Congress, NASA

Dissecting Orion delays

Yesterday’s hearings by the House Science and Technology Committee and the CJS subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee covered a lot of the issues that had already been covered in previous hearings this week, including plenty of hand-wringing by both Democrats and Republicans about the lack of money to meet all of NASA’s priorities. There was even a proposal by Sen. Barbara Milkulski to hold a bipartisan summit with the White House to create “a national commitment to our space program to put it on a path for success.”

Perhaps the most interesting comments, though, came by Mike Griffin late in the House hearing Thursday morning, in response to a question by ranking member Ralph Hall about the various delays in the CEV/Orion program. Griffin explained that when he became administrator he set a goal of having the CEV enter service in 2012. However, funding cuts to cover ISS and shuttle operations, Hurricane Katrina repairs, and other issues, pushed the start date back to late 2014. After Lockheed Martin won the Orion contract last year, Griffin said they re-baselined the program and budgeted “to a 65-percent confidence level”. All of those factors pushed the start date back further, to March 2015. In other words, NASA had missed the end-2014 deadline for putting Orion in service before the final FY07 budget cut more money from the program. That budget caused a six-month delay, but Griffin said that this had been negated by terminating lower-priority programs, like the follow-on missions to LRO in the robotic lunar exploration program, moving the start date back to March 2015. This is a bit different from earlier testimony, such as before the Senate Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee, which suggested that the FY07 cut was the reason for missing the 2014 deadline. (One can argue that NASA would have still made the 2014 deadline had it received full funding in FY07 and made the cuts in other programs, but this makes it clear that the program was not in the best of fiscal health well before the 2007 budget was approved.)

Unfortunately, the major media accounts of the hearing opt for sensationalism over substance: the Washington Post and Houston Chronicle instead lead with comments by Griffin, in response to a question by Rep. Ken Calvert, that China might beat us (back) to the Moon. Because, of course, if the Chinese did somehow land humans on the Moon before the US returned, they would… uh, do something. Like steal all the Moon’s helium-3 for their fusion reactors. Yeah, that’s it.

50 comments to Dissecting Orion delays

  • Alan

    Senator Barbara Mikulski is great!

  • kert

    funny how they predict the deadlines seven years into future with one-month accuracy.
    i have trouble in predicting my project deadlines two months into future, the longer it gets the longer the unpredictability.

    The silent disaster lurking in those statements here is backtracking from “we will send a robotic probe to moon every year, starting from 2008″
    They canned LRO and RLEP followons ? What the hell ?

  • Ken Rivert

    Let irrational people be afraid of a Chinese Moon landing, it will only bring more money into the space program. It’s not like Apollo would ever have happened without the same kinds of motives. By all means, exploit idiocy for the betterment of mankind.

  • MarkWhittington

    “Because, of course, if the Chinese did somehow land humans on the Moon before the US returned, they would… uh, do something. Like steal all the Moon’s helium-3 for their fusion reactors. Yeah, that’s it.”

    Of course, if the Chinese return to the Moon and the United States does not, I wonder what would stop them from doing so?

  • John Malkin

    The Russians or Europeans might stop them or beat them to it. It would be nice to see the Republicans and Democrats battle to spend more money. This is my unsupported feeling but I think there is slack in the Orion budget and time line. Development projects are very difficult to predict deadlines early in the development cycle. The less new technology the better for the project. I don’t get the 65% confidence level, I haven’t heard the hearing. Is it NASA’s or Lockhead’s confidence? Did the Congressmen request a 100% confidence budget or at least 95%?

  • Paul Dietz

    If China were actually able to mine the 10 ppb 3He economically, and use it in real fusion reactors, wouldn’t the benefit to humanity from those capabilities alone more than make up for any ego-bruising?

    Not that I expect them to be able to do either anytime soon. There’s a huge gap between landing a few people on the moon and processing many megatons of regolith/year.

  • *

    Only a fool would assume there is nothing but helium 3 to claim on the moon.

  • Because, of course, if the Chinese did somehow land humans on the Moon before the US returned, they would… uh, do something.

    Yes they would. They would undermine not only the US position as the leading space power but also as the world’s hyperpower. Griffin may have just said the magic words to unlock the funding NASA needs to move space exploration ahead.

  • anonymous

    If Griffin and Horowitz have been withholding information about the slip in Orion’s schedule, it makes one wonder what else be withheld right now, especially regarding Ares 1/Orion margins and performance. I still have not seen anything on the long-promised Ares 1 upper-stage SRR, for example.

    “funny how they predict the deadlines seven years into future with one-month accuracy.”

    That’s not terribly strange or funny — NASA has to communicate a schedule, after all.

    What is very funny, strange, and disheatening is that the schedule is only funded at th 65 percent level — and has been long before the unrealistic Ares/Orion budget expectations started falling by the wayside.

    When most schedules for these types of projects are funded at the 80 percent level, the Ares 1/Orion schedule has always been a coin flip. Why NASA (Griffin) insisted on picking such costly architecture whose schedule they could only fund at that level still mystifies me a little.

    “There’s a huge gap between landing a few people on the moon and processing many megatons of regolith/year.”

    There’s also a huge gap between pulling off a few orbital rides with copied Ruskie hardware and landing a few people on the moon with what will have to be indigenous hardware. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves regarding China’s human space flight capabilities.

    “Griffin may have just said the magic words to unlock the funding NASA needs to move space exploration ahead.”

    Naw, Griffin’s been making those rumblings since becoming Administrator (and before), and it gotten him nowhere. A Chinese human lunar effort (assuming it’s ever mounted) is so far into the future from a political point-of-view as to be irrelevant to the current discussion. Outside a couple hawks on his authorization committees, the argument doesn’t play to most of his potential supporters, the appropriators, or a Democratic Congress at large. It’s time he recognized that and moved on to a better argument.

    What’s ironic about Griffin’s China statements is that they fly in the face of what he (or his speechwriter) wrote in that Aviation Week editorial blog, where Griffin hoped that future human lunar efforts, and future national space exploration activities in general, are undertaken cooperatively, not competitively. It’s rather hypocritical to wish for one thing, then make a statement encouraging the opposite, even in the (mistakenly assumed) name of political expediency.

  • Anonymous: Why NASA (Griffin) insisted on picking such costly architecture whose schedule they could only fund at that level still mystifies me a little.

    We don’t have to guess: he’s stated that the reason was to ride as much Mars hardware development on the lunar project as he could. I don’t think many of us dispute that this has turned out to be a very bad call, indeed.

    – Donald

  • John Malkin

    Well, Griffin won’t be wrong until he is wrong. I think if Ares I/Orion can meet or beat the following parameters, it is a success. The craft/lunch must be cheaper than any other country in order to send the same number of people to LEO. It should be at least 25% to 50% cheaper to operate than the shuttle. Budget overruns should be in expectable ranges for development projects. It must be safer, require less maintenance and require fewer personnel than the Shuttle. Have the ability to launch at least two craft per month. Having any reusability is a bonus.

    Until you have the final design, you really can’t know the costs heck you don’t even know all the vendors involved. None of the other initial designs have gone through the same intensive cost analysis. I don’t know if they should be considered in more in-depth analysis. All of that takes time. Maybe there should be an independent panel of engineers, scientists and accountants that oversee NASA decisions…

  • MarkWhittington

    “If China were actually able to mine the 10 ppb 3He economically, and use it in real fusion reactors, wouldn’t the benefit to humanity from those capabilities alone more than make up for any ego-bruising?”

    The fact that bad tempered Muslims and nut cases like Hugo Chavez control a lot of oil constitute a lot more harm than “ego bruising.” It would be nice if the world’s next energy supply was instead controled by sensible people.

