply unused. If there were demand for arid, frozen land, the Canadian territories have billions of square miles of it to sell. With only a few tens of thousands of current residents up there, there's plenty of room left.

Columbus did not set sail to discover America. He convinced a wealthy investor to finance a shot at developing a competitive advantage for trading with India. People were already trading with India, and everyone knew that gobs and gobs of wealth rewarded expeditions that made it back. Making it back was impeded by Africa.

Had Columbus succeeded in developing a direct trade route with India across the Atlantic, his investors would have a method to accelerate their accumulation of gobs of wealth while simultaneously reducing their risk. His investors knew they were speculating, but they had some idea that their speculation might pay out in the end.

What does Mars have that anyone down here needs?

Mineral resources? Lots of that down here.
Land? Lots of that down here.
Freedom? Lots of that down here.
Opportunity? Lots of that down here.
Food? Lots of that down here too.

Other than imagining it would be a cool thing to do, what reason do we have to send anybody up there?

I agree that space tourism sounds promising. Lots of people would pay for a chance to hurl in free fall. At $20 million bucks a pop, the supply side is a little thin right now. Reduce the price to $20 thousand bucks a pop, and a lot more people will go up. Well, if they are not scared silly about burning up on reentry, that is.

Earth based transportation holds some promise to open up the doors to space. A ninety minute commuter flight to Australia would be nice--from anywhere in the US. Again, provided it's safe. Just look how many people are willing to fork out the dough for the Concorde. At only one crash ever, though, the Concorde's safety record is a touch better than any current space launch vehicle.

Randall Parker said at February 15, 2003 10:40 AM:

Bob, You are absolutely correct. The problem with space colonization is that it offers no economic advantage. The vast bulk of human migration is done for economic reasons. Few people move great distances to escape religious persecution or political persecution (most political asylum seekers just want a better living). Most people who move are doing so because they see a better living standard somewhere else.

If sizeable colonization of Mars is ever going to happen the trip there is going to have to become many orders of magnitude cheaper than it is now. Then the people who will go will be people who want to go for the thrill of living on another planet. Out of 6 billion people down here surely there are some who will want to do that. But in order to lower the costs by orders of magnitude it will be necessary to make large steps forward in technology.

Lets assume (even though I doubt this is possible) that with current technology we can lower the costs of space launch by an order of magnitude (and I mean lower than Chinese and Ukranian launch costs; not lower than the much higher Shuttle launch costs). That will probably increase the number of communications and remote sensing satellites that are launched. It will make the operation of the ISS cheaper. But that is about all it will accomplish.

What we are doing now with so-called human space exploration is taxing the masses to give a special thrill to a small elite. Now, some people (not me and by the TV ratings of Shuttle missions not the bulk of the public) get a vicarious thrill watching the small groups who get to go. So taxes are levied to give some enthusiasts vicarious thrills.

If we are going to spend tax money toward the goal of putting humans in space I'd rather it be spent on research and development that would eventually bring down costs so that more can go. Also, the R and D would produce spin-offs useful for other purposes.

ken anthony said at February 15, 2003 2:21 PM:

Great post Bob and thank you for leading the discussion in that direction. Frankly, I hadn't given it much thought because my prejudice is that it is a forgone conclusion that we must extend our reach to the solar system and beyond (too many Heinlein and Asimov books in my youth I think!) Let me see if I can answer your questions directly...

The economic question must be addressed. Rand says it's not about exploration and I partly agree (not fully because I think it is partly about exploration - but also that we can do much of that better, cheaper, with robots.)

The value of real estate in Canada (and other desolate places) does go up in time as we expand into these areas. However, in my heart of heart's, I believe we will find something in Martian real estate that will not be found in any desolate region on earth. What might that be? Let me take up your challenge to address the issue in a business sense (rewards vs. risks.)

First, Mars is affordable because after the initial investment it is easily the most self-sustaining environment we could go to (more so than Antarctica or under the oceans in my opinion.) Food, water, air, and minerals are all potentially abundant from local resources. I don't know what the cost of energy would be but believe it would prove to be not much greater than what they are for us here for both nuclear and chemical sources. Like earth, I don't expect wind, solar or thermal to be a factor.

Shelter will be cheap to construct. Zubrin points out that bricks would do the job. 38% of gravity has a lot of potention for manufacturing and construction. We build skyscrapers in our cities because it makes economic sense. Imagine how much more sense it would make at 38% of gravity!

