Learning from dissent

            If you listen with an open mind, you can learn a lot from people who disagree with you.  Even questioning the fundamentals from time to time is a good exercise to make sure we are on the right track and not on the proverbial bus trip to Abilene.


            I really resonated with the comment by Joe Fitzgerald of Boston, reading his children the Laura Ingalls Wilder books.  When my children were small, we read the whole series at bedtime, one chapter a night.  I particularly liked “Farmer Boy” but all of the books are good because they are true and very well told.  After reading those books, I always wondered if I was tough enough to be a pioneer; probably not. 


            Joe thinks space exploration is a long way from Ma & Pa Ingalls setting out across the Midwest in their covered wagon.  Turns out, I do too. 


Some time back I had a great conversation with Mike Griffin where he pointed out that we are at the earliest stages of space exploration, and likened our times to the era of the Viking longboats. Those crude ships were just barely enough to get across the stormy Atlantic.  Sometimes, not always.  In space exploration we really need to get to the Caravel stage; which is still far short of the Clipper Ship phase, and light years from the jet aircraft stage. 


            In the 1850’s there was a proposal to build dirigibles to transport folks from the east coast to the California gold fields.  At the time ballooning was immensely popular but the technology was immature.  Still, it looked like a better option than taking five months across the mountains, prairies, and deserts on foot or by wagon.  Sadly, the dirigibles never materialized.  In 1869 the transcontinental railroad was completed and a vastly less capable technology – steam locomotives – was used to cross the country in only seven days!  I wonder how history would have been different if we had invested more in lighter than aircraft than in steam locomotives?  Today everybody travels by air – just not dirigibles – while passenger trains are almost extinct.


Ma & Pa Ingalls will have to wait for a few more improvements in technology before we can get off the planet at anything like regular people prices.  But I don’t think that we should give us seafaring just because all we have is a Viking longboat.  We just have more impetus to build a better boat.


            Point well taken, Joe; your comment certainly made me think.


            Friday I had a “dissenting opinion” from a well respected source.  Bob Thompson who was the first Space Shuttle Program Manager from 1974 to 1981 gave me a call.  Bob is a man of vast talents who was responsible for building the Skylab space station before he was handed the near-impossible job to build the first reusable spacecraft.  He is singularly proud of his accomplishment, as he should be.


            Bob’s treatise was simple; we have got enough to do to master near earth space – low earth orbit to geosync – to keep us busy and learning for the next 30 to 50 years.  His proposal is to keep doing what we have been doing and put any thoughts of going back to the moon or on to other places off until a later date.  I cannot do his argument justice here but it was fascinating to hear someone who is so completely counter to the prevailing conventional wisdom.  It always makes me more thoughtful when the fundamentals are examined in a well considered way.


            As a byproduct of this conversation I got a great recounting of the early days of Skylab and how many of the fundamental engineering tradeoffs were made in early Shuttle design.  Extraordinarily educational.  Lots to think about.  I hope Bob and I get to debate this one some more. 


            After a weekend’s worth of thought, I am still, as they say, disinclined to acquiesce to Bob’s opinion.  A longer explanation is worthwhile but I am running out of time and space today.  That will be a blog post for a future date.


            Keep thinking and we’ll keep talking; all the while working toward the future.


            Meanwhile, I’ve got to go help bail out the longboat a little bit . . . .

13 thoughts on “Learning from dissent”

  1. Pushing the envelope of flight is almost always the better way to go. I think that low Earth orbit may soon become the domain of the new space community. Encourage and let them do it. NASA needs to push on to the Moon otherwise we’ll still be having this debate in another 30 years.

  2. There’s another difference there. That’d also be changing the destination, perhaps moreso than the method of transport. Nobody ever struck gold in Iowa to my knowledge.

    There’s a bit in one of the old NASA history books I have about changing the C-prime Apollo mission to Lunar orbit where someone, George Low I think it was, talks the need to be as ambitious as you can to get the maximum amount of learning from each new endeavour while balancing that with doing anything unnecessarily risky.

    I’d love to hear more of those Skylab and Shuttle memories that were shared, by the way.

  3. “…keep doing what we have been doing and put any thoughts of going back to the moon or on to other places off until a later date.”

