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    • CommentAuthorlooneynerd
    • CommentTimeMay 18th 2009
    China. These things are a hell of a lot easier to do in a mixed economy.

    -Easy to do when the government rules things with an iron fist and doesn't care about sacrificing anything to look good (just take the insanity behind the Beijing Olympics, for example!)
    • CommentAuthorhank
    • CommentTimeMay 18th 2009
    Funding and support. Tell your congress critters that we should make college accessible to everyone with aptitude and to drop more money into the program. NASA only has so much money to work with and it's expensive to do this shit if you don't want your people to die on a regular basis.
    • CommentTimeMay 18th 2009
    Escape Velocity is much lower on the moon than from earth, requiring less power (and thus fuel) for jumps into deep space, Mars, Ceres, etc.

    You know what's sad is that I hadn't even thought of that. What kind of a nerd am I?

    Anyway, I was watching (what I assume was) NOVA the other night, and episode about the Columbia breakup. What astonished me is the fact that all the wonder seems to have gone out of the US space program. Sure, there was a military aspect to the Apollo missions, and the original backing of the shuttle by the military, but it seems that the idea of doing things just because it's fucking cool has long since shuffled off the collective brainmeats of top-level NASA administrators. The people at JPL, and others responsible for day-to-day on rovers and observers, they all still seem to get it. But the people running the show are more concerned about keeping their jobs by sticking to budget (or cutting corners) than by really sticking to their guns and saying "No, this is what needs to be done. Either we get funding or it doesn't happen, and all the cool shit we were going to do gets done by someone else, if it gets done at all."

    This was the primary thing that got me going about Orbiter, if I may invoke The Landlord. The natural curiosity of the investigators leading up to the finale of pure exploration, the drive of everyone was what made the book, and the project therein, work for me.

    So then, we, as a country (the US, at least, as a species at best) need to get excited about actual exploration again.

    And finally, without a massive support infrastructure to support it, I can't see space exploration going anywhere. Part of the reason NASA co-opted military support is the fact that the military budget is the largest non-entitlement program in the country; it's the only thing NASA could leech off of while still not really denting the performance of the department. And if the military could only barely support the program, how is space travel going to be accomplished by a private-sector entity? I'm not trying to say the government has to be involved, but is there any feasible way a major operation like a Mars project could be completed without government money and technology?
    • CommentAuthorlooneynerd
    • CommentTimeMay 18th 2009
    Obama Orders a NASA Review

    At first i took heart when I heard this; I thought it might be Obama, who, up until now has said little about NASA other than wanting to cut its budget, trying to rebuild the program. Then I realized it's probably just an excuse to cut their budget farther. But maybe not. I am a cynical ass, after all...
    • CommentAuthorlooneynerd
    • CommentTimeMay 18th 2009

    Indeed. Escape velocity on earth is 11.186 km/s; on the moon it's a mere 2.38 km/s. Taking off from the moon is easy; however, landing ships there is harder on earth because air-breaking cannot be used, and therefore you have to carry extra fuel to actually land the damned thing...
  1.  (5884.6)
    NASA only has so much money to work with and it's expensive to do this shit if you don't want your people to die on a regular basis.

    I think that mitigation of risk to life is part of the problem. Shooting yourself into space on top of a pile of the most combustible shit we can find? Dangerous work. It's why they started out with the test pilots and rocket jockeys, guys who knew it was crazy and that their last thoughts might be of fire but fuck it, it's a beautiful day to get detonated.

    I was a tot when Challenger blew and a whole generation of kids viewed being an astronaut as something you get memorialized for, something somber and sad. It's not about going to the moon or being the first woman on Mars, it's about growing up with assholes joking about why our teacher didn't get picked for Challenger.