It is abundance and creativity that brings wealth. The poorest 10% among us lives better than anybody 100 years ago could have. 100 years from now I'd like people to look at us as being impoverished... and they will.

38% gravity makes human exploration of space more affordable. Outside an atmosphere, solar energy gets cheap and abundant. Building materials also become abundant and cheap.

Spaceships aren't expensive... research and bureaucracy are what is expensive. How much do the actual materials of a spaceship cost? I envision spaceships to be the equivalent of the family car some day (including nuclear engines!)

The main thing colonization of another planet would do it break us out of stagnate thinking. What sounds silly to us today will sound silly because we didn't do it tomorrow.

Perhaps I'm not the best person to make the case for the economic benefits of populating a new world and opening up the resources of the complete solar system. But I think I've at least hinted at the potential?

ken anthony said at February 15, 2003 2:32 PM:

Why build railroads? They are expensive and all they allow was for cattle to go east and manufactured products to go west. What a waste of money! Everybody should have just stayed home!

Why build rockets? They're expensive and all they allow is for products to go back and forth between societies living on two different planets. We should all just stay home.

Randall Parker said at February 15, 2003 4:28 PM:

Most railroads were built without government subsidy in the US. Even the northern route across the Rockies was built without governmnet subsidy. The railroads that were built with subsidy would have been built without it but they would have been built more slowly as each new extension developed enough population to support the revenue that came from it.

By contrast, NASA has been subsidized for decades and its not geting us anywhere.

Yes, spaceships are very expensive. Rockets are very expensive. Some day in the future they will be cheaper. But today they are expensive.

Self-sustaining environments: We already have plenty of such environments that are lightly populated. The plains states are not growing in population. Yet they can grow large amounts of food. There are huge wide-open spaces in the US, Canada, Russia, and Australia. We do not need more space in which to live.

To make solar power cost effective what we need are better ways to make it from nanotubes. Going to Mars isn't going to make solar powe cost effective for the vast bulk of the population.

There is no economic justification for going to Mars. there is no economic justification for doing a manned space program. I'd rather spend the money on research and development that will produce advances that will lower the costs of going into space.

Bob said at February 15, 2003 8:07 PM:


Railroads were built because people on the other end were willing to pay for passage and freight. Your analysis puts the cart before the horse.

Your slightly earlier post makes a good case for why Mars may someday become the economic hub for extraterrestrial industry and commerce. In thousands of years, perhaps, voyagers returning to our neck of the woods will even see Mars as the home of humanity. However, given the current economic climate, your argument lacks a business need for extraterrestrial industry and commerce in the first place.

I don't see a political need either. We are not fighting a cold war where we need to demonstrate our technological superiority at every step. Perhaps, the EU will someday develop a political need to show up the US, but I don't see one there at the moment either.

Whether the US military has a need to send anyone into space, I do not know. (I suspect they might.) However, they definitely have needs that will further develop the technologies that eventually enabling colonization of space. Any business that relies on placing satellites into low earth orbit or even geostationary orbit also generates a business need to develop those technologies.

Either the cost of going into space will become so cheap that everyone does it, or the cost of staying on Earth will become so expensive that people will leave without regard to cost.

As an optimist, I hope the former sends humanity to other worlds. As a realist, I fear it will be the latter.

Bob said at February 15, 2003 9:36 PM:


I want to address something you mentioned a couple messages ago: "Few people move great distances to escape religious persecution or political persecution"

You contrasted persecution with economics. As you well know, even escape from persecution is an economic decision. No individual's economic decisions are entirely rational and no individual's economic decisions are based fully on a dollars and cents cost/benefit analysis.

People spend money on entertainment, for instance. We pay for entertainment because we value the mental and/or emotional rewards more than the money we spend.

Likewise, a persecuted person has options. The person can bravely face the persecution ala Ghandi. The person can try to hide whatever personal attributes draw persecution and remain in their native country ala the early Christians. The person can take up arms and fight against tyranny ala Robin Hood. Or the person can flee to a place with freedom and opportunity. The decision an individual makes will depend on many factors including personal preference, availability of arms, the type of aid readily available or an available destination offering freedom.