  • anonymous

    “We don’t have to guess: he’s stated that the reason was to ride as much Mars hardware development on the lunar project as he could.”

    While true, that doesn’t explain everything. For example, Orion is so heavy ostensibly to support six-person Mars crews. But the LockMart/Bigelow analysis shows that we could stuff eight people on smaller capsules and launchers. Both are relatively short trips to larger orbital facilities. So there’s either disconnects with or errors in the ESAS analysis or other factors also drove the decision.

    “I don’t think many of us dispute that this has turned out to be a very bad call, indeed.”

    Whatever the driving factors, it was an unnecessary overreach, for sure.

    “The craft/lunch must be cheaper than any other country in order to send the same number of people to LEO.”

    I’d be mildly surprised if she beats two Soyuzes cost-wise. The Ruskie labor advantage is just too great.

    “It should be at least 25% to 50% cheaper to operate than the shuttle.”

    But to actually reap those savings, NASA must reduce the Shuttle workforce, something Griffin appears to be unwilling to do on his watch. And by kicking the can to his successor, the needed Shuttle workforce reduction is going to be that much more abrupt and severe and politically difficult to pull off. And if Griffin’s successor can’t pull it off, Ares costs are doomed to be outrageous.

    There are Shuttle functions going offline today. Every month that goes by with no gradual drawdown in the Shuttle workforce associated with those functions adds a little more explosive to the Ares operating costs timebomb.

    “Budget overruns should be in expectable ranges for development projects.”

    Ares and Orion do not have a problem with budget overruns (at least not yet). The problem is that their budgets were busting at the seams (only budgeted with about a 50/50 probability of meeting the schedule, small reserves, sucking up dollars from other programs, etc.) even before NASA’s budget expectations failed to be met. Now that those budgeted expectations are not being realized (which was bound to happen at some point), there’s no margin or flexibility in the budget to accommodate the the difference in budget expectations and reality. NASA is left with no choice left but to stretch the schedule and watch the gap widen and actual human exploration disappear over the horizon.

    The somewhat tragic thing is that NASA didn’t have to be led down this path. Griffin could have chosen less demanding requirements (e.g., four crew instead of six) that would not have required such a large capsule and NASA-unique booster. Griffin could have leveraged EELV development for a cheaper booster, and had some change left over for other exploration activities that could have been deferred instead of his critical path items when the budget inevitably did come down. Griffin could have better balanced his ESAS criteria and settled for a less expensive booster/LES combination that was simply a lot safer than Shuttle, instead of trying for a more expensive booster that may (or may not) be the absolute safest (at least according to the ESAS analysis). Etc., etc.

    The bottomline is that it all comes down to requirements — what it is you ask for. Griffin failed to ask for a plan that was politically and budgetarily sustainable and that mistake going to haunt NASA for the next couple years, maybe longer. To have a executable and sustainable human space exploration plan, NASA has to be conservative with more than just safety margins. Budget margin, schedule margin, and other factors associated with inevitable political hiccups have to be taken into account as well.

    “It must be safer, require less maintenance and require fewer personnel than the Shuttle. Have the ability to launch at least two craft per month. Having any reusability is a bonus.”

    Again, the sad thing is that your set of requirements could have been easily met with different system choices that required less time and money to develop, leaving a lot more margin for the budget setbacks NASA is encountering today.

    “Until you have the final design, you really can’t know the costs.”

    Agreed. But it’s not that hard to establish cost relationships that can give a relative feel for how expensive one system will be compared to another. Even ESAS included this kind of analysis, which showed that either of the Sticks (4- or 5-segments) were not the absolute best choice from a cost perspective.

    “Maybe there should be an independent panel of engineers, scientists and accountants that oversee NASA decisions…”

    I wouldn’t say that — we’d just wind up with two competing power bases trying to run NASA. NASA has enough competing power bases as it is.

    But some independent group should be revisiting ESAS’s assumptions, data, criteria, options, and analysis to prepare some desirable alternatives for whomever the decisionmakers will be after the next election. If those alternatives are not available, NASA risks cancellation of the human lunar return and losing the VSE dollars and any Shuttle savings necessary to sustain it.

  • Anonymous: Orion is so heavy ostensibly to support six-person Mars crews. But the LockMart/Bigelow analysis shows that we could stuff eight people on smaller capsules and launchers.

    So, anyone have any ideas about what the extra mass is? (This ought to generate some good conspiracy theories.)

    The Ruskie labor advantage is just too great.

    This may no longer be true. As the vast influx of oil money makes it possible to meet workers’ increasing demands for reasonable pay, the cost of Russian spacecraft and launch vehicles are rapidly rising.

    – Donald

  • vanilla

    Griffin could have chosen less demanding requirements (e.g., four crew instead of six) that would not have required such a large capsule and NASA-unique booster.

    With an L2 rendezvous lunar architecture, you would achieve an even better effect without even this compromise. Plus more extensibility and flexibility for future Mars and asteroid missions.

  • Jeff Foust

    Only a fool would assume there is nothing but helium 3 to claim on the moon.

    “*”, you may be right that there is more to claim on the Moon than He3. (I bring it up specifically since the Newsweek article I linked to made a big deal out of rather unconvincing Chinese statements that China wanted to explore the Moon, with robots and/or humans, for the sake of He3. Nevermind that He3 reactors for energy production are decades away, if ever.) But if we try to justify the VSE on the basis of a competition, real or perceived, with China or any other nation, we not only provide a mixed message (as noted above) but also run a very real risk of going down the same road as Apollo: unaffordable and unsustainable. Do we really need to make that same mistake again?

  • Robert G. Oler

    If the Chinese want to go back to the Moon, my line is “Good luck”.

    The LEAST of our problems with China is them going there and planting a flag and singing a few bars of The East is REd…

    In the same time frame that we are talking about going back to the Moon, the Chinese will:

    Most likely start the production of “Boeing sized” airplanes.

    Will acquire a lot more of US debt

    Will likely develop some sort of military porjection capability that odds on favorite will leapfrog our “methods” which are evolving at a snails pace…as we are going to be spending LOTS of money for sometime in Iraq and elsewhere.

    Will take a shot at “colonizing” Africa, at least in a manner that is important, and might even take a shot at going to South/Latin America.

    Could, if they got pissy attempt to destablize Mexico which would be “ubber bad”…

    And those are just the first things off my head.

    And we are worried about two-four people going to the Moon? After only a few runs around the Earth in knock off hardware from Ivan?

    Robert

  • MarkWhittington

    Oler, in his own side wind and inadvertent way, makes our point. China is not a benign power. They are as anxious to achieve world domination as the Soviets and the Nazis before them and their lunar program is part of that scheme.

    It will start with about four people, by the way, but will not end with it.

  • Robert G. Oler

    Mark…

    It will start with four people and not get any larger. The Reds have much more “ambitious” plans on the earth and they dont need the Moon to pull it off.

    China is not a benign power…but that doesnt mean that they are going to the Moon…

    Thanks to this administrations “spend spend spend” and “do things incompetently all across the board” we are more or less “In their debt”.

    What joy.

    And you use to call this administration “the adults”…

    Robert

  • Robert G. Oler

    Sorry Mark I hit the key to early…

    this administration cannot even fire its own attorneys with competence…

    Much less go back to the Moon.

    Does anyone know how to play this game?

    Robert

  • Adrasteia

    For the next half century, the Chinese aren’t going to be expanding anywhere.

    Between massive corruption, widespread poverty, groundwater contamination and soil degradation on scales never before seen in the west, large internal migration of 1000M+ rural population to east coast cities, and other massive social problems they have enough to worry about as it is, the last thing they want is their own continent scale Vietnam war to add onto the pile.

