As America reaffirms its commitment to President George W. Bush's 2020 Moon-landing goal , I have been reading some essays by Dr Michael Griffin to try to understand that programme in more detail :
In the first of these essays, "Seeking the Right Stuff", Griffin links the Right Stuff of Tom Wolfe's famous novel with the power of spaceflight to inspire the next generation:
as I've said in several speeches, at a fundamental level, NASA is in the inspiration business. Space exploration inspires the questioning child in each of us to "explore strange new worlds, to seek new life and new civilizations, and to boldly go where no one has gone before." I believe that we will, one day, find a civilization on Mars. Ours.
Which is great, but isn't his roadmap for getting to that civilisation a bit vague?
He talks a great deal about the importance of science, technology and maths (the "STEM" subjects -- a subject we've heard a lot about here in the UK too), and about the USA's poor showing in producing graduates in these disciplines compared with India and China. He talks of how NASA is "leveraging the emerging commercial space sector", and mentions by name SpaceX and COTS, Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic, and the Zero-G Corporation.
In the meantime, he reminds us, the stuff of science fiction is becoming reality. President Reagan proposed the space station programme in 1984 with the words: "We can follow our dreams to distant stars, living and working in space for peaceful economic and scientific gain", and this has now become the reality of eight years of continuous occupation of the ISS.
All this is great as far as it goes. But he is failing to draw the necessary conclusion: that government exploration needs to have a clear follow-through to the sustainable mass markets of the future in space tourism, space manufacturing and space energy.
Griffin concludes: "Whether America takes part or not, human exploration of space will go forward in this century. It is only a question of who those explorers are, what languages they speak, and what values they hold. Make no mistake, those who explore space in the coming decades will have The Right Stuff. I only hope that Americans will be among them."
In "NASA and Engineering Integrity", Griffin gives a very interesting recent quotation from his friend Arnie Aldrich, Manager of the Shuttle programme at the time of the Challenger disaster back in 1985. Aldrich points out that that disaster has had momentous effects on the space programme ever since:
Fast-forwarding to the present, with the traumas of Challenger and Columbia past history, Griffin goes on to vigorously defend NASA's integrity, particularly in regard to the new Ares I-Orion-Ares V-Altair lunar architecture. He also emphatically defends the current overall strategy for manned spaceflight: "We have spent the last thirty-five years conducting the experiment of confining our ambitions for human spaceflight to low Earth orbit. It did not turn out in a manner befitting a great nation. Let's not continue it."
But is he being too quick to assume that the Shuttle could never have met its full potential?
Finally, in "We Have a Long Way to Go", Griffin defends the new direction of the US manned space programme -- complete ISS, retire Shuttle, return to Moon, eventually go to Mars. He writes: "in my view we have the right policy, not least because it directs us to follow the geography of the solar system in which we live as we go about rebuilding our spacefaring capabilities. We must surely do things right, but it is even more important to do the right things. With this policy, we are."
Once again, the Shuttle concept is dismissed without a fair hearing. We are "rebuilding our spacefaring capabilities" -- do access to orbit in a winged, semi-reusable vehicle and a large space station not count as spacefaring capabilities?
He goes on to defend again the Ares I-Orion-Ares V-Altair architecture for achieving the new policy, and examines the deficiencies of some of the alternatives which have been offered -- using EELVs for Orion, leaving ISS support to commercial providers, continuing to fly the Shuttle until Orion is operational, and eliminating Ares I in favour of using two Ares V launches for each lunar mission.
He seems to be claiming that the Shuttle solid rocket boosters cause less vibration and oscillation than a liquid-propellant rocket, which I have difficulty in believing, given that in an article in New Scientist a couple of years ago an astronaut described how quiet the Shuttle became after the solids had shut down and been jettisoned.
Finally, Griffin emphasises that NASA must have "constancy of purpose". He does not seem to have noticed that he is presiding over exactly the sort of change of direction which he condemns: the final abandonment of the goals of the Shuttle programme.
=== References ===
 Story here.
 Available from the NASA website in pdf format.