By providing freedom and opportunity to the persecuted of the world, the United States actually impedes space colonization.

ken anthony said at February 16, 2003 9:24 AM:

Your right Bob, our first trips to Mars will probably not be for the purpose of establishing any new businesses. Most people would say spending money on space research is a waste and they'd have a good example to point toward with NASA. Establishing colonies on Mars will be hard. It will involve a multitude of challenges. We're going to screw up, more than once. People are going to die... and it will be worth it.

In one lifetime we went from Kitty Hawk to the Moon. Hot damn! We did that? With vaccuum tubes? Watching Neil take that giant leap, I was proud for humanity. Thirty years later... where are we?

Business isn't about vision, but life is partly about dreaming the impossible dreams... it's time we left the nest.

Looking back, we will see that business was part of the solar colonization and it will make sense. But business isn't why we go anywhere (on Earth or anyplace else) in the first place. Business is a byproduct. If we go to colonize instead of flags and footprints, business will follow.

I'd like to see government out of space, except for establishing x-prizes. Your point about the US impeding colonization is well taken, but not all that significant because people will have there own reasons for wanting to go and there will be plenty of volunteers. However, if you're saying the political will is missing because we're all comfortable where we are? Well, given our lack of direction in the last thirty years you might make an argument, but I'd say the cause is the NASA toilet flushing money away that others would have used for moving forward.

I think ther's more than enough will to move forward... we've just got a bureaucratic logjam to move out of the way first. Unless we can figure out a way to make a run around it.

Randall Parker said at February 16, 2003 11:20 AM:

Ken, we went to the Moon over 30 years ago. We are nowhere near being able to build a self-sustaining Moon base. If we can't do that then going to Mars with existing technology won't help. It will just burn thru tens of billions of dollars that could otherwise have been spent to develop the technologies that are required to develop the technologies needed to get into space cheaply and safely and to build self-sustaining technologies.

Apollo-style big government missions are a very ineffective way to push the technological envelope.

I agree that x-prizes might help. But we need to solve many basic research problems before space colonies become viable. Lowering launch costs into orbit is just one of the problems that need to be solved. We need nuclear propulsion and a whole raft of technologies needed to operate a self-sustaining colony.

Bob said at February 16, 2003 12:48 PM:


With all due respect, you are not agreeing with me. Our first trips to Mars will have everything to do with establishing new businesses there.

It is only a myth that humans migrate for the sheer adventure of it. Historical, legendary and prehistoric records universally show that humans migrate for perceived benefit or need.

Prehistoric humans followed migrating prey. Humans spread out from an area when the population grew large enough to strain local resources. Jason and the Argonauts went looking for comfortable underwear. Priam only left Troy after it was destroyed and all of his sons killed. Marco Polo just followed the existing Silk Road. Columbus sought a shortcut to India and China--as did Hudson and Frobisher et al. The traders of the Hudson Bay Company sought commerce primarily with fur trappers. Lewis and Clark conducted a military survey to find a navigable waterway to the Pacific Ocean for purposes of commerce because there were already people living on that coast.

Granted the most adventurous go first but not simply for adventure. They don't go expecting all cost for no reward. Showboat stunts like visiting the poles, while they may on occasion have scientific merit, do not lead to colonization. The individuals who undertake them often have great wealth to finance the expedition, and those who go first expect the resulting fame to reward them. The people pulling stunts never go anywhere to stay.

No bureaucracy stops anyone from going to Mars and laying claim to the property they develop there. With no indigenous population on Mars, there is actually less impediment to that than there was to European colonization of America.

Actually, the existence of indigenous populations on the American continents demonstrates the difference effective technology makes. When Lief Ericson established a beachhead in North America, he abandoned it. Some theories hold that the locals drove him away or wiped out the colony he established. When other europeans arrived centuries later, they brought more advanced technology enabling them to overcome local resistance.

Mars will present different challenges, but I hope the point is clear. The more advanced our materials sciences etc. before we arrive, the greater our chances for success. The greater our chances for success, the greater the rewards and the lower the costs.

It's been thirty years since we went to the moon. Why is that? We have no economically sound reason to go there. As Randall has pointed out, we have done nothing to improve the economics of it even after spending huge sums of money.

If we really want humans to have a permanent presence in space, the fastest way to achieve our goal is to mature and grow the space markets we already have while developing technologies to enable new markets. When we develop new technologies, we need to have a clear endpoint in mind. It will happen incrementally.