  • Ray

    With the latest delay in Ares I/Orion, is the schedule for ESAS, or that specific early part of ESAS, receeding into the future faster than time is actually going by? I’m not sure but it sure seems like it.

    With the prospects of lunar manned missions dimming (as described in analyses on this site that make a fair amount of sense to me), and the prospects growing for Ares I/Orion becoming mainly an “Entrepreneurial Space Access Stomper (ESAS)” like the pre-Challenger STS, it may be just as well.

    As I remember, the original VSE and/or Aldridge Commission recommendations were for a program with security, economic, and scientific benefits. It was also to be a program with mutually-supporting robotic and manned missions. Aside from some small associated programs like COTS, Centennial Challenges, and LRO that are not part of the main ESAS government lunar transport system, it seems like the current ESAS plan has no security benefits. Security benefits would mean things that help the military, or intelligence, or anti-terrorism, or natural disaster warning and recovery. To me that means things like cheap or responsive access to space (or at least sharing the fixed cost of EELVs), advancing spy/remote sensing/comsat/GPS satellite technologies (or making them cheaper by sharing fixed costs or inspiring improvements), and suborbital troop/rescue deployment.

    As for the economic benefits of ESAS, aside from the direct employees (who would benefit economically no matter what the program actually accomplishes or doesn’t accomplish), it seems that all of the economic benefits are deferred until some time after a lunar base is built up, if that ever happens. An ESAS with real economic benefits would deliver a lot of them along the way, encouraging the areas I mentioned above commercially, or other areas like Bigelow-style modules, tugs, space refueling, or similar “dual-use” capabilities with commercial promise.

    Now that the robotic missions other than LRO are gone, science is deferred as well. (I don’t expect the budget situation to get better, but even if added back they would at best be delayed significantly). The loss of the robotic/human mutual support seems like the last vestige of the original VSE. Without a certain amount of robotic scouting, I’m not sure the human missions would even have a good idea of where to go on the moon, or why, or whether or not to expect ISRU abilities. The human missions will also lose a lot of support from scientists, satellite/rover contractors, Planetary Society advocates, and Maryland Senators.

    The change in robotic missions could be an opportunity to put in place a smaller, cheaper, Worden-style lunar robotics plan (while leaving more money for Ares I than the MSFC robotic plan). It could also be an opportunity to inspire small commercial lunar robotics missions with some kind of incentive (significant, but not as great as the MSFC plan so as to still gain money for Ares). However, there is a good chance Ares will use it all, but to not much beneficial effect since the credibility of, and support for, the lunar plans will be that much more diminished. We will see …

  • kert

    NASA Urges Closing Lunar Robotics Office (Source: Aviation Week)
    Among the actions NASA recommends in its FY-07 operating plan is shutting down the Lunar Precursor and Robotic Program Office at Marshall Space Flight Center, where a whole generation of unmanned orbiters, rovers, hoppers and penetrators was under consideration as scouts for a human landing on the moon. Management of the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), a piggyback pair of impactors to be carried on the 2008 Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), will be pulled into NASA headquarters, but the rest will be dropped in keeping with the agency’s decision to focus on replacing the space shuttle with the Orion/Ares I stack.

    Way to go. Arses One and Five are strangling the actual lunar exploration already.

  • anonymous

    “As I remember, the original VSE and/or Aldridge Commission recommendations were for a program with security, economic, and scientific benefits. It was also to be a program with mutually-supporting robotic and manned missions.”

    Connecting human space exploration to these national goals and using them as rationales to drive the choices made in NASA’s human space flight programs is key to making the whole effort sustainable over multiple elections. Unfortunately, ESAS and Griffin have strayed very far from the VSE and Aldridge, and these connections and justifications are largely lost, at least through the remainder of Griffin’s term.

    “Security benefits would mean things that help the military, or intelligence, or anti-terrorism, or natural disaster warning and recovery.”

    Security can also mean diplomacy and cooperative efforts — like the ISS. But Griffin has excluded foreign participation in Ares 1/Orion (and Ares V/LSAM) so there’s really no opportunity for that kind of security building either.

    “The change in robotic missions could be an opportunity to put in place a smaller, cheaper, Worden-style lunar robotics plan… It could also be an opportunity to inspire small commercial lunar robotics missions with some kind of incentive.”

    Spot on. Instead of wiping out the entire $800 million through the five-year runout, at least retain a couple hundred million to fund some risky but high payoff ISRU prospectors or lunar surface technology demonstrations. Competitively fund the missions via Discovery-type proposals, do it cooperatively with industry via the COTS model (cost-sharing), throw it wide open with prizes, or some combination of the three.

    But don’t wipe out the one last vestige of actual exploration in ESMD. Without some demonstrations of actual exploration progress on politically useful timeframes, the human lunar return will not be sustainable over the next decade-and-a-half (assuming it even survives the next election).

    “Way to go. Arses One and Five are strangling the actual lunar exploration already.”

    Well put, Kert. Well put.

  • anonymous

    “China is not a benign power. They are as anxious to achieve world domination as the Soviets and the Nazis before them and their lunar program is part of that scheme.”

    I’m not asking this to start a debate… I’m honestly curious. What evidence is there to point to that China’s leaders have dreams of “world domination”? Where is the Chinese equivalent of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, for example? Where is the Chinese equivalent of Kruschev’s shoe-pounding “We will bury you” speech before the United Nations?

    Again, I’m not trying to pick an argument. But when read works by even the most ardent hawks on China, like Michael Pillsbury, even they don’t ascribe an intent towards “world domination” by China’s leadership.

    Any references much appreciated.

  • Ray

    “Way to go. Arses One and Five are strangling the actual lunar exploration already.”

    The term “strangling” and the rest of the situation we’re discussing made me think of the following from the “Empire Strikes Back” script:

    LANDO: This deal’s getting worse all the time.

    and later:

    VADER: I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further.

    Lando’s hand instinctively goes to his throat as he turns to Leia,
    Chewie, and Threepio.

  • kert

    The original VSE speec said this:
    Beginning no later than 2008, we will send a series of robotic missions to the lunar surface to research and prepare for future human exploration

    Will the word series be redefined to mean LRO and its impactors only ?

  • D. Messier

    I find it odd that we seem to be relying on Russia’s good will for four or five years between shuttle’s end and the start of CEV flights. The country’s become a neo-authoritarian state with democratic window dressing. The opposition is cowed, press freedoms have been curbed, and people who oppose this die mysteriously. Last year, a dissenter ended up being poisoned with nuclear materials in the capital of a supposed ally.

    U.S.-Russian realations have slid every since our clairvoyent president gazed into putin’s eyes and declared his soul to be pure. If things continue along their present course, we could be in a state of cold war by the time shuttle is retired. That will make operating the space station that we largely paid for very awkward, at best.

    Of course, if some of these other initiatives pay off there might be commercial alternatives to supplying ISS with astronauts and supplies. If so, the problem goes away. If not, we could be in a real bind.

  • Robert Oler

    D. Messier wrote @ March 18th, 2007 at 11:38 am

    The problem is that this administration has no real plan for almost anything.

    We have (or are building) at enormous cost this space station “thing”…and the answer now is to just say “good bye” and go off on building another “thing”. When the ONLY Purpose that the space station really ever had was as a catalyst for an airmail style contract in terms of “booting” private industry into space.

    So one has this spectacle of Zero Gravity having taken the plunge into a micro gravity airplane which could replace “The Comet” but NO that would also replace NASA jobs and infrastructure so the comet keeps flying and Zero Gravity keeps losing money.

    It is kind of like in the early part of the last century complaing that Fed Ex or UPS didnt start up while the army was still flying the mail.

