January 09, 2004
Bush To Propose Moon Colony, Mars Trip, Ho Hum
President Bush wants humans to create a permanent Moon base in the late 2010s and to go to Mars in the 2020s.
President Bush will announce plans next week to send Americans to Mars and establish a permanent human presence on the moon, senior administration officials said Thursday night.
Bush won't propose sending Americans to Mars anytime soon; rather, he envisions preparing for the mission more than a decade from now, one official said.
If George W. Bush proposed a massive effort to develop enabling technologies and to work on basic scientific questions whose solution would provide the basis for enabling technologies for space exploration then I'd be thrilled. But of course that is not what he did. A trip to Mars is going to have all the long term impact of previous human trips to the Moon. The astronauts will go. They will plant the flag (or perhaps multiple flags from a multnational consortium). Then they will collect some rocks, do some tests, and eventually get back on their spacecraft and come home. Tens of billions will be spent and, while the Mars program will produce some advances, most of the effort will not go toward making big advances.
James Oberg says the Moon base will be useful for testing out technologies needed for a Mars trip.
A human presence on the Moon, says space expert James Oberg, would allow engineers to iron out the technical and medical challenges of a manned Mars mission, which require at least a year of space travel.
Oberg is right that a Moon base would serve as a useful test bed for trying out technologies necessary for a Mars trip. But a Moon base and a Mars trip both are very inefficient ways to advance space technology. One reason for this is that there is an inherent conservatism to any effort to send humans into space. Manned initiative always run on a schedule and technologies that might take too long to develop get axed in the planning stage. Also, the costs of manned programs are so large that most of the money has to be spent on approaches that are least risky and least likely to fail either in development or in use.
What ought to be driving NASA efforts is the goal of space colonization. In order to achieve that larger goal We need to strive to achieve technological goals that are much more ambitious than the next manned mission or even the manned mission after that. Given a sufficiently ambitious set of technological goals the priorities on what to fund and the overall approach taken toward manned spaceflight would undergo a radical change.
Do I hear you asking what should be the technological goals of NASA? Oh great, excellent question, glad you asked. Okay, here are some FuturePundit technological goals for the NASA manned spaceflight program:
- Develop technologies that could be used to lower the cost of launch into space by orders of magnitude. The two main contenders are hypersonic ramjets or scramjets and nanotube-based space elevators.
- Develop technologies that can cut the fuel weight needed for interplanetary travel and to increase trip speed. One leading contender to accomplish this is nuclear fission propulsion using either nuclear thermal or nuclear electric methods. Nuclear fusion and anti-matter are even more advanced approaches. Still further out on the horizon is the idea of laser beam propulsion.
- Advance biological science and develop biotechnologies to produce the means to better adapt human bodies to zero gravity and lower gravity. For instance, pursue the development of gene therapies to retrain osteoclasts and osteoblasts to keep bones strong in low gravity. The research would produce valuable medical treatments for those suffering from osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, and other bone diseases.
- Develop biotechnologies to produce food, drugs, and structures that would help to create self-sustaining human settlements on the Moon, Mars, and asteroids. Genetic engineering could be used to create bacteria that can produce a large assortment of drugs. Genetic engineering could also be used to create plants and algae that can be used to process waste and grow food.
The ability of humans to get into space, move in space, and live in space and on other planets is so incredibly primitive at this point that we ought to be concentrating on developing radically better technologies rather than spending tens of billions of dollars on space programs that utilize fairly small improvements on existing technologies. We are not going to be able to move out into the solar system and colonize other planets, moons, and asteroids with self-sustaining colonies until we make very large technological leaps in enabling technologies. Multi-billion dollar short visits to distance places by a small astronaut elite viewable by the masses as Reality TV may satisfy a lot of voyeurs. But voyeurism has never held much appeal to me. I don't want to watch astronauts on TV as they first step onto Mars for a brief visit. I want to be able to go there myself and live and work there for a period of years before moving on to Ganymede or to a radically reengineered Venus.
Update: In a column entitled "Mission to Nowhere" Anne Applebaum argues that the public is being deceived about just how far away we are from being able to move many humans out into space great distances.