Scramjets have many applications, which is why so many people around the world are working on them:
* Weapons delivery systems
* Satellite launch platforms
* Extremely rapid transportation
* Space tourism

We also need good hull designs with desirable failure modes. That doesn't really require new technology.

If we continue to waste trillions on useless stunts, we won't ever get off this rock. If someone wants to be the first person on Mars, let him pay for it himself. I say again: Demanding his neighbours pay for it at the point of a gun is just plain wrong. And taxation comes at the point of a gun.

Since this is getting repetitive, this will be my last post here unless someone brings up a novel idea or suggestion.

kert said at February 18, 2003 9:17 AM:

Heres something economical that is worth doing in space: SPS. Solar power satellites.
Whether global energy crisis is imminent or not, SPS are worth the effort.
And its economical now, with current technologies. www.powersat.com whitepapers section has some basic economic analysis paper.
The conclusion:
"While powersats represent a high initial capital investment when compared to fossil fuel plants,
they still generate the greatest profitability for investors over the long term. It is important to note,
that when compared on an equal economic footing, nuclear, and all green power alternatives fail to
return profits at all."

If ISRU technologies would not have been ignored by space programs for past 30 years, even this high initial capital investment barrier would be lower by orders of magnitude.

This is a economically sound reason to go up there.
Note that im not saying that it must necessarily be manned or robotic, or HLV or scramjet that gets you up there or anything in specifics. Im just saying that there is a reasonable goal for space developments.

ken anthony said at February 18, 2003 5:47 PM:

I'd like to think the human race has got beyond the need to follow the buffalo to survive. Not every endeavour of mankind is about business (although we do have a knack for finding business opportunities where we will.) Perhaps the moon is science's equivalent of VietNam but that doesn't make the accomplishment any less valuable and worthy of a little awe.

It's easy to sit at home and say it can't be done or it shouldn't be done or it's not worth doing... I'm just glad there are people that say, 'aw the hell with it, let's just do it!'

I can think of a lot of places my tax dollars are wasted more than putting a dozen men on the moon. Personally I think going back to the moon now would probably be wasted effort and sidetrack us from more important goals. But that doesn't mean I'm not glad we did it when we did (as much as I think we did things for the wrong reasons.) ...or that if someone came up with a good justification for going back to the moon that I wouldn't support it.

I believe in expanded visions and I find the history of humanity to agree with me. Of course people migrate for perceived benefits, but why take a narrow interpretation of what those benefits might be? It's easy to see economic patterns in broad migrations, but to say that's the only reason people go anywhere seems a bit, uh well, I really don't want to offend.

Like Pournelle says, it's not just about survival... it's about survival in style! Which is to say, sometimes things are done because you want to. To imagine everything needing a business justification is like ignoring activities you take every day of your life.

Smell the roses... then we can colonize Mars.

Bob said at February 18, 2003 6:38 PM:

Breaking my own promise:

Smelling roses is an economic activity. One exchanges time for pleasure. Both time and pleasure have value.

As long as the folks saying "'aw the hell with it, let's just do it!" are doing it with their own money, more power to them. You won't find me arguing against millionaires spending their own money attempting to circumnavigate the earth by balloon. Neither will you find me arguing against them travelling to Mars on their own dime.

You don't need to worry about offending me--I know what I can imagine. I have not taken any narrow view of why people migrate; although, I might suggest you have taken a narrow view of economics. I leave the economic decisions up to the individuals themselves, and I don't presume to know their needs better than they do.

The moon missions were not a waste. You need to keep in mind that the the Apollo missions were a bloodless military campaign--much like a silverback gorilla's charge. As such, the taxpayers got something for their money. In fact, the American taxpayers eventually got victory over a dangerous foe in a war in which the Apollo missions composed just one battle.

Without a military imperative, I see no reason for taxpayers to fund a similar stunt now.

Your argument amounts to a personal emotional need that you want your neighbours to pay to have fulfilled. Doesn't that seem at all selfish and unreasonable to you? There are undoubtedly many people with the same emotional need. Pool your resources--don't steal mine.

Here's an idea: Start a lottery with proceeds to pay for a Martian colony. I suggest you market it aggressively to Heinlein fans. Roddenberry's kumbaya jingoism will probably make Trekkies less receptive.

