May 12, 2010
NASA Seen Spending Too Little On Science

the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council says NASA's budget is weighted too far toward human space flight and not enough toward basic research.

WASHINGTON — The decline of basic research at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration jeopardizes the agency’s ability to study and explore the cosmos, a review panel of scientists and engineers said Tuesday.

The findings could bolster the arguments of the Obama administration that NASA’s current effort to send astronauts back to the Moon is too expensive and is siphoning too much money from other programs. The president’s $19 billion budget for NASA in the 2011 fiscal year would cancel the Moon program, known as Constellation, and replace it with the development of technologies intended to achieve a cheaper, more sustainable approach for sending people into space.

My take: Human space flight competes with science for money. Human space flight is done to give people a show (not that many people even watch). It is done so that Americans can say "See, we have people in space". It doesn't accomplish much per dollar spent. Robotic vehicles can explore many more places for a fraction of the price.

What we need: much cheaper ways to get into space and move around while there. Humans aren't going to do much in space as long as getting there costs hundreds of millions of dollars per launch. Incremental new designs of chemical rockets won't chagne that picture. We need advances in materials (e.g. to build a nanotube bean stalk elevator into space) that will enable development of much better ways of getting up there and moving around once there.

To go into space in substantial numbers we need far cheaper and safer ways to get into orbit, ways to propel spaceships between planets much more rapidly (to avoid humans getting fried by radiation in transit), and advances in biotechnology to adapt humans to zero gravity and to enable the growing of food, fiber, and drugs on moona and Mars colonies. Money spent on visits to the International Space Station does not address these needs.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2010 May 12 12:39 AM  Space Exploration

Lono said at May 12, 2010 9:51 AM:

Well - I agree - many of the Humans sent into space have be more PR than real science.

However - having talked to friends who work at NASA - and knowing the testimony of the two whistleblower astronauts Gordon Cooper, and Dr. Edgar Mitchell, I would tend to conclude that much of NASA'a mission has always been to be the PR division of the DoD in the first place.

They certainly aren't accountable to the general public - and therefore, due to their lack of transparency and institutionalized secrecy - we can't really have a firm grasp of what science is or is not really being funded or accomplished.

Imho it's time to "replace" NASA with a truely civilian and transparent space agency - and just let NASA officially be fully classified under the DoD.

The charade that's currently being perpetrated on the American people serves little purpose but to placate the sheeple at this point anyways.

And - as you have indicated Randall - Human space flight is only really useful after significant robotic recon and exploration has been fully exhausted anyways - certainly from a pragmatic point of view - although I think we can strike a balance between the two if only presently for emotional reasons.

Eventually off world Human settlements will serve - at least partially - the same function as our appendix now does in the Human body - as a nursery for the repopulation of a favored organism in the face of an extinction level event on the host.

random said at May 12, 2010 11:22 AM:

I have a feeling it's more than just Humans in space that are stealing money from hard science. Programs like the Hubble Telescope have long outlived their scientific usefulness, but are kept alive because pretty pictures make for good PR.

PacRim Jim said at May 12, 2010 11:23 AM:

NASA should be working on artificial intelligence for autonomous satellites of exploration.

Dave Gore said at May 12, 2010 2:22 PM:

The real problem for human spaceflight is radiation. It's a concern even for aircraft crews.

Ultimately, robots will harvest the asteroids for shielding mass so humans cans safely leave the protection of Earth's atmosphere and magnetic field.

Tom Billings said at May 13, 2010 4:20 PM:

Ok,...let's take these complaints in order of importance:

1.) The NAS complaint that spaceflight gets too much money compared to (fill in the blank) science is a longstanding tradition, going back to at least 1965. It is turf war, and little else. If there is anything wrong with spending on human spaceflight it is that the actual spending of money goes to projects that keep jobs near NASA Centers, rather than to those that will make it cheaper to get into Space.

2.) As the Augustine Committee noted many times last summer. Human spaceflight is ultimately *not* done for science. It is either justified by the desire to spread human civilization into the rest of the Solar System, or it is not justifiable at all. It *does* happen to be more useful for some aspects of science, and is far more flexible in carrying it out in the field. Still, human spaceflight should not be mostly judged on what it does for science. Of course, NASA's contribution to settling the rest of the Solar System has been nearly zero for 40 years, but that is a function of how the money for manned spaceflight is spent("inspiration", instead of technical advances), not of any inherent difficulties with rocketry.

