Issue 21, 1 June 2007 -- 38th Apollo Anniversary Year

  1. News: New European space forum
  2. Comment: Farewell, Tony Blair -- almost Britain's greatest space supporter
  3. Review: UK prime ministerial online petition system
  4. Review: Michael Griffin's next 50 years in space

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(1) News: New European space forum

by Stephen Ashworth

Following on from the Edinburgh ESA-BNSC workshop, some of those of us who were invited to Edinburgh as representatives of the public have set up an online discussion forum specifically for European citizens to discuss the activities and direction of Europe in space. This is being done with the approval of ESA.

Stephen Oman, from the Republic of Ireland, wrote to the other competition entrants: "After the conclusion of the competition, I was amazed to discover that no forum existed for European citizens to meet and discuss their ideas and views on our participation in space exploration. It seemed to me that this exciting adventure, which inspired me as a child, is happening without anyone really taking notice. Therefore, I invite you to continue this interest, sharing of ideas, debate on European space exploration goals and celebration of our achievements."

The discussion group is called Europe In Space.

The group is open to all interested in the European exploration of space. My own view is that the group should focus on the specific activity of debating and voting on resolutions. We should carry out online discussions of key space questions as they affect ESA: should ESA develop a reusable spaceplane or something like the Russian Kliper/Soyuz for ISS access? should ESA prioritise Mars exploration or solar power from space? Contributions could be circulated by e-mail and displayed on a website, and after a month or two we would take a vote. If this leads to a clear resolution, we can then go to ESA (and the media) and say, look, the European space-aware public wants ESA to do such-and-such.

The model I have in mind is the European Interparliamentary Space Conference. Tim De Bondt described at Edinburgh how the EISC passes resolutions, and said that although these had no legal power, they were recognised as very influential. The space-aware European public should now do the same.

If this leads to ESA being asked some hard questions about what it is doing, then so much the better.

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(2) Comment: Farewell, Tony Blair -- almost Britain's greatest space supporter

by Stephen Ashworth

On 27 June, prime mininster Tony Blair is due to step down after ten years in office.

Let us never forget the inspiring words with which he began his prime ministership, in his speech addressed to the Labour Party Conference in Brighton on 30 September 1997 -- words which have presumably by now been engraved in stone over the front door of the BNSC (?):

The British don't fear change. We are one of the great innovative peoples. From the Magna Carta to the first Parliament to the industrial revolution to an empire that covered the world. Most of the great inventions of modern times with Britain stamped on them: the telephone; the television; the computer; penicillin; the hovercraft; radar. Change is in the blood and bones of the British. We are by our nature and tradition innovators, adventurers, pioneers.

Judging by Mr Blair's subsequent level of interest in Britain in space, as he spoke he was clearly privately thinking: "... and this must never be allowed to happen again!"

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(3) Review: UK prime ministerial online petition system

by Stephen Ashworth

It is now possible to petition the British prime minister online.

Signatories are asked to provide their name, e-mail address and full postal address.

The petition "We the undersigned petition the prime minister to ... Create a British Space Agency" has attracted 365 signatures, to which should presumably be added the 58 signatures to the petition to "Create a Royal Space Centre" and the 182 signatures to "Properly fund a UK National Space Programme to inspire our young people".

Support for the UK in ESA is muted: the petition to "Allow the UK to join the ESA human space flight program" has only 32 signatures, while the competing petition to "Join the ESA manned space flight program" has 12. (Overlapping petitions are supposed to be rejected, but the system is still at a fairly early stage of development.)

The petition to "Bring back Concorde!" is doing a bit better, with 846 signatures.

Of the 7390 petitions currently open for signing, the top dog in terms of support is the petition to "Recognise that music and dance should not be restricted by burdensome licensing regulations", with 77,825 signatures. This is beginning to look like something the PM might actually notice as a barometer of public opinion.

At the sad end of the spectrum, 304 petitions have been signed by only a single person, their creator.