In the end, you need to ask yourself: Do you want cheap thrills? Or do you want a permanent sustainable human presence throughout our solar system--and possibly beyond? Demanding spectacular stunts might get you the former, but at best it will delay the latter.

Take heart, though. If Randall is right about the rate of biomedical advance, you might still be around for it whenever it happens.

Bob said at February 18, 2003 8:42 PM:

I reconsidered. Get the Heinlein fans to market the lotter to the Trekkies.

ken anthony said at February 18, 2003 10:10 PM:

Bob, I'd hate to have you left with the impression that I want anyone to steal your tax dollars. I certainly don't. But if they're going to steal them from us both anyway, I'd at least like to have my voice heard as to how to spend them. I don't believe I'm alone in believing that for a tenth the cost of the ISS we really could make some progress in establishing a colony on a new world.

I'd like to agree with you that any attempt to colonize Mars should not be made half cocked. I would disagree if you said it shouldn't be made at all. I think it's very short-sighted, from any point of view you'd like to take, to think that colonizing a new world was not going to be worth the effort.

You say the Apollo program was worth the cost because of the cold war... you may be right. But for sure it was risky and audatious. I like that about us, that we sometimes take risks without analysing to stagnation as some sort of economic cost benefits analysis. My god, we walked on the moon!

Yes, I have emotions, but I'm not ruled by them and I hate to imagine what life would be like not having some fire in the belly. Going to Mars is going to be a practical matter. It's not possible any other way.

My argument is that a livable planet has a very great intrinsic value and that's the economic case, assuming we limit ourselves to that dimension. If it's a dollar value you want, how much would you give me for a whole planet? This is not an emotional argument, but yes I do have feelings about it.

Colonization of a world is a stunt??? Imagine reading that statement a few hundred years from now after generations are born there and consider it to be home.

You make the reasonable argument if I may interpret it as such of 'going slow to arrive faster.' Well, I'm sure it will proceed at whatever pace it does (hey, ya can quote me! ;-) But I think we've wasted much opportunity by not using our current level of funding for better things than the fleet of shuttles and the ISS. However, I've been known to be wrong.

Bob said at February 18, 2003 11:18 PM:

I agree that money spent on the shuttle and ISS is a waste of money that won't get us anywhere.

There is a difference between saying it's not a good idea to do something now or to pay for something with public funds and saying it will never be a good idea. I think colonization is almost inevitable, which is why I have no hurry.

If we initiate a project to send people to Mars right now, the project will not lead to a colony on Mars. It will result in nothing more than a stunt and will only syphon resources away from other projects that will lead to colonization. Look to Antarctica for a good comparison. There are a couple of research stations there and no colonies--unless you count penguins. It does have a growing tourist trade, though.

We will establish permanent colonies on Mars when the relative cost of exploiting the intrinsic value of the planet drops sufficiently below the reward. The reward is ultimately determined by market dynamics--supply and demand. The cost is ultimately determined by our productivity.

Right now we demand no products or services we cannot better supply from Earth or Earth orbit.

The problem with your view of taxation and public spending as expressed above is best described by the Tragedy of the Commons. That attitude will eventually destroy American society as we know it--changing it from a society of free markets and dynamic capitalist entrepreneurism to one of central planning and static bureaucracy. That's something more Americans need to think hard about.

The justification you use amounts to saying: "Everybody else does it. Why shouldn't I?" while conveniently ignoring the moral choice one makes.

I still think the lottery idea has promise.

Randall Parker said at February 18, 2003 11:36 PM:

The problem with trying to go to Mars to establish a colony now is that we do not have the technology required to do so. There are some basic problems that would need to be solved. I outlined some of them in my recent post on What Biotech Could Do For Space Travel. The biggest problem is that we literally need to do enough biological science to figure out how to adapt the human body for extended low gravity living.

I think most advocates of space colonization do not bring enough patience and discipline to their advocacy. In their minds they picture the colonies running and successful in their minds and think how cool that would be. But they skip over the problems that would need to be solved and the basic science that would need to be done to even be able to begin to attempt to develop the solutions.

The development of a small sustainable biosphere is a difficult problem. Adaptation of humans to low gravity is a much more difficult problem. There are a number of other problems that would need to be solved before any attempts were made to send humans on a one-way journey to Mars. Sending them on a round-trip would just be another Apollo-style stunt.