If the average person on Earth absorbs about 350 millirems of radiation every year, an astronaut traveling to Mars would absorb about 130,000 millirems of a particularly virulent form of radiation that would probably destroy every cell in his body. "Space is not 'Star Trek,' " said one NASA scientist, "but the public certainly doesn't understand that."
No, the public does not understand that. And no, not all scientists, or all politicians, are trying terribly hard to explain it either. Too often, rational descriptions of the inhuman, even anti-human living conditions in space give way to public hints that more manned space travel is just around the corner, that a manned Mars mission is next, that there is some grand philosophical reason to keep sending human beings away from the only planet where human life is possible.
It isn't impossible to sustain human life on Mars. It is just impossible to do so with the current level of technology. Make a trip to Mars go faster and the total amount of radiation absorbed en route would be much less. But a faster trip would require making major strides to advance science and to develop many new technologies. Send robots ahead to burrow underground and build highly sheltered living quarters and then a Mars colony would not receive such massive doses of on-going radiation. Develop better shielding materials for the trip to Mars and for living on Mars and, again, the radiation exposure could be drastically reduced. But all this takes lots of advances in science and technology. If only the $100+ billion spent on the International Space Station had been spent to fund labs down here on Earth we'd be closer to the day when trips to Mars will become possible. But NASA is not pursuing a long term strategy. Most of the space program amounts to a big reality TV production company producing footage that makes it onto the nightly news occasionally that makes the public feel good that something is being done to get humanity into space. But most of the money spent is a waste.
I mostly agree. I wish NASA (or maybe Los Alamos or other, better agency) would stop being destination oriented and would take as their mission the task of developing enabling technologies. These technologies (which would certainly end up having other applications and thus pay for themselves) could then be made available to any group (government or private) that wants to make the attempt. I like the idea that the first person on Mars is there not as a representative of a nation, but of the National Geographic Society (made possible by a grant from Microsoft).
The Mars mission (which is so far in the future that the proposal is almost meaningless) may or may not happen. The part I am excited about is the return to the Moon. Having actual people living there will, if nothing else, break the Buck Rogers/Distant Future mind set that most people have about living on another world. The idea of a lunar colony will become less affected by the giggle factor and more of a realistic goal.
One small quibble: laser beam propulsion is not "further out on the horison" than nuclear fusion and anti-matter. Fusion and anti-matter propulsion are both physically possible but have huge engineering hurdles and boatloads of unknowns. Laser beam propulsion is just a big project that merely scales up existing technology.
The expansion of humanity into other frontiers is, I believe, fundamental to human nature. I agree with other observers that getting from the surface to LEO is the fundamental stumbling block to that expansion, and I do not immediately see how Bush’s proposed initiative will forward that effort. I believe that it was Heinlein that said once said that when you are in LEO you are halfway to anywhere in the solar system. Developing or causing to be developed an approach or system to accomplish that goal (cheap access to LEO) would appear to me to be much more beneficial than yet another flags and footprints program.
“Tether stations” for space transportation.
I’m not sure NASA will be a problem. NASA people grew up reading and watching SciFi and are frustrated with our lack of progress. Some actively support the private space initiative and I’m guessing NASA is rooting for Burt Rutan.
I’m not so sure about the US military. I suspect military space competition with Europe and China is motivating Bush. The military might not be thrilled about private space flight.
Actually Snake, the saying was that once you are in LEO you are halfway to anywhere, other planets, other stars, other galaxies. Anywhere at all. At least in terms of difficulty, if not time.
And I'll back Kelly, there already are working small scale laser propulsion systems, nothing like that for Fusion or antimatter.
goodenhabben my comrades...how are you today in this great nation...we are all going to live on the moon whether you like it or not...and it'a going to be the best...WOOOO GO BUSH MOON BASE!!!!!
Perhaps Bush realized something: with all of the private sector initiatives to get to LEO on the cheap, NASA doesn't really need to get in their way. There's a slim chance that a big slush of government funding will get a space elevator up a few years earlier, but there's a greater chance politizing the process will kill it. There are private groups working on the space elevator and advanced rocket concepts, let them do their jobs.
