NASA

Ares vs. EELV

I’m at the Space Access ’07 conference in Phoenix, a meeting popular with the entrepreneurial (aka NewSpace) space transportation community. One person who stood out was someone who is at the other end of the spectrum: Steve Cook, director of the Exploration Launch Projects Office at NASA Marshall, who talked about the status of the development of the Ares 1 and Ares 5 vehicles. Early in his presentation he said the following about the overall space community:

You are all here because you are all space advocates. We’re all space advocates or we wouldn’t be in this business. Space, in the grand scheme of things, is a small community, relatively speaking. We all need to work together if we’re all going to be successful… This is such a small, but such an enthusiastic community. If we’re going to be successful, this is really a watershed time for all of us.

Cook said this in the context of various government and commercial space access efforts in progress at the moment, but some got the impression that he was talking about some of the criticism of the Ares program from within the community in recent months. Part of that criticism has been that NASA should have instead selected a human-rated EELV derivative for at least the Ares 1. Cook said that during the ESAS study effort the Defense Department “had a lot of interest” in using the EELV, but after looking at the idea for a couple months, “that they came to the same conclusion that we did, that that did not make sense from a cost, safety, or reliability perspective.” In response to a question later in the presentation, he said they didn’t pick an EELV because “it wasn’t intended to be a human-rated launch vehicle.” (Ironic, since Lockheed Martin is currently studying human rating an Atlas 5, although they are looking at the smallest version, the 401, and Cook said they were looking at much larger versions given the size of the CEV.) Cook also said that the marginal cost of the Ares 1, excluding the Orion spacecraft (as well as all the sunk development and infrastructure costs) will be $100 million, which led to a lot of discussion of what the real price of each launch would be, which Cook said he wouldn’t have a good handle on until the preliminary design review.

Much of Cook’s talk focused on technical issues with the Ares development, including some of the changes they made after settling on the initial Ares 1/Ares 5 design (like use of RS-68 and J-2X engines in place of the SSME). But what about the Ares 4 concept that leaked out early this year? We’re “not doing anything right now” with the idea, but he has a small advanced concepts team looking at various ways to “mix and match” Ares stages.

30 comments to Ares vs. EELV

  • anonymous

    “Cook said that during the ESAS study effort the Defense Department “had a lot of interest” in using the EELV, but after looking at the idea for a couple months, “that they came to the same conclusion that we did, that that did not make sense from a cost, safety, or reliability perspective.””

    Not that I doubt Cook’s assertion, but it would be interesting to see evidence of that decision in writing (a DoD study, meeting minutes, etc.)

    “Ironic, since Lockheed Martin is currently studying human rating an Atlas 5, although they are looking at the smallest version, the 401, and Cook said they were looking at much larger versions given the size of the CEV.”

    Mr. Foust hits ESAS’s biggest flaw right on the head with this sentence. Every semi-serious architecture study starts with a high level requirements sensitivity analysis — e.g., how do costs vary as we dial the crew requirement (or any other requirement) up or down by a couple astronauts. Even if there was an ill-informed White House dictum for a crew of six or even if Griffin decided to forgo his analytical instincts in favor of Mars emotionalism, the ESAS study leads like Cook still owed it to their customers to conduct and present such analysis. The fact that they didn’t speaks volumes about the quality of ESAS recommendations, and it’s the fundamental reason why NASA is now stuck with an oversized Orion crew module and a unnecessarily expensive and time-consuming Ares 1 booster that have eaten the lunar return effort alive and have displaced practically every other agency program.

    I’ve said it before, but an independent group really needs to go back and redo ESAS so the next White House is better informed and NASA has some good human space flight options, preferably ones that can recapture some of the VSE’s lost exploration goals, to present to them.

    “In response to a question later in the presentation, he said they didn’t pick an EELV because “it wasn’t intended to be a human-rated launch vehicle.””

    It’s not his job to be fair in his presentation, but if Cook cared, he would be more specific. NASA did not pick an EELV because EELVs were never intended to be human-rated _according to NASA’s human rating requirements_. If you subject an EELV stack to the same kind of NASA safety oversight, requirements, and processes as an SRB stack, it will wind up in the same cost ballpark. The cost figures in ESAS bear this out.