When Mars colony advocates start spending more of their advocacy time advocating funding for basic research problems that need to be solved to make a Mars colony possible then I'll take them more seriously.

ken anthony said at February 19, 2003 8:19 AM:

Well now Randall, that's a different and important issue. I'm all for funding basic research. However, doing it in a vaccuum based on what we think we need rather than what we know we need can also lead to some waste... although with basic research there is always the chance of discovering something important that has no relation to a stated goal. Which is another way of saying that we're only guessing about a thing if we don't actually attempt it.

It seems we all agree that Mars will eventually be colonized. Why not come out and make it a stated goal. That doesn't mean it has to be a circus stunt. You might say that NASA is currently running a three ring circus... hey look over here at the tight rope walkers... no over there, the baby elephants. Only their baby elephant is being used to shuttle non-scientist to an orbital tightrope that isn't producing much of anything. Would I rather we were spending that money on earth on basic research? About 90% my answer would be yes (and that's assuming more than half of that money would also be wasted.)

Bob, I'm not sure how you're applying "Tragedy of the Commons" to the tax issue, since you didn't state... and please forgive me for misunderstanding, but I thought with regard to taxation this was used as a Marxist argument for central government (central planning presumably protects you from independant actions that lead to this harm.)

I'm willing to bet that both of us are for reduced taxation... so how did we end up with this misunderstanding?

Bob said at February 19, 2003 8:15 PM:


I see no benefit from making a special declaration regarding Mars colonization. We have many more pressing research needs than going to Mars for no particular reason. Defence against WMD and against terrorists seems much more pressing to me.

Europe did not develop the prerequisite technology to colonize America by prematurely stating colonization as a goal. They developed the technology by tackling specific problems with an indentified business or military use and by performing pure research.

From an engineering perspective, we have specific technologies to develop right now that have an identified immediate need such as scramjets. From a pure science perspective, improved knowledge of materials, improved understanding of human biochemistry etc. will give us a very big bang for our bucks.

Spending on technologies to facilitate pure science goes even further. See Randall's posts on microfluidics and gene sequencers for examples.

Porkbarrel spending and the Tragedy of the Commons are one and the same. In the case of porkbarrel spending, a benefit goes to users of the porkbarrel by dispersing the cost over the entire population. The beneficiaries demand more of the porkbarrel than makes sense because their personal costs do not reflect the full cost.

As the public sector doles out more and more pork, it comes to dominate the entire culture and economy.

Bill said at February 22, 2003 5:31 PM:

I may be jumping into the fray alittle bit late here, but here's some thoughts I have as an aerospace engineer and "space nut".

I do agree that money needs to be spent on basic research into new technologies, but at the same time saying that we need to stop manned space flight and wait until those technologies exist would be alittle like Columbus waiting for steam engines to be invented before setting sail. If he had done that it's possible steam engines may have not been developed until much later. The reason I say this is that generally a need for a new technology has to be not only identified but demonstrated before anyone is willing to spend money to develop it.

Colonizing Mars is probably a long way off, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't be exploring it. Just as the early explorers discovered the New World long before colonists began to arrive the first people on Mars will be a small group of people sent there to plant a flag and grab some rocks and soil samples and study them for evidence of past life.

This can be done with current technology, just read The Case for Mars by Dr. Zubrin. In it he lays out his Mars Direct plan, which btw is the plan NASA has adopted for sending the first people to Mars. I won't go into the details of the plan, but suffice it to say it can be done with current technology for cheap (in terms of space travel anyway). If you don't believe me read the book. We can begin the process today and then use more advanced propulsion systems and other new technologies as they become available.

I would also like to point out that NASA has recently instituted a nuclear systems initiative as well as an orbital space plane project, which will be used to launch people to the ISS on top of existing boosters (which will have to be "man rated" before used) and then using those same boosters to also launch cargo and supplies to the ISS and those two launch systems will replace the shuttle eventually, but not until after ISS assembly is complete. Speaking of which the ISS will produce once it has been completed and has a full 6 or 7 person crew. If an experiment on the ISS leads to a cure for cancer or AIDS or something like that I don't think anyone will be calling it a waste of money then.

Anyway, there's alot more I could say but this is getting long as it is...

Randall Parker said at February 22, 2003 11:51 PM:

Bill, The ISS will not produce a cure for a major disease. Its an extremely inefficient place to do biological science.

