Facing Opportunities and Obstacles in Space
Jonathan Coopersmith is a historian of technology at Texas A&M University and a writer for the History News Service. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Attribution to the History News Service and the author is required for reprinting and redistribution of this article.
President Obama's plans for the future of America's civilian space programs, outlined in his speech last week, have been attacked for being too bold and relying too much on private enterprise. The reality is that they're not bold enough.
The end of shuttle flights this year, as scheduled by President George W. Bush, and President Obama's proposed cancellation of its successor, the over-budget Constellation program, have received the most congressional and media attention. What's been neglected has been the core of the president's proposed revamping of NASA: the development of new technologies to reduce the cost and complexity of operating in space.
These proposals, however, do not address the key problem that limits the exploration and exploitation of space -- the high cost of reaching orbit. When I fly domestically, I pay about $2 per pound of me for a ticket. In contrast, launching a satellite into orbit costs approximately $10,000 a pound. Until that cost dramatically drops, the promise of the final frontier will remain only a promise.
High launch costs have restricted space to those governments and corporations that can afford tens of millions of dollars to launch a satellite. Nor are rockets infallible: Insurance rates for the launch of a communications satellite can be 10 to 15 percent of its value. In comparison, the cost of auto insurance for a teenager seems a bargain.
Such challenges of exploration are nothing new. A comparably slow and expensive exploration of North America occurred after Columbus's voyages. The high costs, risks and uncertainties of crossing the Atlantic restricted exploration, communication and trade.
Turning the Atlantic from a dangerous barrier into a reliable, controllable pathway that connected England and other powers to their colonies took decades of improvements to ships, navigation and ports, as well as new understanding of the Atlantic environment. Not until the early 1700s did a transatlantic trip became routine as goods and people began to flow easily.
Space travel today is closer to Columbus's voyages than a repeatable, unexceptional experience. Unless the cost and risk of reaching orbit drops drastically, space will remain the preserve of the few institutions able to afford rockets. To truly open space to exploration and exploitation, President Obama and Congress need to set a goal of reducing the costs of reaching orbit to $100 a pound by 2020.
Developing appropriate technologies will demand billions of dollars and a number of years. Promising concepts such as beamed energy propulsion, which uses a microwave or laser beam to power a spaceship into orbit, and the even more hypothetical space elevator are still in the laboratory, more promise than reality.
Required commitments of time and money are beyond the reach of corporations. These commitments are, however, reasonable for a government, which can invest for the long term. The mammoth Saturn V rocket that sent Apollo 11 to the moon in 1969 would not have been possible without the large investments made by the American military in rocket technology in the 1950s.
Reducing launch costs does not carry the political excitement of sending astronauts to the moon. Nor will the benefits accrue until the 2020s, perhaps too long a time for present-day elected officials to gain politically. Yet making space affordable can prove far more important than was beating the Russians to the moon. Instead of twelve Apollo astronauts walking on the moon, thousands of people could be working in space. The long-predicted promise of businesses using space - for example, to transmit pollution-free electricity to Earth -- might finally come true.
By opening up space, the Obama administration can create what could be its greatest legacy, a nation that is exploring and exploiting space for the benefit of all humanity.
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Patrick C Stewart - 4/27/2010
Am I the only person around here who finds the existence of Apollo deniers on a site full of historians to be deeply, deeply tragic?
Andrew D. Todd - 4/26/2010
We had a discussion along these lines about six years ago:
Much of what I wrote at the time does not seem to require any further expansion. Satellites are not the issue. When run efficiently, by someone other than NASA, communications-satellite-launching is a profit-making business. Fifteen percent losses are about right for satellite launching. That strikes a balance between expenditure for the satellite and expenditure for the rocket launcher. Employed correctly, a pound of electronics is _really_ a lot of electronics, and a launching cost of ten thousand dollars per pound is not an urgent concern. Employed correctly, a communications satellite weighing a thousand pounds or less can serve millions of people, and their pro-rata share is correspondingly modest. The same applies to other kinds of information-handling satellites, such as navigation and mapping/reconnaissance satellites It is the manned-space program which is the problem, simply because it imposes standards of perfection which are difficult and expensive to attain.