Meanwhile the government can create a Moon base while it's unprofitable to do so. Later it can license the technology to American companies that want to exploit Lunar resources. There was no profit motice to going to the Moon, but the technology (and the competition from the USSR and Europe) created the foundation of modern telecommunications and military hardware. No one in the 1950's was seriously thinking about broadcasting Queer Eye for the Straight Guy to Kazahkstan, but that's what we've got (along with a host of even better stuff!).
Going there, and working hard will have large payoffs. Would there be larger payoffs if we focused on goals that were even farther away? Perhaps, but there would also be a chance that we would stop funding the process in 2015 wihout any space colonies to show for it. Maybe it's better to go the baby-step path. It's not as ambitious, or as inspiring, but like a trail of bread crumbs we follow it, one little crumb at a time, to the stars. Slow and steady, to the stars.
I agree FULLY and COMPLETELY with Randall Parkers' thoughts on space ezploration. And these were the things I had been thinking lately:
People, we don't need dramatic and stunt like missions like a moon base or a trip to Mars (which with our current technology would be more like a suicide mission), what we need is a RESEARCH BLITZ in 2 areas:
2. technologies to make space safer for the human body.
All funding HAS to go to these for an authentic space exploration an human expansion effort. Period.
I think a moon base is an ideal first step to space colonization, actually.
First priority for the people at the moon base ought to be to set up a
mining and manufacturing capability. The moon has plentiful aluminum and
titanium ore, both of which sound like great materials for building
spacecraft and space colonies to me.
Probably, the first step would be to start assembling new satellites on the
moon or in a space station, using aluminium and titanium plate, sheet, and
rod manufactured on the moon from ore mined on the moon. At first, some
components (plastics, semiconductor chips, etc.) would still need to be
flown in from Earth.
With that proof of principal, it won't be long before private companies
set up their own mining and manufacturing companies on the moon, to compete
for lucrative government contracts.
Once heavy raw materials are avaliable for sale in outer space at reasonable
prices, it won't be long before some group of rich dreamers or nation decides
to found its own space colony...
Of course, there are a lot of things that might get in the way. Radiation,
for example. But necessity is the mother of invention: if the profit motive
is there, people will find a way.
“BETTER” IS THE ENEMY OF “GOOD ENOUGH”.
1) “Develop technologies …” The idea that we should hold off on space exploration until some gee-whiz technology is developed is precisely the reason why we’re not in space and on the moon and on Mars right now. It is akin to saying that no-one should have come to the Americas until cheap and safe transatlantic air flight was developed.
a) Scramjets, hypersonic aircraft and the space elevator (www.highliftsystems.com is off the air … but this isn’t) all share one basic flaw: we can not build them now and we may NEVER be able to build them. Just because we want to … just because we think we can … doesn’t mean we can.
b) Scramjets and hypersonic aircraft will continue to be studied and developed because these technologies lie within the domain of the air force and national defense (Imagine, if you will, a single airbase in the high-dry desolation of central Utah that can deliver precision HYPERSONIC munitions to any point in the globe within an hour or two).
c) The technological failing of the highlift space elevator is our inability (at present) to make carbon nanotubes of sufficient length, in sufficient quantity, of sufficient purity to make it work. We don’t need to spend NASA money on this because there is a massive R&D push in this area. Who ever can do this on an industrial scale will make billions. The number of possible applications of this material would be mind-boggling. It would fuel a revolution in all areas of engineering.
d) SSTO is (possibly) technologically doable right now (http://www.nuclearspace.com/images/articles/mauk2b.jpg) … but it is (probably) politically impossible.
2) “cut the fuel weight needed for interplanetary travel and to increase trip speed”. Project Prometheus … doable today with today’s technologies … an engineering problem. But politically questionable.