Thanks to Jacqueline Myrrhe for recommending these speeches to me, and also for recommending the following online petition: "Keep Mike Griffin as the NASA Administrator".
Michael Griffin's defence of NASA's current direction works well on its own terms, within the overall strategy introduced by President George W. Bush and confirmed by Congress in the 2005 and 2008 NASA Authorization Acts. But where did the strategy come from? It can only have arisen through the advice of NASA itself as to what alternatives to the Shuttle/Station programmes were possible and desirable.
I question that strategy.
I think that NASA is repeating a past mistake: having built a capability, it is abandoning it and changing direction.
I believe I am correct in saying that the original goal of the Shuttle programme was to make access to space easier and cheaper. Although perhaps not explicitly stated, surely the idea was that flying to orbit on reusable winged vehicles was here to stay, and that the future would see routine access to orbit for many different purposes, including commercial ones.
In my view, the logical outcome of the Shuttle programme would have been to develop a Shuttle mark II which learnt from the drawbacks of the original Shuttle. The solid boosters would have been retired, the external tank adapted into a winged flyback vehicle, and above all the lessons would have been learnt that would enable the Shuttle mark II to fulfil the lost promise of the original version: weekly flights to orbit at a cost per tonne markedly lower than on expendable vehicles.
When I interviewed space engineer-entrepreneur Alan Bond on the subject his view was very similar. He drew attention to the original fully reusable designs for the Shuttle in the 1970s, which would now be much easier to build with the orbiter, the reusable engines and thermal protection system in hand. (See Spaceflight, Nov. 2008, p.424.)
There are those who criticise all government involvement in civil space, saying that NASA and the other space bureaucracies must get out of the way so that private enterprise can do the job properly. I disagree. I have no prior ideological commitment either to the state or to the market, but only to what works in practice, and I see a healthy degree of cooperation between bureaucrat and entrepreneur -- as also a healthy degree of competition between one bureaucrat and another, and between one entrepreneur and another -- as an enabler of progress.
Obvious historical examples include the government mail contracts which fostered early steam shipping and aviation services, the public/private partnership which built the Cunarders Lusitania and Mauretania (the first great Atlantic liners to be propelled by the new Parsons turbine), and the international rivalry on the prestigious North Atlantic routes a century ago.
I therefore think that NASA is wrong to abandon the original goals of the Shuttle programme. I support emphatically a return to the Moon -- but only so long as it is sustainable. A repeat of Apollo is quite obviously not sustainable. The key to sustainability is to complete the work of the Shuttle: to make access to orbit a routine economic activity. Low Earth orbit is more than halfway to the Moon in delta-V terms. This should then make lunar access far cheaper in the long run, and capable of long-term growth.
The good news is, as reported a week ago, that Europe is coming round to supporting British spaceplane designs, notably Reaction Engines' Skylon. In this way the promise of the original Shuttle should eventually be fulfilled, after much delay.
If your views differ, then please send them in for publication next month!
As usual I found your Astronautical Evolution, issue 41, very interesting. However, do please note that, while Darwin produced far more evidence for natural selection than previously and put the idea on the map, he did not originate the concept. The basic idea had already been published over 100 years before him. A detailed theory of natural selection was in fact first published by a university-educated Scottish fruit farmer, Patrick Matthew, in his paper "On Naval Timber and Arboriculture" in 1831, 28 years before Darwin's Origin of Species.
Though Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, had published his poem Zoonomia in 1796, 35 years before Matthew's publication, and Erasmus had elaborated on similar ideas, he himself had taken them from Frenchmen Georges de Buffon, who had said in 1750 that some species slowly changed into others, and Benoist de Maillet, who had submitted his book Telliamed, containing similar ideas, for publication in Amsterdam in 1735, though it was so controversial that his publisher hesitated to bring it out. De Maillet died in 1745 with his book not published until 1748, 3 years after his death and 111 years before Darwin. Sadly, I understand that Charles Darwin omitted to mention his references in his Origin, which is why he is generally mistakenly credited with having originated the revolutionary concept.