Proposals for petitions which are "intended to be humorous, or have no point about government policy" are rejected, for this website is an exercise in serious democracy. Two petitions which have passed the test of offering serious contributions to government policy are the petition to "Make Jeremy Clarkson Prime Minister" (6452 signatures), and another for the prime minister to "Stand on his head and juggle ice cream" (4892 signatures). (I'm not making this up -- check it for yourself.)

Although I signed the "British Space Agency" petition, I'll not be holding my breath waiting for Britain's new prime minister to act on it -- unless his name happens to be Jeremy Clarkson.

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(4) Review: Michael Griffin's next 50 years in space

by Stephen Ashworth

"Human Space Exploration: The Next 50 Years", by Dr Michael D. Griffin, is now online.

Griffin volunteers to approach his view of the coming half century with an appropriate humility, remembering how astonishing it would have seemed in early 1957 that the Soviets would launch the first artificial satellite and the first man in space, that the Americans would respond with a manned Moon-landing programme, yet that a few years later the amazing infrastructure of Apollo-Saturn would be completely dismantled.

The natural way to proceed from here would be to offer a range of alternative futures, based on different possible assumptions. Griffin manages this for a single paragraph. But while paying lip service to the international scene and the possible role of commercial space, he then plumps decisively for the option of giving priority to what he knows about: "For a while yet, it is the U.S. government, through NASA, that determines the main course of human spaceflight."

This means that manned spaceflight is above all dependent upon the funding devoted to NASA. Griffin offers a perspective in which NASA's income is displayed in 15-year blocks, adjusted for inflation: on this scale, the Apollo peak of the mid 1960s vanishes, balanced out by the ensuing aerospace depression. NASA's funding, when taken 15 years at a time, has actually been extremely consistent over the past half century. Griffin assumes that it will continue to be consistent for the next 50 years as well.

As he puts it: "Expressed in a slightly different way, NASA could carry out a complete Apollo-scale effort every 15 years between the present day [i.e. effectively 2011, after the Shuttle is retired] and the 100th anniversary of Sputnik."

Griffin also finds consistency in the proportion of NASA's funds devoted to manned spaceflight, as opposed to science, aeronautics, communications technology, university support and so on. That proportion, he argues, has remained remarkably constant at between 61 and 63 per cent.

His vision of the future is therefore based on NASA funding of $14.2 bn/year, of which manned spaceflight is allocated $8.8 bn/year (in Fiscal 2000 dollars).

When discussing retiring the Shuttle, Griffin points out that it was originally intended to be cost-effective at a weekly flight rate. If, he adds, there were a predictable requirement for that number of payloads, "that fact should be treated as a market opportunity for a private, not government, space transportation enterprise." Of course there is just such a predictable requirement, but space tourism is not recognised as any business of the government sector which Griffin is narrowly focused on.

"Most of the next 15 years", he writes, "will be spent re-creating capabilities we once had, and discarded." He sees Orion-Ares as a reborn Apollo-Saturn -- one more capable than the original Apollo-Saturn was, but representing no more than what Apollo-Saturn might have evolved into. It will take us longer to return to the Moon than it took the first time, but only because money is flowing into the project at a constant rate, rather than coming in a huge funding feast followed by a famine.

His next major statement dismisses the International Space Station: "I will also venture to say that by 2022 the ISS will be definitely behind us. We will have learned from it what we can, but there will come a time when the value of the work being done onboard the facility will be judged not to be worth the cost of sustaining its aging systems, and it will be brought down. [...] And when it does, the resources which have been used for ISS support can be applied to the support of a lunar outpost."

According to Griffin, "The most important factor for future success is stability in purpose, strategy, requirements, and funding." Given this, a long-term lunar outpost is on the cards, starting around 2022 and with international participation. Seven NASA Moon launches per year (three manned missions and one cargo flight) could be maintained indefinitely for a cost of around $4 bn/year.