    You know, my first thoughts upon reading this were of a neighbor who is sort of trying to learn how to ride a motorcycle.
    I say “sort of”, because he always seems to come up with an excuse to not ride. What Mr. Thompson’s above statement looks like to me is an excuse to stay close to home, to not take our rightful place in the cosmos “until a later date.”

    If not now, when?

    I will side with Gene Kranz:
    The infrastructure was in place.
    The knowledge base was there.
    The industrial base was there.
    And our parents walked away…will we do the same?

    I’ll put 400 miles under my motorcycle tomorrow…I look for reasons to ride…not excuses to leave it in the garage.

    “Disinclined to acquiesce”…means “no”, Captain Barbossa (winks)!
    Pirates don’t stay in port for very long, you know.

  4. There is much to learn, probably enough to take up a generation or more, in getting near-Earth Spaceflight right. But there is no historical analogy for taking a baby-step approach.

    Ship building was not about getting coastal sailing right before moving on to blue water capable ships–ships were built to do the most they could, whether merchant or warship. And sailors kept pushing whatever they sailed as they sought new markets and resources. As trips expanded beyond the Africa to India by the Portuguese and the Americas by the Spanish, ship technology advanced, not the other way around.

    Most telling, a sailor of the early 16th Century would have been willing to take the Pinta to the New World, but there is no way a sailor today would, at least not without a heavy technological and material upgrade.

    Eric is right–we learn by growing, by pushing. In going to the Moon, we are still going to have to do near-Earth ops and will build on that knowledge. But we’ll also learn so much more along the way, like how to design our spacecraft to be even better in order to match the challenges our explorers are facing.

  5. China already said they’re going to the moon & they’ve totally sacrificed basic science for it. They were right about the manufacturing thing so maybe they’re right about the moon thing. Unlike US, Chinese actually have to work for their mortgage bailouts. They’ve probably got some breakthrough propellant on the way and they’ll probably charge $140,000,000,000,000 a barrel for it.

  6. I’ll bet we all feel like expressing a bit of dissent from time to time with the way NASA conducts our space exploration. I haven’t met a NASA fan yet who doesn’t wish they could tweak a program here and there. To be honest I’m often amazed at how much DOES get done.

    We may be a ways out yet from the pioneer settlers, but we are primed and ready for those mountain men and miners. Finding ways to make profits from space resource utilization should be one of the TOP priorities for space exploration – for nothing will spur expansion into space more than the promise of “striking the mother lode.”

    Remember that most voyages across the seas, whether Vikings, Columbus, or Cook, were mostly for locating economic opportunities. Yet such adventures also brought new discoveries in science and technology along with them. They go hand in hand.

    I applaud NASA for taking the steps to make an incremental approach to a low cost (well, lower cost anyways) return to start exploring the moon for its resources. I would hope that also ends up sending flights to the asteroids.

  7. I think that Bob T. and others have a different mission goal in mind for NASA. I think that NASA’s prime goal is space exploration, and implicitly in mine and others minds, but not Bob’s group is the ability to get a permanent human presence (colony) off of earth. Some think that science is the primary goal, and I understand that different administrations (and budgets!) change NASA’s focus nearly 180 degrees, but I believe that NASA has been told to put man on the Moon and Mars. I believe Chris C. could have spent a lot more time on cartography and marine, or probably military science, but aren’t we happier that he went beyond the immediate horizons and beyond most people’s notion of common sense?
    On that I rest my case.

  8. I am “disinclined to acquiesce” with Bob Thompson as well, but with an enormous caveat. Many advocates of deep space exploration try to buttress their argument with the general public by adopting a “compare and contrast” approach that denigrates or downplays the LEO activities of the last 30 years. “We’ve just been going in circles up there” or “We’ve taken a step backwards compared to Apollo” or “Shuttle missions are a dime a dozen” are the kinds of all-too-familiar statements that emerge from this sort of advocacy.

    Nothing could be further from the truth! From pinning down the Hubble Constant, to discovering evidence for accelerating expansion, to uncovering the hot gas that surrounds galaxies, LEO missions have done nothing less than revolutionize our understanding of the cosmos. LEO activity should never be sacrificed on the altar of exploration advocacy.

