Blog Entries: 12

## NASA's future

 Quote by Andy Resnick I am sure. Computer components follow a mil-spec type of standard, and mission-critical components are held to an even higher standard. http://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/ca...2004000657.pdf http://www.cti-us.com/pdf/HistoryEEESpacePartsinUSA.pdf http://aero-defense.ihs.com/collecti...andards-14.htm http://trs-new.jpl.nasa.gov/dspace/b.../1/01-1236.pdf http://misspiggy.gsfc.nasa.gov/tva/m...ocs4/docs4.pdf http://sunland.gsfc.nasa.gov/smex/wi...w/wirrqtop.htm http://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/ca...1988004514.pdf http://www.aspera-3.org/idfs/APAF_SRS_V1.0.pdf The full NASA motto is "Fast, Better, Cheaper: pick two."
I can second Andy's statement here. There is a lot of testing that goes into any piece of hardware that flies for NASA. I am not directly involved in testing, but I have done initial radiation exposure estimates for some upcoming missions to help define likely dose rates for electronics.

You cannot simply take your refurbished Dell laptop up on the ISS. It dies very quickly. Never mind something that is going to get flown to Jupiter or Saturn and is mission critical. The assumptions about how advanced our every day electronics are has absolutely no direct correlation on the availability and quality of space quality electronics.

Mentor
 Quote by Andy Resnick The full NASA motto is "Fast, Better, Cheaper: pick two."
"Faster, better, cheaper" was one of NASA's dumber ideas. The 2003 Columbia disaster, along with the 1999 losses of the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander, put the nix on that idea (for example, see http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewnews.html?id=864).

Perhaps we will now do the right thing with regard to human spaceflight. As Churchill noted, we Americans always do do the right thing -- but only after we have tried everything else. The Obama budget for FY2012 has $850 million going to commercial space. Congress however has other thoughts; congressional budget meddling is an ongoing issue with any technology project. Key congresscritters still want NASA to build a new human-capable rocket by 2016 on a paltry budget and using existing technology (read: high-cost contractors, lots of marching armies). NASA this time around finally had the cajones to tell Congress that what those congresscritters want cannot be done within the proscribed budget. NASA is not fighting the concept of commercial space. Congress is.  Quote by D H 155 billion in 2010 dollars, and we would be pretty much starting from scratch. Most of that money was spent on procurement and operations. R&D was a small part of the total budget. Obama's proposed budget for NASA is$18.7 billion for 2012, less than that ($18.0 billion) in 2013 and 2014. About 1/3 of NASA's expenditures go to human space flight, not all of which will go to your back to the future / redo Apollo program. Even if we splash the ISS, kill the JWST, its hard to see more than 6 billion a year going into developing, procuring, and operating a new (old) rocket. We maybe we could redo Apollo in 20 years or so. Are you saying we would need$6 billion/year for 20 years? $1 billion is a lot of money. You can get a lot done with$1 billion. I don't understand why it takes so much money, especially now that we've "been there and done that." We already know the appropriate performance requirements of the systems and materials and so forth. I'm asserting here that NASA is grossly inefficient and that you could probably get away with spending a lot less with the right management of the program(s). Given our modest technological advancements, scientific understanding, and experience, with the right management and leadership, we should be able to make one trip to the Moon at a cost less than the relative 1960s cost.

Mentor
 Quote by Shackleford Are you saying we would need $6 billion/year for 20 years? Yes, I am. That comes out to$120 billion, or $35 billion less than the cost of the Apollo program. You apparently are thinking that because we have "been there, done that" that the cost will be a lot less. What makes you think that? Most of the cost of the Apollo program was for procurement and operations, not R&D. To make matters worse, twenty years is a very suboptimal time frame for such an endeavor. Finally, spending$6 billion per year on this would entail spending all of the human spaceflight budget on this (i.e., we would need to scrap the ISS, and that ain't gonna happen).