At about the same time, development work on manned Mars flights could begin, leading to a first manned Mars landing in 2037 and follow-up missions every two years thereafter. The lunar and martian programmes would of course share the Orion-Ares system. But as time goes on, Russia, Europe and other countries might well choose to develop their own independent access to the Moon.

Manned lunar and martian flights are of course very much hostage to future political conditions in America. It's worth remembering James Oberg's comment on the ISS: "If anything, it has taught the country never to trust NASA with a project of this size again" (New Scientist, 18 May 2002, p.30). Congress or a hostile president could easily put Griffin's rosy future on ice, just as Nixon did to the proposed post-Apollo programme in 1970.

But if there is one key point in this, to me it is Griffin's expectation that the ISS will be deorbited, and his lack of interest in what might succeed it in low Earth orbit. Yet the ISS is of crucial importance in that it is the only currently existing permanent accommodation for people in space.

Griffin's vision is of space as an arena almost exclusively for government science. He only really considers commercial space systems (transport, communications) as suppliers to existing government programmes: "the likely cost benefit to the government of commercial procurement of space goods and services, once it is possible, cannot and will not be ignored." COTS is not commercial space -- it is commercial supply of government space.

For the foreseeable future, Griffin sees space as a government monopoly, not an arena for economic activity. Exploration is for science and inspiration, not more material ends. Space tourism is a fringe activity, of little importance, and the economic utilisation of space resources is so far in the future as to be way outside the scope of the next 50 years. This is, of course, a view shared by government space agencies around the world.

Is there an alternative? Quite obviously, there is. Rather than another 50 years of the government science and prestige paradigm, the coming decades could and should see a massive shift to commercial systems servicing commercial markets, namely space tourism and space solar power.

It is well known by now that space tourism is the only market with sufficient volume of demand to generate economic access to orbit and economic accommodation in orbit. Meanwhile, with a two-pronged energy crisis -- fears of carbon dioxide emissions and of dwindling fossil fuel reserves -- it must be clear that the only two real long-term solutions are nuclear fusion and space-based solar power.

Rather than NASA and the other space agencies ignoring these factors, they should be actively supporting the development of commercial markets.

They should be planning long-term expansion of the ISS, an increase in the number of private visitors it can host, and a steady increase in the numbers of station modules being launched into orbit. (The ISS, like Mir, is modular, and the whole point of a modular structure -- a well designed one, at least -- is that it can last indefinitely, so long as worn-out modules are regularly replaced with new ones.)

They should be directing coordinated lunar and asteroidal exploration towards the goal of putting into production resources which can be applied to extraterrestrial solar power collection and transmission on a multi-gigawatt scale.

They should be subsidising early private visits to space, the early return of satellite or lunar solar power to Earth and the early return of asteroidal water to Earth orbit, in the same way that the US government subsidised early airlines with airmail contracts, or the British government subsidised some of the great Cunarders.

Space should not be seen as the province of ivory-tower boffins or out-of-this-world astronauts, but as an integral part of the economy, with resources of vital strategic importance to everyone on Earth. The space agencies should see supporting this transition as their chief business, with science as a spin-off benefit of economic development rather than the other way around.

Developing these markets will in any case make pure exploration cheaper as well. According to David Ashford, managing director of Bristol Spaceplanes, a back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that the cost of returning to the Moon could easily be halved once a significant orbital space tourism business comes into existence. Clearly, Mars exploration stands to benefit too.

Michael Griffin's view of the next 50 years is heavily conditioned by his desire to take NASA back to the glory of its Apollo days, and to ignore the major developments which are capable of transforming the scene. For the sake of a dynamic future, both in space and on Earth, we must hope that he is wrong.

NB I have not received any other comment concerning Dr Griffin's article. -- S.A.

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Astronautical Evolution is an e-mail forum devoted to debate and comment from an astronautical evolutionist perspective. To subscribe / unsubscribe / contribute / comment, please e-mail Stephen Ashworth, sa--at--astronist.demon.co.uk.


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