    This is another tragedy of ESAS and NASA’s safety culture. Despite all their intensive high costs, the fact is that NASA’s safety requirements and processes have failed to produce a loss-of-mission record that is significantly better (and actually worse in some cases) than that of commercial vehicles.

    Instead of blindly applying NASA safety requirements and processes, using dubious assumptions about EELV blackout periods and the safety of heritage hardware that lacks heritage, and shooting for the absolute safest vehicle at the expense of cost and schedule, ESAS should backed up a little, done some cost/safety sensitivity analysis, and identified the sweet spot in each of their leading architectures where the minimal investment produces the maximum safety increases.

    Even just putting an escape system on an EELV, with no other human-rating modifications or NASA safety requirements/processes, would have produced a vehicle that is an order of magnitude safer than Shuttle’s demonstrated loss-of-mission track record, is very low cost, and that probably could have been fielded by 2010-12, even with ongoing budget reductions. And with some actual critical thinking and analysis — instead of just churning through engineering models — ESAS could have produced an even better result than that.

    This is another reason why I’m skeptical that COTS will succeed, at least for NASA. For COTS to work (ISS dockings, NASA astronaut transport), NASA has to fundamentally rethink its approach to safety, and it’s apparent that the agency was unwilling to do so for ESAS.

    “Cook also said that the marginal cost of the Ares 1, excluding the Orion spacecraft (as well as all the sunk development and infrastructure costs) will be $100 million, which led to a lot of discussion of what the real price of each launch would be, which Cook said he wouldn’t have a good handle on until the preliminary design review.”

    Cook won’t have a good handle on that until the next NASA Administrator decides how much, if any, of the Shuttle workforce he/she will dispose of after Shuttle’s retirement. The current Administrator is all talk and no walk when it comes to making the workforce cuts necessary to reduce NASA’s fixed human space flight costs. NASA is currently headed towards a budgetary train wreck where it will be forced to make drastic human space flight workforce reductions after Griffin is gone or accept no future human exploration efforts for the foreseeable future because NASA’s budget will have to bear all the fixed and overhead costs of the Shuttle workforce while fielding a less capable (but hopefully safer) vehicle (Orion/Ares 1) than the Shuttle.

  • [...] Update: Jeff Foust has a good report on a presentation by Steve Cook of NASA Marshall here. [...]

  • Anonymous: NASA has to fundamentally rethink its approach to safety,

    I wholeheartedly agree, albeit possibly from a different perspective. If we are to make any progress exploring the inner Solar System with human beings at finite cost, some of them are going to get killed, and most likely a lot of them. If we are not willing to pay that cost, we might as well stop wasting our money right now. If we are willing to, than NASA needs to start taking some measured risks to keep costs in control.

    Regarding the CEV, it’s my bet that the thinking went something like, we don’t want too much less than the Shuttle crew to LEO (so, six); and we need four for a safe landing on the lunar surface. My question is, do we really think the latter number is wrong? Can we land a crew of less than four on the moon for an extended period and have a “reasonable” level of safety, however that is defined? If not, than quibbling over the CEV size is beside the point. If yes, than (smaller) size matters.

    My thought is that a crew of two has been demonstrated to work over three days, and a crew of three would be a reasonable compromise, but I’d like to hear what others think.

    – Donald

  • Ferris Valyn

    Forgive my cynism Donald, but I don’t think that kind of deliberation went into crew size. My personal suspicion is that it was largely an issue of “It has to be bigger than Apollo, but not so big we can’t fund it” Four is the shortest route there.

    Also, Jon Goeff did some writeups about crew size at his blog, in case you haven’t read them. Jon is not the end all, obviously, but he did a decent analysis I thought

  • Ferris, I did read your comment, but I’m not sure I have a response one way or the other. However, could you send a link to Jon’s site?

    Thanks!