The only way to make such an endeavor cost less than $100 billion would require 1. Doing it in significantly less than 20 years and 2. Drastically reducing the cost of getting into orbit. Item 1 would require Congress to up the ante on NASA's budget. This will not happen any time soon given the immense downward pressure on non-defence discretionary spending. Item 2 is possible if Congress stops meddling with NASA's budget.  Quote by D H Yes, I am. That comes out to$120 billion, or $35 billion less than the cost of the Apollo program. You apparently are thinking that because we have "been there, done that" that the cost will be a lot less. What makes you think that? Most of the cost of the Apollo program was for procurement and operations, not R&D. To make matters worse, twenty years is a very suboptimal time frame for such an endeavor. Finally, spending$6 billion per year on this would entail spending all of the human spaceflight budget on this (i.e., we would need to scrap the ISS, and that ain't gonna happen). The only way to make such an endeavor cost less than $100 billion would require 1. Doing it in significantly less than 20 years and 2. Drastically reducing the cost of getting into orbit. Item 1 would require Congress to up the ante on NASA's budget. This will not happen any time soon given the immense downward pressure on non-defence discretionary spending. Item 2 is possible if Congress stops meddling with NASA's budget. I agree with 2. We should focus on that instead of cobbling together slightly more-advanced rockets. What about trans-atmospheric flight? When I think the cost should be less, I think that the appropriate materials might now be more prevalent and thus lower in cost; that the computing power allows us to more efficiently and quickly design the appropriate systems and requirements; that we know what to expect in the flight, and so forth. Is this any of this correct? Aren't the Air Force rockets better and cheaper? Blog Entries: 12  Quote by Shackleford I agree with 2. We should focus on that instead of cobbling together slightly more-advanced rockets. What about trans-atmospheric flight? What exactly do you mean by trans-atmospheric flight? If I take the phrase at face value, it seems like all space-bound rockets are "trans-atmospheric"  Quote by Shackleford When I think the cost should be less, I think that the appropriate materials might now be more prevalent and thus lower in cost; that the computing power allows us to more efficiently and quickly design the appropriate systems and requirements; that we know what to expect in the flight, and so forth. Is this any of this correct? DH mentioned this above (twice I think). The huge price tag on going to the moon is due to procurement- or the acquisition of the actual vehicles, rockets, hardware, etc. The things you mention above have to do with R&D (mainly). The materials we use for spaceflight are largely unchanged. The only thing I could see making a noticeable difference is a system engineering perspective on the overall design.  Quote by Norman What exactly do you mean by trans-atmospheric flight? If I take the phrase at face value, it seems like all space-bound rockets are "trans-atmospheric" DH mentioned this above (twice I think). The huge price tag on going to the moon is due to procurement- or the acquisition of the actual vehicles, rockets, hardware, etc. The things you mention above have to do with R&D (mainly). The materials we use for spaceflight are largely unchanged. The only thing I could see making a noticeable difference is a system engineering perspective on the overall design. Oh. I didn't know that. I thought we've made a bit of advancement in materials science and engineering in the last 42 years. Of course, I knew the bulk of the cost would be procurement and "buying" everything we need. I just thought, from an economic standpoint, the cost might have been reduced over the years for whatever reason.  Quote by Shackleford Oh. I didn't know that. I thought we've made a bit of advancement in materials science and engineering in the last 42 years. At some point you run into basic physical limitations. It turns out that for launching people into space "big and dumb" is the way to go which is why the Russians are good at it.  Quote by Shackleford Are you saying we would need$6 billion/year for 20 years?
Yes.

 $1 billion is a lot of money. In 2011 dollars, a billion is not that much money. A$1 billion is the cost of one Manhattan skyscraper or the budget of a large university for one year, and the programs that I work on routinely process several tens of billion dollars in transactions each evening.

 I'm asserting here that NASA is grossly inefficient and that you could probably get away with spending a lot less with the right management of the program(s).
I don't think that you can. Once you start pushing efficiency past a certain point, it makes things more inefficient.

