Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Pie in the Sky

One of the first science fiction books I ever read was Lester Del Rey’s Step to the Stars.

Step is the first book of the Jim Stanley trilogy, and part of the Winston Science Fiction Set.  The series was written by famous golden age authors at the top of their game in the 50’s and early 60’s. The set was commissioned by Del Rey (he wrote eleven of the books himself, including the Jim Stanley Trilogy) as young adult science fiction specially designed to encourage teenagers’ interest in science, technology, exploration, and spaceflight.  Del Rey commissioned only first rate authors of “hard science fiction” to write the stories and top commercial artists to paint the covers.  Today, any first editions of the original 35 novels published by the John C. Winston Company between 1952 and 1960 can be quite valuable – I own most of the series, including a number of first addition hard covers, and they are some of my most prized processions (speaking of which, should any of you come across Missing Men of Saturn by Philip Latham, (1953), I’d be very interested in purchasing it from you). The Winston Science Fiction Set used to be a staple of school and community libraries – which is where I initially came across the books and first read Del Rey, Bova, Anderson, Clarke, and the fabulous Alan E. Nourse.  Sadly, the series is long out dated now and is fairly rare on library shelves, having been replaced with modern novels about teenaged vampires who wear sad clown makeup and seem to cry a lot.

40 years after I first read it, Step to the Stars remains vivid in my memory.  The book tells the story of a young welder, Jim Stanley, and the construction of the first space station – the first step on mankind’s journey to the stars.  The thing about this book, and many others of similar vein from the same period, are two basic assumptions: 1) we would build space stations and go to the moon and Mars and beyond, and 2) those stations and colonies and ships would be built by civilians.  Step is centered around a corporation’s efforts to construct the station on schedule and under budget – it’s the first time I ever heard the contractual phrase “penalty clause” and ever thought about the commercial and business aspects of space exploration, pretty heady stuff for a ten year old.  According to the novel, the station was built under government contract, in order to support a military mission – but the heart of it would be commercial, as a way station and stepping stone for exploration of the rest of the solar system, for manufacturing, as an astronomy outpost, and as a commercial broadcast site (remember, this was in 1954, the concepts of orbital telescopes and communications satellites were strictly in the realm of hairy hairball science and barely even a twinkle in science fiction’s eye – unless you were Lester Del Rey or Arthur C. Clarke).  The basic concept was that while government might lease a major chunk of the station, it was the commercial aspects that made it a viable concept.  Nobody was going to foot the bill for government to build its own station.

Back then, it never occurred to futurists like Del Rey that spaceflight would become the exclusive domain of governments.  In the 50’s, it never occurred to anybody that the astronauts and cosmonauts and sinonauts would be government employees instead of commercial spacemen (sure, sure, there were tales of “the Patrol” or whatever the Space Navy was called, but they were there to fight off the aliens or impose law and order on the civilians, they weren’t the only people in space). And while there were numerous scifi stories about First Contact and exploration, a lot of the hard, practical scifi of the time was about the commercial exploitation of the solar system. Writers of hard speculative fiction, such as Heinlein and Del Rey and Nourse wrote stories centered on the concept of exploitation, mining, farming, manufacturing, terraforming, colonization, expansion, with exploration as a sort of byproduct – these were the themes that tied together the Winston series, and it was a common theme of Heinlein and Clarke and Asimov and the other greats who were hardly starry eyed dreamers.   It was just assumed that’s what we’d do, because that’s what we, as a race, have always done.  That’s what the Vikings were doing when they set out for Iceland, Greenland, and Vineland. That’s what Columbus was doing when he ran into the New World.  That what Vespucci and Drake and all those other explorers were doing.  That’s what the first European colonists were doing here on the shores of North America – hell, that’s what the Native Americans’ ancestors were doing when they crossed the Bearing Straits 25,000 years ago. During the great ages of exploration there were certainly a number of expeditions and colonization attempts that were sponsored by governments, and certainly countries such as Spain sponsored purely governmental efforts when it came to treasure and land in the new world, but the vast majority of expeditions were commercial enterprises and so it wasn’t a stretch at all for the futurists of the 1950’s and 60’s to expect space exploration to follow the same model.

Unfortunately (or not, depending), history rarely, if ever, repeats itself.