    Meanwhile people like Mark W see “more evils” in the PRC which is the latest attempt to try and jump start “Apollo like it use to be” instead “Apollo as it is now”.

    Seesh.

    Robert

  • Ivan

    Once again Robert Oler sprinkles his confused logic with cold war name calling.

  • Anonymous: Spot on. Instead of wiping out the entire $800 million through the five-year runout, at least retain a couple hundred million to fund some risky but high payoff ISRU prospectors or lunar surface technology demonstrations. Competitively fund the missions via Discovery-type proposals, do it cooperatively with industry via the COTS model (cost-sharing), throw it wide open with prizes, or some combination of the three.

    I do agree with this!

    But don’t wipe out the one last vestige of actual exploration in ESMD.

    But, this is very wrong. There is no “actual exploration” without humans on site. There is initial reconnaissance, maybe, and a very limited suite of science opportunities, but “expliration” requires the kind of real-time observation, action, and response demonstrated in the last three Apollo missions.

    Interesting note in a recent NASA-DOD co-production, “Lunar Base Handbook.” I don’t have the book with me, but the author pointed out that dividing the astronaut hours spent on the moon by the total cost of the Apollo project results in (as I recall; I’ll try to bring the exact reference tomorrow) some $250 million per astronaut hour, which is an interesting number. It is something between half and a quarter of the apparent cost of the proposed automated lunar landers. Depending on the slant, this could be taken to support either side, but having read detailed timelines of what the astronauts did during Apollo, it is far from clear to me that having an automated robot on site for a year or two is more geologically valuable than two to four well-equipped astronaut hours on the surface.

    – Donald

  • anonymous

    “But, this is very wrong. There is no “actual exploration” without humans on site.”

    Sigh…

    Debates over whether robotic or human space exploration is better or more cost-effective (or what actually constitutes “exploration”) are useless and divisive diversions for the space community. Real knowledge is gained and real science is done either way, and both have their advantages/disadvantages and place in the context of larger plans. We need to stop this useless squabbling. The oceanographic community doesn’t debate scuba divers versus teleoperated submersibles. They use whatever is most effective, cost-efficient, or safe for the specific research application. The space community needs to do the same.

    Sigh…

  • In theory, I would agree with you. Unfortunately, large and powerful segments of the space community have gone beyond “cheaper,” and accepted the default position that automated spacecraft are sufficient (or even “better”) than placing geologists on site. (You appear to have fallen into the same trap when you use language like “actual exploration.” )

    Since that position has in many ways become the default position in the scientific community, and to a lessor degree in the space community; and since I believe that it is flat-out wrong in the long term, short-sighted in the short term; and since I believe that pretending you could, say, successfully understand any life on Mars remotely is also extremely dangerous for the success of the scientific endeavor, I believe the statement or implication should never be allowed to stand unchallenged.

    Sorry, but that’s the way I feel.

    – Donald

  • anonymous

    “You appear to have fallen into the same trap when you use language like “actual exploration.””

    Just to be clear, my use of the phrase “actual exploration” refers to the difference between ESMD’s LEO projects (Ares 1/Orion ISS variants) and ESMD’s lunar projects (Ares V, LSAM, Orion lunar variants, LREP, and some technology). Of course, ESAS and Griffin’s poor selections on the former are sucking up all the resources, time, and political opportunity for the latter — even to the point of cancelling a relatively modest, multi-hundred million dollar line of robotic missions, which is a sign of very poor planning and management in an agency with a budget measured in the tens of billions.

    The phrase has nothing to do with robotics versus humans. That’s what you’re reading into it.

    “Since that position has in many ways become the default position in the scientific community, and to a lessor degree in the space community; and since I believe that it is flat-out wrong in the long term, short-sighted in the short term; and since I believe that pretending you could, say, successfully understand any life on Mars remotely is also extremely dangerous for the success of the scientific endeavor, I believe the statement or implication should never be allowed to stand unchallenged.”

    I don’t know if you’ve spent any quality or quantity of time with the planetary science community, but if you had or had thought deeply about the time you’ve spent with them, I think you’d realize they agree wholeheartedly with you. Forget having a couple astronauts-slash-part-time-geologists chipping away at the surface of the Moon or Mars. This is a community that has long advocated both a lunar basin sample return mission and multiple Mars sample return missions to get relevant geologies into the hands of hundreds of labs around the world. It’s also the same community that successfully executed the Genesis and Stardust sample return missions. I don’t know how you can expect this community much more “on-site” than those kinds of sample return missions short of a Presidential initiatve to land astronauts at these targets. Enough painting the space science community as a bunch of remote observation purists — they’re just not. They desperately want to get physical samples into their hot little hands.

    I understand your reaction to the sometimes useless philosophical human/robot debates on these kinds of editorial forums, but those who actually have to carry out planetary research very much prefer to get hands-on once the scientific context for a target has been set. And to the extent adequate funding is provided and the program carried out in an affordable way so it doesn’t set back every other research priority (which is what’s currently happening, including the lunar and Martian sample return missions mentioned above), planetary scientists would jump at the chance to have human eyes and hands on the surfaces of these worlds. Even Steven Squyres, Dr. Mars Rover himself, advocates humans on Mars for research purposes. Enough claiming that the planetary science community is saying something regarding humans versus robots that they’re not.

    Finally, I’d urge any human space exploration advocate to examine your (our) own prejudices and language. For example, just because astrophysicists can’t walk on the surface of the Sun or another star or sample another galaxy or the Big Bang doesn’t mean that they’re not carrying out scientific _exploration_ just like any research astronaut and making very profound contributions to humanity’s understanding of the universe, its workings, and our origins. There is more than one frontier for exploration and multiple ways to push back each of those frontiers.

  • Anonymous, there’s little there I disagree with, except to note that you’ve charry-picked your scientist examples: there are plenty who have contributed to this very forum who would gladly take all the funding given to human spaceflight and spend it on an open-ended series of robots. Also, with their language they claim that remote observation from a robot is “science” but that hands-on biology experiments at the Space Station intended to make human exploration easier are somehow something else.

    Don’t get me wrong, I full support automated exploration. AS LONG as we recognize that the kinds of research and exploration that they can achieve is very, very limited. In the real world, no sample return from the near-surface of Mars is likely to even find evidence of past life, let alone understand its variety and distribution, except by purest and remotest chance. Niether will a single human mission, although it’s chances would be a lot better. For that, you need a real “Beagle-II.”

    That is why I advocate a clear division of resources: reconnaissance versus science. Since it is extremely unlikely that any Viking-like mission could succeed, it is a pure waste of money, expecially if it costs billions of dollars. Even an automated sample-return is of dubious value since a few small samples from a severely geographically constrained location are unlikely to tell us much about Mars beyond that specific location. In fact, a quick look at the history of science should show how dangerous this kind of exploration can be — it is very, very easy to get the wrong conclusion from a single sample. These efforts severely underestimate the complexity and variety of a world like Earth’s moon or some of the larger asteroids, let alone Mars.

    That said, mapping from orbit is extremely valuable, both for science and to prepare for later scientific missions with scientists. Likewise, a few small, low-cost automated rovers are probably of value. But, where we can send astronauts — today, that’s the moon — we should; where we can’t, we have no choice but to send robots.

    He may have has the wrong reasons, and he’s certainly not going about returning to the moon in what you and I believe is an efficient manner, but Dr. Griffin made exactly the correct choice in cancelling a series of half-billion-dollar lunar landers in order to fund real exploration, even if that is decades down the road.

    If I were God-King of NASA, the only automated mission after next years’ orbiter would be a pilot oxygen-production plant, and even that would probably better be part of the first human mission.

    – Donald

  • canttellya

    there are plenty who have contributed to this very forum who would gladly take all the funding given to human spaceflight and spend it on an open-ended series of robots.