Interestingly, some years back in the 1980s, when we had the Settlers' Sentinel magazine on the go, Doctor Graeme Duncan (now an oncology professor at Vancouver University), the Space Settlers' Society executive president at the time, wrote an article about how humanity might be expected to evolve in settlements on the Moon, Mars, etc., due to the differing gravities and other conditions on those bodies. He reckoned that some of those born and brought up on the lighter-gravity bodies might never be able to set foot on Earth even though they would still be, by anyone's definition, "human beings".
Science fiction writer Brian Stableford, who is both a qualified biologist and a sociologist and who I believe lectures at Reading, has also written a series of books -- Halcyon Drift, Rhapsody in Black, Promised Land and The Paradise Game -- that describe ways differing from ours in which aliens, perhaps non-DNA-based, may evolve on other planets. In The Paradise Game in particular he also points to some of the problems human civilization may come across during its own evolution, should we achieve the ability to utilise some kind of FTL travel and settle planets round other stars, especially if they happen to have intelligent or semi-intelligent aliens already living on them.
You may be interested to note that on 31st January I sent the following to CNN's team at Davos:
Vast quantities of money are being borrowed and ploughed into economies all over our planet in order to deal with the present worldwide credit crunch and many are worried that this will result in future giant tax increases when governments seek to repay their debts. However such tax increases could be avoided by gaining access to major new resources, for real new money can be printed to match real new resources and right now humanity is sitting on the edge of the greatest source of such new resources we have ever come across in our entire history, the resources of our Solar System.
There are at least 4 dwarf planets, 8 planets, over a 100 moons, a couple of thousand Near Earth Objects, millions of asteroids and Kuiper Belt objects and billions of comets, more than enough as soon as we gain access to them, to avoid all further credit crunches for thousands of years.
It is generally thought that space is too expensive but space elevators could bring down the cost of getting a human into space from some hundreds of millions of dollars to about the same cost as a trans-oceanic air flight. This would make access to space resources economic as the main cost of access is getting up to either low Earth or geosynchronous orbit before travelling elsewhere. By interlinking loops of short strong carbon nanotubes, cables long enough for space elevators could be constructed.
The main problem then becomes the political problem. The UN Outer Space Treaty says the resources of the Solar System are the property equally of all humanity. There is thereby no incentive for anyone to access the resources as you can't make profit unless you can sell and you can't sell what you don't own -- or what everybody owns. The answer then would have to involve a new UN agreement on ownership of such resources.
If the UN was to agree to divide the wealth of our Moon and the Near Earth Objects between the nations of Earth, perhaps according to population, and accordingly allocate lunar areas and nearby asteroids to each nation concerned, and to also agree that such nations should pay a reasonable portion of the profits from the resources of their areas to the nations or space companies that go mine or otherwise retrieve their resources, then the space nations such as the US, Europe, Russia, China, India, Japan, Brazil etc. could be encouraged to go get these resources.
When Nixon cancelled the Apollo program he put some thousands of space scientists and engineers out of work, but this resulted in some hundreds of thousands of others in the US becoming out of work. Manned spaceflight is a major multiplier of jobs, so a major space resource race would provide millions of jobs worldwide and be in everyone's interest.
-- Your proposals [items (2) and (3) in issue 41 -- SA] are great providing science and exploration are the main purposes of spaceflight, and sadly this is also the main consideration of politicians when it comes to space. However, I don't believe we have any real chance of either getting to know or understand the bodies in our Solar System until we switch our motivation from science and exploration to economics. Let us open up access to space resources and make it legal to profit from these and hey presto! Our Solar System will be opened up pronto, without any further delay. All humanity will benefit.
Just look at how our planet and human civilization have changed drastically since Europeans began to exploit the resources of the Americas. In a very few hundreds of years civilization has changed worldwide out of all recognition. There are enough resources out there now to make every starving third-worlder as rich tomorrow in real terms as Bill Gates is today. It won't happen that way of course, but circumstances for all will improve. In as little as a few decades it really ought to be possible to totally eradicate all human starvation and for taxation of incoming resources to pay back all the present vast borrowing that governments are engaged in. That alone should make such an economic project worthwhile!
Best wishes, Andy.
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