For many reasons - much of which involves the paranoia of the Cold War – access to space became almost exclusively the domain of governments, and only a few governments at that.  Because of this, human access to space is far, far beyond the ordinary earthbound human being and is the exclusive purview of a tiny cadre of highly trained government employees (or the very, very rich).   After nearly fifty years in space, we – all of us, worldwide, whatever nation ventures into the skies – don’t have space travel, or space exploration, or even space exploitation.

What we have is a space program.

This is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself – depending entirely on what the objective is.

The objectives of our space program are many and varied, but none of those objectives will ever lead to the kind of self sustaining commercial ventures visualized in the popular speculation of the Golden Age.

The Shuttle is a perfect example.  Government cannot build a spaceship – at least not a very efficient one.  The Shuttle as first designed was supposed to make access to space simple and cheap.  Getting out of Earth’s gravity well and into LEO is the hardest part of space travel. That first step is a doozy, but once you’re in orbit, you’re half way to anywhere in the solar system.  The Shuttle was supposed to do that for us.  And even with 1970’s technology, the Shuttle could have made access to space relatively cheap and easy and a whole lot safer.

Instead we got just exactly the opposite.

Why?  Because NASA engineers didn’t build the shuttle, Congress did.

And the lawmakers on Capitol Hill don’t give a fart in a spacesuit about exploration. To them, the Shuttle meant, and still means, jobs and pork and votes.  By the time Congress got done redesigning the Shuttle it was astounding that the damned thing could even clear the pad.   Gone were the safety features like air-breathing engines that would have let the ship abort a landing and make a once around on final approach, gone was the piloted reusable main booster, gone was the simplicity that would have gotten rid of much of the previous Apollo infrastructure.  Gone too was the once-a-week turnaround time from recovery to relaunch that would have made efficient use the economies of scales and reduced ground to orbit costs to dollars a pound instead of tens of thousands of dollars per pound.  To this day parts are manufactured all across the country, many as far from the launch and assembly site as it is possible to get and still be on the same continent, because Senators and Representatives from powerful states like California insisted that it be so.  The ship does nothing well, it’s too complicated and it requires far too much infrastructure,  it’s a poor lift vehicle, it’s a poor science platform, it’s a poor crew vehicle and it falls short of the original design and concept in almost every way.  Everybody got a piece of the Shuttle and as a result it shudders into orbit like Frankenstein’s Monster and the fact that it’s only blown up twice in 30 years is a minor miracle in itself

The International Space Station is the same or worse.  It is the single most expensive engineering project in the history of the human race (when you fold in everything necessary to build, maintain, and crew it) – and yet, what is its purpose? What does it do?  It’s lifetime is limited. It’s crew capacity is limited.  It’s fragile.  It can’t be expanded much beyond its current size and capacity.  It can’t serve as a construction shack for future LEO development, nor can it serve as a jumping off point for the rest of the solar system. As a science platform it is a of limited utility and as a node of commercial development it has little or no utility at all.  As far as military functions go it’s useless (this is not necessarily a bad thing).   Maintaining the ISS requires a significant fraction of our budget and requires that whatever launch vehicles we build have to be able to reach it and service it. Where does that leave us?  Don’t get me wrong here, I think the ISS is an astounding technical achievement – but what purpose does it serve? Well, other than to demonstrate that we can indeed work with other nations when we want too (and maybe that’s not such a bad thing to spend money on either). 

But we are never going to get anywhere like this.

I find it highly ironic that Conservative lawmakers who have fought so vehemently for capitalist market based solutions when it comes to healthcare for example) are pushing back hard against the idea of privatization of space exploitation* and are insisting on maintaining either the status quo or adding a “government option” to the current budget for the space program.  The very fact that Conservatives are insisting on a government option for spaceflight but not when it comes to healthcare goes a long, long way in my mind of demonstrating that they are simply opposing the President for the sake of obstructionism and not out of any kind of true fiscally conservative ideology.  This makes conservatives like Senator David Vitter (R-LA) hypocrites of the highest order.  If these people truly believed in capitalism and market driven solutions and reducing the size and spending of government, they’d be behind the President 100%.  In fact, they’d be out front pushing for free enterprise and corporate exploration beyond the atmosphere. 

Again, don’t get me wrong here.  Democrats in Congress are just as big of hypocrites when it comes to this, it’s just that their hypocrisy is of a different nature – they want NASA to keep the manned space program because it means tens of thousands of jobs in Alabama and Florida, whether or not any of those ships ever get off the ground is irrelevant.