    List me among them.

    Don’t fool yourself. If they thought they could get away with it, Griffin and Horowitz would strip science and aeronautics BARE to feed their ESAS.

  • Robert G. Oler

    Donald F. Robertson wrote @ March 19th, 2007 at 3:34 pm

    Don…with all due respect “exploration” some connection with the people who are paying the bill makes no sense at the cost levels required for spaceflight regardless of if it is “piloted” or “non piloted”>

    Robert

  • anonymous

    “there are plenty who have contributed to this very forum who would gladly take all the funding given to human spaceflight and spend it on an open-ended series of robots.”

    I don’t want to make an accusation that may or may not be true, but that’s why I suspect you have not spent that much time with actual scientists in the planetary science community. Don’t take editorial opinions by non-practitioners or laymen to be representative of a professional community. If you spent some quality time talking or listening to them, you’d find that, at a fundamental level, the Huntresses, McKays, and Squyres of the world don’t disagree with your viewpoint.

    “In the real world, no sample return from the near-surface of Mars is likely to even find evidence of past life, let alone understand its variety and distribution, except by purest and remotest chance. Niether will a single human mission, although it’s chances would be a lot better. For that, you need a real “Beagle-II.”

    You’re comparing apples and oranges. There’s a huge difference between finding past or present life (Mars samples) and making a breakthrough in understanding the basic laws of evolutionary biology (Darwin and the Beagle). Relatively speaking, the former is obvious and irrefutable on timescale that a human can observe, often from singular samples. The latter is much more interpretative and theoretical, mostly involving timescales outside a human lifespan and requiring the integration of evidence from hundreds, even thousands, of samples.

    Gods willing, someday we’ll get to the point where we’re ready to study the evolutionary history of life another planet and compare it against the rules that have governed the evolution of life on Earth. And no doubt, that will require a real-time human presence on or near that worlds (hopefully worlds). But right now, we’ve just got to get to step one — are there other planets that could have supported life and is there evidence of life on those planets? And even as a human exploration advocate, at this stage, if I was arguing from a purely astrobiological point-of-view, I would say that a theoretical $100 billion budget is better spent on 100 Mars sample return and associated robotic missions, distributing samples to hundreds or thousands of scientists around the globe, rather than on one human Mars mission with less than a handful of part-time scientists.

    “That is why I advocate a clear division of resources: reconnaissance versus science.”

    You use a “hands-on” definition of exploration and science that the science community does not recognize. Would you really characterize thousands of years of astronomical observation and theory — arguably the oldest science in human history — as “reconnaissance”?

    “Even an automated sample-return is of dubious value since a few small samples from a severely geographically constrained location are unlikely to tell us much about Mars beyond that specific location. In fact, a quick look at the history of science should show how dangerous this kind of exploration can be — it is very, very easy to get the wrong conclusion from a single sample.”

    That’s not an accurate characterization of the proposed series of sample return missions in the pre-ESAS Mars planning. Not a hundred missions as above (never had that kind of budget), but certainly multiple samples from multiple sites at varying depths.

    “Dr. Griffin made exactly the correct choice in cancelling a series of half-billion-dollar lunar landers”

    That’s not an accurate characterization of LREP planning post-Horowitz. As much as I despise his Scotty rocket, Horowitz had pulled the LREP mission sizes back into sane budget territory.

    “in order to fund real exploration, even if that is decades down the road.”

    Again, even as a human exploration advocate, I detest the pejorative that robotic exploration is not “real” exploration. They are both exploration, and its high time folks (myself included) stopped wasting their time on this argument. You’ve made several calls for unification on this forum. So why insist on driving wedges with this kind of language?

    “If I were God-King of NASA, the only automated mission after next years’ orbiter would be a pilot oxygen-production plant, and even that would probably better be part of the first human mission.”

    The only automated mission to the Moon? Or all of NASA? Do you realize how polarizing and extreme this sounds?

  • D. Messier

    Canttellya wrote:

    Don’t fool yourself. If they thought they could get away with it, Griffin and Horowitz would strip science and aeronautics BARE to feed their ESAS.

    I tend to agree. Maybe a bit too strong. I’ve been quite distressed by this admin’s actions on environmental research. I think it’s clear that global warming is real and to a large extent human caused. I fear that it will accelerate in the coming decades, perhaps faster than the consensus view. Then we’ll be in big trouble.

    Bush doesn’t seem to be doing much about it except investing in new technology (the minimum we need to do). I fear the way things are going, we’re going to be partially blind in our efforts to measure precisely what is happening. At least that’s the conclusion of the recent analyses I’ve read.

    It’s another reason this may be unsustainable. At some point, we’re going to have to start putting more money into the science and environmental side of things. That squeezes the exploration budget. Add that to the cost of the ongoing wars we’re fighting and the large budget deficits, and it’s hard to see how this will be sustainable.

    The one solution might be to junk the new rocket (at least one of them) and go with an Atlas V. Could save a lot of dev costs. Might focus instead on heavy lift and the lunar hardware. Someone I know who works on these issues thought that might be a viable alternative.

    There was some theory floated in this forum a while back that Bigelow would go with the Atlas V when he announces his plans next month. Would that allow NASA to scrap the CEV and maybe go with a Bigelow commercial alternative? Or buid the CEV but use Atlas V? Would that create economies of scale for the rocket builder that would lower costs for everyone? Or would the monopoly that might create cancel out cost savings?

    Just some ideas.,…

  • kert

    If I were God-King of NASA, the only automated mission after next years’ orbiter would be a pilot oxygen-production plant, and even that would probably better be part of the first human mission.
    What if the first pilot does not work very well and needs improvements ? What about space vacuum epitaxy, i.e. solar cell building directly on lunar surface ? What about ground truth on water ice ? What about sintering building materials ?

    I could go on with that list, each of them being relatively low-cost, high-risk and high payoff experiment to run.

    For more thorough overview, dig around on SRR site, ISRUInfo.com
    or head straight over here:
    http://www.isruinfo.com/index.php?page=srr_8

  • anonymous

    “Don’t fool yourself. If they thought they could get away with it, Griffin and Horowitz would strip science and aeronautics BARE to feed their ESAS.”

    It is worth reading through the laundry list of impacts to science, aeronautics, and non-Ares 1/Orion exploration programs in the House Science & Technology Committee’s NASA hearing charter:

    http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewsr.html?pid=23659

    FWIW…

  • Anonymous: There’s a huge difference between finding past or present life (Mars samples) and making a breakthrough in understanding the basic laws of evolutionary biology (Darwin and the Beagle). Relatively speaking, the former is obvious and irrefutable on timescale that a human can observe, often from singular samples. The latter is much more interpretative and theoretical, mostly involving timescales outside a human lifespan and requiring the integration of evidence from hundreds, even thousands, of samples.

    Although I would phrase it differently, I would agree with this. My point is, to do the latter, you have to start long before you can expect any results. The human space program is (partially) an investment in achieving that kind of science in the (admittedly probably distant) future. If you don’t make the investment, you’ll never be able to do it. It is worth noting that huge investments were made in the technologies behind automated spacecraft, for many decades, before the first lunar probes left their pads.

    I would say that a theoretical $100 billion budget is better spent on 100 Mars sample return and associated robotic missions, distributing samples to hundreds or thousands of scientists around the globe, rather than on one human Mars mission with less than a handful of part-time scientists.

    If the Mars Exploration Orbiters are any guide, it’s more like twenty-five or thirty. Also, your one human Mars mission will also return samples, probably better selected from much deeper and wider a range, while also developing skills and technology that should lower the cost of subsequent missions.

    The only automated mission to the Moon? Or all of NASA?