    The image of NASA to anyone under 40 or so is a bunch of slide-rule sniffers who hate Stephen Colbert and can't get a toilet to work. There's no romance to it. The vomit comet gets people to drop a house down payment on a half hour of micro-gee. People want to love space, but if all Nasa has to offer is a water closet that works about half the time, the best and brightest are
    • CommentAuthorfunranium
    • CommentTimeMay 18th 2009
    The good news, radiation-wise, that I can give for the space elevator is that if you choose the appropriate elevator materials (mainly low Z stuff, generally in good shape until you hit titanium) then the protocol to use the stuff once it arrives is to park it at a safe distance and let it cool down for a day or so, a week perhaps to be safe. Proton activation tends to generate much shorter half-lived isotopes than neutron activation. This means that it will be radioactive as hell when it first arrives, but it will quickly die down. The two complicating factors are:

    1) That's the elevator. Your cargo is another matter. Can't always guarantee that your cargo is low Z.

    2) Even though they're made of mostly low Z material, living things are still not an option.
  2.  (5884.8)
    Isn’t NASA still bogged down with the incredible costs of keeping all kinds of aging projects on life support so that every once in a while they can put out a press release about getting a ping from some old satellite on the edge of the solar system? Would killing these old projects free up money for other things?

    And why are we still wasting so much money putting people in space to do simple things that can be handled by robots? Does the general public really care enough about astronauts to keep using them to generate good will toward the space program? In my lifetime the only times I remember the nation being interested was when disasters occurred. The cold war is over and we don't really need so many astronauts anymore. We can do a lot more with our money if we stop spending it allowing people to breathe and eat and poop in space just because the nation needed some squeaky-clean science heroes back in the 1950s.
    • CommentAuthorlooneynerd
    • CommentTimeMay 18th 2009
    @James Puckett

    As far as astronauts, they're still incredibly useful. I'm watching the Hubble space walk on STS-125 live right now, and they've already run into a lot of problems a robot would be hard pressed to fix; all of the bolts on one side of Hubble are stripped, and none of the Astronaut's tools were capable of getting them off, so they jury rigged one.

    As far as wonder, at least the Astronauts still have it. When passing over Houston, the lines from Atlantis were something like;

    "There's Houston. And lake Pontchartrain. Wow..." followed by several minutes of silence as you watched both EVA specialists stop what they were doing to look "up" at earth
  3.  (5884.10)
    I think NASA's problems really come from someone deciding to kill off the first space station design nearly 30 years ago yet continuing with the space shuttle that was designed in correlation with. Having 'won' the space-race and no quick financial return perceivable, why continue, right?

    It was the equivalent to buying a car with no home to drive home to. Why have a reusable space vehicle if not to transport cargo to and from a place? The Shuttle has definitely been a useful tool. A work truck for the Hubble, a temporary lab in space and doing what it was originally designed to do; Transport parts and sections of the new space station, but it all came too late.

    Finances came because we always built on an ideal. "We did this, so we should spend time and money on this next project." But we skipped a beat, first in ideals by killing the station and then financially by endlessly funding the shuttle, the bus with no depot.

    This to me was the last moment before the idealistic wave broke...

    We lost the ideal at the core after Skylab, I believe. Something or someone at NASA said, "Ok, that's it. Turn the lights off on the way out, will ya?"
  4.  (5884.11)
    I think it comes down to power. Fusion is still '50 years' away and I can't think of a single piece of hard sci-fi I have ever read that didn't take fusion power as a given for the future of mankind in space. Constellation being based on proven technology for keeping people alive is all well and good, but the fact that it is still sitting on top of the proven technology of a liquid fueled rocket is what is holding us back. Solar panels may be well and good for the moon but they aren't going to have us mining asteroids or sending waves of colonists to Mars, and they certainly won't be electrolyzing water on Charon. At this point it really is a breakthrough in propulsion and power generation that I see as what's holding us back. Fusion solves both problems. The spin off technologies would be well worth it too. If you have a magnetically directed fusion engine than you probably have the tech to make a magnetic shield to keep your astronauts from getting irradiated. If NASA could file the patent on a self contained, gigawatt fusion reactor the size of a car they would never have to worry about begging for money again. And it isn't just a lack of Fusion. We lack the tech in general that we were 'supposed' to have by now, i.e. we know 'how' to build a space elevator... we just don't know how. In addition to fusion power NASA needs to start directing a good deal of effort into the development of the technologies and materials we already know we will need.
      CommentAuthorSeej 500
    • CommentTimeMay 18th 2009
    The thing that gets me about NASA is the scale of the thing. I guess it mirrors the scale of their machines; visiting Kennedy once just before a launch I was lucky enough to see the shuttle on the pad. I can clearly remember staring out of the bus window, looking up at the orange bulk of the ET and thinking "Christ, that huge bastard thing ISN'T EVEN GOING TO SPACE. IT'S GOING TO FALL INTO THE ATLANTIC, SMASHING INTO BITS WHEN IT HITS THE OCEAN."

