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Where No Robot Has Gone Before
National Review Online ^ | February 3, 2003 | Rand Simberg

Posted on 02/03/2003 9:21:38 AM PST by NonZeroSum

There's an old joke about the man who asks his neighbor to turn down the loud, raucous noise emitting from her stereo.

"What's the matter, are you a music hater?" "No," he replies, "I'm a music lover."

I'm reminded of this by the calls of some over the years to end the space-shuttle program, even (perhaps especially) by people who are frustrated by our lack of progress in space. In the wake of the latest tragedy, the calls will undoubtedly grow louder, but in many cases, even if correct, they will be for the wrong reasons, and may not lead to the desired outcome.

With the loss of another orbiter, policymakers are going to be looking for answers, about what to do — not only to minimize the chances of a recurrence with our smaller and now less-resilient fleet, but what should follow. Here are the kinds of questions that will be asked:

— Does the shuttle need to be replaced?
— How much capability should the vehicle that replaces it have?
— Should it serve military as well as civil needs?
— Should it be a new reusable vehicle, or perhaps a small-winged vehicle to go on top of an expendable?
— Should we stop sending people into space and just "do it with robots"?

These are the wrong questions, however, at least for now. The last one in particular is egregiously pointless, because we don't even know what "it" is.

If history is any guide, policymakers won't ask the right questions, the useful questions, those fundamental metaquestions that haven't been asked since the dawn of the space age and NASA's founding. First and foremost among them are: Why do we have a "space program"? What are we trying to accomplish?

Every press interview, every congressional hearing, every blue-ribbon commission assumes answers to that question, and the assumption is assumed to be shared, and none of those assumptions are ever questioned.

They must be, because they're not as obvious as many think, and they're definitely not shared, at least by me, and I suspect by many others as well.

Back in the bad old days of the Cold War, when NASA was formed, the answer was easy. It was to beat those godless commies to the moon, and thus demonstrate the inherent superiority of a democratic socialist state enterprise for space exploration over a totalitarian socialist state enterprise for space exploration. Oh, and while we're at it, Lyndon Johnson would like us to help industrialize the south.

Of course, it was couched in loftier terms. We were exploring space, for all mankind. Later, after we won the moon race, the real reason transmogrified to "maintain jobs in Houston, Huntsville, Florida, and California, and other key congressional districts," while maintaining the "exploration and science" fig leaf. At the end of the Cold War, the new real reason became "maintain jobs, and provide midnight basketball programs for Russian scientists, so they won't sell nukes to Kim Il Sung and Saddam." But if anyone asks, we're doing it for "science and exploration." And maybe a little international cooperation."

Science has never been a good justification for a manned space program. It's simply too expensive, compared to all other federal science programs, particularly the way that NASA goes about it. But more to the point, by focusing on this purpose of the space program, and excluding all others, it allows people to ask questions like "why don't we do it with robots?"

There are some space missions that will just never be jobs for robots. Building an orbital infrastructure that can both mine useful asteroids and comets, and deflect errant ones about to wipe out civilization, is unlikely to be done with robots. Building orbital laboratories in which biochemical and nanotechnological research can be carried out safely is unlikely to be practically done with robots. A new leisure industry, with resorts in orbit or on the moon, would be pointless, and find few customers, if we weren't sending up people. Establishing off-world settlements to get at least some of humanity's eggs out of the current single fragile physical and political basket is not exactly a job for a robot.

If we decide that any or all of those are national goals — that we truly want to become a space-faring nation and planet, then the robot question becomes superfluous, and it's clear that they'll never be accomplished with anything remotely resembling the shuttle, or for that matter, any existing launch system. It's equally clear that they won't be accomplished by simply continuing to fund a centralized state space bureaucracy. For those, we will need a space program that represents the traditional American values of entrepreneurship, individualism, and free enterprise, features notably absent from our manned space activities throughout the history of the program, for the past four-plus decades.

For too long, our space policy has been running on the sterile inertia of past mistakes. This latest catastrophe should be viewed as an opportunity to finally, for the first time since the early 1960s, have a real, scraping-it-down-to-the-bare-metal debate on U.S. space policy — what our national goals should be, and the best means to achieve them. That might include rethinking whether NASA itself, a child of that original Cold-War imperative, should continue in its current form, or revert back to its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, whose research was the technological basis of the modern aviation industry.