    The moon, of course. I full advocate continuing to send probes to places where we will not be sending astronauts anytime soon. We should be spending our automated space budget on Europa, for example, not so much on Mars, and certainly not on the moon.

    Horowitz had pulled the LREP mission sizes back into sane budget territory.

    Last I heard it was “down” to maybe $500 million = 1/2 billion. Has this changed?

    Regarding being devisive, I do agree that Dr. Griffin should not have picked unnecessary fights with the scientific community, but when choices do have to be made, I think they should tend to favor human spaceflight as an investment in getting real answers to scientific questions — the kind of exploration the Beagle was able to do. Granted, we won’t be doing that anywhere but on the moon in our lifetimes, but if we don’t start the effort, we will never do it, and we will never know what any other planet is really like. I think the attitude apparent here and elsewhere that automated spaceflight can do anything but the most limited forms of science is dead wrong and does need to be contested, even though I fully recognize that my view is very much in the minority. You actually re-state my division yourself: There’s a huge difference between finding past or present life (Mars samples) and making a breakthrough in understanding the basic laws of evolutionary biology . That’s the difference: finding a single fact versus understanding that fact. its context. In this example, it is highly unlikely but just possible that your series of twenty-five or thirty automated landers could find that fact; understanding that fact will require permanent crews and infrastructure on site.

    Kert: What if the first pilot does not work very well and needs improvements ?

    That is precisely why it is better done with multiple crews on site, and enough equipment to tinker.

    – Donald

  • kert

    What if the first pilot does not work very well and needs improvements ?
    That is precisely why it is better done with multiple crews on site, and enough equipment to tinker.

    Excuse me but .. the notion of having a crew on site to build a second iteration of such a machine is honestly laughable. Please explain to ISS occupants on how they should “tinker” with the Elektron oxygen generator and build a better version of it. Honestly ..
    You havent been involved with many hardware engineering tasks, have you ?

  • Actually, Space Station astronauts can and do “tinker” with the Elektron — as I have argued before, this kind of on-the-job learning (instead of only studying a problem and hoping you can imagine every contingency in advance is the principle advantage of having a human base in orbit. (Read the weekly timelines of what is actually done on the Space Station published in Spaceflight.) Apparently, a number of issues were not well thought out in its design.

    This is similar to the entreprenurial launch community’s “fly a little, learn a little.” You learn a lot more by flying than you do by studying, and the same applies on the Space Station and will apply on the moon. (Read also David Hartman’s timeline of Apollo astronaut activities, especially comparing Apollos 11-12 to Apollos 15-17. The lessons learned by actually flying resulted in extremely rapid innovation, both in the technologies deployed in the moon, and more importantly, in the development of skills and techniques based on real world lessons learned.)

    You could launch a prototype oxygen plant to the moon without a crew and watch it break down and have very little detailed knowledge of what went wrong. Then, you can try again, starting over more-or-less from scratch. And again and again, at $500 million and up a pop. Or, you can wait until you’ve established your lunar base anyway, and learn on the job when there is somebody there to fix problems as they arise and provide input into the second generation system. You could do this both ways, of course, but the first one is not automatically the best or most cost effective.

    At this point in time, we’ve demonstrated most of the techniques we need to start a rudimentary lunar base on Apollo, and we have most of the knowledge we need to survive and function on the lunar surface. We can learn the rest as we go.

    – Donald

  • kert

    astronauts can and do “tinker” with the Elektron
    and are utterly unable to fix its inherent problems.

    You could launch a prototype oxygen plant to the moon without a crew and watch it break down and have very little detailed knowledge of what went wrong.
    I am suspecting you have no concept of instrumentation. Remote-controlled prototypes get laden with loads of sensors and backup systems to monitor its health and operational parameters. Sensors and data processing power cost next to nothing.

    You could do this both ways, of course, but the first one is not automatically the best or most cost effective.
    Wanna bet that one could go through dozens of iterations of lunar oxygen pilot plant for the cost of single NASA-operated manned moon landing ? It wouldnt be necessary of course, as a few iterations would probably be enough to have a decent plant operating.

    Man in the loop is great for redesigning hardware if you can run a lathe, drill and have soldering iron with you. Not going to happen in any foreseeable future in any NASA-operated lunar base ( which i doubt that will happen anyway )

    By the way. Having proven oxygen production capabilities, even with known problems _before_ you are going to put together your plans for a manned outpost completely changes the design equations for it. A reasonable planner would do this relatively low-cost but high-payoff test as early as possible in the process. And even if you dont follow through with your lunar plans, you have done something useful, something that NASA seems to keenly to avoid.

  • anonymous

    “The human space program is (partially) an investment in achieving that kind of science in the (admittedly probably distant) future. If you don’t make the investment, you’ll never be able to do it.”

    I would argue that we are not at the point yet where we can justify human space exploration on the basis of scientific return alone.

    Although we could do a lot of other nice things if astronauts were on the surface, the key question driving lunar research right now is whether or not the Moon and Earth were once part of the same body. That we can answer with some (maybe even one) half-billion dollar robotic deep basin sample returns. Even if we did ten of those missions ($5 billion), they would represent only ten percent of a $50 billion human lunar return effort and only five percent of a $100 billion human lunar return program. When we’re ready to ask more complex questions about Earth-Moon and solar system development that really benefit or require real-time interaction with a human brain, the costs of those human programs may become justifiable or even unavoidable. But before we can intelligently ask those more complex questions, we’ve got pin down a few of the basics — again, like whether the Earth and Moon evolved from the same body or separate bodies. And to do that, we’ve got to spend our limited resources wisely, and not cancel or defer critical path science missions for the sake of human space flight.

    Same goes for Mars program. Again, we could do a lot of great things if astronauts could safely conduct Martian surface expeditions. But those expeditions are going to require a multi-hundred billion dollar effort, at a minimum. From a pure science point-of-view, it’s not clear that we should put those kinds of resources into this target, regardless whether those resources are spent on robotic or human missions. Until we know for certain that Mars is as special as we hope it is (habitable environments, evidence of past life, etc.), we’re better off with a more measured robotic program. Once such a program strikes it rich at Mars (or Europa, Enceladus, etc.), the justification for an on-site human research presence will become self-evident and unavoidable. (Although, as an aside, if we do find evidence of life on one of these planets or moons, I don’t think we’ll want to send astronauts to their surfaces for a very long time, at least not without a one-way ticket. We’re probably looking at an orbital presence.)

    Is human space exploration a worthy pursuit, for both scientific and other goals? Sure. But can we justify it based on our current research frontiers? No. For now, additional or other goals are necessary to justify the expense of human space exploration.

    This is why robotic research is still so important to the future of human space exploration and why it’s so bad for the future of human space flight when key robotic research goals get deferred due to short-sighted budget cuts to fund ill-conceived human space flight programs. Until we’ve ticked off a few more of the key questions we have about these targets, the science community is not going to be in a position to advance to the kinds of Darwin/Beagle questions that necessitate an on-site human research presence.

    “It is worth noting that huge investments were made in the technologies behind automated spacecraft, for many decades, before the first lunar probes left their pads.

    Not sure I follow here. Pioneer 4 made the first U.S. lunar flyby in 1959, Ranger 4 made the first U.S. lunar impact in 1962, Lunar Orbiter 1 conducted the first U.S. lunar orbit in 1966, and Surveyor 3 made the first U.S. lunar landing in 1967 — all less than a decade after Vanguard 1, the first U.S. spacecraft, in 1958. The Soviet timeline from Sputnik to the various Luna and Zond successes is very similar.