  9. “…I haven’t met a NASA fan yet who doesn’t wish they could tweak a program here and there…”

    Mark, you’re so right. There are fans of robotics and fans of human-oriented missions, and we all have our favorites. I’ll go first with mine…

    Remember Project Prometheus? It got ashcanned due to budget cuts a few years back, but it has its own history that goes back some 40 years.

    You see, back in the early Sixties there was this division of Westinghouse called Westinghouse Astronuclear. Working alongside the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory, they were constructing a spaceborne nuclear reactor that would provide power for some really deep-space exploration, powered by a (then) new ion drive!

    Neil and Buzz walked on the Moon, Nixon’s tape recorder took a powder, Johnny Carson joked about a toilet paper shortage, and Westinghouse Astronuclear faded into history about three decades before the rest of the company.

    Fast-forward to a few years ago…

    Did you know that the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter was originally intended to be the recipient of Prometheus? It would have been able to change its orbit to rendezvous with any Jovian moon without expending irreplaceable propellants.

    If I had my druthers (look up “L’il Abner), I would like to see Prometheus powering a series of “super-Voyagers”, capable of 0.5C, and sent out to investigate extrasolar planetary systems which scientists believe may contain Earthlike planets.

    That’s my “pet project”. What’s yours?

  10. Going back to the moon , well lets look at some facts. The average person does not have a clue as to what was found on the moon. Of course they have seen every detail of the astronauts adventures but very little about the results of the samples.This could be good or bad for public opinion and future funding

    Also we have seemingly gone back to a redesigned version of the original Apollo space craft and LEM. Again the average person can not understand why the STS is not used in some capacity, rather it appears that billions of dollars of tax money is being scraped.

    And then we have Apollo 13 embedded in the minds of every person who has ever watched TV. Has anyone ever thought of putting a few emergency stations in orbit. Just in case a pit stop is required! Of course that may be a little difficult on the direct route although you could orbit one around the moon its self.

    The public once had a reason to go to the moon, No one has come up with a valid explanation for the general public, at least some kind of inspiration is needed.
    And then there is Bob his opinion is based on experience sounds like he needs some convincing inspiration as well. I could imagine that once upon a time Bob could be heard saying, THESE GUYS GOT TO BE NUTS THEY WANT ME TO DO WHAT

  11. I am learning a lot from your posts and reading the associated comments. For example, having grown up in St. Louis, I always thought St. Louis was the “Gateway to the West” and that Lewis and Clark started their expedition from there, not Pittsburgh. I guess history tells a slightly different story, depending on who’s telling it… 😉

    For me, history is fascinating and instructive, but the manner and paths of explorers of the past shouldn’t direct our exploration of the future. I consider myself a huge history buff and have an insatiable appetite for it…but there’s also a reason I chose in college to focus on physics and not history. The physical reality of our current frontiers and challenges should direct our exploration. As Wayne pointed out in a previous post, we shouldn’t push the analogies from history too far.

    It is really difficult to get to Earth orbit, and it is even harder to land safely on the Moon. I can’t even begin to quantitatively compare it to past frontier voyages, such as crossing the Atlantic in a longboat or crossing the North American continent in a covered wagon, because these challenges are vastly distinct.

    I agree that listening to and learning from dissent is an important exercise, but ultimately we must judge the value of the dissenting opinions against physical reality. Often it’s not easy because there are many political and societal realities that feed into our decisions. But the two dominant facts to me in this discussion are:

    1. It is enormously expensive to get mass out of Earth’s gravity well, and launch costs are not likely to decrease significantly with any current or expected technologies (and by significant, I mean one or two orders of magnitude smaller).

    2. There is not much mass, natural or human-made, in Low Earth Orbit.

    From these two facts, it is clear that, if we ever want to build up a significant and sustainable infrastructure in space, we must go to the Moon and learn how to build things out of lunar materials. We probably will also have to go to near-Earth asteroids because there isn’t much carbon, nitrogen, or hydrogen on the Moon (even at the Poles), unless we can find an efficient way to extract the trace amounts that are present.