Also, the question becomes efficient for what? Astronomers for example have figured out that manned space flight is useless for astronomy, so $1 spend on manned space flight turns out to be "inefficient."  Given our modest technological advancements, scientific understanding, and experience, with the right management and leadership, we should be able to make one trip to the Moon at a cost less than the relative 1960s cost. I don't think so. Some things have gotten a lot cheaper since 1960 (computer technology). Some things haven't (plumbers). You also have to realize that we have costs that didn't exist in the 1960's. One is that we don't have the technology infrastructure that we did in the 1960's and we have to rebuild that from scratch.  Quote by Andy Resnick Then there's the whole problem with astronauts- they need to eat and poop fairly regularly. That hasn't changed since 1969, and the technology to deal with that hasn't changed much, either. Whereas robots have gotten a lot cheaper. This is why astrophysicists tend to be extremely strongly against astronauts in space. People haven't changed much since 1969, but computers have. Also a lot of the technology that has made things cheaper since 1969 really doesn't help you. The big problem with manned space flight is that you don't want a rocket to blow up with a human being on top, and a lot of things that are cheap are cheap at the expense of reliability. I can get a really cheap cell phone. If it stops working, I get a new one. If a cheap part on a rocket fails, someone dies. You do have computers that have been rated for manned aerospace, but those are *enormously* expensive. NASA did try to do "faster and cheaper" with unmanned spacecraft. The trouble was that spacecraft started failing left and right. If you have political backing so that spacecraft *can* fail left and right, and you get more money to "try again" that's great. Except that you just can't do that with people.  Quote by Shackleford I agree with 2. We should focus on that instead of cobbling together slightly more-advanced rockets. What about trans-atmospheric flight? You mean like the space shuttle..... The trouble is that when you have massive budget cuts, that's a bad time to fund breakthrough technologies. There are a *lot* of technologies on the drawing board that could potentially reduce the cost of LEO. The trouble with those technologies is that you need to fund them to see if they work, and when you work on experimental technology and find out that most of them *don't* work (and most of them won't), the budget hawks scream at you for wasting tax payer money, and those programs get canned.  When I think the cost should be less, I think that the appropriate materials might now be more prevalent and thus lower in cost; that the computing power allows us to more efficiently and quickly design the appropriate systems and requirements; that we know what to expect in the flight, and so forth. Is this any of this correct? No. Part of the reason it isn't is that we haven't really done much research in manned space flight since the 1960's because there isn't money there.  Aren't the Air Force rockets better and cheaper? Air Force contracts rockets to the same aerospace companies that NASA does. Mentor  Quote by Shackleford What about trans-atmospheric flight? Trans-atmospheric vehicles / aero-space planes are just one of many technologies that are at a perpetually low technology readiness level (TRL). What about space elevators? Launch loops? Fusion rockets? Laser launch systems? Any other technology out of the world of sci-fi? "Trans-atmospheric vehicle" is an old 1980s-era term for a single stage to orbit (SSTO) vehicle, typically one that uses an air-breathing engine for a good part of the flight through the atmosphere. SSTO, regardless of propulsion technique, is for now a pipe dream, and has been one for 40-50 years. The term "trans-atmospheric vehicle" is one of several reincarnations of the SSTO concept. National aero-space plane is another later reincarnation. There have been many others. That it is a pipe dream does not mean that the concept is necessarily wrong or wrongheaded. NASA and the Air Force should continue to do research into alternative propulsion / flight technologies such as scramjets. What is wrongheaded is pinning ones hopes on a specific technology that has remained at a low TRL for decades. Lets suppose we arbitrarily pick one of the myriad of perpetually TRL 1-3 technologies as the one and only hope of the future, sinking billions of dollars into bringing this technology X from the realm of sci-fi to engineering reality. The most likely outcome is abject failure, with billions of dollars down the drain and no aero-space plane / fusion rocket / scramjet vehicle / launch loop / space elevator / whatever to show for the expenditure.  Aren't the Air Force rockets better and cheaper? Better? What's your metric? Cheaper? Both NASA and the Air Force have a lot of hopes pinned on SpaceX and other commercial space ventures because United Launch Alliance tends to offer vehicles that are expensive to assemble, expensive to launch, and expensive to operate. The ULA vehicles used by the Air Force are not human-rated. Making them human-rated is one of several CCDev 2 proposals (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commerc...opment#CCDev_2) that NASA is considering right now. Mentor  Quote by twofish-quant Also, the question becomes efficient for what? Astronomers for example have figured out that manned space flight is useless for astronomy, so$1 spend on manned space flight turns out to be "inefficient.".
 Quote by twofish-quant Whereas robots have gotten a lot cheaper. This is why astrophysicists tend to be extremely strongly against astronauts in space. People haven't changed much since 1969, but computers have.
Astrophysicists and astronomers can be rather dumb at times. Those who think this way (and there are several) are not thinking.