3) “better adapt human bodies to zero gravity and lower gravity” … a silly idea. This is akin to saying: “Why don’t we forget about all that SCUBA gear and just adapt the human body to breathe water”! What do osteoblasts and osteoclasts know about gravity? Absolutely nothing! They respond to miniscule tensional and compressional stresses which have a multitude of inputs. To try and directly tinker with this system is crazy … just mimic the gravitational inputs.
4) “Develop biotechnologies to produce food, drugs, and structures” … sure … but that’s the whole point of getting out there to “just do it”. We won’t know what works until we try it. Until we know what materials are available in situ (is there ice?) we can not possibly know what kinds of subsistence technology we’ll need. And why should NASA be working on “genetic engineering”? Why should NASA fund research into creating “… bacteria that can produce a large assortment of drugs”? Doesn’t the NIH work on this? Doesn’t the pharmaceutical industry make billions (trillions?) doing this?
The president has presented a pragmatic, responsible program: a decisive break with 30 years of “pie-in-the-sky” dream-mongering.
Your argument assumes that what we have now is good enough. It isn't. The wisest uses of current technology would still require tens or hundreds of billions to make a single round trip to Mars.
The President has presented another proposal for an expensive Reality TV show. It is one-off. It will be like the Apollo program all over again but instead of going to the Moon several times we will have a small group of people who will go to Mars just once.
What we have is never good enough ... it never will be. Waiting for the perfect technology is a recipe for permanent inaction.
“It isn’t” … well … sure it is. Current technology can get us to Mars. Current engineering can not. But there is a big difference between re-engineering a well-understood technology and a concept that requires a “magic moment”. Nuclear Electrical Propulsion has been utilized for over 40 years. Ion drives are real. The combination has never been flown … but it could be flown in just a few years.
Over the course of the next 20 years NASA will spend ~ 20 x 15B = 300B USD. So they will either spend it and get to Mars or spend it and NOT get to Mars.
The President has proposed an engineering program ... one that starts the process of acquiring the means to live and work in deep space. If you can get men to Mars and back (alive) then you can get men and material to a near-earth asteroid. And if you can do that then … well the sky’s the limit: worlds without end; unlimited resources.
And that’s what this is all about … not a “Reality TV show” but a New American Century (www.newamericancentury.org) … or Centuries. Whoever controls space controls the world.
It is a question of "Good enough for what?" and I don't think a single round-trip to Mars is anything more than a really expensive reality TV show. I want technology that is good enough for going into LEO at a cost that is orders of magnitude cheaper than how much it currently costs.
NEP and NTP are useful for going between planets. But our big challenge is that getting into LEO costs so much.
Research and development are not permanent inaction. R&D spending is just action that doesn't make for exciting TV footage. What is the point of sending a half dozen people Mars to just visit for several months? What does this accomplish? It is just an expensive stunt. The same money spent on R&D would give us useful advances that could be used for many purposes in space and down here.
If the goal is to control space then the money is better spent developing the ability to get into LEO cheaply and for moving between Earth and the Moon. A a temporary or even permanent Mars base can not contribute to US security against a challenge from China.
(Offtopic: What kind of idiot wrote the e-mail address checker? It rejects my address with OR WITHOUT spamblocks.)
Taking Randall's points and desires piecemeal:
It is a question of "Good enough for what?" and I don't think a single round-trip to Mars is anything more than a really expensive reality TV show.
I would tend to agree with you, but if you consider the fate of the first few vessels to the New World, you might recall that many of them failed to make more than half a round trip. Are you implying that it ought to have spelled the end of the endeavor?
I want technology that is good enough for going into LEO at a cost that is orders of magnitude cheaper than how much it currently costs.
I fear you've got it backwards. The technology will be developed in response to a need. If you do not have the need (you aren't flying to Mars), you will never have enough attention focussed on the issue to develop the technology. There are examples all around you; we have spent billions on exhaust-gas cleanup technologies for gasoline engines because there was an immediate need, while the technology aimed at traction batteries (which had even greater potential for delivering transport with less pollution) got far less attention because they weren't being used in ten billion dollars worth of product every year
It'll take some flying to Mars to make the case for the need for better propulsion technologies, but if we can't justify a nuclear thermal rocket after 2 round trips, I'll be surprised. That gets us from what, 475 seconds to 850 seconds impulse? Then maybe you can get a reusable solar sail for cruise propulsion; that buys your first piece of space transport infrastructure. You can grow from there.
