Right Wing Nut House



Filed under: Politics, Science, Space — Rick Moran @ 11:10 am

I was planning on doing a grand retrospective for next Tuesday’s blog post on the 40th anniversary of the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon. I still may do something but Buzz Aldrin wrote a piece in the Washington Post today that demands a response and I will incorporate some of my thoughts on manned space flight.

Aldrin wants America to set its sights on Mars for the “next big thing” that NASA should accomplish. I would love for the US to mount a mission to the Red Planet, but I also love rationality and realism. Unfortunately, the two don’t mesh very well at this point for a wide variety of reasons, and it appears that calling for a manned mission to Mars and being thought of as a rational human being won’t happen for the foreseeable future.

Aldrin, in short, is full of it.

On the spring morning in 1927 when Charles Lindbergh set off alone across the Atlantic Ocean, only a handful of explorer-adventurers were capable of even attempting the feat. Many had tried before Lindbergh’s successful flight, but all had failed and many lost their lives in the process. Most people then thought transatlantic travel was an impossible dream. But 40 years later, 20,000 people a day were safely flying the same route that the “Lone Eagle” had voyaged. Transatlantic flight had become routine.

Comparing Lindbergh’s 29 hour flight across the Atlantic with “homesteading Mars” is bat sh*t loony. Even using our Moon program as a comparison is far off the mark. If we knew then what we know today about the extraordinary risks taken by NASA to beat the Russians to the moon - putting the lives of the astronauts in extreme danger - I doubt if public support for the Apollo program would have been maintained long enough to make it.

NASA engineers figured that the astronauts going on a mission to the moon had a one in five chance of dying. There were just too many things that could go wrong. Most worrisome was the lift off from the moon by the LEM. If the engine didn’t fire, the astronauts would have been stranded. There was no back-up to that engine.

But beyond the political calculations of pushing on despite the risks, there was the practical consideration that these missions to the moon were basically stunts. They served no scientific purpose save bringing back a few rocks for analysis. We ended up spending more than $120 billion in today’s dollars for a couple of TV shows.

Aldrin proposes a much different mission - infinitely more complicated, with risks that would make Apollo look like a walk in the park. They key is systems reliability and how to keep vital parts of the spacecraft and habitat on Mars from breaking down and killing everybody. The number of disasters that could befall a Mars mission are so numerous that the thought of insuring anyone who would volunteer for such a mission would give an actuarial a heart attack.

NASA can’t even get its act together to get back to the moon and Aldrin wants these same guys to plan for a mission to Mars? NASA did not invent the cost overrun but they have certainly perfected the practice. The Ares 1 booster that will carry the crew vehicle (a capsule not dissimilar to Apollo) named Orion into space was supposed to have been tested by now. In fact, it hasn’t even gotten off the drawing board. It’s costs have already risen from $28 billion to $40 billion - and it won’t become operational until at least 2015. With the Shuttles being retired next year, that leaves a 5 year gap in our capability to launch humans to the space station. We will be hitching rides with the Russians until then.

If Aldrin were advocating a Mars mission in 40 or 50 years, I would be more inclined to think well of him. Instead, he thinks we should concentrate on getting to Mars in the next two decades. It is one thing to be a “visionary” about going to Mars. But it is quite another to ignore the reality of NASA’s bungling when it comes to manned flight and the risks associated with traveling 40 million miles to satisfy our curiosity about whether there is any life on Mars.

How much would such a plan cost?

Instead, I propose a new Unified Space Vision, a plan to ensure American space leadership for the 21st century. It wouldn’t require building new rockets from scratch, as current plans do, and it would make maximum use of the capabilities we have without breaking the bank. It is a reasonable and affordable plan — if we again think in visionary terms.

On television and in movies, “Star Trek” showed what could be achieved when we dared to “boldly go where no man has gone before.” In real life, I’ve traveled that path, and I know that with the right goal and support from most Americans, we can boldly go, again.

How much, Buzz? No guess except it would be “reasonable and affordable.” Jesus! We can’t afford national health care but we can afford a trip to Mars? And I would love to hear Aldrin’s definition of “reasonable and affordable.” Even using rockets in our stable now (none capable of providing escape velocity for a manned spacecraft from earth’s gravitational field) and given NASA’s history, it is foolish to believe that the last estimate of designing a trip to Mars ($100 billion in 1991 although some peg the real number at closer to $400 billion) can be beaten by today’s ossified NASA bureaucracy.

And using Star Trek as an example of what humans are capable may excite a lot of geeks out there but as far as forming the basis for a rational examination of whether we should go to Mars, I would expect something a little more from a guy who walked on the moon.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to overcome for a Mars mission would be the effect of space travel in Zero G on the human body. Almost immediately, the calcium in our bones starts to break down, our heart muscle weakens, other vital organs start to shut down, and our muscles begin to atrophy. Four to six hours of exercise a day helps some but on a very long duration flight, no one knows if the astronauts will ever be able to set foot on earth again. Can we solve a problem like that in two decades? Sure, if we want to spend the money. And Aldrin offers no compelling reason for that whatsoever.