    – Donald

  • anonymous

    “If we are to make any progress exploring the inner Solar System with human beings at finite cost, some of them are going to get killed, and most likely a lot of them. If we are not willing to pay that cost, we might as well stop wasting our money right now. If we are willing to, than NASA needs to start taking some measured risks to keep costs in control.”

    Well put. There are a few at NASA who perceive and understand this. One astronaut with more than one flight under his belt whom I’ve spoken with makes the point that he takes the risks associated with being a professional NASA astronaut in exchange for the rewards of an experience that very, very few people get to share. Getting to go into space is a privelege, not a right, and he’s sees the associated risks as part of what he pays to have the privelege. He doesn’t think that the taxpayer should pay a lot to ensure his personal safety, much less so than, say, firefighters or police. He actually made the point after 9/11 that what he does is selfish and what the firefighters and police that rushed into those buildings did was selfless, and the difference between the two is what defines courage and bravery. He’s even had the discussion with his wife that if he does die on a future flight, he does not want her to blame management, engineering, budgets, etc. for his death. He knows the risks, makes the choices himself, and has no one to blame but himself.

    That’s not to say human life is not precious and that the next NASA human launch system should not be a heckuva lot safer than Shuttle. But if you follow his logic, NASA shouldn’t go to the extreme that ESAS has with Ares 1 and pick the absolute safest option according to the analysis — costs, schedule, and political opportunity be damned.

    And by the converse, it also means that NASA must be honest with itself when using safety estimates based on mistaken EELV data and poor heritage assumptions as a basis of comparison. Just as with Shuttle and most LVs, I have no doubt that real operations will not conform to Ares 1 safety estimates and that NASA may have forgone safer options for the sake of questionable analysis.

    “My question is, do we really think the latter number is wrong? Can we land a crew of less than four on the moon for an extended period and have a “reasonable” level of safety, however that is defined? If not, than quibbling over the CEV size is beside the point. If yes, than (smaller) size matters.”

    There is no such thing as “safe” in anything, especially in human space flight. Safety runs along a spectrum, and it’s just a question of how much we’re willing to pay to get more safe. Given that the four-person crew drove ESAS and NASA towards an LV that is so costly relative to the budget Congress is willing to appropriate and so time-consuming relative to the political window for getting an actual lunar return underway, I’d argue that the cost for that level of crew redundancy and safety was too high and that we should have stuck with a two-person crew.

    Someone might argue that three provides expedition-level redundancy — a backup to rescue a team of two whose rover has broken down — but it does not provide team-level redundancy — someone to rescue the odd-man out whenever he gets into trouble. But if we’re really hard over on four, breaking them down into two missions is also an option with some benefits of its own.

    “send a link to Jon’s site?”

    http://www.selenianboondocks.com

    You’ll need to read a couple handfuls of old posts, but Jon has done some innovative thinking with regard to commercial lunar architectures. Should be up your alley.

  • Anonymous: There are a few at NASA who perceive and understand this.

    Unfortunately, I think NASA is only reflecting the rest of society. Outside of warfare, and except for some individuals, we are very risk averse and with little thought about the true costs, often to our detriment. How much do we spend making sure there are very few airline accidents, while automobile users slaughter both themselves and innocent bystanders (pedestrians) by the thousands?

    That said, while I agree with much he said, when your astronaut said this, after 9/11 that what he does is selfish and what the firefighters and police that rushed into those buildings did was selfless, and the difference between the two is what defines courage and bravery, I don’t think he was being fair to himself, especially if he has any sense that what he is doing is relevant to humanity’s long-term future.

    As usual, I agree with most of your analysis of ESAS.

    “send a link to Jon’s site?”

    Thanks. I will read these.

    On another subject, look for my Op Ed on some of my reasons for opposing the Sirius / XM merger in Monday’s Space News.

    - Donald

  • Ferris Valyn

    Donald – the main post about it is
    here
    Also, you might want to look at where he talks about Lunar much sooner, as that talks a little about it as well

  • Stephen Metschan

    You might also read the paper that was Jon’s original inspiration.

    http://www.teamvisioninc.com/services-consulting-space-exploration-optimization.htm

    And the Space Review forward to the paper.

    http://www.thespacereview.com/article/814/1

    The originators of Direct and us are also working together on a combination sequel that focuses on Era 1, 2 along with various Era 3 options possible under are plan.