Let's suppose that Congress completely eliminated NASA's human spaceflight programs. What would be the outcome? Space-based scientists would like to think that all of those monies currently directed toward human spaceflight would go to space science. That is not what would happen. What would happen is that those monies would go elsewhere, or nowhere given our current budget crisis.

Another thing that would happen is that a lot of the monies currently allocated to space-based science would also go elsewhere, or nowhere. Space-based science would have to stand on its own against other sciences. Just as space scientists look jealously at the billions spent on human spaceflight, there are lots of other scientists who look jealously at the billions spent on space science. While robotic space missions are cheap compared to human space missions, those robotic space missions are extremely expensive when compared to science done on the Earth.

Space scientists have seen their wish for drastically reductions in spending on human spaceflight come true at least three times in the past. The outcome has been the same each time. The end of the Apollo era saw drastic reductions in spending on human spaceflight and on space science. The same thing happened in Russia. Russia spent a lot on space exploration in the 1960s, and spent a lot on space science as well. The Russian space program, manned and unmanned, saw drastic reductions post-Apollo.

Neither the US nor Russia completely canceled their human spaceflight programs. Great Britain did. Great Britain's space scientists successfully petitioned Parliament to ban all spending on human spaceflight. Those space scientists won the battle but lost the war. After decades of ever dwindling expenditures on space science, Britain's remaining few space scientists petitioned Parliament to lift the ban on human space exploration a year or so ago.

Recognitions:
 Quote by twofish-quant Whereas robots have gotten a lot cheaper. This is why astrophysicists tend to be extremely strongly against astronauts in space. People haven't changed much since 1969, but computers have. Also a lot of the technology that has made things cheaper since 1969 really doesn't help you. The big problem with manned space flight is that you don't want a rocket to blow up with a human being on top, and a lot of things that are cheap are cheap at the expense of reliability. I can get a really cheap cell phone. If it stops working, I get a new one. If a cheap part on a rocket fails, someone dies. You do have computers that have been rated for manned aerospace, but those are *enormously* expensive. NASA did try to do "faster and cheaper" with unmanned spacecraft. The trouble was that spacecraft started failing left and right. If you have political backing so that spacecraft *can* fail left and right, and you get more money to "try again" that's great. Except that you just can't do that with people.
What your (well-considered) comments come back to is essentially asking "what is the proper mission for NASA?" Answers can range from "launch stuff into space", to "manned exploration", and everything in between.

And that's the problem- NASA has not had a well-defined mission since the end of Apollo in the early 1970s. There was a huge explosion in activity- space shuttle, 2 space stations, space-based telescopes across the entire EM spectrum, "mission to planet Earth"...

And then the whole *other half* of NASA- the Aeronautics side: Wing design, engine design, de-icing, civil aviation safety and systems ...

What this led to was a defocused, diffuse agency that has the symptoms of ADHD: extreme short-term focus on a succession of unlinked concepts. There was never a coherent research program to develop next-generation rockets/engines/systems for anything beyond low earth orbit.

Additionally, NASA has to deal with a never-ending supply of wingnuts who contact their congressperson (or the science deputy for said congressperson) claiming they have all kinds of ideas to 'help' NASA: Alcubierre warp drives, space elevators, zero point energy, Podletnikov gravitational shielding... The congressperson, not knowing anything about science, calls NASA HQ and says "I have a constituent, he's a scientist, and he wants to know if you have thought about [insert dumb idea here]." NASA, being a political organization, commits time and money to 'study' the idea:

http://www.nasa.gov/centers/glenn/te.../possible.html

All that wasted effort only serves to *further* dilute any semblance of a coherent mission. But wait, there's more...

Saint Al Gore, he-who-invented-the-interwebnet, issued OMB Circular A-76 back in 1992 as part of "reinventing Government", which defined "inherently governmental activities". Most people have never heard of this document, which says something, considering it's impact.

In brief, "scientific research", "research and development" and the like are *not* inherently governmental activities. Thus, government employees cannot perform those functions.

Specifically, "A commercial activity is a recurring service that could be performed by the private sector and is resourced, performed, and controlled by the agency through performance by government personnel, a contract, or a fee-for-service agreement. A commercial activity is not so intimately related to the public interest as to mandate performance by government personnel. Commercial activities may be found within, or throughout, organizations that perform inherently governmental activities or classified work."