Both sides are equally full of shit.  The Constellation program has been underfunded right from the very start.  Everybody wants a space program.  They all pay lip service to exploration and science but none of them want to actually pay for it.  Space access isn’t something you can do half-assed. Either you’re in all the way, or you’re not.  We’ve never been in all the way, not since Apollo.  Senators and congressmen vote for just enough space program to keep money flowing into their districts – all the time condemning wasteful spending – but never enough to actually accomplish anything.  

We have no real goals in space.  Ask yourself something, what is the purpose of Constellation? What is the purpose of returning to the moon? What is the purpose of going to Mars?  It’s not exploration, it’s not colonization, it’s not exploitation, it’s not the science, it’s not to beat the Soviets – so what is it?  

Now, you know me, I’m all about human space flight.  I think that if we don’t get off this rock and spread out into the universe, sooner or later we’re going to go extinct.  We’re going to blow ourselves up or get parboiled alive by a dinosaur killer or irradiated by a superflare or done in by something nobody expects.  All of our eggs are in one basket, and the only way to guarantee our survival, or a least increase the odds beyond zero, is to get the hell out there. And even if that weren’t true, I’d still be all for going, if only to see what the heck is out there.

But it’s never going to happen if we let Congress build the ships.

Because Congress is not interested in building ships – they’re only interested in the appearance of building ships – today’s Congressional roasting of NASA’s Chief Administrator, Charles Bolden, makes that abundantly clear. 

Congress, especially Republicans, should drop the pretense and call the Constellation program what it is, a job stimulus program.

And me?  I believe that Lester Del Rey had the right idea long before any of these schmucks were out of diapers.

Spaceflight should be a commercial endeavor.



*I strictly avoid using the term “space exploration” when it comes to NASA’s manned space program.  I've said it before, the astronauts do a lot of things up there in low Earth orbit, but they don’t explore.


  1. This is a very good essay, Jim,but on one point I'd like to correct you. An awful lot of early modern exploration and colonization was done by corporations set up by the government for the benefit of the government's friends, and sharing the powers of government, and irresponsible government at that. A couple of years ago some Americans wanted to buy the Hudson's Bay Company, which is now a department store chain but used to own half of what is Canada. There was a bunch of breast-beating in the Canadian Press about the loss of some Canadian heritage to foreign interests. But the HBC always was a foreign interest back in the day. It was set up so that the King's uncle and the King's brother could make a pile of money monopolizing the trade of a country they'd never seen and never would see, and the people actually lived there had no say whatsoever. Same thing applies to the John Company, the English East India Company (note that there were also French and Dutch East India companies). Given various European advantages, the big question was always which foreign charter company is going to run the show, and also how long would it take before the home government directly took over Rupert's Land, India, or Indonesia.

    Remember Red Planet? Of course you do. Remember how the colonists got treated when the yearly pole to pole migration started impacting the bottom line of the Mars company? You could say that this is capitalism at work, but it was also dictatorship at work as far as the humans on Mars were concerned.

    So I am not arguing with your analysis, I'm just saying that getting private interests involved in space exploration will not result in wonders of free enterprise in space, at least not in the short run or maybe even the medium run. It also could be a matter of endemic war in piracy between say the US space company, a Russian space company, and the Chinese space company; instead of "no peace beyond the line (17th c.)," it could be "no peace beyond the synchronous geocentric orbit (21st c.)."

    tersa = a very close-mouthed tortoise

  2. Well,that's certainly true - but I'd almost prefer it to what we have now (tongue firmly in cheek)

  3. I have a couple of bones to pick with this analysis, although Steve has sort of hit on one of my points.

    You need to apply a Porter's 6 forces model to space (yes, he has 6, in later versions he added government regulations as the 6th force - a glaring error in the original model).

    I think I'll post my reply on my blog, let you know when it's done.

  4. Well, at least I'm stimulating you to write something other than about Stinky Tofu, you lazy bastard.

  5. Dude,have you read the posts I'm preparing on that charlatan? Do you have any idea how complex that subject is?

    And I'm not done with stinky tofu yet. :D

  6. A great essay and analysis. I grew up with the "young adult" Heinlein novels like Rocketship Galileo, Have Spacesuit - Will Travel, Tunnel in the Sky (which caused me to spend endless hours in the woods) and Farmer in the Sky, all of which presented such a normal-seeming world of people living and working beyond Earth.