  • Robert Oler

    anonymous wrote @ March 23rd, 2007 at 6:37 pm

    I agree with what you wrote, in theory…but in practice…

    There are two problems with it.

    First if NASA were losing people because of some engineering unknown that would be one thing. Geoff DeHaviland perished (as did some ordinary Brits) in the opening of supersonic/transport category flight because of some engineering issues that in the immortal words of the good German “were unknowns that you cannot really know” until you go out and fly. In retrospect everything of course is “knowable” but one can make aa pretty good case that the Comets problems were things “Harder to know”…particularly if it is compared to how NASA has killed 14 people in spaceflight.

    IN both NASA instances people died because of known problems that were known to be potentially catastrophic which were well “ignored”. And they more or less died on missions which were at best “ridiculous” in terms of the human experience.

    Americans accept 30K plus a year KID (killed in driving) because that is a function of our “ordinary” life. They react harshly to people dying in public efforts where the entire event is seemed in retrospect to be a management problem rather then anything else.

    The Apollo 1 fire was survivable for NASA because 1) we were in a race to the Moon, which people accepted and 2) it was deemed to be an engineering problem not a shoddy workmanship problem (which it kind of was).

    Second…NASA doesnt do anything anymore that most care about. It has failed in its post Apollo existance to really solidify “why” we need to send (to quote Linda Ham) our “Mythic heroes” into space. If the show all stopped today the American people would shrug and maybe be sad for all of ten minutes and move on.

    Americans will accept deaths that are 1) in a cause that is percieved as useful and 2) when they are not due to incompetence.

    This is not only spaceflight. Mr. Bush is having some problems in Iraq because a lot of the “problems” are viewed (rightly or wrongly) as “preventable”.

    Robert

  • Ferris Valyn

    Stephen,
    If you don’t mind answering a quick question (I ask something similiar in an eariler thread, but you might have missed it)
    Will your future paper look at situations that aren’t totally based on government contractors? Or will you continue to focus only on a governmental plan, and what is your reason for choosing one or the other (that is, whether you look at commerical flights or just governmental flights)?

  • al Fansome

    FOUST: Part of that criticism has been that NASA should have instead selected a human-rated EELV derivative for at least the Ares 1. Cook said that during the ESAS study effort the Defense Department “had a lot of interest” in using the EELV, but after looking at the idea for a couple months, “that they came to the same conclusion that we did, that that did not make sense from a cost, safety, or reliability perspective.” In response to a question later in the presentation, he said they didn’t pick an EELV because “it wasn’t intended to be a human-rated launch vehicle.”

    Anon,

    I too would like to hear this from the DoD’s mouth, rather than from NASA, which has a major self-interest to spin this story to their own advantage.

    My suspicion is that the DoD’s conclusion was that IF you apply NASA’s human rating standards to the EELVs — standards which are quite subjective (the standards are whatever NASA says they are) — that the DoD agreed that it would also conclude it is a bad idea to make all the (unnecessarily, in their mind) required changes to the EELVs.

    It is possible that, during the ESAS process, that the DoD threw their hands up in the air, gave up working with NASA on this issue, and then told Cook what he wanted to hear.

    Again, I would like to hear from the DoD on this.

    I am also wondering how Cook is coming up with the marginal quoted cost of an Ares 1 of $100M, which is a wonderfully low number. Does that include the cost of NASA’s personnel? Of all personnel & services needed at the Cape? Labor cost is ultimately the large majority of costs, and are FULLY costed into the price of an EELV launch.

    Since NASA is now under a full cost accounting regime, they should be required to state estimated costs using those rules. However, I suspect that Cook did not use full cost accounting in his quote, because he does not know what their full costs are.