NASA proper- the civil servants- are explicitly prohibited from doing the very research needed to develop better spaceflight systems- it has to be contracted out. And we are back to dealing with the wingnuts, who feel their pet ideas need to be developed and (successfully) lobby for earmarks to get money.

It's not clear how to get out from this vicious cycle. Partly there needs to be a clear, unambiguous goal set for NASA to accomplish, and that goal (and funding) has to be kept constant for 10-20 years. That requires leadership. Personally, I think a reasonable goal is to establish a permanent base on the moon- it's possible to make concrete from materials on the lunar surface, and so a base could be established that can provide radiation shielding for the crew. Having a base on the moon would provide a testbed for technologies required to get humans to Mars, should we then decide to set that as the next goal.

 Quote by Andy Resnick Personally, I think a reasonable goal is to establish a permanent base on the moon- it's possible to make concrete from materials on the lunar surface, and so a base could be established that can provide radiation shielding for the crew. Having a base on the moon would provide a testbed for technologies required to get humans to Mars, should we then decide to set that as the next goal.
Are you aware of how much it would cost to simply establish the mining operation? Instead of mining on Earth, let's go to the Moon instead! It would cost too much just to get the necessary equipment up there. I've heard it costs \$20K/pound to get into orbit.

You work on making getting into orbit as cheaply as possible. Then, the Moon, Mars, aren't that far away.

I agree NASA does need a clear, reasonable goal.Throwing money at something doesn't make it better. My vote is for propulsion and transatmospheric vehicles.

http://www.rand.org/pubs/monograph_reports/MR890.html

Mentor
 Quote by Shackleford Throwing money at something doesn't make it better. My vote is for propulsion and transatmospheric vehicles.
Those two sentences are in direct contradiction with one another.

 However, it seems the Air Force is already well-ahead of NASA. http://www.rand.org/pubs/monograph_reports/MR890.html
That document is from 1995. Some questions:
1. What makes you think that NASA was not a part of those efforts?
2. Has a viable trans-atmospheric vehicle been developed in the 15 years that have passed since the publication of that document?
3. What makes you think that trans-atmospheric vehicles are the one and only answer to the problem of access to space?
4. What if the apparently insurmountable problems that make the answer to question #2 "no" are just that, insurmountable problems?

 Quote by D H Trans-atmospheric vehicles / aero-space planes are just one of many technologies that are at a perpetually low technology readiness level (TRL). What about space elevators? Launch loops? Fusion rockets? Laser launch systems? Any other technology out of the world of sci-fi? "Trans-atmospheric vehicle" is an old 1980s-era term for a single stage to orbit (SSTO) vehicle, typically one that uses an air-breathing engine for a good part of the flight through the atmosphere. SSTO, regardless of propulsion technique, is for now a pipe dream, and has been one for 40-50 years. The term "trans-atmospheric vehicle" is one of several reincarnations of the SSTO concept. National aero-space plane is another later reincarnation. There have been many others. That it is a pipe dream does not mean that the concept is necessarily wrong or wrongheaded. NASA and the Air Force should continue to do research into alternative propulsion / flight technologies such as scramjets. What is wrongheaded is pinning ones hopes on a specific technology that has remained at a low TRL for decades. Lets suppose we arbitrarily pick one of the myriad of perpetually TRL 1-3 technologies as the one and only hope of the future, sinking billions of dollars into bringing this technology X from the realm of sci-fi to engineering reality. The most likely outcome is abject failure, with billions of dollars down the drain and no aero-space plane / fusion rocket / scramjet vehicle / launch loop / space elevator / whatever to show for the expenditure. Better? What's your metric? Cheaper? Both NASA and the Air Force have a lot of hopes pinned on SpaceX and other commercial space ventures because United Launch Alliance tends to offer vehicles that are expensive to assemble, expensive to launch, and expensive to operate. The ULA vehicles used by the Air Force are not human-rated. Making them human-rated is one of several CCDev 2 proposals (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commerc...opment#CCDev_2) that NASA is considering right now.
I hope you don't think I was equating RLVs with space elevators. I was under the impression that Transatmospheric flight was not a pipe dream, e.g. cold fusion, and that the Air Force is actively involved in R&D.

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