3.) Randall's statement that evolutionary improvement in rocketry will not be useful ignores 2 things: a.) Evolutionary improvement in rocketry has not been done, because money has continually been drained from that into whatever project NASA political patrons believe will "inspire" students to invest their futures and voters to invest their votes in the current NASA/Congress way of running spaceflight spending. b.) The very large markets needed to pay back investment in things like Space Elevators in an economical timeframe will not be developed, ...until someone does it with rocketry.

4.) Campus theorists have always thought NASA should act separately from DoD. They say this in spite of the fact that cooperation with DoD is in the original charter of NASA in 1958. Being a PR mission to pave the legal/political way for the military was what Vanguard did before NASA was ever created. NASA had the broader mission of countering the socialist camp propaganda that their society was advancing faster than ours in science and technology. This was hardly a trivial thing during the world conflict with the socialist camp. NASA is quite transparent to anyone willing to look and see, but "inspiration" lets us to cast a golden glow of Apollo nostalgia over all the failures of the past 30 years.


Tom Billings

Lono said at May 13, 2010 6:47 PM:


I agree with many of your sentiments - but I disagree quite strongly that NASA is a transparent agency.

From my personal visits in Texas and Florida, and from the testimony of friends who currently still work there, NASA has a VERY rigid and compartmentalized - need to know - structure within it's civilian employee hierarchy.

Not to mention they NASA has openly admitted (many times) to sitting on interesting astronomical data for up to a year before releasing it fully to the general public.

Their incestuous relationship with the DoD only further calls into question their real accountability to civilian authorities.

Chris T said at May 14, 2010 2:24 PM:

"From my personal visits in Texas and Florida, and from the testimony of friends who currently still work there, NASA has a VERY rigid and compartmentalized - need to know - structure within it's civilian employee hierarchy."

Name a government agency that isn't like this.

"Not to mention they NASA has openly admitted (many times) to sitting on interesting astronomical data for up to a year before releasing it fully to the general public."

Actually, this is standard practice in much of the scientific community for 'interesting data'. Verification of those results is extremely important and releasing results prematurely can wind up seriously embarrassing the organizations and people involved. Also, organizations often provide funding for a particular data set in the expectation of having exclusive access to it for a period of time. This has more to do with the competitive nature of science than anything sinister.

None of this is unique to NASA.

At least they release it; the ESA's policy on releasing data seems to be "if we feel like it".

"Their incestuous relationship with the DoD only further calls into question their real accountability to civilian authorities."

I'm not sure how you'd separate NASA from the DoD. The technologies they are interested in are quite often the same.

Randall Parker said at May 14, 2010 5:35 PM:


Evolutionary improvement has happened because new rocket designs have been generated for the commercial satellite market. These improvements have yielded small advances. NASA has to spend far too much money on putting humans into space to have any money left over even for evolutionary improvements. But chemical rockets are just not going to get us there and this is easy to see.

The root problem is that conventional rockets have got to carry their oxidant fuel. That weighs too much. So fuel needs to be stored in the rocket to lift other fuel that lifts other fuel that lifts other fuel. Actual payload ends up being tiny.

The way forward involves cutting down fuel load. A few ways imaginable:

- Scram jets. Do not carry oxidant. Get it from the atmosphere.

- The bean pole space elevator.

- Slingshots. All velocity is achieved while on a track on a mountain. Good only for bulk cargo.

Chemical rockets are going to remain too expensive.

Tom Billings said at May 15, 2010 1:27 AM:

OK, Randall, lets look at what is tiny and what is large in rockets, from the viewpoint of cost. Oxidizer, at least LOX, costs almost nothing compared to present costs per flight. That means that added rocket body cost for oxidizer consists mainly in the structure used to carry LOX. So, what amount of structure is needed to carry a ton of LOX in a large vehicle? About 20-50kg, or less. That simply is not too expensive compared to present costs to orbit.