    BTW, if the Ares 1 costs are really this low, you will soon hear a LOT more from ATK about being allowed to sell Ares 1 launches on the commercial market. This will compete with the heavy EELVs, which Boeing and Lockheed each invested many hundreds of millions in private funding to develop. As opposed to the government, Boeing & Lockheed need to get a return on their investment. Since ATK did not invest any of their own capital, they don’t need to get any return on that investment, and will have an unfair advantage (The rumor is that Boeing invested over $1 Billion in private capital in the Delta IV).

    - Al

  • Robert Oler

    al Fansome wrote @ March 26th, 2007 at 8:43 am

    “I am also wondering how Cook is coming up with the marginal quoted cost of an Ares 1 of $100M, which is a wonderfully low number.”

    It is called, put a finger in the air, see what you think every other rocket that the “A” needs to compete with is going to charge and say “ours is cheap as well”.

    It is a number devoid of any reality.

    Robert

  • Al: if the Ares 1 costs are really this low, you will soon hear a LOT more from ATK about being allowed to sell Ares 1 launches on the commercial market.

    And, this is a bad outcome?

    While I am dubious about launching large numbers of SRBs, I am not entirely cynical about at least the potential for a lower cost. Especially if there is a high flight rate — something neither of the EELVs seem likely to achieve at this point — the relatively simplicity and lower costs of solid rockets may make themselves felt.

    Boeing has had their chance to regain some of there investment marketing the Delta-IV commercially, and, for whatever reason, have declined to do so. If the Ares-1 really is that “inexpensive,” we should not quibble over where the money came from, and use it to complete on the international market and implement the new and expanded industries that are enabled by the lower costs. At this point I have little sympathy with the EELV companies, especially Boeing, and I have a bigger problem if SpaceX succeeds and the Ares is allowed to compete with their vehicle.

    – Donald

  • Robert Oler

    Donald F. Robertson wrote @ March 26th, 2007 at 1:17 pm

    There are several problems with your analysis.

    I’ll name one.

    IF the numbers are that low you might have an argument…but if they are not? (and this is very likely)..

    Then the federal government will have with taxpayer monies subsidized YET ANOTHER NASA failure that directly competes with something that private industry is with their own money trying to market as a product.

    The shuttle is an excellent example of how this works.

    Robert

  • Well, Robert, in inverse order,

    B). If the costs really are that low, than it isn’t a failure, by definition! (Albeit, setting aside some minor issues like reliability. . . .)

    A). I’m dubious, too, though as I stated I don’t find the idea entirely unbelievable. Al said If the costs are that low, and I was assuming the same condition. Since, as Anonymous has pointed out, we are likely to see Ares-1 complete like it or not, time will tell. If not, I’m really glad the SpaceX test went as well as it did.

    – Donald

  • Robert Oler

    Donald F. Robertson wrote @ March 26th, 2007 at 2:57 pm

    Donald.

    I was once where “you” are in space policy but I left it a long time ago.

    I see almost no value that has occurred over the last 20 years and probably the last 30 for anything near the cost that has gone foward in human spaceflight alone.

    It is the same old song and at least to me it is getting old.

    “Stuff is going to happen anyway” or “maybe it will work then it is worth it”, and then there is Mark Whittington’s novel explanation of “there are always commercial contracts coming”.

    I have over the last two years grown intermperate wtih “failure” and the taxpayers who are by definition successful, ie they are paying taxes, subsidizing failure. We subsidize failed individuals, we subsidize failed corporations and we subsidize failed government agencies.

    There isnt a chance Ares will be any sort of success…but the instant we have it then we have a whole boat load of companies and people on the federal gravy train requiring more and more money. I could see the subsidy issue if what was being done had some, any value to The Republic AND it wasnt at the same time killing private industry.

    Let me tell you how it is going to go if present trends continue.

    we will probably get Ares 1. And thats it. We wont get a lunar effort, we wont get anything else with it, and then NASA will argue that they need to “invest”/”save”/make some use of” (pull out any of the tired explanations…Ares1 to service the space station since “its so much cheaper the cost are sunk”.