    I guess if you’re talking more generally about the invention of radio, rocketry, aerospace-grade metals, or logic circuits, sure, the timeline stretches back decades, even centuries — but only because those technologies had other, driving terrestrial applications (communications, ICBMs and other military rockets, aircraft, code-breaking, etc.). The same could be said of those technologies as they relate to human space flight and most human space flight-specific technologies, as well.

    “If the Mars Exploration Orbiters are any guide, it’s more like twenty-five or thirty. Also, your one human Mars mission will also return samples, probably better selected from much deeper and wider a range,”

    I doubt it. I don’t see how a single human mission, even a year-long one with long-range rovers, could return samples with the global coverage we could get from 20 or 30 robotic sample returns. In fact, given how risk-averse we are with astronaut lives and with the foreseeable mobility limits of suited astronauts, we’ll get more interesting samples on Mars or the Moon (exposed but deep or hard-to-reach geological layers, drilling at or near volatile deposits, subterranean areas with danger of overhead collapse, etc.) using expendable robots. Ideally, we’d mimic ocean exploration, where the human explorers stay safe but local on a surface ship while teleoperating low-cost and expendable submersibles at crushing depths inaccessible to divers.

    “while also developing skills and technology that should lower the cost of subsequent missions.”

    Theoretically and based on historical examples, I don’t disagree. But I’d also note that after decades and trillions spent on Apollo, Soyuz, the various Soviet space stations, Shuttle, and now ISS, there don’t seem to be many such cost-saving inventions, practices, or other examples to point to in the history of human space flight and exploration so far. I think we have a lot of engineering and testing and just general technology development yet to do on Earth before we’re far enough up the learning curve that a human base on the Moon or elsewhere can contribute significantly to lowering the cost of future human space activities.

    “We should be spending our automated space budget on Europa, for example, not so much on Mars,”

    It’s a bit of an aside to the discussion, but this is an interesting choice, for several reasons. I, for one, would like to hear your reasoning and other inputs.

    “Last I heard it was “down” to maybe $500 million = 1/2 billion. Has this changed?”

    Horowitz started pushing for a rethink of LREP about a year ago or so. That’s one of the reasons why there was a new guy brought to HQ and put in charge of LREP for ESMD. I don’t know what specific dollars numbers they got down to, but the marching orders from Horowitz were smaller, more frequent mission, ideally using a standardized lander.

    “That’s the difference: finding a single fact versus understanding that fact. its context.”

    Again, though, in many of the most important cases, we have yet to find the facts that would necessitate and justify going to the next level programmatically (whether human or robotic) and budgetarily (often orders of magnitude increases in costs) to understand the context. It’s not a question of losing the forest for the trees. It’s a question of putting the cart before the horse.

  • Robert G. Oler

    anonymous wrote @ March 21st, 2007 at 12:34 am

    Other then a minor nit (it was Surveyor 1 not 3 that made the first US soft landing…typo?) I would concur in everything you say. I would add this.

    “Exploration” in terms of the people who pay the bills works on a sliding scale…ie the more the cost of the exploration the more tangible the benefits should be to the people who are paying the bills.

    When the total space budget for The Republic (for exploration crewed and uncrewed) is say (to pick a number) XX billion, it is probably not all that important that Y million be directly justifiable as having any realistic payback to the American people. But if it is AA or A billion where that number is some substantial part of the entire expenditure then there darn sure needs to be some geniune and logical thought out reason to do it….other then “rocks for scientist”.

    It is not only that this makes a mockery of taxes and the concept of taxes, but it is that this consumes the amount of money spent on the endeavor by the “people” and that money should be programed to do “something else” where they get some payback for it.

    This is the only way short of pork (which is what we have now) that the effort is sustainable.

    Apollo was sustainable for only one reason, beating the Soviets in a political effort where the “payback” was really the PR effect of it. There were some “spins” that ahd some value (like comm satellites) but the evidence is clear that they probably would have branched out on their own.

    Shuttle/Station/and now this nutty program have no real value. None other then some bad PR and rocks for scientist. Griffin as much has said so with his latest “gong”….”The Chinese are going”.

    What would be “sustainable” and “worthwhile” if a single solitary human spaceflight program or side program of NASA met the airmail test…IE it created private infrastructure that could in theory evolve both in technology and application to perhaps one day stand on its own.

    I dont know if Zero Gee can ever break even and then make some money and expand…but they never will as long as a substantial chunk of federal cash is going not to them, who could provide a service, but to sustain federal infrastructure.

    Traditionally in the US companies and their technology/service development efforts have been “subsidized’ by federal expenditures buying a “private product/service” for federal use. Aa product or service that had some market potential outside of the government.

    Not today. Today we just send the money directly to NASA and then it disburses it in companies doing things which have ZERO ability to deliver a product or service outside of NASA…

    I dont care what we find on Mars. That money is badly spent.

    Robert.

  • Anonymous: Even if we did ten of those missions ($5 billion), they would represent only ten percent of a $50 billion human lunar return effort and only five percent of a $100 billion human lunar return program.

    But, you are comparing the incremental costs of an automated mission to the total cost of a human mission. While it is true that is what we have to pay now, it is not what we had to pay to achieve the goal. A fair comparison of the scientific value of both compares the incremental cost of each, or the total cost of each. Alternatively, compare the cost of continuing Apollo with the costs of automated missions. In any of these cases, automated missions look a lot less attractive when measured by science per unit dollar than they do under the assumptions commonly made. While this argument may seem academic at this point in time, since most of the total cost of automated lunar missions is under the bridge, while (because of Nixon) we have to re-pay most of it for human missions, it is very important for where you invest your money for the long term scientific gain. Sure, we can get limited results quick-and-dirty today, but if we forgo the investment that can answer our real questions to get those, than we never get to where we can do real survey geology.

    Your thirty small samples from point sources spread over Mars may be more valuable that a comprehensive survey of a single region, but only if you are lucky enough to get the correct samples. For example, if there are fossil organisms on Mars, the latter strategy has a chance of finding them; the former won’t.

    Kert is quite correct that I have little direct knowledge of the details of technological development as it is done today. My background is archaeology, and I do know what finding a small unknown something buried in cubic kilometers of dirt requires, and automated landers aren’t going to do it — probably ever, and certainly not soon. Yet, if you want to prove that life ever existed on Mars — let alone study it — that is what you have to do.

    I guess if you’re talking more generally about the invention of radio, rocketry, aerospace-grade metals, or logic circuits, sure, the timeline stretches back decades, even centuries

    I was referring to rocketry with the intent to do spaceflight, though I would also accept the beginning of long-distance ballistic missile development in WW-II.

    But I’d also note that after decades and trillions spent on Apollo, Soyuz, the various Soviet space stations, Shuttle, and now ISS, there don’t seem to be many such cost-saving inventions, practices, or other examples to point to in the history of human space flight and exploration so far.

    Certainly, as measured by engineering lessons learned and scientific results, the costs of the Salyut / Mir project rapidly declined. It is my understanding the Soviets dedicated more-or-less constant funding to the space station program, yet compare the results of Mir to those of the first Salyuts, and you have a dramatic reduction of cost for measurable result.

    Regarding Europa, It’s a bit of an aside to the discussion, but this is an interesting choice, for several reasons.

    I don’t think its an aside at all. We won’t be sending human scientists into the radiation belts of Jupiter, possibly not ever and certainly not soon, yet they contain one of the most scientifically interesting bodies so far identified. We can send human scientists to Earth’s moon today. Therefore, spend your automated budget where you can’t send people in the foreseeable future; spend you human budget where you can.

    in many of the most important cases, we have yet to find the facts that would necessitate and justify going to the next level programmatically (whether human or robotic) and budgetarily (often orders of magnitude increases in costs) to understand the context.