So, where does all the expense come from? Engines and Fuel carrying structure, especially for low density Liquid Hydrogen, is a bit more massive, but for hydrocarbon fuels a good bit less than for LH2. The real expense in getting to orbit comes from the ground crews and the ancillary structures, like assembly, range safety, range tracking, and other functions that are needed from continually paid groups and investments, but must be presently paid for by a few flights per year. Even without reusable vehicles, lowering costs for fuel structures, Oxidizer structures, and engine and guidance and control is done by production engineering that cuts recurring costs in manufacturing, not by zippy new ways to get into Space. Reusable vehicles *will* add a new level of cutting costs, and should be pushed, but we don't have to wait for them to reap big savings. All of those costs are smaller for smaller vehicles.

So, if you want to get costs down, cutting those recurring costs are the biggest things to get cheap LEO spaceflight. You do that in 2 ways. First, launch a *lot* of flights each year with the same ground crew and ancillary equipment that you would pay for with a few flights. To do that you need right-sized vehicles, whether reusable or expendable, and you need right-sized payloads to get those right-sized vehicles. For right-sized LEO payloads you need common sense strategies proposed without political response since at least 1962- Things like the propellant depots and other tech in the new Space Plan. Also you need the in-space tech that allows us to build what we need either from ISRU or from what the smaller and cheaper operating vehicles bring to lEO.

What you have not taken into consideration is how much political decision-making has dumbed down the way NASA has planned ever since 1962, at least. There are huge savings to be had simply by *not* giving in to thugs like Senators Shelby and Bennet, as has been done ever since 1962!

We can do enormously better!

As to scramjets,....look at the laws of thermodynamics. The temperature of air entering an engine at Mach 25, or even Mach 20, is already very close to the melting point of most engine materials. You have 2 choices, either raise the temperature of the exhaust only a little, ensuring low efficiency for the device that is supposed to be saving you oxidizer (in contrast to high efficiencies for rocket engines) or you use heavy and complex and breakable equipment to cool the incoming air before you burn it with Liquid Hydrogen. You use Hydrogen because other fuels don't mix with air nearly fast enough to burn completely before they blow out the back of the engine at mach 25. There's a reason that the most recent high mach scramjet disappeared in flight, and the reliability of its components cooling mach 20 air with Liquid Hydrogen is a good candidate for why. At speeds used for military missiles they may be useful for the military's explosive delivery needs. I have yet to see figures that indicate they will be useful for non-military payloads.

Space elevators are very high capital consumption items for a long time before they generate revenue, and that means you have to pay back not only the principal, but accumulated interest, from whatever your market is. That market must be around before or soon after starting operations, and the only thing available to build it ahead of time to levels that keep you from bankruptcy will be rocket transports.

Slingshots are something I want to use from a lunar base, because there is no atmosphere to get in the way there, and the slings can be made from high strength lunar glass fibers. I am *not* happy about such slings doing mach 25 in the earth's atmosphere at 13,000 feet altitude.


Tom Billings

Randall Parker said at May 15, 2010 4:59 PM:


Cutting launch costs per rocket by putting up a rocket every few days (or however often you mean by "a lot") seems an incredibly high cost way of cutting costs. What would be the ROI from all those launches? My guess is it would be very negative. What would be the total cost of all those launches for how many years to get costs down?

The only big ROI project that might make it worthwhile would be a massive satellite solar project. But would the number of launches needed for it lower launch costs by, say, an order of magnitude or more?

How much do you think a rapid rate of launches could lower launch costs?

If launch costs can't be lowered at lower rates of launching then I question the value of lowering launch costs.

Tom Billings said at May 16, 2010 2:47 PM:

Randall stated:

"If launch costs can't be lowered at lower rates of launching then I question the value of lowering launch costs."

Then I have to ask what it is you think has value from spaceflight.

Launch costs are the primary reason we have so little human spaceflight activity today.

Spaceflight does not get the money from Congress because it is politically unimportant, and the last 40 years of NASA trying to *make* it politically important have not worked, and will not work in the future.

Are you planning on only an elite flying? If so, then forget the money you'd need to do much of anything, because voters are less and less often buying into an elite civil servant activity they cannot hope to participate in themselves.