    And down the drain will go any sort of market for any of the people who have actually put up their own money

    You have to look at this from the bureacratic end game…(thanks to Sir Humphrey Appleby from Yes Prime Minister) it isnt to really accomplish any task…it is to preserve the bureacracy…and the only way NASA is preserved is if its political “side arms” hang on…thus Ares is “no shuttle contractor left behind”.

    Ares 1 or any of its variants willl be as cost effective as the shuttle…embrace the future or the horror take your pick…space advocates have been down this road before.

    As the snail said to his buddy when they climbed on the turtle…hang on we are really moving now.

    Robert

  • anonymous

    “Especially if there is a high flight rate — something neither of the EELVs seem likely to achieve at this point — the relatively simplicity and lower costs of solid rockets may make themselves felt.”

    Ares 1 is very, very unlikely to have a high flight rate involving commercial payloads for several reasons — technical, legal and political, and market:

    1) Ares 1 can’t reach the right orbits. Ares 1 is being designed to inject Orion suborbitally, and then Orion uses its own rocket as an upper stage to reach LEO. Unlike the EELVs, as designed, Ares 1 cannot deliver any payload besides Orion to LEO and has no upper stage for delivering payloads to GEO.

    2) Even if Ares 1 could get non-Orion payloads to the right orbits, Ares 1 will be a government-owned and -operated vehicle. There are huge legal obstacles and precedents in legislation and policy (Commercial Space Act and amendments, Commercial Space Launch Act and amendments, White House civil space and space transportation policies, etc.) dating all the way back to the Challenger accident, after which NASA was no longer allowed to put commercial payloads on the Shuttle without major exemptions.

    For Ares 1 to launch commercial payloads, ATK or someone else would need to create a corporate structure that would license Ares 1 technology from NASA and either pay NASA for its ongoing contributions to Ares 1 operations or invest in a duplicate operational infrastructure (processing, launch site, recovery, etc.). Even then, the outcry and lobbying from ULA, the COTs and other emergent competitors, and even overseas launch entities would be a big obstacle.

    3) I seriously doubt that ATK, which is essentially an explosives and munitions company, would be interested in such a business. I also doubt that any other investor would be interested in the business, since it either involves working hand-in-hand with a less than predictable government entity with no profit motive or major infrastructure investments, coupled with a $100 million plus launch price that is too high to grow the market and not competitive with foreign (especially Ruskie) alternatives. And NASA itself, especially with someone like Griffin at the helm, would probably not be interested in the headaches created by the occasional commercial launch.

    I just don’t see a commercial Ares 1 happening and there’s no indication that anyone is interested in seeing it happen. It would have been much better for NASA to adapt its human space flight needs to existing and emerging commercial vehicles. But Griffin insisted that NASA design, develop, own, and operate an entire human space flight architecture. As a result, Ares 1 is a vehicle specific and unique to NASA human space flight with no commercial (or even unmanned NASA science payload) potential. In all likelihood, just like Shuttle, the Ares 1 flight rate will be driven solely by ISS (and maybe NASA lunar) needs, and Ares 1 costs will be driven by how efficiently (or inefficiently) NASA leaders, the White House, and Congress manage NASA’s massive human space flight infrastructure and workforce.

  • anonymous

    “I am also wondering how Cook is coming up with the marginal quoted cost of an Ares 1 of $100M, which is a wonderfully low number. Does that include the cost of NASA’s personnel? Of all personnel & services needed at the Cape? Labor cost is ultimately the large majority of costs, and are FULLY costed into the price of an EELV launch.”

    In the absence of some analysis and data, I’d assume Cook is calculating the marginal costs of Ares 1/Orion the same way as Shuttle. Shuttle marginal costs are made up of things like expendable hardware (the ET for each launch), temporary increases workforce costs caused by a launch (e.g., overtime), temporary services associated with a launch (e.g., Coast Guard and other security cordons), etc. Shuttle fixed costs are made up of things like the salaries for the standing army of engineers and safety personnel, day-to-day costs associated with maintaining the Shuttle’s physical plant and test infrastructure, etc.