    Regarding Mars, you are probably correct here and now. Regarding Earth’s moon, the Martian moons, and the nearest-Earth asteroids, I disagree with you (and, I admit, most of the rest of the space community). We have all the facts we need to send geologists back to the moon. If you haven’t done so, read Exploring the Moon: the Apollo expeditions by David M. Hartland, especially the section on Apollo-16. The largely forgotten experience of what astronauts actually achieved on the moon shows why they will answer a lot more questions per unit funding than continuing to send robots to answer a single question — especially the big ones like what and where the moon came from. Remember that, in the microenvironment on the surface, the regolith has been to a great extent homogenized by rain of impacts; you can’t just rush to a mare and grab a sample, you have to get the right sample. The experience in Apollo showed that was difficult even for an astronaut, let alone a robot.

    – Donald

  • Edward Wright

    > “The craft/lunch must be cheaper than any other country in order to send the same number of people to LEO.”

    > I’d be mildly surprised if she beats two Soyuzes cost-wise.

    Ares doesn’t even beat the Shuttle. Yes, some people say they “disagree,” but the simple act of disagreement does nothing to undermine the facts and figures. It’s simply impossible employ the same number of workers, launch a smaller number of astronauts, and not have a higher cost-per-astronaut.

    > The Ruskie labor advantage is just too great.

    Yes, and not just in the sense people usually mean. Building a Proton takes less than half as many man-hours as an equivalent Atlas or Delta. The labor advantage is not just cheap labor rates.

    There’s also the likelihood that private enterprise will have cheaper means of launching humans to orbit in the near future.

  • Edward Wright

    > I would argue that we are not at the point yet where we can justify human space exploration on the
    > basis of scientific return alone.

    You are equating “human space exploration” with “NASA space exploration.”

    > Although we could do a lot of other nice things if astronauts were on the surface, the key question driving lunar
    > research right now is whether or not the Moon and Earth were once part of the same body.

    If that’s true right now, it’s only because there are no humans on the Moon. Geological research is not driven solely by questions like whether the Moon and Earth were part of the same body. Some researchers look at questions like that, but a lot more are occupied with practical questions like where’s the best place to look for minerals, oil, or water, is this particular piece of ground safe to build a house, and when is the next earthquake going to occur. Selenology will evolve in the same direction.

    > That we can answer with some (maybe even one) half-billion dollar robotic deep basin sample returns. Even if we
    > did ten of those missions ($5 billion), they would represent only ten percent of a $50 billion human lunar return
    > effort and only five percent of a $100 billion human lunar return program.

    Yes, but how does it compare to Simon Worden’s proposal for a $1-billion human lunar landing prize, which would have additional benefits beyond scientific research?

    > When we’re ready to ask more complex questions about Earth-Moon and solar system development that really
    > benefit or require real-time interaction with a human brain, the costs of those human programs may become justifiable
    > or even unavoidable. But before we can intelligently ask those more complex questions, we’ve got pin down a few
    > of the basics — again, like whether the Earth and Moon evolved from the same body or separate bodies.

    Why? If that argument is valid, then it should apply to the Earth as well as the Moon. Yet, geologists are able to ask (and sometimes answer) all kinds of questions about the Earth. The lack of definitive proof about whether the Earth and Moon evolved from the same body clearly isn’t holding them back. It shouldn’t hold back practical applied selenological exploration, either. It’s a question that will be answered in due course, but it’s hardly the key to everything that will be done on the Moon.

    > And to do that, we’ve got to spend our limited resources wisely, and not cancel or defer critical path science
    > missions for the sake of human space flight.

    Should we shut down the airline industry, too? Your statement makes just as much sense if we substitute “air flight” for “space flight.” If you consider scientific research to be the only important human endeavour, then we ought to shut down all transportation systems, except for those needed to carry researchers on field trips. However, I don’t know a single scientist who would actually suggest we do that — on Earth. It’s bizarre, therefore, that many suggest we should do that in space.

    > Same goes for Mars program. Again, we could do a lot of great things if astronauts could safely conduct
    > Martian surface expeditions. But those expeditions are going to require a multi-hundred billion dollar
    > effort, at a minimum.

    *Some* manned Mars architectures would cost hundreds of billions, but that is not a minimum. It’s more like a maximum. (Or super-maximum, i.e., more than anyone’s willing to pay.)

    There are architectures that could send humans to Mars for a few billion dollars right now, with existing expendable rockets like Proton, Atlas, and Delta. That’s still too high for anyone except NASA (which isn’t interested in low-cost approaches), but the development of reusable launch vehicles will bring that figure down.

    > From a pure science point-of-view, it’s not clear that we should put those kinds of resources into this target,
    > regardless whether those resources are spent on robotic or human missions.

    From a pure science point-of-view, it’s clear that no one should. That’s irrelevant, however. When humans go to Mars, it will not be nearly as expensive as you suggest, nor will it be purely for scientific reasons.

    > Is human space exploration a worthy pursuit, for both scientific and other goals? Sure. But can we justify it based
    > on our current research frontiers? No. For now, additional or other goals are necessary to justify the expense of human
    > space exploration.

    Not all human exploration is scientific exploration. It isn’t. If you pick up a book like “Exploring San Francisco,” you will find that it includes things like science museums. However, a trip to a San Francisco is unlikely to result in many published scientific papers, and you will likely conclude that the scientific benefits of visiting San Francisco do not justify the cost of an airline ticket. Yet, you might still decide to visit San Francisco. If you do want to visit San Francisco, it is unlikely that you will settle for staying home and watching a television program about it (calling that “umanned exploration” of San Francisco).

    > This is why robotic research is still so important to the future of human space exploration and why it’s so
    > bad for the future of human space flight when key robotic research goals get deferred due to short-
    > sighted budget cuts to fund ill-conceived human space flight programs.

    Obviously, it’s a bad idea to cut anything in order to fund ill-conceived programs (of any sort). NASA’s unmanned space budget has not been cut, however. It has been increased, although at a slower rate than you would like. I only wish that Centennial Challenges were getting the kind of “cuts” you complain about.

    Furthermore, the ill-conceived human space flight program now under weigh at NASA (ESAS) was architected by Mike Griffin (an unmanned space guy) and his colleagues at the Planetary Society (the unmanned space lobby). The Planetary Society, which foisted ESAS onto the nation, now complains that the unmanned science budget isn’t increasing as rapidly as they would like, but they have only themselves to blame.

    > I doubt it. I don’t see how a single human mission, even a year-long one with long-range rovers, could return
    > samples with the global coverage we could get from 20 or 30 robotic sample returns.

    The last Apollo mission returned over 100 kilograms of samples. The last robotic Luna mission returned only 170 grams. To get the same return as Apollo 17, you would need over 500 Luna missions.

    > In fact, given how risk-averse we are with astronaut lives and with the foreseeable mobility limits of suited astronauts,
    > we’ll get more interesting samples on Mars or the Moon (exposed but deep or hard-to-reach geological layers, drilling
    > at or near volatile deposits, subterranean areas with danger of overhead collapse, etc.) using expendable robots.

    Until your robot gets stuck and there’s no one there to get it out. There’s a reason why NASA lands its Mars robots on the flat plans rather than more interesting areas like Valles Marineris.

    As for the “risk-averse” charge, nonsense. You can find plenty of geologists who do things like cave diving, mountain climbing, etc. They won’t suddenly become cowards just because they’re on the Moon.

    > I’d also note that after decades and trillions spent on Apollo, Soyuz, the various Soviet space stations, Shuttle, and
    > now ISS, there don’t seem to be many such cost-saving inventions, practices, or other examples to point to in
    > the history of human space flight and exploration so far.

    Did you miss SpaceShip One??? It was in all the papers. Bigelow Aerospace? Falcon I?

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