The same money spent on R&D would give us useful advances that could be used for many purposes in space and down here.
I fear you haven't learned the lessons of the last 30 years (or maybe you have, and your gravy train depends on it). Every "technology demonstrator" program NASA has come up with for getting us to orbit cheap has been a disaster. Shuttle? Far more expensive per pound than Saturn. NASP? Venture Star? They have developed some neat technologies (linear aerospike motors are cool), but not one so much as made a test flight.
Getting lots of people into orbit is going to take development, true, but you are probably better off starting small. For instance, with a contract to deliver 150,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia (NTR propellant) to LEO. It'll be things like putting up consumables and propellants in small packages that will bootstrap the technologies that will eventually make taxicabs to space stations.
You labor under many misconceptions. To start:
1) No, I do not work in the aerospace industry. My gravy train does not depend on what happens there. My views on the subject are influenced by my past experience in that industry however. I have code up in orbit, on the Near-Eros probe, on Cassini, and probably on other stuff up there. But I quit my job at an aerospace company because I was too good at writing optimized and unbuggy DSP embedded assembly language code for space apps and therefore they wouldn't let me program in a higher level language on some problem less tedious. (and we had to do it in assembly because of course space probes have meager power supplies and therefore very low power slow parts)
2) The first few vessels to the New World are not analogous to the vehicles we send into space. Those vehicles from the Old World were cheap enough to be funded by a fairly small poor Kingdom on the edge of Europe. The technology at that time was more capable for the purpose of going across oceans than the technology we now have for moving into space and to other bodies in space.
3) The New World was a far more hospitable place for humans of the 14 century and even when humans first came across the Bering Straits than the Moon and Mars are today with the technology we have available today or even could conceivably develop in the next decade. The first humans who went into the New World moved into an environment not too unalike from where they came. They were able to populate the New World using fairly low technology. There were many native food sources. There was oxygen freely available and water in rivers. Wood was available to burn for cooking and heat.
5) The Spaniards came back with enough booty from their first trip to ignite a frenzy of capital investment that made the settling of the New World a commercial proposition. We went to the Moon and that did not happen. We could go to Mars and that is again very unlikely to happen. There are reasons why this is so. See points 2 and 3 above.
The point here is that the New World exploration analogies don't work. They sound nice to the ignorant masses. But if you are an engineer then you are smart enough to know better.
4) Going to Mars twice to justify NTP development: Er, if we can see that NTP would help then why not just develop it first and save the higher expense that would come from using the chemical rockets on the first couple of trips? If your theory would work with Mars then why didn't the trips to the Moon cause the development of more advanced means of getting into space? Instead we got the Shuttle.
5) Also, how can you even know that there will be more than one trip? We went to the Moon several times and then stopped going a few decades ago. Another stunt trip but this time to the far distant Mars will lead to the same result but after a fewer total number of trips. I want to stop repeating the mistakes of history.
6) NASA is malfunctioning and has been for years. Are you telling me this like it is supposed to be news to me? It screws up experimental vehicle programs by turning them into aerospace contractor milk wagons. Yes, I've been aware of this for a long time. I'll go much further in saying how bad NASA is. NASA also operates a fleet of experimental vehicles (which should have been cancelled shortly after the first one was flown) as if they are production vehicles. Lots of people like that because it produces reality TV, including the occasional tragedy after which people say we can't give up because we have got to make those lost lives worthwhile and other sentimental outpourings. NASA operates these experimental vehicles at the enormous expense of $1 billion per flight even though it no longer learns much in the way of new design ideas from these flights. In terms of wasted money the X-33 flop is a piker compared to that. My guess is that X-33 was more educational than the last half dozen Shuttle flights too.
7) So then if NASA can't develop experimental vehicles why will funding it to send people to Mars work any better?