The post-Columbia discussion should include a look at how all federal agencies help or impede progress. For example, consider current ITAR regulations, which classify launch vehicles as munitions and therefore subject to stringent controls (often to the point of making it impossible to even discuss design issues with Canadian employees without notification six months in advance to the State Department). Or consider launch-licensing uncertainties, which deter investors (who despise uncertainty) from investing in new space transports because the FAA hasn't yet decided if rocket planes will be managed by the branch of that agency that regulates airplanes, which has one set of stringent (and perhaps unaffordable and inapplicable, for a nascent industry) certification requirements, or another, which licenses launches, but is currently oriented toward disposable vehicles, rather than the routine space transports necessary for low-cost reliable access to space.

Other agenda items should probably include off-planet property rights, and whether remaining in the 1967 U.N. Outer Space Treaty (another relic of the Cold War), which prohibits claims of national sovereignty, is in our national interest (or the world's, for that matter).

The debate about the future of space exploration should include the American people, and what they want to do in space, not just what they want, like voyeurs, to watch either government employees or robots do.

But it all starts by asking the right questions. And, by the way, that's not robot work, either.

TOPICS: Business/Economy; Culture/Society; Editorial; Government; Philosophy
KEYWORDS: asteroids; comets; humans; naca; nasa; robots; spacepolicy; spacesettlement
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Maybe this will be the wake-up call we need for sensible space policy.
1 posted on 02/03/2003 9:21:38 AM PST by NonZeroSum
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To: NonZeroSum
bump fer later
2 posted on 02/03/2003 9:23:32 AM PST by Hegewisch Dupa
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To: NonZeroSum
One would hope...
3 posted on 02/03/2003 9:24:56 AM PST by Frank_Discussion
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To: NonZeroSum
Whoever leads in the development of space technologies is going to own the next century. If that is someone other than the US, we will take our place on the shelf of has-been countries right next to Britain.

Right now the competition is still fairly open. Any country, or company, willing to invest at the right point can leapfrog its way to a place in the sun, ahead of all of us.

But space technology is never really going to take off, or bear fruit, until it opens up to private actors, companies, investors, entreprenuers. And that isn't going to happen until some mission brings home some interesting core samples from some neighboring body.

I envision a two-track program as being the best we can do. A slow track, as we slowly develop the technologies for maintaining a permament human presence in orbit, and hopefully very soon on the moon, and improving the technologies for the heavy lifting into orbit, and higher speed propulsion.

In parallel, we should be developing the robots that will bring back the core samples from the Moon, from Mars, from the near asteroids. It will just take a couple of interesting samples to blow the lid off this thing.

Until that happens, it will take government money to seed the research. If we don't do it, someone else will, and our grandkids will be working for them. Probably washing their cars, and cleaning their houses.
4 posted on 02/03/2003 9:51:58 AM PST by marron
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To: NonZeroSum
We don't need robots to do all of the exploration. I agree for more privatization of space exploration. There is a lot of companies that want to do it. If we don't get off our collective butts and stop worrying about the here and now and start worrying about the future, America will become a second rate nation.
5 posted on 02/03/2003 9:55:38 AM PST by KevinDavis (Ad Astra!)
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To: NonZeroSum
very good. someone has noticed the elephant.
6 posted on 02/03/2003 9:57:42 AM PST by demosthenes the elder (oh, yes, of course... I see it now: it can be no other way, Socrates!)
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To: NonZeroSum
I agree with the author's key point: time to decide space exploitation/exploration goals. I would add by society, not just the NASA lobby.

Astronomical distances, technology, and lack of public support render the current program fantastical.

7 posted on 02/03/2003 10:42:58 AM PST by Man of the Right
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Comment #8 Removed by Moderator

To: marron

yes, we have superman

9 posted on 02/03/2003 5:13:37 PM PST by deadmenvote
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To: deadmenvote
I vote we explore and conquer (and btw lay claim). Without property rights there will be no private exploitation.
10 posted on 02/03/2003 8:45:37 PM PST by ARCADIA (Abuse of power comes as no surprise)
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To: RightWhale; anymouse; RadioAstronomer; jimkress; discostu; The_Victor; Centurion2000; Brett66
11 posted on 02/04/2003 11:53:18 AM PST by NonZeroSum
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To: marron
Whoever leads in the development of space technologies is going to own the next century. If that is someone other than the US, we will take our place on the shelf of has-been countries

And the century after. Has-been? America would quickly move to second-rate country status if it were to drop manned space exploration. That won't happen. NASA will emerge stronger after this disaster, and the space program should gain a fresh and vigorous goal. We have to reach out to the moon again, and to Mars, that's what should be done.