Coopersmith's suggestions about space-based manufacturing employing large numbers of workers seem highly improbable. The reality is that in high-tech manufacturing down here on Earth, the path of progress is towards more and more completely robotized manufacturing. No human can assemble components which are measured in microns or nanometers. As for solar power satellites, they are unlikely to produce power as economically as appropriate household-level systems.
I have always been impressed by the argument Stephen Pyne made in _The Ice: A Journey to Antarctica_ (1986), to the effect that Antarctica, and by extension, outer space, is an "information sink," a kind of cognitive dead-end. NASA's dogged insistence on the manned space program is an example of the information sink in operation.
The analogy between the Atlantic and outer space is so thoroughly false that it should not require debunking. The Atlantic is not, and never was, an impregnable barrier. I believe it was the great Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson who pointed out that Iceland and Greenland are nearly all the way across the Atlantic. That said, of course, there were sizable European populations in America before the year 1000, at which date the Vikings made the final crossing described in the Vinland Saga. One might add, also, that serious credence has to be given to the various expeditions of Thor Heyerdahl, who crossed the Atlantic, along the southern route taken by Columbus, not once but twice in reed-boats of Ancient Egyptian design (constructed in the first instance by Buduma tribesmen from Lake Chad, and in the second instance by indigenous Peruvians from Lake Titicaca). The design of European sailing ships, as Bjorn Landstrom has noted, advanced rapidly from 1400 AD to 1500 AD, and then remained much the same until the advent of the steamship in the nineteenth century.
What did happen in American settlement was what has been described as the establishing of a "beachhead." The Jamestown settlers were exposed to terrific levels of famine, simply because, once they had antagonized the Indians, there was nowhere they could go for help. Once there were large towns on the east coast, such as Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston, South Carolina, the risks of immigration decreased. A new group of settlers in the interior might have been ten or twenty miles from the last established settlement.
In ninth-century England and France, it took about a hundred years for Viking raids to develop into armies. This was a reflection of political conditions in Norway and Denmark. Rebellious chieftains went a-Viking in order not to have to submit to the king. Consequently, a Viking raid consisted of one or two shiploads of men, an outlawed chieftain and his personal following. It was only at the last stage, when the king was forced to get involved, in order to prevent chieftains from becoming wealthy in ways beyond his control, that Vikings began arriving in armies. The Viking age ended when the kings of Scandinavia became powerful enough that they could channel all the warriors towards their own objectives, such as expanding their kingdoms. Lief Erickson in Vinland had the classic one or two shiploads of men. While they might have been able to raid a monastery, they didn't get very far against savage warriors. Savage warriors fight somewhat better than monks do, and there would be hundreds of warriors within fifty or a hundred miles of the landing site. The nearest Viking reinforcements might be five hundred miles away.
What was new about Jamestown in 1608 was that, in imitation of the Iberian colonial ventures, there was a royal-chartered corporation backing the settlement, feeding in replacement colonists as the old ones were killed or starved. It is estimated that about two thousand people a year were hanged in sixteenth-century England, mostly thieves and robbers. It was a simple matter for the corporation to arrange conditional pardons for as many men as it wanted to fill the gaps in its colonies. It was simply a question of saving money on rope.
Ultimately, the Atlantic crossing worked because the economy of the time was primarily agricultural. For farmers, more land equaled more productivity. Even if they couldn't actually cultivate more land, they could at least turn livestock onto it. For a post-industrial economy, more energy does not equal more productivity. Very few people would have their lives transformed by cheaper wholesale electricity.
William McWilliams - 4/26/2010
Apollo 11 was the biggest and most
expensive hoax in the history of
the world. The LAST thing this country
needs anytime in the near future is
another another space mission conspiracy used to disguise more
corporate welfare for the greedy
Google Apollo hoax and have a huge
barf bag close by for when you learn about how the scam was carried out.
John D. Beatty - 4/26/2010
...and stay out of MY wallet.
What STATE purpose (that is, what function of government) is served by any manned or non-orbital space program?
Because its there? So are millions starving because of political inaction and dying of treatable diseases for much the same reason.
You tell some child in Chicago who has to sleep in the bathtub at night that his life will be better by lowering the cost of orbiting a satellite.
Go on. See what kind of reaction you get.
You want it, PAY FOR IT YOURSELF. NASA has been nothing more than Congressional welfare for decades.