8) As for what to do with NASA: If getting into space is so important then why not fix NASA? Make it build lots of cheaper test vehicles. Do not let it have a few really expensive programs that each last for decades. Do not let it get into a complacent bureaucratic milk wagon mode. Don't let its contractors build stuff that they get billions per year to maintain because it is so expensive to maintain. Make NASA experimental. If it can't be done then close down NASA. It isn't helping us any now.
Er, if we can see that NTP would help then why not just develop it first and save the higher expense that would come from using the chemical rockets on the first couple of trips?
Maybe we'd like to send 4 people at a time before we send 8 people at a time. We appear to be able to send 4 people at a time using Shuttle-derived boosters, and the first missions would prove that we can get there, do interesting things and get back. Going nuclear-thermal after a first generation of chemical boosters is not unlike going to the South Pole with dogsleds and tents before coming with airplanes and setting up a complex of buildings under a dome.
If your theory would work with Mars then why didn't the trips to the Moon cause the development of more advanced means of getting into space? Instead we got the Shuttle.
The Shuttle really is more advanced than Saturn, and Saturn was abandoned because we didn't have a continuing program for going to the Moon. What we didn't know until we'd built Shuttle is how expensive it would be, and the problems with Shuttle have led to uprated Atlas, Titan and Delta boosters; there was a market for them, and they were built.
Saturn is awfully big for most jobs, so it did make some sense to discontinue it. Look at it this way: if we create a need for throwing stuff to Mars, there is going to be some way to satisfy that. Structuring the program so that better methods get the advantage will build what we both want.
Also, how can you even know that there will be more than one trip? We went to the Moon several times and then stopped going a few decades ago.
I can't know that, but I can tell you one thing: the attention span of our public is so short, if we don't make an effort to put people on Mars within 8 years it will not get done. Waiting until there are the vehicles (built to satisfy what need?) to do the job on a schedule like an airline (flying what vehicles?) means never. Just as the airlines are the outgrowth of wood and canvas craft built for warfare and publicity, getting to Mars means starting with something a lot cheesier than what we will ultimately use. We do have an inventory of SSMEs and other hardware that will
get us there if we bolt it together right, so it makes sense to start with that.
As for what to do with NASA: If getting into space is so important then why not fix NASA? Make it build lots of cheaper test vehicles. Do not let it have a few really expensive programs that each last for decades.
Or split NASA up into 3 sub-agencies: the reconstituted National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, an agency for deep-space probes, robotic rovers, earth resources sats and such (call it the RSA, Robotic Space Agency), and the American Manned Space Agency or AMSA. Give AMSA the job of getting people onto Mars and if they don't do it they lose their jobs. Let AMSA contract with RSA for surveys and such, but AMSA deals only with getting people there. I don't know if this would prevent the sclerosis which has turned NASA into what it is, but it might re-set the clock to the early 60's and let it AMSA accomplish something as impressive as Apollo before it has to be reformed in turn.
We have a perfect place right here on earth to practice a Mars colony - the Antarctic. Why don't they (NASA)set up a colony there, and see if humans can survive with the small amount of items they can lauch on a rocket. No planes flying in to save them,but no radiation either.And an atmosphere.And water.If you can grow plants in the antarctic and survive, then go to Mars. We have the perfect labratory to see if a Mars expedition and colony is possible under better than Mars conditions. If NASA is serious about an expedition to Mars, why don't they try the Antarctic first?
I think Bush should not be president and I do not trust Cheney and Rumsfeld. I don't know about Kerry, but I think i will vote against bush. These people give me a really bad feeling
I think Bush should not be president and I do not trust Cheney and Rumsfeld. I don't know about Kerry, but I think i will vote against bush. These people give me a really bad feeling
What on Earth does voting for Bush have to do with the debate? Just so long as Kerry isn't elected, I'm happy. On topic, splitting NASA up may not be such a bad idea.
I think running a test in the antarctic is a good idea. It would help them to practise the survival skills nessacery for a trip to mars with the lower temperatures and isolation. It may also be a good way to test potential "teams" that would be going to mars to test for any problems they may face.