    There is certainly a lot more to be learned in Low Earth Orbit, and we shouldn’t stop going there. I work in ISS payloads/science, so believe me, I know how much more science we’d like to do there. But no one is going to be able to negate the two facts I listed above anytime soon. I (and I think all of us) would be interested to listen to any dissenting opinions, but I for one don’t see how these facts are going to change or be circumvented.

  12. Regarding the issue in general, it is my opinion that there are four technological areas that need immediate and persistent focus if we are serious about extending the reach of humans into Solar System and incorporating it into our economic sphere. They are:

    1. Power. High power is needed out there, both for propulsion and for energy needs. Restore Prometheus, start talking seriously about nuclear space. We need power out there, including full cycle production! See the note on ISRU – nobody is going to haul Uranium from Earth to the Moon or to the asteroids. It has to be mined and processed on the Moon. If you consider how any modern nuclear fuel production facility operates today, it’s a huge challenge.

    2. ISRU. ‘Nuff said. It has to be clearly understood, from the very beginning, that anything used in space must be also produced in space, excluding lightest and rarest and most expensive things. In short, until we learn to make something as simple as an iron nail in space ,out of local materials (a necessary simplification but you get the point), and learn to do it in industrial quantities and quality, all talk about development and extending reach is just that – talk. So far we cannot even dig a decent trench out there.

    3. Life Support. The meaning is life support systems that can thrive on local resourses without imports, a “pocket biospheres” so to speak, flexible and extendable. This is really a huge, complicated and very much underdeveloped theme, but it is absolutely crucial. This is also very mach a part of the whole rationale or going, in both resource development and environmental ways. Becoming a species that can kick off a carbon cycle and support themselves on local/solar energy and local elements on any rock in the Solar System will make us practically invulnerable as species to anything but the Sun going supernova, and may eventually improve the ecological situation here on Earth, because if we ever reach this level, we may as well leave Earth alone in peace. Also, human biology itself is very much of a showstopper now. Perhaps I’m reaching a bit far, but right now we have absolutely no idea how to conceive, develop, give birth and grow a healthy human child in, say, 1/6 g. Is it even possible? How in the world DO you conduct such an experiment? Considering the difficulties and implications, is it not safe to say that genmoded humans and stuff like artificial uterus will appear way before we even consider a Moon colony? Until we know the answers to these and other related questions, it is a big “NO” for space colinization.

    4. Transportation. Expending huge rocket every time you need to get anything on the Moon, or anywhere is out of the question. We need to forget it, period, otherwise we are simply not going anywhere. Admittedly, to lift anything to LEO you still need a rocket, and cheap access even to LEO is admittedly a dream so far, as well as are fully reusable technologies. There we need to go back to the drawing boards and theory. But moving anything lifted to LEO further on in the same rocket that brought it there is absurd. Anything going from LEO further on must be via true spacecraft, developed to stay and operate in space for extended periods of time, capable of being refueled and serviced in-space, staying unattended for long times, and capable of wide variety of missions. These will use high-ISP, efficient nuclear-ion or nuclear-thermal or VASIMR-derived propulsion technologies. They will be hard and expensive to develop, true enough. But in a longer perspective, this is the real alternative to the absurd throwing away of huge rockets. Cargo and people should be taken to and from LEO in smaller, cheaper spacecraft, where the tansorbital tugs described there will take them to further destinations, and on the Moon, for example, the cargo hauling to and from LMO may be accomplished by local shuttles, which in fact may be fully reusable, will be refueled and serviced on the Moon, and would not care about aerodynamics and enviromental impacts. They may as well be nuclear-thermal. These shuttles, in fact, may also be used to refuel and service the transorbital tugs as well – it will be cheaper and simpler to do than from Earth.

    In summary, from the technological and programmatical point of view, the focus of any space program that strives to extend the human reach into Solar System should be the focus on Enabling Technologies and Infrastructure, with the goal, in remote perspective, to develop them to the point when starting off a colony on a moon or asteroid will become not too much harder then it was for phoenicians to start off a remote trading post or an offshore colony in antiquity. In that sense, development of technologies to stay and live and work self-sufficiently in space must be given equal, or even higher, precedence over space transportation technologies. The technological gap is huge, really, but the general direction is well worth going.

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