    I really thought NASA would do it for us, for so many years they provided such a nearly constant supply of wonders that you didn't realize the "manned" part of the program was limited to a couple of showy orbit-walks per year.

    Now, as you say, it seems apparent that (our) government programs just will not get it done, "Renewed focus on Earth sciences" is a great objective and something that needs to be done, but what happened to the "exploration"?

    The good news is that private enterprise is finally able to get involved. I expect it would have been prohibitive back in the Apollo and early shuttle days for any private company to try and do anything to compete, and there wasn't any reason to do so, NASA was pushing forward nicely.

    But now things are different, with luck a "space hotel" will appear in our lifetimes, or at least my kids

  7. Weird. I consider myself to be, if not an expert, but pretty well read in YA SF of this era, but I've never heard of Winston Science Fiction. I've read YA books by most of the authors on the list, but none of the titles in the series are ringing any bells for me. Guess I've got some good stuff for my to-read pile.

    I think that if we don’t get off this rock and spread out into the universe, sooner or later we’re going to go extinct.

    Amen to this!

    You and commenters above raise some excellenent points. While I'm unsure about the best way to proceed, I am in complete agreement that congress has more than amply demonstrated that they can not and will not do what needs to be done.

    [wanders off to think about this some more, and to check the library for some of the Winston titles]

  8. OK, my response is up.

    Too distracted to do a really good job, but the rudimentary thoughts are there.

    Captcha - tedrecon - looking for evidence of intelligence at CNN

  9. Jim, great post, but also what Steve and John said. Mind you, I agree that spaceflight should largely be a commercial venture--I don't think it's any secret that I think government should be out (or mostly out) of manned spaceflight and focus on robotic expeditions that do "unprofitable" pure science in the public interest. But the Age Of Exploration is a poor model insofar as those expeditions occurred in a social/political framework that no longer exists, in which there weren't "private" individuals or "government" agencies in the sense we mean today--Drake wasn't a "private" individual exploring solely "commerical" interests, he was head of a licensed expedition that could, at least in principle, only leave the country with the express permission of a government agency (the Crown) who also happened to be a private individual (Queen Elizabeth I) whose personal expenses implicated the national treasury and whose stakes in the outcome were not merely fiscal but also nationalistic.

    The other thing I wanted to say, though, was that your analysis of the space shuttle could have been even more devastating as to what's wrong with gov't spaceflight. Because it wasn't just about pork: the fundamental problem with the shuttle is that it was designed with a purpose that became meaningless due to budget cuts. The original concept, I'm sure you'll recall, was for a permanent space station--the shuttle was merely a component of the station program. Between the economic problems of the '70s and the fact that detente and triangulation removed the need to show off to the Soviets or bewilder the Chinese, the station program became politically superfluous and economically unfeasible (if it ever was, really); the result was that the program was scaled back and scaled back until institutional inertia left the Apollo program still-cancelled and the only thing for NASA to move forward on a delivery vessel designed to travel to a place that would never be built. Before it was pork, the shuttle was the last piece in a puzzle whose other pieces had been thrown in the trash--and then it became pork, as well as a program struggling to find a purpose (hence its failure to do any one thing all that well).

    With that history in mind, it's all too easy to imagine an ambitious "return to the moon" program being scaled back over successive presidential administrations and congressional sessions until all that's left is some weird remnant struggling to justify itself--an automated mining unit being clumsily repurposed as a "science rover" or a middle-distant transport vessel becoming the "Trans-lunar Free-floating Disposable Observation Platform" or some such shit.

    I suspect, though I may be wrong, that private companies not only have a stronger incentive to finish what they start (which is obviously important), but also to abandon their unsustainable failures (a gift that government almost utterly lacks).


    replebo: mildly derogatory term for a lower-middle-class conservative voter, condensed from the phrase Republican plebian.

  10. This is kinda off topic but, how many Senators and Representatives are Scientists? Or are there any?

    There should be diversity not a bunch of lawyers and business people.

  11. S - there are a couple of doctors, but no scientists I'm aware of (graduate education, not undergrad, that is). John E. Sununu is a trained engineer, but he's no longer in the Senate.

    But I have one name for you which illustrates why we scientists often don't do well as administrators and politicians: John H. Sununu. His arrogance as White House Chief of staff is a personalty quirk many scientists share.