Zubrin: Does he explain how with current technology we can adjust humans to live healthily in low gravity environments?

Christopher Columbus and Mars: The technology of ships at that time was adequate to task of moving colonists to the New World. The ships that made the additional trips after Columbus returned were not substantially more advanced than the 3 ships that Columbus took. That's not the case with Mars. We are nowhere near ready to go with adequate technology.

As for when we do go: The New World had plants anf animals that could be eaten by colonists. It had climates that were compatible with human survival. That's not the case with Mars. The discovery of the New World is not a good historical precedent to cite.

Also, the New World provided rapid economic benefits to Spain. The explorers were able to bring back gold and other valuables. There's nothing comparable on Mars and even if Mars was littered with diamonds it would cost too much to ship the diamonds back anyway.

Really, money spent going to Mars with today's technology is just money wasted. Its all stunt category activity.

ken anthony said at February 23, 2003 2:06 PM:

I beg to differ, the discover of the New World, IS a good historical precedent for the colonization of a new world. Here's the analogy...

1. Columbus could live off the land... Mars explorer can live off the land - Mars has water, sunlight and soil, we just need to bring seeds.

2. How rapid exactly were those benefits to Spain? You imagine it would be less rapid for us today going to Mars? If you narrow your view to transporting minerals that are not in such short supply here on Earth, then I'd probably agree with you (although a case can be made that extraterrestrial mining can be a net gain.) But isn't it also perhaps true that the benefits to mankind (other than mining) could be huge?

What if the effort to colonize Mars leads to new capabilities and technologies that otherwise would never be reached for or come too late to benefit? Is it impossible to see any situation where having all our eggs in one basket leads to disaster?

The fact is, and you can not deny this, if we'd never gone to the moon they'd still be debating today whether it was possible or justified.

As a matter of fact, we can't go to the moon today and they ARE debating it's justification.

Exactly how are we suppose to research living in low gravity for extended periods if we don't do it? What is the quantitive difference between freefall and 38% G with respect to long term health and survival? How do we know without experience?

Mars may not be the right goal, but at least it is a goal and I would submit it to be the next logical goal. Technology is a means, not a goal. To think we can get anywhere without goals is to misunderstand human nature... profoundly!

If you want to call it a stunt... fine, but that doesn't changes it's intrinsic value as a destination. To say we're not ready is pointless, because when we do go is when we will be ready... none of us knows when that will be. However, I think it's sooner rather than later because we've already started.

Bill said at February 24, 2003 9:50 PM:

Randall: Maybe using the example of curing a major disease on the ISS is alittle extreme, but I was mainly just trying to make a point that the ISS won't be a total flop if we actually complete it, and by complete I mean fully complete not just "U.S. Core Complete". The main thing we'll get out of the ISS is experience with long duration spaceflight (very usefull for when we do finally go to Mars).

Zubrin's proposal was to actually rotate the spacecraft enough to produce .38g. This would get the astronauts used to Mars gravity and would help combat the negative effects of weightlessness; along with plenty of exercise of course. I think there are some problems there, not the least of which is that it's never been attempted and there are some possible physiological effects, but I don't think there are any "show stoppers" there, and it's probably better than the alternative.

As for the New World analogy, it's not perfect but it's the closest historical analogy we've got. In terms of colonization I'm not argueing that we shouldn't research the tech to do it, I'm just saying that we can start the process of landing the first explorers (not colonists) there now.

Randall Parker said at February 24, 2003 10:31 PM:

Bill, Humans will not be healthy in 0.377 gravity. They can't just adjust to it. Exercise will not be sufficient. We will need to develop a sufficient understanding of bone, muscle, and blood vessel metabolism (at a minimum) to be able to intervene in those systems and adjust them to such a low gravity.

ISS is a 100 billion dollar project. Lets put that in perspective. That is what the US National Science Foundation spends in 20 years at current rates of spending. ISS is an incredibly poor use of money as compared to other ways the money could be spent to advance our aerospace capabilities.

ken anthony said at February 26, 2003 1:08 PM:


What studies have been done regarding long term effects of Mars type gravity? Even on Earth there is a small difference in gravity depending on location (altitude, ground density) where a potential might exist for long term study, but in either case (zero g or slightly off from standard) it would be very difficult to extrapolate the long term effects.