    It just seems a crude, ugly, brute-force way to get, what, 500-ish km up? In terms of space, that's barely there at all, but we do it in such a heavy handed way, like smashing down your front door with a 1000-tonne nitroglycerin battering ram, just so you could step out onto your doorstep.

    My personal view is that NASA needs to find a better way of getting up there, and they need to be a more light-weight organisation to do this. I get the impression there's a lot of bureaucratic inertia there, and all their eggs seem to be in one basket. Hell, they're American, so perhaps diversifying into several smaller teams and getting them to compete with each other would be more in keeping with the culture over there.

    Of course, this is all overlooking the obvious fact that it will be a Brit who works out how to switch bloody gravity off. In his shed. With string and pipe-tobacco. And he will then be entirely ignored by Whitehall and sell it to India instead.
    • CommentAuthorlooneynerd
    • CommentTimeMay 18th 2009
    The most realistic alternative means of propulsion I've seen so far are Ion Engines. They have two big problems: they're insanely slow, and they can't achieve escape velocity, so you still need solid rocket boosters to get them into orbit, even on the moon...
    • CommentTimeMay 18th 2009 edited
    @46&2 Plasma rockets, like ion engines, are great in space because they have a high specific impulse and accelerate over a long period of time. However, they don't have the thrust needed to gain escape velocity- in this case the craft needs to accelerate over a short period of time.

    Currently liquid fuel rockets are the only viable method of getting into space. The Orion spacecraft will work because it is simple. the reason the shuttle costs so much is because it is the most complicated craft ever built: it's experimental, things will go wrong. The essential design of Soyuz hasn't changed in 50 years, whenever something goes wrong, it is updated and fixed - a newer version is simply rolled off the production line.

    Reducing costs will always be the biggest challenge facing NASA. Dumping the Space Shuttle is the most sensible decision they've made so far.

    edited to add: @looneynerd Damn you got there before me :)

    @seej500 Like the jet engine. "Let's sell it to Rover!" Bloody Whitehall
  5.  (5884.15)
    For a longer-term solution for manned exploration the solution will be automation. Send a self-replicating factory to the moon. Leave it there for a few years while it builds more factories that build the infrastructure, vehicles, and gathers consumables (fuel, oxidizer, air, water, food). Then send the trained people there to man the ships that will launch from the lower gravity well. It is the lowest mass-energy soltuion (of launching people and stuff from Earth's surface) for the highest return (of people and support machinery sent outside of earth's atmosphere). Have the automated factory machines build a mass driver on the moon and it get's even easier.
    • CommentAuthorHana
    • CommentTimeMay 18th 2009 edited
    They should double the budget. Say $30B minimum. Part of that should go to educational initiatives. Science programs for kids, science scholarships, jobs for science grads. The US is lagging in science education. Space is still pretty cool. People will scream "waste of tax dollars" but it's not. You invest the money and you reap the rewards. If we need to do some serious geoengineering (say deflecting sunlight with space mirrors) in 30 years or cook to death, NASA will not look like a waste.

    The rest should go to developing and building the next two or three generations of spacecraft, and making sure the infrastructure is there when it's time to launch them. The scariest thing is the possibility that between when the shuttle is grounded and the next thing takes off, the infrastructure will all go to hell and there won't be any astronauts ready, making it a 10 year lag instead of ~5.