The shuttle presently employs, between NASA and its contractors, 5-10,000 people to fly 4 shuttle missions a year, that are often *not* fully freighted, if their schedule is lucky. Those 4 flights must pay for *all* the people's salaries in the program, if you are doing actual cost accounting, instead of NASA's usual ass covering on shuttle costs. On the other hand, a vehicle designed to both use fewer people to launch it, and to fly once a day, will have drastically lower costs to launch each one, because they pay for no more manhours than the shuttle, and probably far less. Atlas and Delta use less than a thousand people to launch. SpaceX, IIRC, is using 23 people on the pad, and less than 300 at the Cape total, with about 1,000 in the company as a whole. They may not get as fast as once a day, but even twice a week would produce vital results in dropping costs. In addition, unlike Shuttle, they are designed to be built efficiently, instead of by employing the most voters possible.

Right-sized payloads allow getting birds up that need fewer people paid, and those fewer people get lots more practice when flight rates are high. Practice counts. If you are looking for a surgeon, you look for the man who does that particular operation the most. If you want the best performance out of a launch crew, then look at making sure they actually launch vehicles a *lot*. The only thing smaller vehicles launching more often cannot do is to put into Space very large single pieces of equipment you cannot assemble in Space, and even *that* is subject to evolutionary change as we accumulate experience at such assembly.

"What would be the ROI from all those launches?"

If you get paid when each payload gets to,...say, orbiting propellant depot in LEO, then your ROI on each launch is far better than on a launch where you make the vehicle, let it sit for months while enough demand for its payload capacity comes to flight date, and it's accumulating interest on the money you used to build it, and then launch it with less practiced ground crew who you have to pay as much per year as a more experienced ground crew that launches more often. Even where each high flight rate vehicle puts up fewer kilos, the lower manufacturing costs, and lower ground launch costs all get paid off sooner for that high flight rate investment. Getting paid 100 times a year at the same rate per kilo of propellant, gets you a better ROI than the same number of Kilos launched 4 times a year, and paid for 4 times a year. The 4 launches are simply not cheaper as a whole program than the 100 launches are. Credit card companies who borrow money themselves, accumulate interest debt daily, weekly, where they can, or monthly, instead of yearly, with each increment in interest debt as a "paid launch" for them, for just the same reason.

"The only big ROI project that might make it worthwhile would be a massive satellite solar project."

Randall, if launch costs are not *demonstrated* to be already 10-100 times lower than today's, there will *never* be a GEO solar power satellite, because there will never be large numbers of investors, whether public or private. Therefore, a launch market *must* be built incrementally! Over the last 45 years, I have had hell convincing people that *nothing* will do *that* job all in one fell swoop. They want to believe there is some *one* program of technology that will pay for it all by being better in some revolutionary fashion without incremental advance, and there isn't! Huge investments, long before you start getting paid, are *not* a reliable way to make money, because the world shifts markets over time unpredictably. The faster you get a return, the better, in general.

"Cutting launch costs per rocket by putting up a rocket every few days (or however often you mean by "a lot") seems an incredibly high cost way of cutting costs."

It is lower cost when you are paying the same or fewer number of people the same amount per year to do "their thing" 100 times, instead of 4 times. Launching more rockets can be done with fewer people, much less avoiding greater expenditure on them. You need to get right an entire panoply of launch procedure niggling details, and practice them, and improve them from experience. "There is no Royal Road", to cheap spaceflight. Yes,'s hard, gritty, and busts all your team's egos ten times a week, but the alternatives simply will not work, because of super high investments that take too long to pay back, at too high a risk, largely because of the long time till that first customer's check is in the mail.

That does *not* mean no revolutionary tech should be invested in, especially in areas ignored so far, from propellant depots, to VASIMR, to nuclear power, to ISRU, to,.... It *does* mean that we must grind out our initial successes, and be ready to do the same with the new tech, or see all the new direction technology go to waste, because no one will pay to get it into to orbit where we can use it.

It's like the difference in British and French warships in the 18th century. The French designed more superb ships, technically, and changed classes with discipline, and used "scientific methods". And they got beaten like an anvil! Why? The British kept making incremental improvements to their ships, practicing their crews, and incrementally building the logistical base, from dockyards to "victualling". Thus, at any given point in time they still had the better combination for concentrating the fire of ships cannon where and when they needed it.

Revolutions, especially technical ones, are wonderfully inspiring, and useful. Just don't believe they are the way to make an endeavor as complex as an entire industry grow and thrive without the grind of incremental improvement of them.

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