12 posted on 02/04/2003 12:06:25 PM PST by RightWhale
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Without property rights there will be no private exploitation.

That's right.

There is next to no private exploitation of celestial resources. There is probably a good reason why not, and it isn't the lack of transportation. It is the lack of private property rights. No private investor will invest without guarantee of ownership of whatever is developed, and so we are stuck until it is possible to claim celestial resources.

13 posted on 02/04/2003 12:16:08 PM PST by RightWhale
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To: NonZeroSum
The expansion of humans into space to live should be the official goal of NASA. It should be in their mission statement, but their is a blindness to the obvious and it's been that way since it's inception. The conquering or colonization of space is what those astronauts died for, not to study ant colonies in microgravity or float around in LEO in a space station that leads to nowhere.
14 posted on 02/04/2003 12:17:11 PM PST by Brett66
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To: NonZeroSum
While I'm not against robotic exploration we must keep in mind that it's not the goal. The goal of space exploration has to be to get enough PEOPLE off the rock for human civilization to continue without earth. There's a mathimatical certainty that eventually earth will cease to be habitable, could be a rock (which happens periodically), could be pole reversal (which happens periodically), could be the sun stops being our friend (which happens eventually); if we're still stuck on the rock when that day comes all of our accomplishments amount to zero. Robotic exploration could accelerate exploration, but we must never forget that eventually we not only have to send people we need to send a lot of them.
15 posted on 02/04/2003 12:31:48 PM PST by discostu (This tag intentionally left blank)
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To: RightWhale
They didn't emerge stronger after Challenger. The post Challenger NASA was timid and fearful, and that's continued to this day. Remember it was only a few months ago that NASA released their study on Mars exploration that basically boiled down to "it would be dangerous, so we probably shouldn't". I hope NASA emerges with some cajones but the historical evidence says they get more chicken every time something bad happens.
16 posted on 02/04/2003 12:35:39 PM PST by discostu (This tag intentionally left blank)
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To: discostu
The post Challenger NASA was timid and fearful

Absolutely correct! Space travel is inherently dangerous; there is no way to guarantee perfect safety. Even so, there is no shortage of volunteers to take on these missions. I would fly the Space Shuttle right now; I assume you would, too. We really have to get on with exploration of space, going back to the moon, going to Mars, mining asteroids. Big goals. The ISS is okay for what it is, but it isn't a big goal. We can debate which to do first, Mars, moon, or asteroids, but we ought to pick one or all and get on with it!

17 posted on 02/04/2003 12:43:16 PM PST by RightWhale
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To: RightWhale
The ISS, IMHO, should be a base station for further exploration. We should have one set of craft for getting people from earth to the ISS and set to go from the ISS to the various "targets". I think one of the barriers we've had is that while the shuttle is great for earth to orbit and back (inspite of the weekend's events let's keep in mind that it really does have a good track record, not great but good) that's about all it's good for, can't land on rough terrain, can't take off without the booster. Meanwhile the old style landers are no good for earth to orbit. Instead of seeing this as weakness it should be the source of the plan.
18 posted on 02/04/2003 1:09:34 PM PST by discostu (This tag intentionally left blank)
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To: discostu
The original plan was quite a bit bigger than what we ended up with. There was the Space Shuttle, a cheap way to get to orbit and back. There was the Space Station, something a lot more capable and bigger than the ISS. There were other craft, some capable of going to the moon and back like an express shuttle, a moon base, and perhaps a station orbiting the moon. We built only the first part of the system. The system could be expanded to include regular service to and from Mars the same way.

There were several alternative designs for the system, but it wasn't ever intended to go just between earth surface and LEO.

The complete system was a good idea, lots of redundancy, pretty good safety, and excellent efficiency in the cost area compared to the one-off missions we have conducted ever since Apollo.

19 posted on 02/04/2003 1:20:13 PM PST by RightWhale
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To: NonZeroSum
NASA is an anachronism, a dinosaur.

You want safe, cost effective space travel? Commercialize space exploration. Get rid of NASA and the associated onerous government regulations on space flight by private companies/ individuals..

Space is a place, not a program.

20 posted on 02/04/2003 7:36:30 PM PST by jimkress
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