    Forget exotic tech in the near term. We need something cheap(er than a space shuttle), quick to prep for launch, safe, and reliable.

    ETA: Some of the most valuable developments from the Space program won't be the spacecraft themselves, but peripheral technologies like water purification...
    • CommentTimeMay 18th 2009
    @Seej - From what I understand, NASA is now roughly a third the size it was at its peak, with most of the work being hired out to private contractors, and most of the money is being spent not on development, but on administration. The fact that NASA seems to be a large, bulky, inefficient preponderance has been the general view of detractors for, from what I can tell, most of its history. As I mentioned, it was mostly funded by the military as that was really the only way to get the project started.

    Really, in a way, the downfall of the whole thing is an extrapolation of both Challenger and Columbia: space "travel" has become routine. Men and women are going up, coming down, not really doing anything of consequence, and for no particular reason, it seems. Space travel isn't sexy anymore. The idea of going to Mars is cool to a certain segment of the population, but most people are just curious as to why we would do such a thing. The old "because it's there" explanation doesn't work for a whole lot of the general public.* And when you explain to people that the human race as a whole might one day outgrow Earth, they're completely oblivious to such a scenario ever occurring. I mean, some people still don't see the point of moving to hybrid or electric cars, because it's just not something that they think is important. Same thing with space travel.

    Now, as someone who came into the whole thing late (being born in '81), what was the premise of the original push to orbit? Establishing rocket superiority? Technological achievement? And why did the people support it, if it was solely a military activity? When Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon, were people at home sitting there going "Well that'll show them fuckin' Russkies!"

    Is that the problem? Do we need an enemy before we pull together to do things that are intrinsically exploratory in nature? Columbus (or De Soto, or whomever) didn't know he was going to find anything when he set out, he just assumed there's shit out there to find, and maybe there's a way to make a buck off it. Can't we just say "Well, one day we might be able to profit from sending people to Mars"?

    *I've come to realize in the past week or so that having a cool idea doesn't presuppose a reason. "What's the point?" is a good question to ask, but we should be able to accept "Because it might be cool/fun/valuable" as an answer.
    • CommentAuthorlooneynerd
    • CommentTimeMay 18th 2009

    The Ion engine solution pops up. I just decided to hop on it before anybody else could :P


    The push to the moon really was a military matter. As I think someone said above, we wanted to get there to establish a missile base before the Russians could. Economics will have to drive future development; it's the only reason the guys like Cabot, Columbus, De Soto, Cortez, et. al. got the funding to go on their explorations.

    NASA is, in a lot of ways, already heavily privatized. Boeing and Lockheed-Martin are responsible for building nearly every component on Project Constellation. They god the job by bidding lower than anybody else. It makes me wonder if we just hand it all over to them, and simply use NASA as an FDA or CDC type organism; helping to lead research, but mostly just responsible for regulation.
  6.  (5884.19)
    The main problem with NASa is that they're too bureaucratically bloated to achieve their own goals before the technology they're using to achieve them is obsolete. A complete administrative streamlining will solve half the problem, but without a system in place to make use of new technological advances in the existing vehicular infrastructure - outside of ibstalling a fancy new toilet that gives you a vaccuum enema - they're never going to be an agency that is fast-acting enough to capitalize on new tech before it's already old tech. I'm talking about replacing an engine system on an existing vehicle with a newer better engine system, without replacing the whole vehicle. If some supergenius child invents anti-gravity, we shouldn't have to build a whole new vehicle to make use of it.
    • CommentAuthorlooneynerd
    • CommentTimeMay 18th 2009
    @Mighty Wombat

    That's part of the beauty of the Constellation Program. We can build as many ATLAS I & V rockets as we like, upgrading as we go. And each Orion Capsule will have a life of 5 or 6 missions tops, so we'll have to replace them every year or so, making it possible to upgrade them as we go.