Finally, it’s clear Aldrin knows little about what motivates the American people:

Mobilizing the space program to focus on a human colony on Mars while at the same time helping our international partners explore the moon on their own would galvanize public support for space exploration and provide a cause to inspire America’s young students. Mars exploration would renew our space industry by opening up technology development to all players, not just the traditional big aerospace contractors. If we avoided the pitfall of aiming solely for the moon, we could be on Mars by the 60th anniversary year of our Apollo 11 flight.

“Galvanize public support for space exploration?” What public? Which planet? The public has lost confidence in NASA and the thought of handing them a blank check to go to Mars is probably not uppermost in American’s minds.

And Aldrin is not much of a visionary if he is unaware that private, commercial spaceflight will soon supplant NASA as the primary way in which humans will go into space. By the end of the next decade, it is possible that some private company will have already gone to the moon in order to exploit some of its resources, beating NASA back there by a couple of years. But I think once private enterprise gets into the human space flight business, NASA will see the light and concentrate on what it is very good at; building robots to explore the universe. Their success in that field has been astonishing, adding immeasurably to our knowledge of the cosmos.

No, Buzz. Your ideas border on crackpot. Not because they would be technologically unfeasible but because in your dream world, the US government is as flush with cash as it was back in the 1960’s when the Apollo program thrilled us all with trips to the moon. The money isn’t there. The will isn’t there. And besides…

It’s not like Mars is going anywhere, right? It will still be there 50 years from now when Space, Inc. sends a mission to Mars to discover if it would be worth it to exploit the red planet for commercial reasons. This is what has driven exploration on earth. And it no doubt will drive exploration to the planets for the foreseeable future.


  1. Watching the free market propel humans to Mars is very exciting. If we’re lucky, we’ll find something valuable there and we’ll fight wars over who gets it.

    Maybe that’s what Iraq is all about? We’re actually preparing for the future battles over martian resources. That’s some serious foresight on the part of our leaders. Bravo leaders!

    Comment by Chuck Tucson — 7/16/2009 @ 1:10 pm

  2. If you don’t think this economic illiterate of a president won’t try to stimulate the solar system, let me show you a brochure of oceanfront properties available on the Red Planet. After all, He’s the mathematically challenged reincarnation of JFK. I look for Buzz to be appointed Mars Czar soon.

    Comment by jackson1234 — 7/16/2009 @ 1:20 pm

  3. We can’t afford national health care but we can afford a trip to Mars?

    It’s about frontiers, Rick. There’s not a single damned frontier in nationalized socialistic health care.

    Never fear, though — we’ll hammer down every stinking dreamer left. Even your private, commercial space flight…I suspect that’s not long left to draw breath. Why bother, if it’s gonna be a NASA subsidiary next week?

    Frontiers are nice for dreaming - if you happen to have $400 billion or more lying around not doing anything. Let the commercialization of space begin and get NASA out of the way. A private venture to Mars will cost far less than what NASA would spend and actually accomplish something. It may take a few decades longer, but the return will be fabulous.


    Comment by Scott — 7/16/2009 @ 6:37 pm

  4. Someone will be going to Mars by 2030. it might as well be us, however, I think it is more likely to be the Russians or the Chinese who will get there by then. Both of those countries have the technological capabilities and the financial resources to be capable of doing it. unfortunately we have neither right now.

    We could turn to the private sector to try and close the huge gap the Russians and the Chinese have over us with regards to planning and executing a Mars mission. As I understand it, this is being done to try and find a replacement for the Shuttle before 2015. Maybe we could extend the life of the Shuttle some how. I shutter at the thought of what the Russians will demand in compensation to transport our people into space. hopefully it won’t come to that.

    Private sector solutions to the Shuttle issue or Mars issues will work best IF the government will stay out of the way. At this time, I’m not optimistic that this government can resist the urge to meddle.

    It is clear humans will go to the moon by no later than 2030. a permanent human presence will likely be established by 2035, at the latest. While I certainly would like for us to get there first, it probably won’t be us. We don’t have the technological capabilities or the financial ability to do it right now. Both the Russians and the Chinese do. If I were going to bet on which country will get there first, the smart money would be on the Russians.

    Comment by B.Poster — 7/16/2009 @ 7:29 pm

  5. I meant to write it is clear humans will go to Mars by 2030 rather than the moon. I was referring to Mars not the moon.

    Comment by B.Poster — 7/16/2009 @ 7:33 pm

  6. We would be pretty stupid to attempt to colonize Mars at the moment. The main reason is that one of Mars’ moons, Phobos, is in an unstable orbit and will be crashing into Mars in about 10 million years. So why go to all the trouble of colonizing a place that we *know* is going to experience a catastrophic event and wipe out all our work?

    A better plan would be to intentionally speed that process up and crash Phobos into Mars now. That has a couple of benefits. First it slightly increases the mass of Mars and makes it able to hold a tiny amount more atmosphere but most importantly it might restart some volcanism and possible add some heat to the inside of the planet from the collision. This might make for the generation of more atmospheric gasses and make it easier to colonize.