    In the case of Shuttle, some small amount of workforce costs fall into the marginal category, but by far most workforce costs are fixed. I imagine the same rough proportion will hold true for Ares 1 (and most launch vehicles), even if the total workforce is much smaller (which I doubt given that Griffin is not reducing the Shuttle workforce during its flyout).

  • anonymous

    “Unfortunately, I think NASA is only reflecting the rest of society. Outside of warfare, and except for some individuals, we are very risk averse and with little thought about the true costs, often to our detriment. How much do we spend making sure there are very few airline accidents, while automobile users slaughter both themselves and innocent bystanders (pedestrians) by the thousands?”

    This is the common wisdom — that society (especially American society) is much less risk-averse than it used to be and that our risk judgements are irrational. I disagree. The risk judgements made by the individual organizations that bear risk in our society are actually very rationale. And today’s generations would probably undertake the same risks as prior generations, were they confronted with the same technologies and choices.

    For example, despite the myth, there is no collective, irrational “we” making decisions about allocation of resources for mitigating airline versus automobile risk. Those decisions are mainly made by very rational airlines and automakers, who have very different corporate risk profiles for an airline accident carried on CNN versus a car accident carried on the local news. The difference in safety also driven by the physical reality that airline operations can be centrally engineered systems staffed by carefully screened and trained professionals while automobile operations lack an organizer below that of the traffic laws and must rely on the judgement of every Tom, Dick and Harry on the road.

    In terms of now versus then, I also think we assume that people today are more risk-averse simply because we have more safety measures available to us today. But just because we now have accomplished the engineering necessary to understand the importance and proper use of seatbelts, air bags, child seats, and helmets does not mean that we are less risk-averse than prior generations. If 19th century cowboys had plastic helmets available to them, I’m sure they would have worn them just as kids on bikes and skateboards do in the 21st century.

    Also, I’d note that the risks/rewards of then versus now also play a large role in our perception of risk. While our ancestors may have taken great risks in opening up the American frontier, they were often driven to do so because the risks of staying in the Old World were even higher. If you told me today that I had to choose between persecution or starvation on Earth versus sinking my savings into and undertaking all the risks associated with settling a new world, I’d take the new world too. Just because we’re not confronted with the same choices as prior generations does not mean we are less risk-averse. In fact, when I look at some of the physical and chemical risks undertaken by young participants in extreme sports or raves, for example, and the minimal rewards they receive in return, I’d make the argument that youth today may be less risk-averse than prior generations. (But that’s probably the perception of older generations at any point in time and a misunderstanding of the social rewards of such participation on my part.)

    With regards to NASA, I think NASA acts somewhat rationally and like an airline when it comes to wanting to mitigate the risks associated with a highly public disaster like the death of an astronaut in flight or testing. But unlike an airline, which must also turn a profit and is thus driven to be very economic in how it mitigates those risks, NASA has no real bottom-line to meet and makes very uneconomic choices in the name of increased safety or politics. And sometimes those choices are so uneconomic that they actually result in lower safety than what could have been achieved (Shuttle) or threaten the existence of the very effort itself (Ares 1 and a human lunar return).

    “I don’t think he was being fair to himself, especially if he has any sense that what he is doing is relevant to humanity’s long-term future.”

    Again, he apparently didn’t become an astronaut to help secure “humanity’s long-term future”. He became an astronaut because he believed that and found the experience of space flight to be rewarding in and of itself.

    FWIW…

  • Stephen Metschan

    Feris,

    I’m a strong believer in the market place. Without it we wouldn’t have all that capitalist tax money to waste on Ares I in the first place :)

    Unfortunately space is still largely dominated by the public sector especially when you include the DOD. One of the best ideas I have heard so far though, to help bring about a high volume competitive/commercial market for space without risking expensive spacecraft or lives, is LEO propellant depots. Given that LOX is almost half the mass of missions beyond LEO this would be a significant market. Launch mistakes are cheap (vs spacecraft and people) and the mission value of kg LOX in LEO is the same.

  • Tom

    Stephen-

    I agree with a lot of your argument, and it’s something I hadn’t thought about before. I do believe that the media is a new player that wasn’t as much of a factor in the past. If there’d been some sort of live coverage of every shipwreck with footage of flotsam, bodies, etc. or failed colony with the famine, disease, etc. I think that may have provided a damper on early colonization.