It may be that different physiologies are more adaptable to different g levels.

My guess is that you would be right about health effects at .377g, but I have no data to support that guess.

We do know that people can survive long term in zero g, and seen the results, so I would also presume Mars gravity to be survivable. I suspect however that there is only one way to find out what the health issue would be.

There is the trip out there and back of course.

...or at least out there! ;-)

Bill said at February 26, 2003 3:49 PM:

.377g probably isn't very healthy but I would wager that it's better than 0g in terms of muscle atrophy and bone calcium loss, which are 2 of the biggest long term physiological effects of microgravity. Exercise will help against muscle atrophy and current ISS and shuttle astronauts are required to follow a very stringent daily workout routine. Unfortunately there's not a whole lot you can about calcium loss in an astronaut except create 1g of artificial gravity. In the 60's NASA conducted experiments with people on a rotating structure and found that at 6 rpm most people could adjust after some initital disorientation. If you spun the spacecraft at 6 rpm you would need about a 25 meter moment arm to create the sensation of 1 g, but only about 9.5 meters to create .377g. That's the main reason for using .377g's instead of 1g; it just makes things a bit easier on the engineers who would be designing this thing. Also for every scientist or doctor you find that says .377g is insufficient you could probably find another who says it should be "enough". We won't really until when and if it's actually researched.

As for the ISS I won't argue that it is a financial disaster. The fact of the matter is the main reason it exists is to boost the shuttle flight rate to justify keeping the standing army of people that keep the shuttle flying employed. NASA could have developed a heavy lift launch vehicle and then put the station up in just a few launches or maybe even just one shot as opposed to several (in fact in the mid-90s NASA sponsered a competition to come up with alternative designs and that was one of them). The design we see today was picked specifically because it would require the shuttle to build. The ISS is an example of what happens when politicians and beurocrats design a space station instead of engineers.

One quick note: I don't really have any specifics on those NASA experiments, so I don't know how or if they took into account the fact that they were on the ground in a 1 g field and not in microgravity.

Greg said at September 11, 2003 2:09 PM:

They should have continued x-15 to a point where you hang one of these things on a b-52 anywhere in the world and shoot it into low orbit/or better. What scaled composits are doing is terrific! beautiful! If nasa would have only pursued this type of craft for moving people. think about it, launch on any large airstrip get into space and fly down to where ever you want. we dont need some darn capsule! if so we could just buy the soviet design until the spaceplane is done. It should be able to launch from a b-52 and a single stage rocket. therefore fast ease of use from anywhere in the world with better capibilities when launched on top of rocket. The shuttle is a blown up govt monstrosity that has killed to many, cost way to much, and is made from 70's technology heck i dont use my 8track anymore and either should they. Use it as a cargo mover,whatever, can the capsule idea or use the soviets( they need the money) BUILD THE SPACE PLANE- 4 people to orbit from anywhere in the world and land anywhere. This is what we need with as little govt,beuracracy,waste,fraud & lawyers as possible. oops forgot we are talking nasa.

Shavkat said at November 11, 2004 4:18 AM:

space exploration in my mind is a tool to controle over the world if you can use it in its place.if you own space you role actions of all people.

Matt said at February 26, 2005 9:10 AM:

The best use of the International Space Station is to use it as a refueling depot. That way it can start to pay for itself by helping spaceplanes fly from low Earth orbit to the Moon.

Why fly a spaceplane all the way to the Moon? Because then you don't have to design and build a new vehicle to do the job. Plus there is no orbital debris on the Moon to damage the spaceplane. And the best place to take Space Tourists is, of course, the Moon. It's right in our back yard, only a three-day flight away, just waiting for us!

Why is a spaceplane better than a rocket? Because a winged vehicle can be incrementally flight tested to airliner standards of safety (one fatal crash in one million flights) instead of ballistic missile failure rates (one failure in 100). Furthermore, you can get free lift up through most of the atmosphere (before going supersonic), you can store fuel in the wings, and most of all, you can reuse the plane thousands of times, which allows the costs to come down dramatically (leading to possible launch costs 1000 times less than today's rate of $10,000 per pound).

And you can fly the spaceplane through the atmosphere of any planet with an atmosphere! This includes Venus (only 145 days away on a Hohmann transfer orbit), Mars, Saturn, Titan, etc.

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