  12. I suppose that matters if their arrogance is a good thing. Engineers.. well they are all weird :) I was thinking more like biologist, chemist, physicists. These people understand the natural world, and it would be refreshing to have rational thinkers supporting us in the senate and the house. Some may call those thinkers "progressives". Yeah progressive thinking is bad... vaccines, medicine, electronics who needs that stuff!

    I think a lot of politicians need to get a back bone.

    Say and do what is right, not what will get you voted in again. Even if 60% of your constituents oppose something it does that mean that 60% of people are correct.
    Look around you, there are tons of uninformed ignorant people and it seem like lots of politicians are catering to these people just for the votes even though they know they are voting the wrong way.

  13. Nick from the O.C.March 2, 2010 at 2:27 PM

    Ask yourself something, what is the purpose of Constellation? What is the purpose of returning to the moon?

    Jim, I don't know about the rest of it, but the purpose of going to the moon is to mine the more than 600 million tons of water to be found there. (600 tons is the latest estimate as of yesterday.)

    The water will be frozen and combined with aluminum to create AlIce.

    Scientists have studied aluminum-water combustion since the 1960s, since “the Al-H20 reaction liberates a large amount of energy … as well as green exhaust products,” according to the paper presented to the 45th Annual AIAA/ASME/SAE/ASEE Joint Propulsion Conference by a team of scientists from Pennsylvania State University and Purdue University. More recently, studies have focused on aluminum combusting with frozen oxidizers, such as water ice.

    Here's a blog post on the subject.

    ingis = Language spoken by my 2 year-old.

  14. Because NASA engineers didn’t build the shuttle, Congress did.

    That phrase wins the Internet today, sir.

    I'm still waiting for my 2001-style hotel in space. Sigh. Probably not in my lifetime.

  15. In the Pacific Northwest (Washington, Oregon, and Idaho) the federal government gave vasts tracts of land to railroad tycoons. Those railroad tycoons turned around and sold most of the land for next to nothing to eastern timber barons looking for new forests because they'd already decimated those on the other side of the country, and to mine owners. Timber barons, mill owners in cahoots with the timber barons, and mine owners grew fabulously wealthy from the land they got almost for free, and they abused, even sometimes murdered, their laborers to the bitter end before the federal government forced labor unions on them to stop worker sabotage of goods needed for WWI. That includes the Weyerhaeusers, whose name is on so many things including our milk cartons.

    Also, the federal government gave land away in the arid, desert country of central and eastern WA for farming without thinking through just how small farmers with few resources were going to get water to crops. Most of them promptly failed and big agribusinesses of the time as well as other wealthy interests snapped up all of their land for next to nothing.

    In both cases, public lands and their resources ended up in the hands of the already wealthy for next to nothing, increasing their wealth, while they exploited and abused their labor forces rather than being grateful for the great deals they got.

    Private sector interests can really muck some things up for the majority because there is only one goal and that goal is intended to benefit only the few in control. For many things that's fine and dandy, but for some things, especially if there are no watchdogs they must answer to, well we know how that turns out when what is controlled is anything necessary to participate in society or where lives are at stake.

  16. Sorry for the double the post! The system said the first one didn't go through. Feel free to delete one, please!

  17. When there is pork, isn't it because private sector companies are lobbying for the government purchase and use of their goods and/or services and then making large profits from it? So it isn't just the government that is the problem.

    The federal government does have a problem with costing the private sector large amounts of money just to put in bids, with their continually changing expectations, deadlines, massive bureaucracy requirements, never a bottom line. That should be changed so that it doesn't cost huge sums just to get to the table to place a bid. Companies could charge less and smaller companies would have a crack at contracts.

    However, as evidenced by all the money earned in Iraq by companies like Haliburton and Blackwater (to name only two), the private sector is also the problem. It was a lot cheaper to pay young military grunts to scrub potatoes than it's been to pay private sector companies to do the same.

    Our soldiers were paid a fraction of what mercenaries for Blackwater were paid, and they were paid with our tax monies (our future debt, actually), while most of us didn't even know the feds hired mercenaries in our names. Blackwater was also the first on the ground after Katrina; who hired them and how much did that cost us?

    The private sector will invest only in what it thinks will make large profits, which leaves out anything we might think is important. If there is no immediate benefit to the private sector it will be ignored and unfunded.

    Also, who does space belong to? Is space and its exploration only a private interest? Or is it the publics' interest? If it is the publics' interest, then the public should be involved, monitoring, protecting our collective interests, and that is supposedly what our representative government is for, isn't it?


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