    If you want to talk more, contact me through my website.

  • Monte Davis

    This is the common wisdom — that society (especially American society) is much less [ITYM more] risk-averse than it used to be…

    By now I simply tune out all space commentary that starts with how far we’ve fallen from our sainted forefathers (in willingness to take risk, in flying the Mighty Boneshaking Saturn V, in National Vision, yada yada yada). First, like you, I often disagree on the facts (most space enthusiasts, as historians and cultural/political commentators, are… uhh… pretty good space enthusiasts).

    Second, even if their laments were true — what of it? Politics is “the art of the possible” in space as much as anywhere else — and I’d much rather identify and support what can be accomplished than bloviate about How Great It Could Be if only there were a sweeping transformation of national priorities.

    Surely you’ve noticed how often some people keep circling back to “maybe the Chinese will scare as us as the USSR did in 1957,” or “maybe that planet-threatening asteroid will turn up”… or these days, “maybe anxiety about climate change will lead to support for a Giant Space Parasol.” There’s something a little desperate and more than a little sad about it.

  • Anonymous: It would have been much better for NASA to adapt its human space flight needs to existing and emerging commercial vehicles.

    As I’ve stated before, I agree in spades. I’m only trying to salvage something out of what we all seem to agree is going to happen. I know it’s not likely, but it’s my nature; I can’t help it. (Robert, maybe they were moving really slow, but they were moving.)

    I think I disagree with you about our aversion to risk. (Just travel in Europe where you can often open windows on high speed trains, versus here where you can’t even on our slow-speed ones! The attitude there seems to be, if you’re stupid enough to stick your arm out, that’s your problem, while all our agencies can think about is whether they are going to get sued. Or, look at the way Boeing won’t take the risk of trying to market the already-developed and paid for Delta-IV.) However, I don’t feel strongly enough about it to continue that debate.

    Monte: There’s something a little desperate and more than a little sad about it

    I agree. But, then, new frontiers are usually colonized by the despirate and / or sad (in the sense I think you meant it). People who are happy or comfortable where they are (e.g., myself) usually want to stay there and not go off to live on Mars . . . as opposed to a quick visit.

    – Donald

  • Robert G. Oler

    Donald…

    “Robert, maybe they were moving really slow, but they were moving.)”

    It’s ok Donald…I believe the same thing for a very long time…then I realized that they were moving but only going backwards…

    Robert

  • Adrasteia

    The desperate and sad should colonise new frontiers on their own coin. What they shouldn’t be doing is holding everyone else at gunpoint to pay for their ludicrous rube goldberg schemes.

  • Okay, Adrasteia, you can stop paying for human spaceflight if I can stop paying, say, a far higher amount for rediculously inefficient, not to speek of economically, environmentally, and militarily destructive, subsidies for automobile drivers that I don’t use. . . .

    – Donald

  • Monte Davis

    …new frontiers are usually colonized by the despirate and / or sad (in the sense I think you meant it).

    I meant “sad” to describe the gap between the conviction that space is important for all mankind and the painful but undeniable fact that most of mankind doesn’t agree… which leads to desperate speculation about things that might happen to get them to agree.

    More at:
    http://www.space-travel.com/reports/Which_X_Treme_Spacer_Are_You_999.html

  • .
    .

    reading the last year’s news, we know the problems of the Ares-I design (too R&D high costs, very long timeline, budget cuts, etc.) that forced NASA to SHIFT the (already delayed) first manned Orion launch from the (planned) “end of 2014″ to the mid 2015, then, now (after suggesting MANY possible solutions of these problems in my past articles) I’ve published the “new Ares-I design” article that follows the same “money and time saving” philosophy: http://www.gaetanomarano.it/articles/023newAres.html

    .
    .

  • Adrasteia

    If I were running things Donald, I’d be internalising those costs with a $1/kg tax on the petroleum derived portion of that fuel.

    Ofcourse, I’m not running things.

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