    It would also give us experience in manipulating large object that might come in handy if something large was ever headed toward us from space.

    Yes, but in 10 million years we will probably have some kind of super-duper destructo ray that would pulverize Phobos. And Mars will probably be a paradise since we will have changed its atmosphere and climate by then.

    As far as manipulating large bodies from space, it would indeed be a triumph if we could do something about Michael Moore…’


    Comment by crosspatch — 7/16/2009 @ 11:12 pm

  7. At the height of the Apollo program the then Department of Health Education and welfare (HEW) lost or could not account for money in excess of the NASA budget. THAT’S the kid of stuff we can’t afford. You could dump every dollar down the ravenous sinkhole of the entitled and still not have anything to show for it. Why not reserve some of the money for doing something extraordinary?

    “It’s not like Mars is going anywhere, right?”

    Not if someone else gets there first.

    Comment by Locomotive Breath — 7/17/2009 @ 5:25 am

  8. I don’t think you really get the space exploration issue, which is strange since you’re way older than me. Or perhaps you don’t get it because you aren’t too young to remember Apollo 11.

    Either way, it isn’t about doing anything in particular. But it does have several side benefits that I think make it entirely worth it.

    1. All the cool stuff we’ll invent by accident that we then get to sell. Tons of inventions were created by/for NASA and are now used and sold commercially such as Teflon and GoreTex.

    2. Inspiring the children of this country to actually go into fields like Engineering. We haven’t really done anything inspiring in years, and our engineering programs are flooded with foreigners. I don’t think the fact that we are educating foreigners is a problem, but simply that we aren’t educating any of our own kids. They all want to go to film and music school to become rock stars and actors.

    3. We’re a nation of explorers. Going somewhere we’ve never been is exciting, and it would probably be a lot better for our national attention span to have coverage of a fantastic achievement rather than the death of a celebrity like michael jackson, another political scandal, or some terrorist attack/natural disaster.

    No it will never pay for itself, and it will certainly be expensive, but this is one of the few things our government actually does well. Something extraordinary but completely pointless.

    Comment by Alex — 7/17/2009 @ 11:58 am

  9. Good point, Rick. I’m going to advise my grandsons that dreams are just pointless hogwash.

    When dreams cost $400 billion - $1 trillion that we don’t have, you might ask your grand kids how great they’ll feel paying for it.

    And I guess when I support the idea of commercial space companies going there, that’s just not the same. No dream there, huh? To prove how dreamy you are, you want to spend taxpayer dollars to do something that in a couple of decades, private firms will be able to do.

    Again, it’s just not the same, right? Private firms will be able to do it for one tenth the cost, and get there before NASA would anyway. But then, we wouldn’t have that dreamy joy of paying for the gross inefficiency, bureaucratic bottlenecks, and cost overruns that NASA is famous for.


    Comment by Scott — 7/18/2009 @ 9:31 pm

  10. Rick,

    Nice to finally agree with you for once. Talk about believing your own propaganda. Manned space exploration has jumped the shark. Why spend tons of money on a pipe dream that is nearly physically impossible when robots can do the trick much cheaper?

    Comment by Mario Mirarchi — 7/20/2009 @ 12:57 am

  11. I intended to send a really sarcastic comment, but decided instead to focus simply on the fact that if those of us who support space exploration pull back for any reason, our risk aversion oriented society will never move forward. I read a little of that in your comments Rick, and fear that we may never get where we belong (which is out there).
    We are not only at a crossroads as a nation but also a species. Either we continue our climb up or we fall back in the muck from which we rose. Obama and his ilk are more than willing to have the entire world not take any risks so than can take care of us. If we are to have deficiet spending, lets at least do it where it will benefit mankind in the long run, not short term touchy-feely control-freak “see how good I am to you” crap that dooms us as society and a species.

    Just curious but what have you got against the private sector? You’re not the first on this thread to accuse me of being against manned space exploration. I’m not. NASA has carried the ball this far and now manned space goals should be in the hands of people who can do it much cheaper, more quickly, and actually do some good with it when they get there.

    Space X just put the first satellite into orbit using a commercial liquid fueled rocket. They did it for $4 million. NASA would have charged $20 million. In the next few years, commercial spaceflight is going to explode with orbiters, space tourism, and probably space ferrying astronauts up to the space station. This is real. The companies are in business already, heavily capitalized, and already testing the rockets and other hardware that will accomplish these things.

    My point stands. It’s not that we shouldn’t go to Mars. My question is asked in the title; what’s the rush?


    Comment by George — 7/21/2009 @ 7:32 am

  12. My only concern is that if space exploration gets pushed to the back burner, we won’t go at all. Procrastination leads to boredom. Self serving politicians (currently any member of Congress and all of the executive branch) are finding other ways to spend money and insure they remain in power. I have no problem with the private sector carrying the water on this project, but I suspect that if the private sector moves ahead the national leadership will attempt to regulate it out of existance. I much fear it will either be the federal (or perhaps the some form of international cooperative) to get it done, or it won’t get done at all.

    Comment by George — 7/22/2009 @ 11:53 am

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